Embracing Contradiction in Cuba – Part One

It seems fitting that as I was emerging from one of the most tumultuous emotional lows I had experienced in a long time, I would decide to visit communist Cuba… right?

In truth, the trip was booked while I was still in a jet-lagged stupor post-Bali and hadn’t yet traded my travel legs for stable ones. Tyrhone needed a new tourist visa for Mexico, and rather than drive to Belize again we decided to make the most of the cheap low season rates from Cancun to Havana.

The quick just-over-an-hour flight across the Caribbean pond belied the utterly contrasting experience which awaited us there. We’d seen the photos of vintage cars and heard the stories of bland food but nothing would prepare us for the contradictions of heaven and hell contained within Cuba’s staunchly guarded borders.

We fell for it’s charms immediately. Shuttled into a unlicensed vintage car, we paid more than we knew we needed to for a ride from the airport to Habana Vieja, or Old Havana, the tourist haven of the city.

Old car habana vieja

The young driver was friendly and sincere enough, waiting for us as we exchanged our Mexican Pesos for local ‘Convertibles’ or ‘CUC’ which is the currency created for foreign visitors to the country. 1 CUC is equivalent to about 1 USD which is equivalent to about 24 local Pesos (the currency used by Cuban locals).

When he dumped us on the outskirts of the old town and asked us to pay him inside the the car before we got out, we realised that perhaps he wasn’t quite as sincere as we thought. By then, though, I’d already added a tip to our over-inflated flare. Havana saw me coming and she reeled me in, hook, line and sinker.

As we wandered down narrow streets flanked with crumbling colonial remnants of Cuba’s Spanish history in search of our guesthouse, ‘standing out like a sore thumb’ does not even begin to describe the feeling of being completely out of my element.

Sarah travel Havana cuba

Of course, I plastered on my “I’ve got this, I’m totally cool with all these stares from locals and these hustlers chasing me down the road,” shield of armor rather than collapsing into an insecure puddle on the grimy street.

Truth is, I love travel and I hate it. I love experiencing new places but sometimes I hate feeling so foreign and so freaking white. In Cuba, I felt like a dumb tourist because that is exactly what I was.

Turns out it would take me a while to embrace that fact and so I would feel out of my depth for, well, about four out of the six days we were there.

The Casa Particular we had semi-booked via email (we had never actually heard back – internet is extremely scarce in Cuba) was in fact quite lovely. For 30 CUC we sequestered an elegant, tiled room with high ceilings, an antique (a word which is redundant in Cuba) chandelier and a private terrace overlooking Calle Habana.

casa vieja havana Cuba

Sarah Somewhere Havana CubaOwed by a vivacious woman with a mostly male staff, it was a clean and well-run place with a roof terrace-slash-bar where evening meals were served (and, as luck would have it, also home to a litter of kittens).

Kitties casa paticular

Over dinner that night Tyrhone remarked quietly that he had never eaten chicken with so much gristle in it and racked his brain to think of what part of the bird would be so… ‘chewy.’

The cats, however didn’t complain about the extra food.

Deciding to skip breakfast at the Casa the following morning, we headed out into the steamy Havana heat in search of decent coffee.

Enter ‘El Dandy’ cafe, which would prove to be a tiny oasis of style and flavour during our short stay. Excellent coffee. Friendly yet understated service. Simple yet tasty snacks served with something we found missing from much of the food we ate… love.

El Dandy Havana

Cubita cafe El dandy havana

El Dandy cafe – #401 Calle Brasil cnr Villegas

It was so refreshing to discover a place which seemed to care about what they served.

Old Havana is full of fancy-looking state run establishments which are full of uninterested staff serving uninteresting food. It’s actually quite a shock to sit down at one of these places and witness the flavourlessness of the whole ordeal.

And honestly, I found this quite depressing.

Of course, I soon learned why – the government controlled food supply made the basics like flour and eggs readily available, but other ingredients like fresh meat and vegetables a lot more scarce.

Spices and other flavor enhancing embellishments are rare as hen’s teeth (though maybe Tyrhone had found those in his dinner).

Succumbing to our role as naive tourists and weary of ‘friendly’ people on the street trying to wrangle money out of us, we then made a bee line for the hop-on-hop-off bus stop located opposite the Hotel Inglaterra. For two hours we proceeded to sit in gawking, slack-jawed bliss for the entire route around old and new Havana.

havana bus tour

It seemed to me that ‘new Havana’ was indeed a little brighter and more full of life than the old. On well maintained, tree lined streets, art-deco style apartment buildings housed families going about their daily lives in the face of harsh economic and political challenges.

We paid 5 CUC for the ride around town which was all many Cubans would hope to earn in a week of work. No wonder the waiters in the fancy restaurants of Habana Vieja didn’t give a shit. Who among us is going to smile for $20 a month?

Fidel havana

Who Fidel? Who?

Things started making sense but that didn’t make it any easier. That evening, after trying to watch the sunset from the malecon while being accosted by touts, we sat down at four restaurants and walked out of three.

Havana Malecon sunset

There was the fly-blown gringo-filled restaurant on Calle Obisbo (we dodged a bullet there), the ‘Paris bar’ where we were ignored until we just left, and finally, our casa which, as luck would have it, had closed the kitchen for the night just before we dragged our weary asses up the three flights of stairs.

We were left with one final option aside from going to bed hungry – a fancy looking bistro down the street which we guessed was going to be as disappointing as the many places we’d tried.

Turns out our last resort happened to be the best restaurant in Havana. Spotless, welcoming and most importantly, serving up delicious cuisine made with love. As I cut into the juicy fillet of swordfish, expertly cooked and beautifully presented, I could literally taste the passion which permeated through it.

In a town which had been seemingly sucked dry of all genuine entrepreneurial spirit and was forced to revert to underhanded and desperate tactics to make ends meet, we couldn’t believe our luck at finding Habana 61, an alternate universe of creativity, elegance, and… flavour.

After devouring delicious entrees, main courses and desserts, we were able to reward their great work with our tourist dollars and this time, feel really good about it.

Habana 61 Restaurant havana

Thanks for reading! Part Two of our Cuban adventure is coming soon…

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Embracing Contradiction in Cuba – Part One — 22 Comments

  1. Hey Sar. I’ve been meaning to contact you since I saw you were in Havana!! We had the most crazy time there. I always say it is the only place in the world that unsettled me but on the other hand I’ve talked about my experiences there more than anywhere else. I reckon I went in thinking that there would be this feeling of human spirit bucking the regime but I just felt this overwhelming sense of oppression. We met some great people but on the whole it felt like the spirit had been squashed in most. But you hear THE MOST INTERESTING stories and it was so different to anywhere I’ve ever been. I don’t think it’s everyone’s cup of tea but in terms of travel widening perspective ✔️✔️✔️

    • Yes, yes, yes. The images of cigar smoking and salsa dancing in the streets evoke an expectation of liveliness, but I also sensed the oppression of the spirit which has created desperation in people. Although I understood, it was difficult to experience. I agree, we also had an amazing time and a terrible time, met underhanded people and kind, warm people (who I will write about soon). It is certainly a land of contradiction that I feel lucky to have visited. Thank you for sharing your experience Eggy!!! XXX

  2. Hi Sarah. What was it like getting a travel visa for Cuba? I honestly didn’t even know the country was open for tourist travel, ha. But I really want to go.

    • Hi Lori, it is very simple for non-US citizens – you simply purchase a visa at the airport before departure for $25. I am not sure what the process is for US citizens – they have opened travel for certain purposes so I am pretty sure it is possible to get a visa.

  3. It sounds as though your experience was very similar to our friends Ben & Emma. It surely sounds like a fascinating, although very challenging place to experience. Thanks for sharing. I have to admit it intrigues me, while knowing it would be best dished up when rested, refreshed, and ready to face it head on.
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  4. I know what you mean about the discomfort of traveling! I felt that in Paris, of all places. I think because in the west it is described as this romantic haven, and it is actually rather shocking. When I first arrived I thought it looked more like a 3rd world country. It took me 2 days to adjust. And now I adore Paris and I’d go right back.
    I’m so excited to read more about your Cuba trip! I’m curious to hear more about this country that’s been shut off for so long. I’d love to go there… and now I have fair warning about how it will go. :)
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  5. Another amazing travel story. I am glad you found the great restaurant sound like you enjoyed your 3 course meal there especially the dessert.

  6. Thanks for writing this Sarah looking forward to part 2 I’m hoping to go to Cuba in a couple of years when we start our life of semi-retirement. (Yay!) Love the photos. Tyrhone looks like the cat that got the cream!

    • I am going to try and write the final installment today Audrey! Thank you so much for reading and I do hope you get to experience Cuba for yourself! xxx

  7. HI Sarah, I can only imagine it’s a land filled with contrast. I had a friend who recently went and she was explaining the 2 different currencies as well as different transport options- tourists vs. locals. She went with a friend whose a native Spanish speaker and she can hold her own decently, so she had plenty of stories of trying her best to do things the local way (which isn’t as easy).
    I commend you for diving head first. I feel your sentiment of Loving and Hating travel. I too, don’t like standing out, but I’m learning to be better at it! Not easy! Lots of luck, dear one! And keep sharing your stories!
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    • Yes, it was the most segregated place I’ve been to in that respect. There is no hope of blending in unfortunately!!!! And this is weird, because of course in places like India or China we never blended in either, but somehow it was easier to connect with the culture via the food (I’m sure you hear me on this). xxx

  8. My Mom visited Cuba 10 years ago and your story sounds a lot like her experience Sarah! I can totally relate to your feelings on standing out, makes me feel so vulnerable (I hate feeling vulnerable!). Sounds like being seasoned travelers as you and Tyrone are helped you persevere to find the best food in Havana! I’ll share your post with my Mom, I know she will enjoy your story and the great pics. She’ll have to read about the great food in Havana from you because I don’t think she’d believe me without some kind of proof:)
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    • Yes, I’ve kinda made a career out of being vulnerable, and yet it is still my greatest challenge out there in the world! It’s funny what it brings up in me when I feel like a target for others’ opportunism – I get quite offended!!! I.e one afternoon this guy and his girlfriend came up to us and asked us to take a picture of them on their smartphone (rare in Cuba). Tyrhone took great care to line up the shot and I gave advice from the sidelines. Afterwards he started talking to us and I realised that he was trying to get us talking so that eventually we would hand money over for something… I just shut down. I guess I felt like a fool for wanting to get the photo right when really it was just a guise… Haha! :-)

  9. Wow, it’s disappointing that things were so difficult (even amongst the good stuff). I know what you mean, travel is so awesome because it does challenge us and therefore it makes us learn and grow into stronger people – but on the other hand, when you’re in the middle of the experience it’s not very pleasant is it!

    And I feel you on the touts etc. When I was in Bangkok last week I think almost every person that I encountered just wanted to rip me off. In hindsight I think it was because I chose a sucky area to be in so it was by no means a reflection on the city itself – but it definitely dampened things.
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