Jack Jodell surrounded by two native beauties in Cathedral Square, Havana. (Left click on each photo to make it larger).
Map of Havana, by district. We scoured the city in 4+ days.
George W. Bush had barely been installed in office 7 days when I, an old high school friend, and a Canadian we both knew who financed our trip (the only legal way a U.S. citizen could make such a trip) left from Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport to visit the communist country of CUBA. We flew down to Cancun, Mexico, and, upon clearing customs, immediately booked a flight with the Mexican airlines to Havana, the capital city of Cuba. There was a three hour wait for the flight to begin boarding, so we sat down to pass the time.
Having done quite a bit of advance reading on how best to travel in Cuba without running into difficulty, we went over our story to relate to Cuban customs. We know that the Castro government at that time was permitting a limited number of its citizens to accept foreigners as house guests, and that was our aim, rather than staying in an overpriced state hotel. We also knew we needed at least $50 per person per day in US Dollars (the going rate 10 years ago, and the figure our Canadian friend had given my other friend and I before we had all boarded the plane). The US dollar was the accepted currency back then. The Cuban peso was and still is basically worthless on the world market, so US dollars were required for all foreigners to have and spend in Cuba, an ingenious way for them to have access to a stable currency for trade with the rest of the globe. I understand now that the Euro is the accepted currency in Cuba, but at the time it was only our greenbacks foreigners were allowed to spend. We also knew to tell the customs agent that we were planning on staying at the Lincoln Hotel, a low-to-mid-priced hotel in Havana often frequented by tourists. We also knew to avoid doing or saying anything controversial, as the last place we wanted to end up in was a Cuban jail, without hope of intercession from a non-existant U.S. Ambassador!
My friend and I had long talked about visiting Cuba, just to see what it would be like living in a tightly-controlled police state (if indeed that was what it was) for a few days; to see if our government's anti-Cuban propaganda had any merit (it really didn't, as far as we could tell); to see evidence of anti-American posters and such (oddly enough, we saw NONE); and to basically see if the stories we had all heard from childhood were true about how most of the population was trapped, miserable, wamted to leave the island, endured constant shortages, etc. Oddly enough, rather than a dour, unhappy populace, we found the country to be a lively mecca of art and music, with little outward evidence of unhappiness. We also wanted to see all the old 1950s American Chevys, Dodges, and Fords still in use and in operation throughout the country. We got all that we wanted and then some, but let me return here to our departure.
Eventually, the time to board our flight to Havana arrived. We got on the plane and we were off. An hour or so later we would be disembarking in Havana, and we couldn't wait! Once we were airborne, we noticed a woman speaking in accented English with another passenger.
We learned that her name was Maria, and she was an Italian national who had married an abusive American (whom she later divorced), and was living by herself in Nevada. She was on her way to visit her brother, also an Italian national, who was LIVING IN HAVANA and coordinating visits of Cuban dancers and musicians between Cuba and Italy. We looked at each other and realized we had discovered gold: here was the chance to pick the brain of a guy who knew Havana inside and out. We mentioned our desire to her and she said, "That would be fine. I'll mention it to him when we arrive, but only one problem - he doesn't speak a word of English, so I will be happy to be your interpreter. He will also help us find accomodations!" We couldn't believe our ears at this stroke of luck. We spent the rest of our flight getting to know one another, and agreed to meet her and her brother once we had all gotten out of customs.
Keep in mind, this was before 9/11, so boarding and unboarding airline flights were FAR less cumbersome than today! Once we filed into customs, we spoke to a guard sitting behind a tall counter, which obscured our view of anything below his chin. He asked each of us why we had come to Cuba, and we told him we admired the Cuban revolution and wanted to return home to tell our friends about its accomplishments. The agent glared at us and said nothing. Finally, he asked for our passports. I mentioned that two of us were American citizens and that stamping our passport "Havana" could cause us much political trouble back home. He simply glared back and took the passports. He examined each for a moment and then we heard the unmistakable "kerplunk, kerplunk, kerplunk" of three passports being stamped. I thought, "Oh, shit! How will I ever be able to explain this to American customs back home?" Even though we were observing proper protocol by letting our Canadian friend be the one who was treating us, we simply had wanted to avoid ANY evidence of our trip to Cuba, just in case. But my fears were short-lived, as the customs agent handed our passports back, broke into a huge smile, and said enthusiastically, "Welcome to Cuba!" Upon examining our passports, we found that he had stamped a separate document, a tourist visa, and had inserted IT into our passports. We were to hand this document in to airline authorities when we boarded our return flight to Mexico. Whew! I thought: we had dodged our first Cuban bullet!
We soon met up with Maria and her brother. Night had fallen and we had no idea where we were going to bed down. He, through her, advised us to remain quiet as he flagged down a taxi-van, and soon we were off into the night. After about a 40 minute ride, we stopped and left the taxi. He told us that he had a friend who could put us up for $25 per person per night. He had us wait outside while he went upstairs into a 10 story apartment building which we found out later had been made by the Sovirts in the 1960s. After a short time, he invited us all in to meet and pay our new host, a mid-30s-ish man with a wife and small boy. He and his sister stayed on the fourth floor and we three others each had our own separate bedroom.
Spartan yet immaculate, up one floor higher than Maria and her brother, we each settled in. . Turns out our host had government permission to house foreigners and therefore had the necessary rooms. We all then had a small meal of fish and rice, washing it down with a lovely Heineken-like Cuban beer called Cristal. Hey, we were home free and settled at last! It was now quite late at night, so we all settled down to sleep in a perfect little spot in northernmost Havana, the El Vedado region looking out directly over the Gulf of Mexico. The very next day we resolved to scour the city itself.
COMING UP IN PART II: Habana Vieja and Plaza de la Revolucion!
And, for some SUPERB videos, Google Havana: City: City Guide, weather, and facts galore from Answers.com.