Ninety miles and twelve minutes in a jet plane are all that separate the United States of America and the Republic of Cuba. I’ve come to call this “the longest twelve minutes” as to cross the divide is hours of effort, perseverance, waiting and patience, or in Spanish, paciencia. This is Cuba’s word. How do I know the distance is about twelve minutes? Yesterday I was on a World Atlantic flight from Havana to Miami, and I timed from when I saw through the cabin window the last tip of Cuba’s coast line until my first glimpse of the Florida Keys.
On the outset of our journey I timed the actual flight length from take-off to landing, and couldn’t believe my watch read only 40 minutes passed from when we departed Miami International Airport until we landed at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. The fifty plus year old chasm separating the USA and Cuba has to be wider and deeper… doesn’t it? That’s less time and distance than flying from Los Angeles to San Francisco or New York City to Washington DC or from Miami to Key West. The reality of Cuba’s geographical location only makes the heavy-handed political isolation all that more absurd. Or does it? While exploring Cuba over the course of a month, I took every opportunity presented to speak with the locals. I hoped to gain a broader understanding of Cuba, past and present, and reasons behind such an exceptional and lasting embargo.
Stepping on to the tarmac I headed toward a large sign above two glass sliding doors labeled “Llegadas/Arrivals”. I was in Cuba. Customs and luggage went smoothly. Maybe too smoothly. Our driver was not waiting outside. After searching through the crowds of family members, taxi drivers and men selling tourist trinkets, we borrowed a cell phone from an older Cuban gentleman, and called our contact, Sam. Sam apologized profusely and said the driver should be there, and he would find out why he wasn’t, and we should call back in seven minutes. Fortunately the man with his cell phone was waiting for relatives to arrive on a delayed flight so he’d let us use the phone again in seven minutes.
Our driver arrived in a clean white van very apologetic for the misunderstanding. We hoped our ride would be one of the colorful 1950s era beauties we’d drooled over during our wait, but we’d have to hail one later. Departing Jose Marti we headed to our “casa particular” in Old Havana. Casas Particulares are private houses in Cuba serving as accommodations, similar to bed and breakfasts that offer rooms and meals in family homes. From what I could tell these have recently sprung up in great numbers due to the estimated 3.5 million American tourists expected to arrive shortly. I write “recently” as throughout our travels we saw many homes being remodeled with extra bathrooms, painted, and new open for business signs hung out front. In well-traveled tourist communities such as Vinales and Playa Larga, every house looks to be offering itself as a casa particular. Seems the Cubans have fittingly caught on to making money from foreigners.
Perhaps they have caught on in more ways than just rooms for rent. Cuban currency is only available in-country so an exchange must be made after arrival. Before departure from the USA I read this charge is government regulated at 10%, yet we were never offered this controlled percentage amount. Be warned: the airport exchange counter charges about 25%, so if you must turn your US Dollars into Cuban Convertible Pesos do so sparingly. It’s also my opinion that the Cubans have outsmarted us all with their two currencies: Cuban National Peso (CUP) and Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). The CUP is for Cubans and the CUC seems to have been created solely for foreigners to pay more than 20 times the actual value of an item (CUC is valued today at about 26 CUP). My awareness of this brazen secret grew over the course of our stay as kind locals kept insisting we should be paying in pesos, not “kooks”. Even a police officer standing on the corner of a busy street in Miramar told us not to pay more than 20 CUP for a ride to Old Havana. We’d been paying 10 to 15 CUC. Truly inspired thinking.
The Cuba We Are All Waiting to Experience continues with Good for the Cubans…