Playa (del Carmen) With A Full Deck
Happy (belated) Mother’s Day from Playa del Carmen, Mexico!
We returned from Cuba on Friday, retrieved Wolfie from storage near the airport and moved into a lovely 2 bedroom condo in El Cielo in Playa del Carmen where we will stay until we return to the States in late June for a wedding. Since campgrounds in the areas near Cancun/Playa del Carmen are pricey and because we decided to extend our stay in Mexico in order to accommodate our travel plans for the wedding, we decided to stay in a brick-and-mortar home here after we learned we could do so nearly as affordably as staying in Wolfie. In our condo, we have all the comforts of our former home in the States (internet, satellite TV, oven, dishwasher, washer/dryer, ac) plus swimming pools and nearby beach. With apologies to Wolfie, she just didn’t stand a chance by comparison. So, we will see how it feels to stay put for a little more than a month as we live the gringo life here in Playa.
About our time in Cuba — Spoiler alert: we were not huge fans. For those of you who have been and who loved it, we will try to explain more about our reactions and why ours might differ from yours.
It is important to understand how we decided to travel to Havana and how those decisions may have affected our time in Cuba. We chose to stay in an AirBnB in a private room with a Cuban family. Ordinarily, we select AirBnBs only when we have the entire place to ourselves but for Havana, we thought it would enrich our experiences to have access to the insights of locals. We selected a neighborhood called Vedado based on our research. We think that both of these decisions were good ones for us. Our AirBnB host turned out to be a real gem – she is an 86 year old who has clear recollections of time before and after the revolution and who inhabits a grand home of many rooms and a gorgeous back yard on a street where the late Fidel Castro once lived. Her home was very large and several family members lived with her, as well as a couple of household staff members. The home now boasts of 2 AirBnB rooms, each with a private bath and a tiny kitchenette. Our hosts did everything they could to make our stay comfortable.
Cruise or Tour?
It’s likely that most US citizens who have traveled to Cuba have visited on an organized tour or by cruise ship – in fact, this was the only way a traveler from the States could go during the “early” days of the Cuban Thaw. For those, the charms of Old Havana (Havana Vieja) are obvious – the old architecture, the charm of the horse drawn carriages and the convertible antique automobiles, the gorgeous, gleaming white Capitol building and downtown museums are undeniably captivating. Restaurants in Old Havana are cheap by US standards and serving sizes are almost embarrassingly large. The areas near the Malecon (waterfront walkway), the old forts, renovated train station and cruise terminal are walkable and lovely.
When you move just a couple of feet beyond this area – in fact, just a couple of blocks within Old Havana, you begin to see the deterioration and decay of this once obviously-thrilling city. Buildings are literally crumbling and streets and sidewalks are pocked with large gaps, holes, cracks and more. And while there are clearly new building or renovation projects underway (or so it appeared from the signs displayed on scaffolding), much of what we saw all over Havana looked like it had not been touched since 1959 — everything needed a coat of paint, some significant patching, replacement window panes and more. The furnishings in our AirBnB house and in the places we visited were similar – kind of frozen in time. Things were old and out of date, and out of style and often in need of significant repair. This is not the “fault” of our hosts or the average Cuban. We learned that nearly every space is furnished with something recycled and the Cubans impressively recycle everything from furniture to linens to plumbing parts and clothes. In the end, the “your junk is my treasure” approach results in an aging and tattered sort of ambiance to nearly everything.
No Credit Extended
US citizens traveling to Cuba must do so with cash only – US credit cards are not accepted and banks and ATMs will not dispense cash so we needed to take what we thought we would need for the week. (Beware, as well, that when we attempted to access financial information from our Charles Schwab account, our account was locked, apparently required by US regulations rather than in reaction to a fraud concern). We found this to be a significant challenge, at least emotionally, since we didn’t want to run out of money and our budgeting was based on scant information about how much various things would cost. Our budgeting concerns were exacerbated by being thwarted from some of our standard travel practices such as making our own breakfasts in the mornings; typically, we go to a market and pick up fruit, eggs, coffee, etc. and eat and sip leisurely in the morning as we consider the day ahead. But shopping in Havana in local markets is unlike anything we have experienced over our time on the road. In Cuba, families are given rations for many food staples (eggs, sugar, rice, beans, milk, etc.) and sources of those kinds of food do not appear to be available for sale to tourists. The markets had little on the shelves other than jars of instant coffee, cans of beer and lentils, Barilla pasta, rum and cigarettes. Panaderias (bakeries) existed but the bread and “pastries” were flavorless even if cheap. In short, we were out of luck with an attempt to cook breakfast in our room, despite the thoughtfully provided kitchenette there. We opted instead to pay our AirBnB host for morning breakfasts consisting of coffee, reconstituted powdered milk, eggs and ham.
Our need to budget our cash affected our choices while in Havana. While we were offered overnight trips to the countryside, the $60 an hour price tag for a car and driver or the $180 a day rental car rate meant that we yielded to our concern about running out of cash. Additionally, in a country where the average person earns about $20 a month, we couldn’t help but be concerned about whether these touring options would isolate us from real Cuban life. So, we stuck to exploring Havana only. And nearly all of it by foot.
Havana has a bus system but no published bus routes or maps or signs at bus stops. Further, while we told that while the bus was a cheap travel option, they were so jam-packed that many passed us at bus stops. It seems that Cubans deal with this frequently – we saw huge numbers of people waiting (and waiting, and waiting, and waiting) at bus stops (and nearly everything else). Lines are omnipresent — everywhere and for nearly everything. So, off on foot we went, walking an average of 7-10 miles a day, leaving droplets of perspiration from one end of Havana to the other. It is, after all, tropical and hot and humid. When we had walked our last centimeter and our legs could barely carry us onward, we did relent a couple of times and took cabs – because they are unregulated, we learned quickly (after one disaster) to negotiate an agreed upon price before we entered, whether it was a tiny mototaxi, antique convertible, or falling-apart Russian made taxi.
Other things that we have come to rely upon on our travels were also largely unavailable to us in Cuba. Access to internet is very limited and quite expensive. Whether tourist or local, one must buy an internet card from the national telecommunications provider, good for an hour of internet ($4.95 an hour) and usable only at designated wifi spots in the city (mostly near hotels and public parks). Those spots became instantly recognizable because there were always large numbers of Cubans glued to their phone screens, gathered in these locations. We learned that Cuban cell phone “plans” do not include data – only voice and text; to use them for access to the internet, Cubans need to purchase internet cards at the same price as tourists. For us, not having the ability to use the internet or phone data for research, museum addresses and hours, cultural events or just random questions felt isolating. We have to admit that we have become, like nearly everyone we’ve seen along our travels, from large Canadian cities to small Mexican towns, reliant upon the information superhighway and we didn’t love being virtually without this resource.
It was, therefore, little surprise seeing folk clustered around wifi spots, eyes glued to screens. We are not sure how many bona fide TV channels exist on Cuban televisions but we saw only 2: one with general programming and the other with sports (including, on one night, a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game). The general programming station had some children’s entertainment, some Cuban history, a Fred Astair-Ginger Rogers movie on one occasion, and some of what seemed to be “news” programming. We never saw a news stand or a magazine and we saw only one Cuban newspaper being sold on one particular morning at one particular bus stop. Clearly, information is at a premium. When we did access the internet, we were able to read the Washington Post, NYT, and other news outlets so we assume that Cubans may as well, but we are not completely sure. When we went to buy a local SIM card to have in our spare unlocked phone for emergencies, Roque waited in line for over a half an hour, was put through a rigorous set of questions by the national phone company worker, had his passport photocopied and the SIM card registered to him as well as the phone with strict instructions limiting outgoing calls to one a day. We tried using it once but the call failed.
What We Loved
There were some things we liked about our time in Havana. Inexplicably, we ate an amazingly delicious and completely authentic-tasting French croissant that we bought at the Union Francesa de Cuba, a gathering place and series of French eateries staffed by Cubans of French origin. We loved the Cuban art on display at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and that there was a whole national museum dedicated to Cuban artists, even those who had painted anti-Revolutionary works. We loved our hostess, L, and her “daughter,” M, together with their staff, Miriam and Maria, among others – warm, lovely and generous people who shared friendship, hospitality and some information with us during our stay. If we were to ever return to Cuba, it would only be to visit again with these wonderful people. In addition to our hosts, we befriended a waiter at the local corner Cuban cafeteria, who shared more information about life in Cuba with us than everyone else combined, as well as a waiter (likely related to the owners) of Beirut Schwarma, the surprisingly authentic and tasty Lebanese restaurant near the Melia Cohiba. We loved the sounds of the school children in the yard that bordered one of the walls of our AirBnB garden and their noises were as energetic, lively and unguarded as any would be in an elementary school in the States.
We also considered thoughtfully the idea, shared by nearly all the Cubans with whom we spoke, that while life in Cuba is not necessarily easy, it is sufficient. They are clearly proud of the fact that there are no homeless people in Cuba – everyone has a place to live and a subsistence level of food rations, as well as free medical and dental care and free education. Most expressed that they prefer the simple life in Havana to the lives they observe in the US where it’s all “keeping up with the Joneses.” We take them at face value when they talk about their travels to Mexico, the US and even Russia but have a difficult time wrapping our heads around how the average Cuban could afford a $1000 airline ticket to Russia.
Cubans boast that Havana is an extremely safe place and indeed, we walked on abandoned, often dark streets at night with little concern for safety. But we were scammed a couple of times on the street – once by a taxi driver and once by a woman who implored us to buy milk for her baby (which we did) only to see her reselling it minutes later on the street. The Cubans with whom we shared these stories just shook their heads knowingly – they’d heard these and similar stories before and acknowledged that tourists are often targeted by locals.
It was difficult to tell whether life is really “sufficient” for Cubans. While medical and dental care is free to all Cubans, we were told that pharmacies are without even basic analgesics, all surgeries other than essential ones are basically nonexistent, and doctors are leaving the country in droves. We are not sure how work works in Cuba – we saw a lot of idle people and those who seem engaged in work were those working in entrepreneurial activities, the economics of which are still unclear to us, since we were told that the government receives all income from all activities and distributes only 20% of the entrepreneurial fees to the worker (as in the AirBnB fees). And while our hosts made various restaurant recommendations and even made reservations for us, we later learned that our hosts have never eaten out at these places and cannot afford to dine out except at the local cafeterias.
How will all of this work out for Cubans? We have no idea. Cuba was certainly neither the first or last place we’ve visited where there is a significant divide between the life of the average citizen and that of the average tourist. Perhaps what makes Cuba different from these other places is that in Cuba, this divide is necessitated by its economic/political system and to us, it seemed that the Cuban people would not experience personal gain with new enterprises. Time will tell.
But it is not likely that we will be returning to see how the story unfolds.
* the phrase Cubans use when answering the phone, often said with the accent on the first word/syllable