Category Archives for Stories

Cuban Ghandi

As I continue to parse out my thoughts on my trip to Cuba and endeavor to (admittedly) be less cranky about the experience, I hope the benefit of time starts to dull the sharp edges of memory.

When I reflect back, I can’t help blanching a little inside at the native-to-a-Third-World-country experience of folks frequently coming up to foreigner on the street hoping to sell them something or scam them. Sure, there are people who just see someone clearly out of the ordinary and they’re curious to strike up conversation and share, but those experiences are often few.

I want to continue to make clear I don’t begrudge people for trying to make a living. I get it, and as a privileged white American woman, I can only scratch the surface of my imagination on the struggles of people in poverty and in politically suppressed countries. BUT as an American with no access to debit or credit cards, the lack of funds simply through a wrench in my normal travel experience which entails a generous giving of gratuities and purchasing of wares and experiences. Walking through markets rich with handmade goods and intersections clotted with taxis and pedicabs, it was hard to be hit up for business every few minutes when my companion and I simply did not have funds beyond those set aside for two meals a day, beverages, and taxis.

Friends who have heard my Cuba stories since my return ponder aloud the “unique to Americans” choice between traveling in a foreign country and having to carry all your cash on your person or simply not traveling there at all because you don’t have traditional access to funds (or would have to take an organized tour). It’s a tough choice, to be sure. However, I’d also like to make clear I never felt unsafe or threatened when my female friend and I walked alone day or night through sometimes questionable-looking streets.

There are two interactions that stand out in my mind when I think of the memorable exchanges we had with Cuban people. I’ll share the first one today and the other in a later post.

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An American in Cuba, Part 2

I continue to recover from the month of December. That’s what I am telling people when they ask, “Have you healed from your mosquito bite virus yet?” After suffering through 72 hours of fever, fatigue, and hives, I was then hit with a run of the mill cold. Honestly, after all that I went through in Cuba, I barely noticed. I’ve simply decided to throw in the towel on December of 2016 altogether and I greatly look forward to January.

Sitting at a dinner party this week, I remarked to friends that it was the first time in my life I couldn’t “spin” the story of my trip. Always one to give people and experiences the benefit of the doubt, I can usually spot the silver lining in any story. But for Cuba? I simply cannot lie and tell people it was wonderful when it was not. Sure, I met MANY lovely Cuban people like our Airbnb hosts and occasional folks on the street who weren’t trying to sell us something, but the whole lack of access to credit cards and debit cards really threw a wrench in what was supposed to be a “vacation” — for journalistic purposes, ahem.

And then there was the tourist harassment that felt like it was coming at me at all times, “Lady, you want a taxi? Lady, you want to tour in an old car?” I get it, everyone has to make a living, but unlike travel I’ve experienced in other Third World countries, it was incessant and tiring to be hit up every few feet while walking down the sidewalk. Especially since I had no access to the money the locals presupposed I had. Juliann, my friend, was much nicer. I would blaze ahead down the road on my way to a museum or sight — pretending I knew where I was headed — while she walked a couple feet behind me on the narrow sidewalks, saying a polite “No, gracias” to the many people I just started ignoring after the first few days of attempting a polite dismissal. I’m not proud of this in hindsight, but it was so tiresome.

But enough about me. I want this post to be helpful, so let’s talk about money.

You can only get Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) in Cuba. If you bring in American dollars, expect to pay a 10% fee, so your dollar is actually worth 90 cents, less the fee or percentage taken by the currency exchange office (typically 3-4%). On average, we got $0.86 CUC to our $1 US. One bank actually negotiated with me for a higher rate ($.90). Yes, in Cuba you can negotiate everywhere, even in banks. Smart Americans exchange their US dollars to Canadian currency and bring that into the country instead since you’re not penalized for Canadian dollars like you are for US.

About the cost of things, which was a head-scratcher at times when it came to goods/service/hours spent vs. amount charged. A true Wild West of pricing, and never consistent…

  • Average “casa particular” lodging for two people: $30 CUC/night via Airbnb or walking up in person.
  • Book things in advance as much as you can (remember, Airbnb WILL NOT WORK for Americans while you’re in Cuba — see my last post: Part 1.) Casa particular owners ARE VERY HELPFUL and usually have relationships with friends/hosts/casa owners in other towns, so use their connections if you find yourself in need of lodging while on the road.
  • Beers $1.50 – $2 CUC. Cocktails (mojitos, daquiris, rum straight) $3. White Chilean wine: $4/glass.
  • Breakfasts consisting of coffee, juice, fruits, eggs made to order, and toasts consistently cost $5CUC — except for one Airbnb which charged us $5 CUC extra for the pleasure of dining on the roof. Which we soon learned was free everywhere else.
  • The cheapest, best dinners we found were around $4-5 CUC. A hint: look for the places where the prices are listed in Cuban pesos (CUPs) — which translate to $25 CUP:$1 CUC. Don’t run out the door if you see $100 on the menu, it’s pesos, which they’ll translate to CUC when they bring you the bill. It’s usually a sign of “authentic” food — which I will dedicate a whole post to shortly. This meal pictured (the only food photo I took while in Cuba) was $12 CUC at our Airbnb in Santa Clara. Food pics, like selfies, are not in my wheelhouse. And yes, those are papaya balls in cucumber. Cool, huh?
  • We hired a taxi to take us 1.5 hours to a boat that would take us to the waterfall pictured above. The driver waited for us to return six hours later and then he drove us 1.5 hours home. It cost the shockingly low price of $40 CUC for the entire day. (This is also indicative of the small town region–Cienfuegos–we were in vs. Havana.)
  • The guided 1.5 hour boat ride; 1-hour hike in; and 2-hour dip and tour of the waterfall plus the return 1-hour hike out and 1.5-hour boat ride back? $20 CUC total for 2 of us for the day (entering at Hanabanilla, hiking to El Nicho waterfall). We tipped him $10 CUC because we were horrified it was so cheap.
  • Entrance to the El Nicho waterfall $10 CUC for foreigners. (Must show your passport.)

  • No taxis have meters, though the shitty Lonely Planet Cuba book (its official title from here onward) mentions them like they’re as natural as the Cuban sun. The only taxis that *may* remotely have meters are the “state-sanctioned” yellow ones, but even when we rode in one, I suspected the meter didn’t work or hadn’t been turned on in years.
  • “Collectivos” are a great way of taxi sharing with other travelers to popular sights and towns. We traveled from Trinidad to Havana (a 4-hour ride) for $30 CUC a person. The minivan we were traveling in had seven other passengers crammed in, but it was air conditioned and tolerable.

*A tip we learned from our lovely Airbnb hosts in Cienfuegos: Book the Viazul buses in advance (ahem, as an American the site did not work for me when I tried to do this before my trip), but if you book advance while in Cuba and the bus office or site claims the bus is “full,” show up anyway. Ten minutes or so before the bus leaves, drivers pocket cash fees slightly above the posted rate and miraculously find room for passengers. Other travelers told us stories of sitting on buses where people were standing in the aisles for three hours. So if you’re desperate to get from one place to another and aren’t scheduling a a Collectivo ride through your casa host or an Infotur office, try this.

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An American in Cuba, 2016

I recently returned from a trip to Cuba. As an American, I’m not allowed to travel solely for tourism purposes, but as a writer I am allowed to go for “journalistic” purposes, one of the sanctioned twelve reasons Americans are allowed to travel to Cuba. As an author of an Airbnb book, I was curious to see what the burgeoning Airbnb trade looks like in Cuba. A place of “casa particulars” — homes with rooms for rent — the concept of letting rooms for a reasonable fee has been a staple of Cuban tourism, long before Airbnb. However, Airbnb now facilitates the casas exposure to an impressive worldwide audience and streamlines the process of attracting tourists. A change that has grown the Cuban “casa” business in spades. According to our host Silvano in Cienfuegos, Cuba, 90 percent of his business now comes from Airbnb — particularly if the “Instant Book” feature is turned on.

Prior to my trip and since my return, so many Americans have asked me for tips and stories about my Cuban experience. The timing of my trip coincided with Fidel Castro’s death. My first days in the country were the final three days of a forced nine-day mourning period for the former dictator whose coffin was being escorted from Havana through the streets of Cuban towns on its way to his final resting place in Santiago. Flags were at half-mast. Many normally open businesses were shuttered. At night, we could not drink hard alcohol or wine, dance, or listen to live music. Locals warned us not to exhibit signs of merriment and cautioned that the police were to be avoided at all costs. It was surreal, to say the least.

In a series of posts, I’ll detail what I learned and what we saw, as well as share tips for Americans and other travelers curious to visit Cuba.

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Abundant Hosts, Serendipitous Connections

 

Green Smootie

Most folks who think of hosting on Airbnb love being in and of the world and thrive on interactions with others. It will not surprise me if researchers one day find a common thread among us all—the hospitality and generosity gene. We live for connection. It’s intangible, unexpected, and each time I connect with a guest in a genuine way, I feel like I’ve been given a gift.

I liken these serendipitous encounters to finding a fun prize at the bottom of my Cracker Jack box or reading the just-right message in a fortune cookie. Connection isn’t contrived, and in this zany world of virtual and in-person connects, you never know when it will find you.

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Letting People In, aka The Reader

Nokia Lumia 1020 & ProShot - Sleeping Lisa & Dolf (or 'A witch and her familiar') - 2

One of the biggest regrets I had after I wrote my book was that I arrived at the end and realized I didn’t exactly show readers my full hand. I felt like a hypocrite. Here I’d nabbed the coveted URL and book title, but did I succeed in letting in my readers? No. Admittedly, I wasn’t ready to, but I’m working on that.

Professional book marketing folks who read my book and were paid for their honest opinion told me they loved the stories about my guests but that they wanted to know more about me. Apparently I, too, was a character in my own book, even though I wanted to deny that was the case.

I think somewhere deep down, writers like writing about other people while they struggle to learn more about themselves in the process. It’s a humble and sometimes humiliting process to write about oneself.  Writers are typically a shy, introverted lot hungry to observe other people in culture and our immediate surroundings, but reticent to actually throw ourselves into the fray. I’m the nerd in the corner, the wallflower. INFJ on the Myers-Briggs personality test, in case you’re wondering. Continue reading

A Mutual Schooling

IMG_3198“People travel to Paris for two weeks and think it gives them the authority to justify their perceptions of all French people based on their experiences with Parisians, and that is such a narrow way to see the world. It would be like traveling to New York City and thinking you can speak for all Americans based on the melting pot of people and perspectives you encounter there. It’s simply not the case.” Continue reading

Little Things

photo (24)“I don’t know where the idea came from, but I asked whether she used a good luck totem when she was playing.”

We are both writers, and as we sipped our tea in the late hours of morning, we talked about our love of people and the craft of writing. We reveled in how, again and again, unexpected things appear and make magic out of nothing. Continue reading

Airbnb Tips for Hosting: The Social Animal

IMG_1778“We have never used AirB&B before so this will be a new experience for us, and, not being social people, we are concerned that we might need to ‘socialize’ with our hosts. That would be so not us!”

I received this message from a guest a few weeks ago and I have to admit, I appreciated her candor. In a perfect world, if I could add features to the Airbnb interface, I would add a personality portion where guests could state their social inclinations. Continue reading