April 2. First full day in Cuba; our only full day in Havana, before we headed out to Holguin. On the agenda:
- Find our other biking mates, Val and Stu (both were supposed to stay with a woman names Lizbeth, whose husband just died and so their accommodations fell through when she temporarily stopped taking in boarders).
- Get Cuban SIM cards for our phones.
- Exchange some money from CUC to CUP (for all those days we would be spending away from cities).
- Make sure we have transport from Havana to Holguin for the following day.
- Put our bikes together.
But first thing’s first: have coffee.
Cuban coffee, like its cigars and rum, is something to write home (and blog) about. Strong, dark and slightly sweet, it’s usually served in a tiny little cup that makes me certain Starbucks would never succeed in Cuba. But don’t let the little size fool you. This coffee delivers quite an eye-opening punch!
I was encouraged, by our host (who wasn’t staying with us, but paid us a morning visit), to make my own coffee. He gave me a quick lesson in filling up the coffee making contraption with water and grounds and placing it on the stove.
I dutifully followed his directions and when the coffee was ready…. I found out that I failed miserably! It somehow turned into slush not fit for human consumption! I apologized to Jo (after telling her to have a seat at the counter, because I was about to serve us coffee) and we decided it would be safer to find a cafe instead of attempting this process for the second time.
Finding coffee on the street is not that difficult, because Cubans like their coffee… They drink it all day (and night) long, offer it every time they have a visitor and most of the time they don’t take milk. However, they know that Europeans and Northern Americans like their coffee a little calmer, so we were often offered cafe con leche, instead of the traditional Cuban brew.
Caffeinated and ready to be productive we set out on the town. Our first stop was at a phone company place.
Here’s a tip for when you need something done and aren’t sure where to find it. Ask. Ask your casa hosts, ask people on the street. DO NOT rely on signs. Most of the time you won’t find any signs. The place where we ended up exchanging more money is an unmarked kiosk in an alley behind a bougainvillea bush. The place where we could switch out our SIM cards is an old villa with green columns. There might be a small plaque somewhere on the door, but most of the time you won’t find a huge, western style, awnings anywhere.
The phone adventure took half a day. First, Nedene (who has an older iPhone) purchased a new SIM card and a daily calling plan (total came to 80 CUC). Next, Jo handed over her Samsung. The woman at the phone company (who spoke very good English and was the most relaxed employee of any customer service entity I’ve ever encountered) admired Jo’s pictures from India (“Is this you on the elephant?! That looks scary…”) and tinkered with the phone for a bit. But the SIM card wasn’t working. So she put the old one back in and proceeded to canceling the contract which was originally drawn. The woman’s husband and son came in with a lunch for her.
My phone was next. As with Jo’s phone, the SIM card wasn’t working and after a while we gave up on it as well. She put my old SIM card back in and that’s when Siri had a seizure.
Siri starting talking gibberish, the graphics on the front screen went nuts and even when we tried re-inserting the SIM card or even turning the phone off, nothing helped. I finally had to turn the volume way down, so I didn’t have to listen to Siri’s distress.
The woman at the phone company announced it was lunch time. I was welcome to come back later and she’d be happy to have another go at it.
Because we still had a long day ahead of us, I decided to put the phone out of my mind for the time being.
Here’s my advice to anyone who’s going to Cuba and would like to have a phone: either make sure that your phone is unlocked for a SIM card switch, or better yet, bring a simple, cheap, burner phone. Watching someone tinkering with your $600 device using a rusty paper clip is distressing. I wouldn’t recommend it. And buying a cheap phone in Cuba is not an option. The phones that may look cheap to you cost well over 100 CUC and when you’re on a tight budget (as an American you can’t get any more money out, remember?) that’s an astronomical sum.
Now moving on to exchanging CUC to CUP.
CUP is the local currency that only locals should be using. This is how they pay 4 cents for soda and ice cream. Most CUP items are heavily subsidized and as a foreigner you and I really should have no access to local subsidies. It’s just wrong. So I felt conflicted about even getting my hands on CUP. However, we were about to set out on a bike trip. When you’re on a bike, biking from town to town in 90 + degree weather, you don’t get very far. So you’ll have no choice but to purchase non-tourist grade items.
To get CUP you will again have to find a local. This is not the currency that will be handed over at a bank. We talked to one guy with a red car who took us to a place where we should’ve been able to exchange some cash. The place was closed. Another guy (this one wearing a pink shirt) offered to exchange the money for us. Excited for our first black market transaction, I readily agreed! He gave me 475 CUP for 20 CUC (making approximately $1 profit). This 475 CUP lasted me the entire three weeks, and then some. Local money goes a long way.
[I’m pretty sure you’ve heard about how Cuban doctors and teachers make $25 a month. Seems tragic, but keep in mind that many, if not most, Cubans don’t pay for housing. They also receive monthly rations of rice, beans, chicken, milk, cooking oil, etc., pay next to nothing for utilities and that $25 is actually 750 CUP. Sure, a phone is a luxury and non-necessities are expensive. But no one’s starving or living on the streets.]
At this point we moved on to finding our other travel companions. Luckily, the address that Nedene had from Stu’s last email hosted both Stu and Val! Satisfied that we all found each other, we made plans for leaving Havana the next day.
Nedene called Ivan, our van driver who was to take us from Havana to Holguin and he said his van broke down. He assured us that someone will pick us up in the morning. As with everything else in Cuba, there’s always a plan B.
And we put our bikes together… Hah! I remember when, back in Seattle, I used to think that this would be my biggest concern!