Cuba in Summary

Not for the feint of heart.
An assault on all the senses at once.


The most vibrant streets: pastel 17th and 18th century architecture, rainbow assorted shades of classic old American cars, the neon/floral print mix and match fashions of the local Cubans and tourists alike are dazzling. However, everything is in ruin and not in any state of repair— Walls crumbling, layers of paint, graffiti, dirt and grime on every surface. Trees grow big and tall on the side of buildings, one thing that has weathered time better here. Bars on windows, artistic iron wrought gates are on almost every home. Stray dogs and cats run around licking trash for snack while they wait for scraps from the local butcher. Clothes strung up on balconies, colorful pantalones flapping in the wind.


As we head down three flights of stairs the din grows louder. You’d think it was a cliché but as soon as the heavy door was parted from its latch, and we’ve just barely stepped outside, a blasting of live Cuban-Caribbean music makes it almost impossible to converse. Add the large trucks zooming by, pedicabs ringing their bells simultaneously yelling, “Taxi? Taxi!” toward us while we try to avoid them. Different music is being played from a shoulder boombox or performed on every corner, whether from within a restaurant or street urchin hoping to earn some pesos. Someone on the 3rd floor is yelling at a friend on the street. The guy in the 2nd floor restaurant is beckoning us up to eat. A man is calling to a stray dog down the road who is running further away. Kids are playing or screaming. Near the main square, a man in a typical black and white waiters outfit stands in the doorway asking in Spanish if we want cigars. It is starting to rain: no. Everybody seems to know everybody.


The streets are busy. Rotting garbage from remains thrown carelessly on the ground, next to feces (stray dog, cat, human?) mix with open sewer lines, baked dumpsters overflowing everywhere. Males do not use restrooms— they just pick any which side of the street and go. Cheap ladies fragrance is sometimes wafted into the mix, a welcome scent from the general leaded gasoline fumes, black plumes pouring out of all the motor vehicles. Cigar smoke lingers, locals and even those working have them lit throughout the day. Pockets of lovely food smells cooking from cafeteria restaurant institutions make for a treat. Little peso pizzas are folded like sandwiches in hand of many locals going about their day… Tempting.


Rubble and uneven streets leave the ankles tested; not being able to walk on one side of the other, sidewalk or road because the holes where the “street” has been ripped up, dug into and never put back is unavoidable. We left our first home for three days, came back and it was hardly recognizable. Sidewalk: gone. Road: also gone a few feet. Two foot deep holes for 30 feet along the path we used to walk. There are also too many piles of crap or large dirty puddles of stagnant water that are a hypochondriacs nightmare. Also: crazy drivers and swaying walkers. The potholes are so large Im surprised cars aren’t stuck in them. If you aren’t paying attention there might be a three foot drop next to a so called sidewalk. Humidity is a sneak that leaves your skin sticky and hair frizzed. Mosquitos here are another breed— Their bite a lasting remark for days to come.


Nothing here is easy to come by. Food being rationed, is an obvious reason. The fare doesn’t taste bad, it is very simple and basic in composition. Jamon. HAM HAM and more HAM. Bread. Flavors are light, almost bland for my palette that likes a spicy factor. Our host graciously made us an “omelette” which was nothing more than a scrambled egg folded in half, no seasonings or additions. Before we left on the trip my bf had to wonder if my spicy addiction had gone too far. Now he sees why I brought the hot sauce and chili pepper packets! Little did I know that I would in hindsight be thankful for a plain egg… Good protein is hard to come by. Our first mojito was also an experience: it was straight rum with a mint twig dashed in it. I watched the “bartender” pour in horror. Most street snacks and menu items are fried— churros, croquettes, tostones, plantains, sugared chips, corn fritters etc. Things that are somewhat available here in grocery “mercados” include: bread, ham, crackers, Kool Aid, Havana Gold rum, unpasteurized dairy products and long lines. I’m not leaving anything out either, not sure how people live off of these items. No spices, sugar, cereal, chips, frozen aisle… These shops are smaller than the average American’s dining room. I didn’t come here for the food but one pleasant surprise was the Chocolate Museum bonbons, which was probably the closest to normal thing I’ve eaten here. One was milk chocolate in the shape of a cigar, a mint liqueur filled milk chocolate, and a praline cinnamon clove mix covered in bittersweet chocolate. Mmmm.

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One Night in Cuba


Imagine you have just landed in Havana— an hour later than scheduled, pissed off an immigrations officer, managed to find your way out of the airport, exchanged some money (although the teller has to recount a hundred dollar bill and 3 twenties about a thousand times) and thankfully run into your taxi driver who was late as well. It takes a half hour to get to your residence because the driver sees his “boss” who must be picked up and dropped off in some random spot on the side of the road. The airport is actually in the middle of nowhere so it takes and a bit to get home— once arrived you are given the rundown and settle in. The host hands you a keyring with 6 keys. One for the door to get into the “complex”, one for the gate into two possible apartments, one for the iron gate before the front door, the key for the heavy front door, the key for your bedroom door and yet another key for the closet in the bedroom. Is this Cuba or Fort Knox.

By now you are very hungry and thirsty. Starving, perhaps. You get to the market and find out they have no water because it has already sold out for the day. Tap water is totally unsuitable for drinking. You decide to look around down the street for more options. Most mercados are already closed as it is a pretty late hour. You pass by many restaurants, so busy and bustling— live music draws all the tourists leaving hardly any standing room. A few restaurants are open and actually have seating. After reading menus posted outside you finally come to a consensus of where first to try. When you find your table, it takes ten minutes before anyone comes to give you a menu. Once you have your menu it takes another fifteen to twenty minutes for anyone to come back to take your order, even after trying to wave someone down and catch their attention. Now you’ve finally decided on some basic (everything is basic) chicken dish, but after placing the order are told that nothing on the menu is left (sold out due to rations being all used up). But hold on, the last two things on the menu are available: a seafood paella and lobster.

These are notoriously the most expensive, meats in general in Cuba… but you also want to dodge food poisoning. This information would have been nice to know before sitting down and wasting 45 minutes all the while starving. SO you decide to do the only natural thing which is to order drinks. The waiter then informs that you must be seated at the bar. The table is right next to the bar and no one under 25 is even in the restaurant as it is 11 pm, and in Cuba no one cares what age you are drinking anyways… but okay. Move to the empty bar and wait ten minutes for the somehow busy bartender to notice. We place an order for a beer and a mojito. I’m not sure how time consuming it is to grab a beer and a clean glass but it must be on the upside of fifteen minutes. The mojito was nothing more than a squirt of lime juice, cup 98% full with rum and a mint twig thrown in. Not exactly what was imagined. Good thing it was only $1.50 as it was not exactly palatable.

Looking around you see waiters, employees of this restaurant standing around doing a whole lot of nothing. You’d imagine that if the restaurant was concerned about profits they would at least be utilizing the oodles of people with no real job description and be prompt in delivering the check. It doesn’t even need any preparation and they already have it from the paper they took your order on. You want to leave and think you can get the hell out of there ASAP, but alas, another wrong assumption. The bartender is too busy (???), and three non waiter waiters sitting at the end of the bar near what appears to be a register just chatting and looking around but avoiding actually doing anything. The two waiters who take orders and deliver food are walking around so fast you can’t even catch their eye. So going along with the theme of the night, and now I know, Cuba in general— It takes twenty minutes to get your check. Tempting to dine and dash, or leave money on the counter and dash but you don’t know what kind of impression that may have— being completely new to this country.

Somehow it’s close to midnight now so you decide to find your way back to the apartment. Still starving you eat some health bars you brought from America; on the way over they got smashed into tiny granola bits so you scoop it directly out of a gallon sized ziplock (that was fun for customs) with a titanium spork into your mouth. That’s all the food you have left because the fine gents of customs were so suspicious of your Costco Korean beef jerky that they threw it away.

Welcome to Cuba.

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