[ 24 July 2016 - Sunday ]
Usually when Martin and I travel we show up, walk around, visit a few hostels, and eventually find a place to stay. Although this ranges in difficulty depending on the location we've always been successful (read: found a place to rest our heads and backpacks), in fact this approach has been our m.o. for YEARS. So I figured it would be about the same in Cuba. I booked two nights at the nice hotel, Hotel Nacional de Cuba, and figured I’d set out on my second day to find a casa particular or a few casa particulars for the remainder of my trip. Easy peasy, no problema! When I told Tom and Carmen my plan they asked if they could join as they always wanted to spend a day looking at different casa particulars just to see what the other lodging options were for their next trip to Cuba. Tom years ago rented a room from a guy with an art gallery near Habana Vieja so we started there. No one answered our knocking at his door so we rung next door just to see if those folks knew anything. As they too had the casa particular sign on their door.
The two women said they didn’t have any vacancy but Carmen asked if we could just see the place for future reference. Good God. Dios mio! This place was gorgeous! And might make me change my mind about parts of Cuba being stuck in time. It was a stunningly restored old mansion with tiled floors, 15+ foot ceilings, antiques from the early 1900s, and so many tiny beautiful details. We asked how much it was a night and the women told us 65.00 CUCs which included breakfast. Carmen and I told each other we thought it was expensive. LOL!!! If only we didn’t see the absolute best casa particular on our very first try, because after a day of hunting 65.00 was a steal, we just didn't know it yet...
The family owns two other houses and while those were nice too neither could match the first place. Anyways, we spent the next couple hours knocking on doors where the little blue and white sign hung. We saw the casa particular that I found online and was considering even though it was whooping 100.00 - 150.00 CUCs a night (Casa Vitrales) - it was nice, with contemporary “hipster” decor, very clean and comfortable, though we find the older gentleman who was showing us around to be a bit crotchety, maybe he was finally cracking under the unrelenting heat and humidity?? After stopping for lunch and ice cream we saw two other places, one was for 30.00 CUCs a night but it was very small, musty, and not at all pleasant. The last place we visited, La Gárgola Hostal, was also a little hipster feeling, well lit, clean, comfortable and for 45.00 CUCs a night including breakfast, couldn't have been more suitable. Carmen asked the guy at the desk (Hola Orlando!) to call me at the Hotel Nacional once his manager got back to him about what space they had available. As Tom, Carmen, and Isabel all headed back to the Hotel Nacional, I ventured out on my own - I still didn’t have ANYTHING lined up for the 20+ days I had left in Havana! (Panic! Panic!) The above makes the situation sound not so scary, but almost all of the other random casa particulars we asked and even the ones we visited had very limited or NO availability. Neither were there rooms available at any of the hotels that I had been able to contact before arriving. I was seriously freaking out, I had 20 days looming ahead of where I needed a bed to sleep in! I (maybe) managed to find a room without the help of Carmen and her fluent Spanish but it was an debacle of me trying to speak broken Spanish to three guys who didn’t speak any English. I (think) I had a room at the end of it but I couldn’t look at the room because it was being cleaned (…maybe) and there wasn’t the official casa particular sign on the door which made me a little nervous. What I told Martin was that I wasn’t totally uncomfortable with the situation but I also wasn’t really willing to go that far out of my comfort zone.
The hardest part is that all these casa particulars are literally just advertised as signs on the door so you have to knock or ring the doorbell and then explain to the head that pops out what you are looking for. I was able to say, “Tiene una habitacíon por 28 Julio?” and when they said “No” I’d be out of Spanish to ask them what days they did have available or if they could recommend anywhere else with vacancies.
When I returned to the Hotel Nacional with my “sort of, maybe room” I was near panicked-tears and told Carmen and Tom that I wanted to use their travel agent because there’s no way I could do this casa particular search every two to three days. One, I’d never get any work done and two, I’d literally have an anxiety attack. The thought crossed my mind to book an early ticket home to do better planning and come back at a later date. Yes it was that bad. (In retrospect of course it wasn't that bad....) What made the situation even more dismaying was that I couldn’t just get online and find something, anything, that was available and book it. Airbnb Cuba which worked while I was in the US somehow "figured out" that I was in Cuba last night and wouldn’t let me even email the places! I have not great internet, now no internet, no phone, and no way to use a credit card or ATM card. Oh and I don’t speak Spanish very well either.
So thank God a hundred times over for Carmen and Tom. I can’t even imagine what I would have done without them, Carmen especially. Because of them here I was able to book Hostal Gárgola from the 31 of July to the 12th of August because miraculously they had all those dates available and Orlando actually really did leave a message for me at the Hotel Nacional and I was able to call back to confirm with him in mutual Spanglish that I wanted to book ALL THE DATES!!! Because of Carmen and Tom I am staying in Vedado at Eddy’s casa particular which is clean, safe, comfortable, and Eddy speaks just enough English so when I’m running late for dinner and just about to give up, he gives me directions and a hand drawn map. Also because of Carmen and Tom, for the four lingering days that I still didn’t have any lodging lined up, we visited the third house owned by the family of the most beautiful house and I now get to stay there for three nights and even in the most beautiful casa particular for one night!! Whoop!!