A Photo Essay
Dispatches From Cuba: Photos and Stories From a 20-Day Journey
Editor’s Note: One month ago, a GP writer slipped into a country largely untouched by American influence since 1960 (beside the repercussions of a commercial, economic and financial embargo, that is) for a three-week adventure with friends. We asked him to document his travels. Below are several of his experiences, each unique to a region he explored, along with a collection of the photos he shot in a country that’s so close yet so far away.
1. Travel Plans
When serendipity tugs…
It started with an email from my buddy.
Actually, we’d talked about the possibility of a Cuba trip when Mycah — his name isn’t always Peregrine — and his wife found out the she’d been awarded a fellowship to study urban agriculture there, a concept I hadn’t been able to wrap my head around. Nor had I booked my tickets. I wasn’t really sure I’d go because it was near a grand between the flight to Cancun and the next one to Havana, plus I’d been traveling a lot the past year. I told him it was 50/50. Then in early March I was offered a quick business trip to Cancun ending in mid-March. You don’t balk when serendipity tugs at your Johnson, so I shot off a quick email reply: F*ck it. Tickets booked. See you there.
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I got his response a day before I was supposed to leave Cancun, which was a good thing because Cuba doesn’t have soap in most public bathrooms, let alone wireless internet access. My plan remained mostly unchanged: fly to Cuba at midnight, sleep somewhere public, take bus to meet friends. I slept in the bus station.
2. Sketches of Cancun
Salsa and a brawl
I’m eating chips and salsa at a restaurant in the Cancun city center. Not in the Hotel Zone, where everything has the sweet cloying smell of deodorizer. This salsa — roasted tomato? — which is warm, is the best I’ve ever had. The green one is too hot for me. There’s a loud argument. Two storefronts behind me a human male body comes tumbling into the street. Another man follows him out, yelling, grabs him, then pins guy #1’s head to the ground with his knee. It’s unclear what the conflict is about. Moments later two police officers on matte black motorcycles wearing black tactical and assault rifles burn down the street, pull U-turns next to the fight and separate the men. The fajitas are good, but not as good as the salsa.
3. Salsa, the Other Kind
A lesson in warming the soul
It’s possible to get a license to visit Cuba. Beyonce and Jay-Z did it. This isn’t really a visa — Cuba gives visas to Americans, like anyone else, for $25 — and it comes from the Treasury Department. More details here. Otherwise, if you don’t mind the risk, go through Cancun.
Your passport will not be stamped in Cuba. They stamp the Cuban visa, which is a separate document. Your passport will be stamped a second time upon returning to Mexico from Cuba, leaving you with a “ghost” stamp. An eagle-eyed passport control officer might notice this and question you. Most do not.
Cuba requires visitors to have proof of health insurance. American health insurance is no good in Cuba (same goes for credit cards and blonde hair). I’ve never heard of people being asked to provide proof of health insurance upon entering the country, but should your 30-day visa expire, you will be asked to provide proof upon renewing that visa. Because you don’t have it, you’ll be asked to pay for health insurance for the previous 30 days, about $160.
Credit and debit cards issued by American banks do not work in Cuba. What happens if you spend all your pesos on Havana Club? Western Union. In fact, if you consider the 10% tax on dollars exchanged in Cuba, it costs about the same as bringing cash. And it beats Cuban prison.
If all of Cuba is like Santa Clara then I’m going to like it very much. It’s the capital of the Villa Clara province, right in the heart of the country, founded in 1689 by a handful of families who left Remedios on the northern coast because of ongoing pirate attacks. This is also the site of the Battle of Santa Clara, the final battle of the Cuban Revolution, in which Che used a bulldozer to derail a train of Batista’s troops. There is a massive Che monument a few kilometers from city center. The one drawback is that everyone is trying to sell you something: a place to eat, Che trinkets, a cab ride, a pedicab ride, a cab ride on a horse-drawn carriage. There’s always a transaction.
We decide to skip the monument, but we do find an excellent bar, Café La Marquesina, just off the town square. There’s a live salsa band playing. I order a glass of rum. A dreadlocked man with one intact large tooth and a handful of broken ones approaches a 50-something European woman and asks her to dance — or more like, demands that she dance. He keeps repeating, “Follow me.” He can’t dance at all and is also quite stoned. A few people mingle. A few dance with themselves.
And then he arrives like a hurricane wind — black, closely cropped black hair, unassuming worn polo shirt and worn khakis, tongue pursed ever-so-slightly between his lips, eyes lit up, dancing. His hips move with the efficiency of a piston firing. He leads the woman like Patton led the Third Army. The song ends and he approaches us, asking if we’d like a dance lesson. Of course he’ll want money like everyone else, but he’s so damn good we can’t refuse. He shows us that it’s actually easy. One, two, three, four. Forward, back, forward, back. After an hour or so we decide to take off, so we offer him some money. He says, “I don’t want money. It brings my soul warmth teaching people to dance.”
Expect an exorbitant quote on taxi rides between cities. Cienfuegos to Havana? 150 CUC. How about 50? Okay, we can work with 90. If you really want to make point wag your finger — and always be prepared to walk away.
4. Restaurant Lorenzo
Tortuga — sweet, forbidden tortuga
Restaurant Lorenzo is not in any Cuba travel guide. There are no hawkers handing out fliers for it. In fact, it’s the only restaurant I’ve searched for on Google with zero results. And yet there it is, a weathered blue and white porch across the street from the beach in Playa Rancho Luna, a small beach town on the Caribbean just outside of Cienfuegos.
All of the plates at Lorenzo come with a version of what we’ve come to recognize as the standard of Cuban cuisine: rice and beans, cucumber and tomato salad, fried plantains, protein. Most of the food in Cuba is quite bad. Here an ample plate costs the equivalent of $6, and it’s phenomenal. We order the stewed crab, sauteed shrimp and grilled fish. Flan for dessert.
On the second day Lorenzo lets me in his kitchen to take photos. He doesn’t have a staff — just him and a waitress. Back at the table we ask him for suggestions on what to order. His eyes light up and his smile is broad. “Tortuga”, he says. I confirm with my Spanish-speaking friends that he’s talking about turtle. Mycah’s wife is pretty sure it is illegal to harvest turtles in Cuba. Lorenzo is beaming. He says it tastes like a very tender filet mignon. I can’t resist. I go in for the tortuga. It’s actually more tender than a perfectly cooked filet — and there’s a massive plate of it. Forgive me.
5. “Jacke Negro”
A run-in, an escape
There are two currencies in Cuba: the peso (a.k.a. CUP or moneda nacional), and the convertible peso (aka CUC, pronounced “kook”). The locals use the first one and it’s worth about 1/24 of a USD. The second one, introduced in 1994, is for tourists and is worth roughly 1 USD. You can exchange for moneda nacional at a cadeca and save money by eating at locals’ joints. But keep in mind that most places actually have a second menu in CUC, just for tourists, and even if you point to the other one that’s sitting right there on your neighbor’s table and costs 1/24 of the price, they will deny it. Even if you speak Spanish.
We’re nearing the end of our trip, back for a few days in Havana after riding horses and eating lots of churros in Viñales, a UNESCO World Heritage site in western Cuba. The first order of business is the immigration office, where we’ll renew my friends’ visas, which are one day from expiration. While they meet with Cuban officials, I sit in the waiting area looking through the photos on my camera.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have my camera out at the immigration office, but it’s a fairly informal place: the waiting area is outdoors. It’s probably the only immigration office with a patio. A woman in uniform approaches and tells me to stop taking photos. “Give me the camera”, she says. I tell her that I wasn’t taking photos, and that no, she can’t have the camera. “Show me the photos”, she says. I show her the photos. They are photos of carrots and onions from the street market across from immigration. She shakes her head, doesn’t believe me.
I stash the battery and card as a precautionary measure and walk toward the exit. Another woman in uniform comes chasing after me. “Let me see the camera”, she says. I tell her the battery ran out and show her that the camera won’t turn on. “Why are you in immigration?” she says. I tell her I’m with friends and she lets me leave. In the background I hear yelling. They’re repeating something that sounds like “jacke negro, jacke negro, jacke negro”. I don’t speak Spanish, but I’m wearing a black jacket and to me that’s cognate enough to believe I’m about have somebody purloin my photos, perhaps worse. I haven’t done anything wrong, but Cuba plays by its own set of rules. We have an embargo.
I lurk around a corner until my friends come out. They confirm that immigrations officials were asking about a man in a “chaqueta negro”, or black jacket. I can’t decide if my paranoia is a product of real danger or the number of times I’ve watched Spy Game. They know where we are; we have to check in with passports everywhere, even to rent a bicycle at 2 CUC per hour. For four days I’m looking over my shoulder. When nobody comes I assume they’re biding their time, planning to nab me at the airport, at the bleak red door all people entering and exiting the country must be buzzed through. Jacke negro, jacke negro, jacke negro.
On our final day I’m waiting in front of the red door while my passport is reviewed. Mycah is behind me, whispering “jacke negro”. I start laughing. The door buzzes.