Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Cuba - part 1 (lead up and operations)

Cuba! Where to start?  As the March Hare and Mad Hatter would say "Start at the beginning." "Yes, yes, and when you come to the end [chuckles] STOP. See?" A fitting quote since I read Gregory Maguire's latest book "After Alice: A Novel" on this trip.

Before leaving I was asked "Why Cuba?" Well, why not Cuba. Cuba is huge news right now. On December 17, 2014 President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announce the restoration of full diplomatic ties following a swap of a US intelligence officer who had been held in Havana for the three remaining Cuban Five. (from In a really spooky turn of events, four of the Cuban Five prisoners were at our dinner on the last night. I saw the news cameras, but it wasn't until the next day I learned the source of the excitement.

December 17 is St. Lazarus's feast day according to Yoruba tradition. Yoruba is the local religion, a combination of African and Roman Catholic traditions. On the eve of the holiday people will pay promises on their knees. This has led to a slow process to mak these changes happen.

In March 2015 friends Sharon and Sandra announced on FB they were thinking of going to Cuba to run the Havana Half Marathon through Insight Cuba. In order for US citizens to go to Cuba, they are required to have a special visa. Theirs was an athlete's visa. I went along as a companion on a cultural visa. I asked Martha (my running world traveling friend) if she wanted to come along, thinking she would also run the race and I would be alone as their companion. She jumped at the chance to make Cuba her 74th country (for comparison's sake, Cuba was my 15th country). 

April 11, 2015 President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shook hands -- first time presidents from these countries have done this since 1961 when the US severed ties with Cuba. (

Throughout the next eight months Cuba became even bigger world news. In May 2015 Cuba was lifted from the US list of terrorist countries -- they held that distinction longer than any other country. On July 20, 2015 the US embassy was reopened (though I saw where the former embassy had been (now a museum), I did not make it to the current US embassy -- which also means I did not lose my passport or run a half marathon (since the course went by the embassy)). 

September 19, 2015 Pope Francis visited Cuba. 

November 13-16, we traveled to Cuba.

Cuba seemed to change before our eyes. It was like stepping back in time. Martha and I immersed ourselves in that time. In many ways Cubans are making the leap from the 1950s to 2015 in one giant leap. Until recently Cubans could not own a cell phone. In order to use one, a foreigner actually had to purchase it and lend it to them. That has been lifted. Now people will cluster with their cell phones around wifi zones and go online. Wifi is never free, but it does exist.

Remember these...this was in the lobby of our hotel.

These are throughout the city, and they had lines to use them.

On a prettier note, everywhere you looked there were classic cars. They were all nursed along to keep running. People rent them out as taxis to make a living. We ended up being shuttled around in four of these cars during our companion excursion. Martha's driver said he could either purchase his car for 16,000 CUCs (1 CUC-$1) or a newer Kia for 100,000 CUCs. The average monthly salary for professionals is 40 CUC (a number I should verify as numbers are swimming around my head). Many people also sell things on the street (such as peanuts) or run a pedicab service to earn extra income to make ends meet.

There was very little neon in sight. Certainly not a McDonalds or Starbucks. Credit card use was virtually non-existent -- but it is coming. 

A side note, I thought I saw an Adidas store, but upon reflection I believe it was a sort of race headquarters for Adidas since they were one of the sponsors of the marathon. I saw the logo, but did not look in the windows. Plus it was located about a block from the start line. 

On our second and last night we went to Cafe Parisien at the Hotel Nacional, and they would have accepted my credit card for payment. As I was leaving for Cuba I asked Don to tell the credit card company I would be in Cuba and to accept my charges from there (just in case). Their response was they could not code that in their computer, so they tagged it as I was in the Caribbean and left it at that. We pooled our money and were able to pay for our tickets.

That was another step back in time -- life without ATMs and credit cards. I brought several hundred dollars in US currency not knowing how much I would spend or even what things cost. Originally I was under the impression the only time we would be able to exchange money would be at the airport upon arrival. I also thought we had a four day trip that turned into a 52 hour trip (more about that if I feel like ranting later, trying to stay positive right now). How do you plan for that? I exchanged $200. Martha exchanged $150. In the end we each should have exchanged $175, so it worked out perfectly. We each left with a few coins to treasure as souvenirs.

The pace was slower, which was nice. There were times we would do a time check, only to realize not much time had passed and we still had a lot of time to get to where we wanted to get to on time. There were many less cars on the roads than I was used to (though they seem to ignore traffic laws more than I expect and do not stop for pedestrians). For the most part, the cars were so beautiful I didn't care, instead I snapped pictures.

I gave up on worrying about my carb counting for a few days. I did not go crazy, but I did drink juices offered to me, sampled alcohol, and had flan for dessert a few times. I left my testing gear at home. Today when I tested, I am in the normal zone. It may have spiked, but it came back.

I gave up worrying about using plastic bottles. Sure, I could have packed a kettle in my suitcase and boiled water to purify it, but I only had a 22 pound weight limit and wanted to stick to just using a carry on (my carry on was only 13 pounds, which felt heavier as the day went by), and I didn't want to boil water to cool it so I could then drink it. I must have used more bottles of water in two days than I have used in well over a year, including at race finish lines.

I gave up sleep for this trip. Martha and I calculate we had about 12 hours of sleep over three nights. A necessity since our trip was cut from 4 days to 52 hours.

I gave up understanding what was being said all the time. Having lived in Belgium and France, when I hear a foreign language I slip into French. A couple of times when I said "bonne journee," the person I spoke with happily launched into a conversation in French, excited to practice their French skills on someone. They also treated me a little better after that.

I gained feeling more relaxed than I have felt in ages. I took a lot more pictures (nearly 1000 in just over two days). I learned about a new culture. I met new people. I tried new foods (and drinks). I tried new experiences (me salsa dancing?). I learned some new vocabulary (did you know the Spanish word for jellyfish is medusa?). 

This post is long enough. I'll start another one with more specifics about our trip. I might modify this one as more thoughts come to me that fit here rather than someplace else.


  1. Wow, what a trip! I was expecting the experiences to remind me of traveling to the rest of the Caribbean, but it sounds quite different. Seeing classic cars all over would be really cool. I'm looking forward to seeing more pictures!

    1. I've never been to the Caribbean, so I can't comment on that. It felt like a trip back in time to before I was born. Truly magical and scary at the same time. Here is the link to my pictures: they will mean more in context of future posts. Thanks for reading!