The Great Casa Particular QUEST

[ 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 sign indicating a Casa Particular (room for rent in private home)

The sign indicating a Casa Particular (room for rent in private home)

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!!

Friends Made Through Ebay

[ 24 July 2016 - Sunday ] 

A fabulous coincidence occurred a couple months ago...

Whaaaa?  You're from Ann Arbor too?

In trying to get a start, any start, on my research I decided to look on Ebay for “images of Havana” hoping maybe I’d find some interesting historical posters or the like.  I stumbled upon these amazing old slide photographs of some of Fidel’s soldiers and immediately wanted to buy them as they seemed really cool and far better than most the other things I was finding.  Looking for a place to request to “Buy it Now” instead of the “Place Bid” I poked around the listing information and then the seller information page when I suddenly saw that the seller was located in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Of all the places what were the chances?!  I emailed the seller asking if they would consider listing the photos as a “Buy it Now” option and “Oh by the way, since you live in Ann Arbor and I live in Ann Arbor would you mind if I asked you a few questions about Cuba….?”  A few weeks later I was meeting him, Tom, and his wife, Carmen, and his sweet daughter at Cafe Feliz to talk “Cuba.”  Turns out Tom has been traveling to Cuba for 17 years and it’s were he met his now wife Carmen.  They continue to travel to Cuba with their daughter each year to visit with Carmen’s family.  They are both a wealth of knowledge on both the logistics of traveling to and around Cuba as well know a lot about the architectural, political, and cultural histories of the country.  Tom’s been collecting photos (like the ones he was selling on Ebay) for years and has actually donated a large number of them to the University of Miami where the archives are available to view online!

** I must interrupt myself to announce that Idris Elba is sitting with his British posse not 20 feet from me on the patio of the Hotel Nacional! Although, I actually had no idea who that was until Carmen and Tom said that they saw him in the lobby earlier and then showed me a picture of him from Google.**

If that first coincidence wasn’t enough there was another one coming.  Tom, Carmen, and their daughter were leaving for Cuba a few days after our meeting in downtown Ann Arbor but our trips to Havana overlapped by three days.  They told me that they were staying at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba for the last few days of their trip and asked if I wanted to meet up.  Of course I said yes!

We made plans to meet the evening of the 23rd on the patio of the Hotel Nacional and then go for dinner where they would introduce me to a few friends they had in the city, but the evening of the 23rd came and I couldn’t find them anywhere.  I sat at the bar and then on the patio for over three hours (don't feel too bad for me, I was reading and drinking a beer) but eventually hunger got the better of me and I decided to venture off hotel grounds to get dinner.  Maybe when I got back they'd be there, but I still couldn’t find them.  I went to my room, showered, and started to feel super lonely and pitifully wondering what the heck I was going to do alone for three weeks in Cuba?!  Deciding the only way to combat loneliness was to be around people I went downstairs to the patio, had half a beer, finished my book, saw that the clock read 9:30 and decided it was time for bed, haha.  To be fair I was awake at 3:30 to catch my flight that morning. The next morning, just as I was about to accept the fact that Tom, Carmen, and I weren't going to find each other who did I see at breakfast?!  My missing Ann Arborites!  And thank Jésus that I did find them because I seriously wouldn’t have been able to go on the Great Casa Particular Quest without them!  I mean, I know I would have figured something out on my own but probably not without a panic attack and major desperation.

Tomorrow: The Great Casa Particular Quest