Saturday, March 21, 2009

Journey to Cuba

Cuban currency:
In short, Cuba has 2 kinds of currencies. The first is pesos cubanos (Cuban pesos) or simply pesos, this is the official Cuban currency in which Cubans get their official salary. With this currency one can pay in the markets, in most of the street corner cafetarias, and for other things sold on the street. The interesting part is that some of the daily goods are not available in Cuban pesos. Cubans have to go to a La Cadeca (money exchange office) and buy Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), which cost for about 25 national pesos each. Only then can one buy the "luxery" items, like shampoo, furniture etc.

If you are a tourist, then all services and products are priced for you in Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), and let me add here that it is very expensive to be a tourist in Cuba. 1 CUC is roughly equivalent to 1 US dollar. Locals generally assume that tourists are all very rich, so tipping 1-2 CUC for every move is expected (in tourist areas).


My journey to Cuba started with an overnight bus from Palenque to Cancun (13 hours!). I didn´t want to stay in Cancun for more than i necessarily had to, so i organized my time accordingly. By plan i had about 3,5 hours after i arrived in Cancun bus-station to get to airport and board my plane. My overnight bus was of course very late (seriously, of all the times to be late!) but everything worked out in the end, though narrowly. There´s a straight bus from Cancun bus-station to airport, which saved me (40 pesos).

You need a tourist card (= visa) to get into Cuba. You can have it made in Estonia / send your documents to Helsinki OR you can be self-organizing and buy it in the Cancun airport. They sell them in "Cubana" airlines booth and it costs about 240 EEK (260 Mexican pesos) as opposed to 500-750 EEK via previously described options. Of course you can do that only if you don´t have a direct flight to Havana. But, i wonder if they sell those tourist cards also for example in London airports, which are often middle-stops in flights to Cuba.

My journey to Cuba continued with orienting in Cancun airport´s TOTAL chaos, which curiously enough seemed to be focused only behind airlines check-in counter. There was about 8 times more cargo waiting to be checked in than people actually flying. Huge boxes of air-coolers, stereos, TV´s etc, plus mucho mucho just bags.

Cancun airport was depressing. It was filled with (most likely wealthy) women in their 40´s-60´s who seemed to have had a beach holiday and somewhere down the line forgotten that excessive sun is bad for you and tanned themselves into a dried-skinned-raisins. There´s something very sad about tired half-naked saggy sunburned skin, with possible liverspots and all. I predict some of the same women will be cruising the beaches in Cuba´s hottest beach resort Varadero and having money-driven love-affairs with local entrepreneurial young guys.

Glad (or maybe i should be scared?) to see that there are still airports left in the world that don´t make you throw away yout perfectly good bottle of water prior to the security checks only to offer you a chance to buy one again at greatly inflated prices afterwards.

In last 2,5 years i´ve had exactly 34 flights from/to very different countries with all kinds of different airlines. But my flight to Cuba was by far the mosty surreal of them all. The plane was tiny, dirty and seemed about 20 years too old (Yakovlev YAK-42). I´m a bit shamed to admit, but i even said a small prayer before taking off. You can never have too much luck when it comes to air-travel :). Flight to Cuba illustrated well why flight attendants are usually slim (women). While i´m all for the curvy figure, i also like that my flight-attendants do not get stuck between the seats in case of an emergency.

The plane´s "keep your seatbelts fastened" light didn´t work, so the flight-attendant just yelled at random intervals through intercom "Cinturones!" (seatbelts) or something like that. The safety demonstration was as usual, except that the girl reading the instructions through the intercom bursted into laughing every once in a while. They announced everything in Spanish and English, but the local dialect of English is like the one in China. After they are through with their speach, you at some point realize that there were couple of words that sounded familiar ... "Wait! Were they talking in English?".

I had a rare seat - on my right side was an engine and on my left side a big intercom speaker. Those two worked in flawless symbiosis to insure my instant migrane & deafness :). The room for your legs was so small that you could pretty much forget trying to shove your handbag under the seat and overhead compartments were of course crammed with all those millions of bags people were dragging with them. My knees were cramped against the seat in front of me and God only know how all those XXL-size mamas managed, next to them i was like a flee. For obvious reasons the flight attendant didn´t even bother telling anybody to put their luggage away from their laps.
It was actually a fun ride, very colorful and absurd, yes, but fun nonetheless. And i shouldn´t be ungrateful for the oppurtunity to actually fly to Cuba, the alternative is to paddle my way down to Havana.

The custom's check in Havana airport was quick but very serious. I was asked to remove my glasses and let my hair loose to resemble maximum to my passport photo. It felt like you do not want to make any sudden moves because they might get annoyed and deport you back to where-ever you came from :).

Havana airport taxis are famous for ripping off tourists (though, which airport taxis in the world aren't?). In order to get to Havana city (about 25 km ride) you can either take an expensive taxi or local P16 bus. The bus goes from the domestic flights terminal which is kilometres away from international flights terminal (or so i had read). To get there you need also a taxi, which kind of defeats the purpose on saving money on taxis in the first place. So i decided i will just try to find somebody to share the taxi with and split the costs. Found an elderly German couple who was OK with the plan and soon we were on our merry way. I didn´t have any reservations pre-made or even any hotel info with me, so i was just making it up as i went along. The Germans wanted to go to Havana Vieja district (Old Havana), so i thought it's just as good as any other. The taxi ride turned out to be very cheap for me, because the Germans only wanted me to pay 5 CUC from a 25 CUC bill. I wasn't about to argue and point out that i was willing to pay the actual 1/3 of the bill :).

Havana Vieja is a lovely part of town, but not so lovely in darkness and off the main streets. I wandered around there for an hour or so with my big bag (and heavy, i must mention) trying to find a suitable/available "casa particular". March seems to be somewhat of a high season in Havana, because one after another they were all full. Finally around 10 pm i found Anita's place and that concludes my long journey from city of Palenque to Cancun to Cuba to bed to rest.

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