Back on the street, my first stop was the American Embassy, currently surrounded by a staging ground for routine protests against the American government. Still the “American interests section” during my visit, it has recently been upgraded to full embassy status. Adjacent to the staging ground is a sign that reads “Patria O Muerte” (Country or Death) and about 100 flagpoles in which the Cuban flag (ironically borrowing the red, white, and blue in honor of the American experiment) often flies.
Shirtless men fished along the water across the street and nearby a crumbling stadium still served as a football field for men of all ages.
Just a sidenote. When I worked on Capitol Hill for the first time I was an intern mostly doing the sort of grunge work interns do like Capitol tours, constituent correspondence, and answering telephones. Each afternoon we would receive a call from Havana (verified by caller ID) from a man who identified himself as “Gerald Plessman calling from the lobby of the El Presedente Hotel in Havana, Cuba”. He went on to tell—every day mind you—about how he had a sexual relationship with President Bill Clinton and was forced to flea to Cuba to avoid being assassinated by the Clinton machine.
So I just had to at least walk by the El Presidente. I toyed with the thought of going in and looking for Gerald, but thought better of it and continued on my walk.
The sun set and I found myself just wandering around, trying not to lose track of my surroundings, for I had no map. I left the tourist area and came into what increasingly became apparent as the zone for locals.
Two currencies are in use in Cuba – the peso and convertible peso. Most Cubans are paid in the peso, the local currency that can be exchanged for rationed staples but is worthless outside the nation. After seeing outrageous prices in the upscale areas I had visited earlier in the day, I saw now where Cubans go to eat and drink. The convertible peso is pegged to the dollar, though every government currency exchange will penalize you 10% for converting USD into convertible pesos. 25 Pesos = 1 Covertible Peso.
There were few restaurants or bars – mostly bodegas or even smaller snack stands, but prices were a fraction of what they were across town. A hospital with pale green walls and a faded black and white photo of Fidel sat with open doors and was filled with people. There were no computers, white unforms, or any sense of sterilization. One patient had a glass IV tube he was holding with one arm and a cigarette in the other. Babies screamed and one frazzled doctor wearing a stethoscope seemed to be single-handedly holding down the fort.
I returned to the capital, which was beautifully lit and now deserted. Now a bit tired and hungry, I began walking back, but my adventure was not over.
Suddenly a man jumped out and started talking to me in broken English. He was wearing a wife beater and army fatigue shorts and immediately asked if I was an American. I responded in the affirmative.
His eyes lit up and he said, “I love America! America is where my cousin is. In New Jersey. I want to go there!” I nodded and continued walking. Next came what I was expecting: “Do you have some money for me and my mother?”. Wanting to get him off my back, I handed him two CUC ($2USD) and continued walking, this time a little faster.
He would not leave me alone and said that I must come to his house to meet his mother. I shook my head but he continued to beg. Finally we came to a rather well-lit street filled with locals and tourists and he signaled to a door on the left and motioned for me to follow him.
I guess it should not come as a surprise for someone who had no qualms about traveling to a war zone in Afghanistan or bribing his way out of Kazakhstan, but I decided to go into his house. Truth be told, part of me was fully expecting to be hit over the head and mugged as soon as the door closed behind me, but I took the leap of faith.
Inside, the door shut but I was not attacked. Instead, I was led into a one-bedroom apartment. A dog came running up, but it was a friendly and Abel insisted that I take a picture of him and his dog to send to his cousin.
Mamacita was sitting on the couch and spoke no English, but smiled and welcomed me to her house. Abel took out a cigarette and started smoking, offering me one as well. I was amazed at how many Cubans smoked after Fidel condemned tobacco and renounced his own cigar habit more than a decade ago…cigarettes remain highly subsidized and dirt cheap.
Abel ran out of the house and came back in a few minutes with three Cokes. I would have thought he would have saved the two convertible pesos I gave him for something of greater value, but he and his mother began quickly sipping their drinks.
Then he ripped of his shirt.
Now what had I gotten myself into?
Thankfully, he just wanted to show me the tattoo on his back, which read, “Freedom has no price.” A bit different than the “Freedom isn’t free” moniker invoked by Americans on memorial occasions, but he proudly proclaimed again how much he loved the USA and despised the Castro government. I asked him if I he would object to me writing and publishing on the internet about he and his mother and he said he had no objections. He demanded I take a picture of his tattoo.
He put on a marijuana shirt that he was quite proud of then proceeded to show me his “business”, the making and selling of art and crafts. But I do not think this was the point of my visit, for he put no pressure on me to buy anything.
I said goodbye but Abel insisted on taking me back to Hotel Nacional. I was not sure what street my apartment was on, I just knew how to get there from Hotel Nacional.
Oddly, Cuba’s socialist paradise has a limited public bus transportation system but many must rely on private bus, van, and taxi service. Taxis tend to be vintage American cars and charge tourists several dollars even for a short ride. There are also shared taxis, called “Peso Taxis” that operate up and down streets. Usually a station wagon in which all but the front seats have been removed and a U-shape wooden bench placed around the remainder, locals have a cheap way to quickly get across town. If your Spanish is good enough, anyone can use these, but prices may vary wildly based upon how gringo the driver thinks you appear.
Abel jumped in one and motioned for me to get in too. The car was not crowded yet, but soon filled up. For about 20 cents, we made the two mile drive back to the area around the hotel and then propped out with the hotel looming just two blocks away.
I was fully expecting Abel to follow me, but suddenly he put his head down and pointing to the hotel said, “We are not allowed there. You must now go alone.” And just like that he disappeared, though not before asking for a few more pesos, which I was happy to give him.
Cuba has a reputation for horrible food and next to Hotel Nationalies was a small restaurant that was still open. Inside, there was no menu – the only food they had left was shrimp. Shrimp it was then. It was served with rice, tomatoes, and French Fries. A nice presentation, but a very unremarkable dinner and quite pricey at 13 CUC.
Back in my room, I asked the owner to call a taxi for me at 5am – I had a plan and tomorrow would turn out to be quite an adventure.
Read more of my Cuba trip report:
Planning a Trip to Cuba
Los Angeles to Havana in TACA Economy Class
Visa Requirements for Visiting Cuba
Day One in Cuba: A Tour of Havana
Day One in Cuba: An Evening Surprise
Day Two in Cuba: Accused of Being An American Spy!
Day Two in Cuba: Escorted Flying
Day Two in Cuba: The Juxtaposition of Two Cubans
Havana to Los Angeles in TACA Economy Class
10 Tips for Visiting Cuba
Why You Should Visit Cuba Now