Havana Travel Tips

Malecon (c) Seb Charrot 2016
Malecon (c) Seb Charrot 2016

My girlfriend and I recently travelled to the incredible city of Havana for 10 days – an experience I would highly recommend.

Before travelling I did a fair bit of research and found some travel tips and suggestions (I’ll provide links to the most useful of these at the end of this post). While some tips came in handy, others were either inapplicable to Havana (versus the more rural areas of Cuba) or out of date (a lot has changed in Cuba, in a relatively short time).

So I thought I would make own additions to the raft of tips online. Tips that I wish I had read before heading out there.

Note: These tips were accurate as of August 2016, and only apply to Havana, so your mileage may vary.

VISAs

This caused some substantial stress in the run-up to our holiday, as I had forgotten to check whether we needed VISAs to travel from the UK to Cuba. Some Googling will tell you various things, including how to apply for one for £35 per person, but forget all that. The facts are:

  1. Yes, you need a Tourist Card
  2. Air Canada provides one on the flight

I’ve read that any Thomson Holidays flight also provides them – to be honest I wouldn’t be surprised if every airline did. In any case, it’s academic, since the Havana Airport website also states that you can buy one at the airport for 20 CUC.

PS – I read that you need to keep 25 CUC (per person) spare to pay an exit tax at the airport. As far as I can tell, this is poppycock: nobody charged us, we kept the money until we got on the plane, then realised we were left with an extra 50 CUC which we couldn’t exchange outside the country!

Money: A Tale of Two Currencies

Cuba uses 2 currencies: the CUC (pronounced “cook”), which is the tourist currency, and the CUP, the local peso. As a traveller you will almost certainly be only concerned with CUC.

Havana was, as far as I could tell, exclusively a cash-only economy. Not a single business or hotel took credit/debit cards.

Exchanging Money

The CUC is a closed currency, which means you can’t get it outside the country. You’re generally encouraged to therefore bring all your money as cash with you and exchange it once you land. This is what we did but I personally found it quite stressful to carry all that money around – and I never felt very secure relying on the hotel room safes.

There are various exchange places dotted around known as CADECAs (short for Casas de Cambio) – the exchange rate is set by the government (and tied to the US dollar) so if you go to any of these you know you’re getting the best deal. Other places, such as hotels, will exchange money but their commissions/rates are scandalous – don’t use a hotel unless you’re in dire need. The airport also has a cadeca out front, so I’d recommend using that to get some initial dough.

As it turns out there are a number of banks and ATMs scattered around Havana from which you could withdraw money. This isn’t without risk – as you’ll have to check beforehand that your card and bank are accepted (don’t take that for granted). If I was to visit again I might consider using an ATM and taking less hard cash with me.

We were travelling from Scotland, so it’s worth noting – Scottish pounds are not accepted. Thankfully we knew this beforehand, so took a combination of English pounds and Canadian dollars.

Touring

We got a tour from Cuban Connections and our excellent guide was Anthony. He spent the whole day taking us around the centre, to the private harbours out west of Havana, to the forest areas at the back of Vedado where the Santeria worshippers sacrifice animals, to Old Havana, then home in a 50s convertible. Outstanding.

Eating

For years the only restaurants in Cuba were state-run, and the word on the street is that the food wasn’t great. However changes in 2010 have caused an explosion of privately-owned restaurants knowns as paladares, where the food is diverse and incredible.

You’ll find the best-rated ones on Tripadvisor but Chanchullero, near Centro, is an absolute must-visit. I would also highly recommend Nao, in Old Havana; and El Litoral, halfway between Vedado and Centro along the Malecon. The atmosphere at these places is warm, vibrant and homely. Nao and many other restaurants also allow bands to come in and play quick sets, then leave again, and they lend a great authenticity to the experience.

If I ever go back I’ll eschew any visits to state-run restaurants, which are OK but no more, draw up a list of paladares, and eat my way through it.

WiFi

Incredibly, WiFi is fairly prevalent, not ridiculously slow, and moderately cheap, too.

You can identify most state-run WiFi networks as they’ll have “ETECSA” in the name – this is the telecommunications provider for Cuba. You can buy WiFi cards in most hotel lobbies, and they’ll work for any ETECSA WiFi network you find. These last an hour at a time (you can pause and resume) and generally cost 4 or 5 CUC (e.g $5 or £4). Hot tip though:

Cigars

The obvious export choice is to grab some fine Cuban cigars the share out upon your return. This is a fine idea since they are ridiculously cheap compared to prices back home.

By the way – make sure you check the export limits. When we left, we were allowed 50 cigars each, and 1.25L of alcohol. I’ve heard that unlabelled cigars aren’t looked upon well, so may not be worth the risk. Smoking unlabelled cigars while you’re in Havana, however… 🙂

Avoid Buena Vista / Bar Taberna

I’m loathe to include something so negative but this is an important point.

The missus and I were keen to catch a music show, and on paper this should have been a great event: a multitude of Cuban legends, most of which were grammy winners, performing a show while you got a 3 course dinner and free cocktails. What I hadn’t deduced was that if these performers had won grammies, that would have been in the 50s. Sadly, the show was a tired affair – the place was half-empty, and the music was the same as we’d heard from a dozen street bands (who had been better). The food was the worst we had the misfortune of consuming: the saddest, rubberiest, cheapest and most inedible meal I’ve had in a long time.

We judiciously drank all our cocktails in an effort to kill any microbial or bacterial flora we may have consumed, but unfortunately that was in vain. The next day, and for the week after, Buena Vista left its mark not only in the memories of a mediocre night, but in the form of a syncopated rumba in our bowels. Trying to walk around Havana while remaining at all times within dashing distance of a toilet is tedious and not conducive to fun exploration.

Miscellaneous

Conclusion

There are a million things to do and see in Havana and it would be daft of me to try to enumerate them all here (not least because I am no expert). Take some time to do your research beforehand, and learn some Spanish, and you’ll be in a great position.

Havana is an amazing place – it took us a few days to acclimate to the fact that it was so different, and so remote, like a time capsule frozen half a century ago.

It’s an exciting time for Cuba – relations with the U.S. are being normalised, the city of Havana is in restoration after it was named a Unesco Heritage Site, changes to the law mean that private businesses are booming. There’s a feeling of optimism. Visiting Havana was fantastic, and I would recommend it to anyone.

Appendix: Links

‘C’mon, guy, do me a solid,’ says FBI

(Originally published on www.britishbullsh.it. Click here for more of my articles.)

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The FBI has asked Apple CEO Tim Cook to “be a bro and just unlock this iPhone”, it can be revealed.

In a phone call last Friday, FBI Director James B. Comey was quoted as saying “Hey buddy do me this favour will you? The boss is bustin’ my balls here.”

He reportedly continued, “It’ll just be this one time, I swear.”

The friendly mano-a-mano request quickly turned to pestering after repeated refusal from the Apple boss, who replied “Listen man even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t be able to,” to which the reported FBI response was “Bullshit.”

Discussions between the two parties continued over the weekend but have reportedly escalated into irritated hectoring, with sources close to the pair revealing the powwow wasn’t far from becoming “full verbal assault.”

These latest revelations will not be welcomed by the FBI after last week’s embarrassing news that agents had attempted to get into the device by calling Apple’s support helpline and impersonating the deceased owner.

The ruse failed after requests for the security question were answered with “Look buddy just help me out here”.

Jeremy Corbyn Loses Another Tooth After Continued Refusal to Use Trident

[This was originally a contribution to the satirical news site www.britishbullsh.it. Click here for more of my articles.]

Dental Flaws: Jeremy Corbyn loses tooth. Photo courtesy Steve Eason 2015
Dental Flaws: Jeremy Corbyn loses tooth. Original photo courtesy Steve Eason 2015

LABOUR leader loses tooth while speaking at event on Tuesday evening — the third time since his election as opposition leader

While speaking at a trade union event in his constituency of North Islington, supporters were left shocked and spittled when one of speaker Jeremy Corbyn’s teeth loosened and was accidentally propelled into the unsuspecting crowd.

This is the third such dental mishap since taking power in September last year, leading many to question his continued refusal to use the sugar-free chewing gum Trident.

Corbyn has been a vocal critic of the polymer masticant, claiming it to be ineffective and instead proposing to invest in greener forms of rechewable energy. However this latest incident has caused factions within the Labour party to cast doubts over the direction of his leadership.

“This is another example of Corbyn’s toothless politics,” claimed a senior Labour official. “We knew he had a bleeding heart – but bleeding gums is another thing entirely”

Meanwhile the Conservative party were quick to pounce on the episode, with Prime Minister David Cameron referring to the Labour leader as a “Halitosis sympathiser”.

Speaking to the press the morning after the incident, Corbyn opened doors to a possible softening of his hard-line stance, by raising the possibility of continuing to fund the Trident programme to manufacture empty gum packets.

This latest controversy follows on the back of revelations last October that Corbyn’s views on the monarchy had led him to reject a dental crown.

Enterprising London commuter discovers it’s cheaper to work, live elsewhere

(Originally published on www.britishbullsh.it. Click here for more of my articles.)

Does not commute: IT boffin and ex-Londoner Paul Tunnock crunched the numbers and saved himself a fortune.

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Computer bod Tunnock, now living in Clackmannan, Scotland. Photograph: @marktee

After 8 years of living and commuting within the larger London area, tech whiz Paul Tunnock, 41, had finally had enough of London’s extortionate house prices and cost of living, and turned his prodigious programmer talents to finding a solution to his money woes.

The gleeful geek typed up an algorithm which, after plugging in a series of spreadsheets of housing market data, wages, and cost of living indices, clunked out an answer. The machine’s advice? To not live or work in London.

“It was really quite obvious in retrospect,” laughs Tunnock, who promptly upped sticks and moved his family to Clackmannan in Scotland.

“My wife wouldn’t believe it at first,” he continues, sitting on a bench in Johnstone & Cochrane Park, shoulders hunched against the wind and driving rain.

“She kept crying and asking me if I was serious. But the machine doesn’t lie. We’re living the dream out here. Yesterday I bought a car for the price of a mixed salad!”

Tunnock’s revelation comes months after fellow ex-Londoners Gary Bule and David Lawrie performed their own great escapes: the former commuting from Barcelona, and the latter from the beaches of Barbados.

British Bull – Adventures in Satire

So I’ve agreed to start writing for a news satire website (because the internet clearly needs another one) that a couple of my friends set up: British Bull (note the url for a clearer indication of the level of humour we’re aiming at here)

This is my first time writing “news” and my first time writing creatively in a long time, so bear with me — it may take me some time.

That said, please check out my first article and leave any comments below.


Enterprising London commuter discovers it’s cheaper to work, live elsewhere

For Gran

It’s a cliché for people to say their grans are strong. And maybe most of them really are. But my gran could beat up your gran. No question. Under the skin of those scrawny arms were iron pipes. Her legs were twin pistons. She could walk for days, and her will was made of steel. After getting the biopsy which eventually diagnosed her lung cancer, she walked a mile to the shops and back. She survived cancer and having two thirds of her lung removed. She lived through a war. There’s a reason you can’t spell “granite” without “gran”: she was old-school hardy.

Physical strength was never her problem.

My gran, Mary “May” McLeish, has always been a massive part of my life. By the time I was 5, my mum was raising my brother and I in France, and Gran would travel over from Scotland to look after us, even though she didn’t speak a word of French. At 6 years old I was her translator/enforcer. A story she used to love to tell was the time a waiter gave her Spanish Pesos for change, and ignoring her protests, I ran back into the café to confront him.

When we moved to Scotland she became a staple of our lives. In fact for the first 6 months she opened her home to us. A deeply religious woman, she accidentally imparted on me a lexicon of words with which I unintentionally blasphemed regularly. I remember the first time I – in my French/English accent, at 9 years old – said “Oh my God!”. She almost wet herself laughing. Then told me to never use the Lord’s name in vain.

I don’t remember ever being disappointed with visiting Gran, or having her come round to our house. Sometimes she would babysit us with my great-aunt Alice and the two would sit on the couch, telling stories, cackling with laughter (maybe Alice more than Gran), and drinking from a bottle in a brown paper bag which they euphemistically called their “medicine” to dissuade us from trying it. One night I convinced Gran to let me tape Die Hard to watch the next night – I set the VHS recorder to the right channel and time, and went to bed. The next night we all sat down to watch it together. I hit play, and up came some blurry-lensed channel 5 softcore “erotic thriller”. I’d accidentally (I promise) set the machine to tape the wrong channel. My brother and I stared confused (OK, entranced) but Gran leapt to action and switched it off, suggesting we see what other videos we had.

Once, on a visit to Gran’s when I was really young I told my mum I wished I had a different mum. Not out of malice but as one of those stupid, thoughtless, greedy things children sometimes say. The memory still haunts me. A few years later I told Gran how guilty I felt, and how I was worried she didn’t know how much I loved her. Her answer was simple and reassuring: “She knows”.

Gran died on Tuesday 5th of May, 2015. Four days ago. And all I hope is that she also knew how much I loved her.

And although she died on Tuesday, we started to lose her a long time ago. Having swatted away every one of life’s assaults, she eventually succumbed to the most insidious of all: an attack on her mind. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 4 years ago, and her descent was relentless. The first time she failed to recognise me, I realised too late what I – what we all – had lost. I regret not having taken greater advantage of knowing this incredible woman while I still could. For years I had planned to record her life story, and now it’s lost. I regret not showing her how much she meant to me while she could still appreciate it. And since her diagnosis I regret not having visited more, to support her at her weakest.

I take some solace in having been with her for her final 24 hours – I’m glad I could give her that much. In her last days she was surrounded by generations of family: siblings, children, grandchildren. Even at her weakest she found a way to bring us all together. We reminisced, we contemplated, we joked, we cried. Her last days rolled back the years to the times when we would gather in her house for a weekend, as a family. Over the last 4 years we had lost that. Yet in her passing, she still managed to leave us a gift.

Rest in peace, Gran. I have so much more I want to say, but I know what you’d reply: “I know”.

 

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To bed, but not to sleep

At some point in the last 10 years, I’ve managed to convince myself that I knew a quote from Hamlet that wasn’t in fact from Hamlet. The quote is:

“to bed, but not to sleep”

My (false) memory tells me this was part of some Hamlet soliloquy referring to insomnia caused by concerns of dead dads and murderous uncles.

For close to a decade it’s been in my brain’s bank of Facts I Know, ready to be deployed at the appropriate time. That time came tonight, and as soon as it passed my lips I began to doubt myself.

Denial

Surely a quick Google search would corroborate my assertion?

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Uh oh

Hmm… no obvious hits. But c’mon it’s a famous quote, right? Let’s cut to the chase and just search within the text of the play itself.

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Dammit

Acceptance

No dice. So I have to come to terms with the fact that the quote is not – and has never been – in the play “Hamlet”. Worse yet, no variation of the phrase exists in any of Shakespeare’s plays. I can only imagine I attributed the quote to old Will because of its similarity to the famous line “to sleep, perchance to dream”.

But if so, where does the “to bed” quote come from?

Distraction

Searching for “to bed but not to sleep” isn’t very useful – it seems that a million and one people have used the phrase at some point or other. The number one hit for the exact phrase (in quotes) is a TripAdvisor review.

tripadvisor

 

No citation for the quote (thanks Ann R), but here at least we have a slight variation on my initial quote – this one begins with “And so”, which sounds more complete, and therefore more promising. What does a Google search for that give us?

Well, apparently those are lyrics from David Cassidy’s Where is the Morning – a song I’m convinced I’d never heard before today.

A dead end.

Let’s think this over – the phrase seems to have been used a number of times. Who coined it? Can I trace this back to its nexus? This has become a search for the genesis of a phrase.

Onto Google NGram, a project which allows you to search for phrases across millions of digitised books, and see how their use changed over time.

ngram
BAM

OK I don’t really know what that tells us. At its peak, 0.00001% of all Google’s digitised books for a certain year contain the phrase “but not to sleep” (the full quote is too long for NGram). Google has digitised about 30 million books, so that means in the late 1700s, 300 books were written containing the phrase. At least the NGram gives me a rough time period to search for – nothing appears prior to 1700, although that could just be how far back the archives go.

So what if I search directly in Google Books?

jackpot
Jackpot

Aha! The oldest book Google has digitised containing the phrase “to bed, but not to sleep”. The knowledge is like an oasis in the desert. Let us crawl to the water’s edge, plunge in our heads and drink deeply.

Redemption

The Strange Adventures of the Count of Vinevil and his Family is a book by Penelope Aubin, written in 1721. Personally I think the subtitle could have left a little more mystery but it’s certainly descriptive:

book
Jeez, spoiler alert, Penny.

And the excerpt itself, courtesy of Google:

books

 

Don’t get me wrong, Penelope seems to have written the oldest recorded instance of the phrase, but other notable authors were hot on her heels, including:

  • Henry Fielding – The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742)
  • John William Polidori – Ernestus Berchtold Or The Modern Œdipus (1819)
  • Charles Dickens – All the Year Round vol 2 (published at some point between 1859 and 1895)

Conclusion

And that, as far as I’m concerned, is as satisfying an ending as I think I’m entitled to tonight. Were it not close to 2am I might try to delve deeper into the etymology of the phrase, any tie-ins to other languages, how it spread and who spread it… I may even have tried to find out exactly where I personally had come across the phrase in the first place.

But it’s late, and I’m heading to bed. And to sleep.

 

Paris Update in Film Noir #3

Photo by Barbro Uppsala CC BY
Photo by Barbro Uppsala CC BY

Day six and Lady Luck finally flashed me her brassiere. Met a mope named Gilles said he had a lead. An artist surprise surprise. Unshaven, unintelligible, and stinking of wine, I went to meet him. Told him I had more leads than a dog-walker – and more balls. When he finished talking my jaw was on the floor. So was the rest of my face; I passed out. This thing goes higher than a pothead in a zeppelin.

Valentine’s day in the city of love and the only card I need is this ace up my sleeve.

Paris Update in Film Noir #2

Photo by Darrell Berry CC BY
Photo by Darrell Berry CC BY

The plane landed like a legless cat on a sidewalk. My ears rang worse than Notre Dame. I shoulda told the broad in 4B to pipe down, but along with locks I’ve learned to pick my battles. First day back in Paris and it’s like I never left. Cigarette smoke burning the inside of my nose, money burning the inside of my pocket. Last night I scoped a place called the Suckling Ferret, looking for leads. Place had more Jean-Pauls than the Vatican. I’m still no closer to cracking this case, so I’m cracking a case of scotch instead.

Paris Update in Film Noir #1

Photo by Sam Leighton CC BY
Photo by Sam Leighton CC BY

I recently went on a trip to Paris to visit family, and decided to post status updates in a Film Noir detective style.

I woke up feeling like I’d been eating gravel. But those days are behind me so it had to be the bourbon. The plane shook like a dame trembling in the rain and my nerves rattled more than the windows, but I could fix that with a shot. Shots are usually from my revolver, this time from a bottle. Time flies when you’re having fun, but not with me in the economy seats. I was heading to France, land of musk and svelte dames.