My Cuban rental car is a Chinese-made Geely sedan

‘Resolving’ — Renting a Car in Cuba

April 28, 2014  Havana, Cuba

Ed’s household maid Maria and his driver David accompanied me as I tried to find a rental car after we had finished grocery shopping.

A visit to the first rental car kiosk near a hotel was short. The older man called someone and after waiting for about 10 minutes, he hung up.

No hay nada,” he said. “There is nothing. You need to look at another hotel maybe.”

“Can’t you check the inventory on the …” I started to say. Then I stopped.

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Empty grocery shelves in a grocery store in Havana, Cuba.

Food is Optional: Grocery Shopping in Cuba

April 28, 2014  Havana, Cuba

After a disappointing lunch in another Cuban state-run restaurant—mystery pork meat that reflected the sad life the pig must have lived before reaching my plate—David and I return to Ed’s house.

It was time for David to go shopping for the household and Maria insisted that I, Ms. Americana, come along for the excursion to Supermercado 70, located near the Russian Embassy. This is the only full-fledged grocery store I will see in my entire trip across Cuba. Havana only has a handful of large grocery stores and I discover their selection is rather anemic on any given day.

A former diplomat-only store, the Supermercado 70 has security guards in the crowded parking lot and at the entrance to the busy store.

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Tomb of the dead mother and baby at Havana'a Colon Cemetary

Even the Dead Must Wait Their Turn

April 28, 2014  Havana, Cuba

If you ever wanted to slip back in time, visit the plazas of Old Havana, Cuba.

Havana was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980 because of its beauty and historic significance. About one-third of Havana’s buildings were built before the 19th century and two-thirds were built before the 1950s.

The massive doors to Havana’s Office of the City Historian.

The massive doors to Havana’s Office of the City Historian

The City Historian’s office uses profits from its (ahem, capitalist-seeming) arm Habaguanex which runs restaurants, museums, gift shops, and hotels. Profits go to restoring the city’s five plazas and buildings to preserve its cultural heritage while improving Old Havana’s appeal to tourists. Read More

Cubans relax on the famed Malecon or seawall at dusk.

Everything in the Toliet

April 28, 2014  Havana, Cuba

After a fitful night of sleeping and waking intermittently to listen for Cuba security skulking outside the house, I wake up before the maid and driver arrive at Ed’s house.

The gated fence to enter the compound of Ed's house and school across the street where Cuban "spooks" watch the house and all who enter.

The gated fence to enter the compound of Ed’s house and school across the street where Cuban “spooks” watch.

Walking through the empty house I look in the kitchen for a glass to drink some water. Sure enough, near the cabinets where the glasses are kept is the bulky water treatment tank where the potable water for the household is purified. Ed had already warned me not to drink untreated water anywhere in Cuba, so I carefully pour myself a glass of water from their large purified water dispenser.

In the 1950s, the Cuban middle class enjoyed all the civilized comforts of modern conveniences, including a then-modern plumbing system.

Havana was also a popular travel destination. My mother had told me stories how she and my dad had honeymooned by taking the ferry from Key West to Havana to visit Cuba in the very early days of the revolution. You can watch a short clip of the ferry docking in Havana here – the dresses and purses the women wear in the video brought back memories of my mother’s closet.

After 50-plus years of infrastructure neglect, Cuba’s plumbing and sewer systems are as cracked as the lines on the sun scarred face of a campesino farmer toiling on a Viñales tobacco farm. With every flush of a toilet, wastewater leaks and contaminates the country’s supply of drinking water.

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Two Cuban boys call out to a friend in Callejon Hammel.

Black Beans and Being Watched

April 27, 2014 La Habana, Cuba

Although my plane took off at 2 p.m. from Tampa, I feel like I’ve traveled a million miles and almost 60 years and it’s not even dark yet in the Miramar neighborhood west of Old Havana.

My luggage sits inside the official residence of the U.S. Coast Guard liaison, my friend Ed Porner. The house sits directly across from an elementary school on a corner verdant lot, the one story home nestled under coconut palms that shelter the gated property in this upscale Cuban residential neighborhood.

I am hungry and alone in the house. Well, not exactly alone.

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Street view of Old Havana from Ed's Prius

Driving Ms. Americana

April 27, 2014  Havana, Cuba

After filling out an arrival card and getting my passport stamped by a grim young female customs official, I left the small sunlit arrivals room with its huge tarmac-facing windows and entered the gloom of the dimly lit baggage claim area.

The gray light cast by the single light fixture in the baggage claim only made the walls, the fading posters, and the cracked tiles in the floor all look like a hospital in some forgotten tropical country. We waited by the one working baggage claim carousel as it creaked round and round.

Capitalism is highly illuminated—it takes money to be brightly lit.

Emerging into the bright daylight and crush of eager families shouting for their loved ones, I blinked, then scanned for my driver, David.

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José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba

One First Class Ticket to Cuba, Please

April 27, 2014

I was nervous the day before my departure, really nervous.

Now that I was in Tampa staying with my brother for a couple of days until I left for Havana, all that was left was going to the charter company to buy my ticket.

I had already changed most of my U.S. dollars into euros at the mall in Tampa. This way I’d save paying the 10 percent penalty the Cuban government charges for changing U.S. dollars into their tourist currency, the CUC or Cuban convertible peso. The Cubans also levy a 3% financial transaction charge so you lose 13 percent right off the bat.

With 1 U.S. dollar equivalent to 1 CUC that means you’ll get only 87 CUCs for every $100 you change.

If you plan on going, take euros.

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Travel map of Cuba

Missing: One U.S. Passport and Cuban Visa

April 17, 2014

In 10 days I was supposed to fly to Cuba, except I had a problem. Well, two problems.

In late February I had mailed my visa application and U.S. passport to the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Cuban Affairs. Because there was no U.S. Embassy in Havana, visa applications were routed to the Cuba Interests Section (CUBINT) that operated courtesy of Switzerland’s embassy. The U.S. consular section in the Office of Cuban Affairs would ensure that these visa packages were delivered to CUBINT for processing.

In 2013 my friend and former colleague Ed Porner had extended his generous invitation to come visit him in Cuba while he was stationed in Havana as the U.S. Coast Guard liaison. I submitted my proposed itinerary for the two weeks I planned to travel across Cuba, then mailed my Cuban visa application and U.S. passport  to the State Department point of contact and waited.

The two months had gone by with some evidence that the Cubans were doing something with my application. In March I got an email asking me for more information—my parents’ names, as well as their dates and places of birth in Cuba.

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This is the airstrip at U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba taken by the author in 1997.

Can You Hear Me Now? Cuba in the News

Cuban “sonic” attacks on U.S. Embassy personnel has left lasting impressions, including permanent hearing loss for many of those targeted. It’s a story that has been building momentum over the past several months as more embassy personnel are diagnosed with health problems traced to the use of subsonic sound waves.

As a result, the U.S. Embassy will cut its staff in Havana by 60 percent. The U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning for Americans to avoid travel to Cuba.

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The Arabian Sea in Goa

Final Impressions of India

Satisfying travel experiences do not insulate you from the world — they expand it so it’s as endless as the sea.

Now that I’m back in the U.S. what impressions did India make on me?

It is a complex, mysterious place I was fortunate enough to experience while staying with an Indian family. That meant I always had locals who could provide answers to my many questions.

Staying with a well-off family, it was a bit odd for me to get used to the idea of servants. At first the cook, Renuka, would stare at me from the kitchen to see if I needed anything which I found unnerving.

I quickly warmed up to Renuka’s bright smiles as she brought me a cup of perfectly made masala chai tea. I even was able to make the somber and silent maid Nagamani smile easily by the time I left. They were shy around me at first and turned their backs whenever I tried to take a photo.

However, they both got used to me and learned my preferences and routines.

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