Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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Lost in Translation in Havana
January 14, 2016 -- Impatient for scheduled U.S. flights to return to Cuba after a five-decade freeze? Uncomfortable entering the Communist island nation from a faraway country on a foreign flag airline? Refuse to pay the steep prices charged by tour operators running charter flights to Havana?

Me, too.

So to beat the hordes of gringos likely to flood flights from U.S. airlines later this year, I took a shortcut. I booked a coach ticket on Aeromexico from Cancun to Havana for US$156 roundtrip and paid $20 for a Cuban visa at the Mexico airport.

It was a cakewalk. I had helpful in-flight service during the 80-minute flight and gratis tequila and rum was poured.

The surprise was landing at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport. I was warned it would be chaotic. Instead, it was contemporary, functional and well-organized. A lovely immigration agent in a form-fitting military uniform stamped my passport, flashed a smile and purred, "Welcome to Havana" in perfect English. I was advised not to check my bag because luggage recovery would take two hours. It turned up on the carousel in 20 minutes flat.

But leaving the baggage area was like walking through the looking glass. The present morphed into the 1950s. It was sweltering hot with a throng of Cubans greeting, yelling and waving signs. Taxi drivers hawked rides in grimy red Nissan sedans, polished 1949 Pontiacs and gleaming, fin-tailed 1957 DeSotos.

I speak no Spanish, but it wasn't a roadblock thanks to a chance connection to Israel Diaz, a charming Cuban chef and interior designer who lives in Tampa. He graciously choreographed everything for me like a professional travel agent. Diaz's niece, Betty, who speaks no English, met me at the airport with a cabbie in tow, so I didn't fumble around like a stranger in a strange land.

Exiting the airport, we plunged into a city of two million and a sea of pastel buildings and homes with crumbling, neglected facades. Everything is pink and yellow and orange against a turquoise sky with white clouds. The horizon is a blue-green ocean beyond a concrete seawall. Locals perch on the wall, socializing or sunning themselves. Vintage, mostly restored, chrome boats from Detroit's glory years move in slow motion.

It all struck me at as gigantic watercolor painting.

Carol Pucci talked about managing Cuba on your own several months ago, but here are some other tips for first-time visitors:
      Cubans don't earn much--as little as US$20 a month for laborers and US$60 for professionals--but they are a proud people and there's no begging. Tips are not just appreciated, they are cherished.
      Everyone seems to be a banker. Instead of taking a 13 percent haircut swapping U.S. dollars for Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs) at banks, Betty's mom did the exchange for about 3 percent. A CUC is roughly equivalent to a dollar. A second Cuban peso, known as a CUP, is to be avoided. And a reminder: Thanks to the economic embargo, American dollars cannot be spent in Cuba and credit cards issued by U.S. banks are not accepted.
      I decided to fly to Cuba on short notice and didn't shop Havana's major hotels which, incidentally, all seem to quote $287 a night for a one-bedroom suite. Airbnb has landed in Havana, but reviews are mixed. Instead, I rented Israel Diaz's furnished, one-bedroom apartment in Havana's upscale Miramar neighborhood. I paid $50 a night.
      The Internet arrived in Cuba about a year ago and usage cards can be purchased, but coverage is spotty. Major hotels offer Net access, but I can't vouch for its effectiveness. Outgoing mobile phone calls cost about $3 a minute, at least on Verizon.
      The streets are safe from muggers and petty criminals because the Castro regime comes down hard on locals who assault foreigners.
      Getting around Havana isn't that difficult, but you need to pay attention. The government doesn't believe in maintaining sidewalks in residential areas. You can actually fall into holes or trip over broken concrete. Street lights are scant. Residents often walk in the streets because it's safer to dodge the occasional car than brave the ruptured walkways.

Upon my arrival, I had a somewhat scary adventure because of my own stupidity. In the long run, however, the gaffe was a great experience.

On my first night, I left Diaz's pleasant apartment, with its industrial strength air conditioner, and set out on foot to have dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant. (Cubans love Italian food.)

Because I foolishly figured the neighborhood was easy to navigate, I didn't write down the street address or, for that matter, pay attention to the facade of the home that fronted a warren of one-bedroom apartments behind it.

I walked a couple blocks, crossed through a park neglected by Havana's municipal gardeners and stopped in for a beer at a nightspot that had been a dance ballroom in the early 1920s. After a delicious, $20 Italian dinner with two glasses of a decent wine, I started walking back to the apartment.

For the next two hours, I searched fruitlessly. Up one street and down the other. I tried retracing my steps in and out of the park. Realizing I was hopelessly lost, I asked three people also walking in the street for directions to a nearby hotel. They spoke no English but, somehow, got the message I was in distress. They walked me to a home that had been converted to a hotel.

Unfortunately, the hotel was reserved strictly for medical care. Three hefty Angolan gents, drenched in sweat, puffing on cigars and sipping beers, said the hotel would lose its government license if it rented to a non-Angolan. (Cubans fought side-by-side with Angolans in the African nation's civil war and have maintained close diplomatic relations ever since.)

However, the hotel manager said he and his uncle would drive me around the neighborhood and help locate Israel Diaz's apartment. When that proved futile, they went house to house to see if a room was available for rent. At the fifth stop, about 11:30 p.m., Dr. Victor Lorenzo invited me into his stately home.

"It's normally 40 CUC a night," he explained, "but it's so late, I will only charge 30."

I tipped my new Angolan friends 20 CUCs for rescuing me.

Dr. Lorenzo, who divides his time between Havana and Madrid, introduced me to his family--his parents, brother, wife, daughter and two Chihuahuas. We all sat in the living room and visited for two hours. The next morning, Dr. Lorenzo made a Cuban coffee, offered me breakfast and refused to take my 30 CUC for the room.

"You met my family. You are part of my family," he said. "If you cannot find your apartment this morning, come back tonight and stay with us."

After leaving Dr. Lorenzo, I walked to a nearby hospital and saw a cab for hire. I thought I'd hire the cabbie to drive me around and find my apartment. Miraculously, however, a hospital security guard, who runs a part-time business finding apartments for diplomats, had Diaz's sister's card in his wallet.

Turns out I was three streets away, but would never have recognized the building from the sidewalk.

This column is Copyright 2016 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.