La Habana: Struggling with two currencies and a whole new world

We arrived at José Martí International Airport Saturday night around 10:30 pm into a steamy 28 degrees with about 1,000% humidity.  Okay, perhaps that is an exaggeration but it was hot, and it was very humid.  We knew we would have to clear customs, collect our luggage and then line up to exchange Canadian currency to CUC (convertible pesos) and some CUP (moneda nacional).

We thought we were being met at the airport so while my husband patiently stood in line at the Cadeca (exchange office), I ran back and forth looking for anyone who had a sign with my name on it.  After several circuits through the lower level of the airport, and exchanges of grudging smiles with those whose signs were still for other people, I gave up.

Now exhausted, melting and parched, after an hour and a half in line, our turn came.  While Erik continued to wait with the luggage, I approached the cashier and, along with folding money, I was given a fist-full of coins.  Lesson number 1:  Do anything you can to not accept the one centavo pieces, even in CUC.  They aren’t negotiable anywhere.  I have since witnessed a shopkeeper fling some across the room when a local attempted to pay using them.  Finally at 1 AM, with my wallets (yes, I use two to keep the currencies separate), I attempted to purchase some water.  Ha!  Lesson number 2:  When in Cuba, if something is available now, buy it if you can as there is no guarantee it will be available later.

We found a cab.   The driver was willing stop twice, as the first shop was closed, to allow me to purchase a small bottle of water on the way to our casa particular.  After waiting for six young people to individually purchase their own bottle of beer, and who looked me up and down more than once, I paid in CUC and was given change in CUP. The clerk might have ripped me off big time but I was so tired by then, I was well beyond caring.  When I checked out my change in the morning, I was gratified to note that the transaction was correct to within 5 centavos.  Unlike Ecuador, we both feel perfectly safe here.

Teresa, our hostess, was awake and waiting for us.  Our room is simple, but clean.  My bed, a single, has a distinct hammock shape, much improved by slinging the mattress to the floor. The room has a Christmas decoration, and a lace doily.  It also has an upholstered stool which we are using as a night table. Most importantly, it has air conditioning, therefore everything else is forgivable.

Unlike most others, our casa particular does not include breakfast.  So, immediately after purchasing lots of drinking water and yoghurt, we went in search of food.  We eventually had a salad for breakfast in an Italian restaurant on the paseo.

Returning to our casa, I retrieved my new (what does this button do?) camera and we headed out to photograph our neighbourhood.  This is the old part of town, and we have found an interesting mixture of street art.  I will leave it up to you to guess which of these we found on the world-famous malecón.


Author: Michèle Favarger

Hi there! Welcome to my blog. I love to learn and I love to travel. Join me to read about my adventures!

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