Friday, June 17, 2016

[HAVANA] Too Hot for Cuba

After the visa issue that left me a hundred dollars poorer, I finally managed to get on a plane and add that pink immigration stamp to the collection on my passport. Or so I thought. I was stopped by the nurses at the immigration counter because their thermal scanners thought I was so hot. I wasn’t flattered because I felt literally hot, and with a bad case of sore throat. Maybe I indeed took home the Zika as a souvenir from Guatemala a week ago. Really, Cuba? After that visa stunt, now you think I’m too hot for you?

What I thought was really shady, though, was how the two guys who accompanied them grabbed my passport and kept on looking at my US visa. In any case, you never go wrong letting these people know that you speak the language and that you are so not in the mood for scams today. When one of the nurses took my temperature and concluded that it was normal at 37 C, I finally got the pink stamp. But then again I thought that the trip would be canceled abruptly, yet again. Cuba, Cuba, Cuba.

Customs was not as eventful and I was out of the terminal before I knew it. For arriving passengers, you can only change money at either money changer outside the terminal. The lines are always long so allot around 30 minutes for that. The US dollar used to be widely circulated in the country, but not anymore since the embargo. And so the government had to come up with an alternative, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) which is pegged to the US dollar. The currency that locals use is the Cuban Peso (CUP).

As a tourist, it is illegal for you to transact in CUP but getting change in that currency is unavoidable if you buy something from one of the many stores in the streets of Old Havana. You can use that small change for taxi rides. In theory, it is also illegal for you to get on those old Ladas and Chevys, but they let you in anyway when you stop them so why not, right? Negotiate the price before you get in because they don’t have meters at all. The yellow taxis are the legal ones and cost almost the same, but are kind of rare.

I was eyeing the two German girls in front of me so I could convince them to share a taxi. Getting out of the airport entails a fixed CUC 25 (~PHP 1,175) price levied by the government. It IS expensive, but it is NOT a scam. That’s just how much it costs to get out of Havana’s airport. As such, finding two more people to share it with significantly cuts the cost down to just around CUC 8 (~PHP 375). I ended up not talking to them because the other one was looking at me as if I was going to rape her.

Yeah, that happens. We Asians are not that popular on this side of the planet, and we are almost always expected to be weird or just plain wrong in the head, like we’re always up to no good. Preconceived notions, bruh. Everyone has those. And so I ended up paying CUC 25, which wasn’t a big issue because I had CUC 25 anyway. Let’s not make life more complicated than it already is. If you speak enough Spanish, you can take a cab to Terminal 2 for CUC 1 to find the bus that brings locals down to Havana Centro.

Why did I not opt for the local bus then? Because I didn’t have enough sleep before I boarded the plane, and I just wanted to get to my Airbnb place as fast as I could and doze off. Knowing that internet is hard to come by in Cuba, I decided to take two days off from work, which means this is my first legit vacation for the last few years or so. As long as hassles could be avoided, I did. Don’t be a cheapskate. If you had the moolah to book a flight into and out of Havana, I’m pretty damn sure you can afford that taxi ride.

A word of warning, though. Cubans can be chatty AF when they find out that you habla español. The accent was disconcerting at first because they tend to eat their final S sounds but you get the drift after a few hours or so. Despite me being sleepy, I actually enjoyed the non-stop chatter because I immediately got some insight on what makes these Cubans tick as a people. The taxi driver won’t shut up. My Airbnb host won’t shut up. Consequently, I learned a lot about the country as well as life as they know it.

[HAVANA] Too Hot for Cuba

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