“Ladies and gentlemen, we have started our descent into the José Martí International Airport, please make sure your seat backs and tray tables are…”
I lift up the window shade hoping to get a glimpse of Havana from above. But all I can see is green vegetation stretching on miles of flush land. I wonder where the city is.
At the currency exchange in Havana’s airport, I find out that 1 Cuban Peso (CUC) is worth more than 1 USD, I begin to worry if I carried enough cash. Since there isn’t a prepaid taxi counter, I walk to the information lady and ask for a legitimate taxi. She tells me that it would cost 30 CUC and points to a man outside who is “managing” taxis.
“Where are you going?” The man asks me.
“To Melia Cohiba hotel.” I say
“Ok, 60 CUC.”
Feeling a bit outrageous that the price just doubled in a minute, I look at him and say firmly: “No, it is 30, the airport staff just told me it’s 30.”
After a back-and-forth negotiation, the man finally gives up and hollers at a Taxi driver. I get into a beat-up car with an engine that refuses to start. The driver sticks his head out of the car window and yells for help. Sitting in the back seat, I turn around to see three older men pushing arduously. I can’t help but to feel a little guilty – boy, did I gain that much weight?
I reserved Melia Cohiba hotel at a travel agency in Buenos Aires. It was the only thing I planned for Cuba. I asked the agent to book me a nice hotel and I figured that I could arrange everything after I arrive.
As my taxi approaches the hotel, a tall building emerges. It’s the only modern building in the distance – standing aloofly over the worn-out colonial architectures and overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.
The lobby is grand and spacious, reminds me of the ones I stayed at while in China. Groups of foreign tourists gather at the lobby, most of them are speaking English. At the counter, the receptionists dress professionally and greet me in fluent English. I am so lucky that I paid my hotel fees in full in Buenos Aires and took out cash at the Panama airport while enroute to Cuba, because none of my credit cards and ATM cards work here. There is also free Wi-Fi in the hotel. Although the signal is not stable, I have access to Gmail, Yahoo, Google, CNN, and Facebook – nothing is blocked! Upstairs, I find myself in an open and neat room with a nice panoramic view of Havana, I am happy with the choice my travel agent made for me.
By the time I dropped off my bags and emailed a few local tour companies recommended on the Internet, it is about 4 pm. I go down to the tourist office in the lobby and flip through a selection of tours in their catalog. I decide to sign up for a city tour for the next day. I then ask if they can arrange a private tour for me to go to Trinidad. I need a private tour that is tailored to my schedule because my time in Cuba is limited. But the two employees at the counter seem very impatient because my request is out of the ordinary and without thinking they tell me my request is not possible. I think to myself, “Ok, I will just find another way.”
At this time, I am feeling hungry, so I go to the concierge to ask for restaurant recommendations. The concierge is a sweet lady approximately in her forties; she looks sincere in her spotless uniform. She takes out a map and shows me a few well-known restaurants in town. I ask her which one serves local Cuban food that even she would go with her friends and family, she quickly recommends a seafood restaurant called El Templete. “Let me make a reservation for you, you will love it, enjoy and have a great time there.” She says with a kind smile.
El Templete is an upscale restaurant in town. The ride from my hotel to the restaurant is a straightforward drive on the Malecón – the famous esplanade that stretches 4 miles along the north-end shoreline of Centro Havana.
Arriving at El Templete, concierges greet me politely. There is al fresco seating but to avoid the dusty traffic, I choose to sit inside. The dining room is spacious and clean but the décor is plain and it is understandably empty at 6 pm.
Looking at the menu, I immediately realize that the price here is comparable to a restaurant in the US. Starters average at 10 CUC and entrees range from 11 to 30 CUC. I order a Cristal Cuban beer, an appetizer platter and a seafood platter. To my disappointment, the seafood is mostly overcooked and oily and the bill is almost 60 CUC (about 60 USD). My first meal in Cuba is a mediocre and expensive one. I doubted the fact that the hotel concierge lady would even come here with her friends, I don’t think this is local Cuban food.
I take a taxi back to my hotel. Since there are no metered taxis, you have to agree on a price before getting in. My driver wants 15 CUC, which is 5 more than what I paid initially to get to the restaurant. But at this time I just want to relax, so I let him have his way.
At night, the Malecón is a crowded meeting place for the locals. Friends and lovers embrace under the moonlight and listen to the sounds of ocean, only to be interrupted occasionally by the waves splashing onto the sidewalk. I feel excited that I am finally in Havana, a place that I have always dreamt of going and I cannot wait for tomorrow to come. Looking back I had no idea how in just a few days I would be equally excited to leave Havana – as if I was chasing a mirage, embellished merely by my own desire and imagination.
To Be Continued…