I was brought swiftly down to earth about the realities of backpacking within the first few hours of arriving in Cuba, but I am trying not to let our first few negative moments colour the rest of our Cuban escapade. In retrospect, Cuba probably wasn't the best introduction to backpacking for Thomas, however learning first hand about living under austerity, aspects of communism and socialism and social inequality caused by the dual currency are not normally subjects you find on the curriculum at school.
Cuba is going to be challenging, especially with Thomas, as I discovered on arriving at the airport outside La Habana in the late afternoon. I also realised early on that my lack of Spanish fluency was going to be problematic as Cuba would be much easier if I could speak fluent Spanish. It is completely unlike South American countries that I have visited or other countries with far less infrastructure than Cuba.
Before we left the UK, we had to estimate our budget for Cuba and bring with us enough hard currency (sterling) to cover our two weeks in Cuba. At the time we thought we had a healthy budget. We couldn't take the risk of using ATMs which sometimes don't work in Cuba (as another backpacking couple found who had all their transactions denied and were totally stressed by their third day in Cuba) or swallow your card. This is the beginning of our travels and losing our credit cards would be catastrophic.
On landing, Edward went to change money into CUC$ at the official money changing desk but the security guard would not allow me to go to the counter with Edward. Unfortunately, he was scammed and we lost 100 pounds. If I had been able to witness what happened or had been able to challenge the cashier then maybe there would have been a different outcome. It was not the best start.
The next part is going to sound ludricrous and bizarre, so you'll have to bear with me. We arrived in Habana Centro at our casa and our first priority was to find water and somewhere to eat. Sounds simple, doesn't it? We headed for the main street a few blocks down the Malecon and I asked a few tourists that I came across where they got their water from. Most of them had brought it with them and not bought it in the district we were in, however one couple said that on the main street there was a tienda that was easy to miss as there were no signs and the front window doesn't display what it sells but right at the back of the shop, they had found water. They said 'good luck' as they had also struggled to find drinking water.
Still sounds relatively straightforward at this point - all we had to do was find the shop without signs. It was just after 5pm and the daylight was starting to fade. Thomas was really thirsty and hungry so with some urgency we tried to locate the shop with no success. Next, I spotted a kiosk and saw small bottles of water on the shelf and asked in Spanish for water. I was told "it's finished" which was to become a familiar phrase in Cuba and he could not sell us the water. We searched for another ten minutes and found another kiosk with small bottles of water so tantilisingly close (yet so far), where a guy was frantically tapping on a calculator and didn't want to engage with us. Again I was told in Spanish the same thing "it's finished and I cannot sell it to you". It was starting to get dark, Thomas was getting visibly upset and we were in an unknown part of Habana and had no idea yet where to buy food or drink. We ended up in a smoky bar on bar stools (not ideal for Thomas) but at least they were still serving bar snacks and small bottles of overpriced water.
It became apparent very quickly, many tiendas in Cuba do not have signs, shop windows or if there is a shop window it displays a random selection of goods sometimes completely unrelated to what is actually sold inside. We also discovered, that buying drinking water can be an expensive business (1.50 sterling for a small bottle of 500ml) unless you are prepared to track down shops that sell larger bottles. The next morning, we headed out in Habano Centro to track down a shop that sold 5 litre bottles without charging a small fortune and finally found it in a shop that from the outside would appear to sell toiletries but at the back there was water - hurrah!
Farmacia, Habana Centro
Again, many shops operate a counter system where you join a queue for the counter you want to purchase from as the limited goods are held on shelves behind the counter. You reach the front of the queue and then ask for your item and pay (we started saving up bags as most of the time you are expected to bring your own bag with you). This gave us a glimpse into why queuing is a way of life for Cubans whether it is queuing to actually get inside a shop, queuing for a counter, queuing for the ATM or queuing for over two hours for ice cream at Coppelias. Then there are the markets or shops that have hardly any stock or nothing to sell as "it has already finished".
We checked out Harris Brothers in Habano Vieja which was described in our guide book as the most extensively stocked supermercado in Habana. We made a beeline for this thinking we would find a veritable oasis of food and drink opportunities compared to other tiendas. The sign outside was tiny and the door led to a gloomy, grubby, grimy tiled hall lined with two counters either side. I think 'extensively stocked' was a misprint and we were constantly hassled by hustlers and scam artists while inside - to be avoided.
We decided an action plan was needed so that we knew our priorities whenever we reached a new destination in Cuba:
1. take as much water as we could physially carry on your journey to a new destination
2. first priority is to hunt out a shop that sells drinking water hopefully in 5 litre bottles
3. second priority is to search out moneda nactional restaurants/cafes/holes in the wall for cheap eating opportunities
4. find where the Candeca is for changing money as it is easy to miss these as well (we passed one three times before we realised that it was the Candeca)
Our budget had also taken a hammering in Cuba after losing the money at the airport. It coincided with a crash in the pound as it was announced two days before we arrived in Cuba, that Brexit negotiations would start in March. This combined with discovering how expensive eating was (30 pounds for a meal for 3 people) plus the cost of travelling between places, ruled out eating at what I would call actual restaurants i.e. they had table cloths and glassware or dinner in our casa (we told 12 to 15 pounds per person).
Moneda Nacional Pandaneria - queuing to buy biscuits
We reassessed our budget and ruled out any excursions, entrance fees to museums and places of interest, and only use taxis in absolute emergencies. We explained to Thomas that we had our own austerity rules; this meant two meals a day (breakfast in our casa and late lunch/dinner from moneda nacional places if possible) and to walk everywhere. On the positive side there was no chance of putting on weight in Cuba and Thomas could walk for over three hours in the tropical heat by our last day in Cuba - his stamina had significantly improved!
Fruit and Veg Market in Verdado, La Habana