Wifi also known as Wee Fee

Internet, wireless or otherwise, is a luxury in Cuba.

Lined up along a building on Obispo Street using the wifi.

When people say that there’s isn’t any Internet in Cuba they aren’t kidding and the idea of free wifi is an absurd one. 

The government controls everything about the internet, from who can access, at what cost, the bandwidth speed, and what sites are censored (although they might not call it that.)

The legal way of accessing the internet is to wait in line at the ETECSA to buy an internet scratch off card.  Once you find a hotspot - outside along the exterior of random buildings (and not every building, I'd say it was usually a good 15 - 20 minute walk between the hotspots that I found and knew of) - you could then login into the wifi network using the ETECSA login and password on your scratch off card.  The alternative to standing in the long ETECSA lines was to find someone selling the scratch off cards on the blackmarket.  Which wasn't hard to do at all.  As a tourist all it took for me was to wander around the wifi hotspot until someone quietly inquired, "Weefee?"  I'd hand over my 3.00 CUCs and the deal was done.  

If you're willing to stand in line I believe you can get the cards for a little cheaper, maybe 2.00 or 2.50 CUCs but the long lines never looked appealing.  

Each card bought you 60 minutes of time online.  You could also use the internet at some hotels, though the only places I found this to be true were state run hotels, never a casa particular.  Which makes sense given that casa particulars are private rooms rented from a family and it's said that only 5% of Cubans have access to the Internet let alone 24/7 access in-home.  I bought internet time when I was at the Hotel Nacional which cost 20.00 CUCs (the equivalent of $20 USD) for 24 hours but didn't realize that once I checked out of the hotel that I forfeited all the extra time I had purchased but didn't use.  Unfair in my mind, but I was in Cuba.  The connection at the Hotel Nacional was so weak that you'd have to login in at least five times in 30 minutes.  Later when I wasn't a guest at the hotel but wanted to get online I paid something like 5.00 CUCs for 15 minutes!  I thought this was absurdly expensive, imagine making 25.00 CUCs a month which is the average official salary of a someone in Cuba.  It's no wonder only 5% of the country has access to the internet.

It’s insane to think that the government has control over the whole thing.  Cuba Libre?

The loooong slow line for wifi scratch off cards sold by ETECSA

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


In Havana!


[ 23 July 2016 - Saturday ] <-- The lack of internet in Havana means I am having to retroactively post my travel journal. Shown here is the actual date things were written while in country.

Hotel Nacional de Cuba with Cuban Missile Crisis / October Crisis tunnels and cannon in foreground and the Malecón on far right!

I’ve made it to Havana!  For someone who’s traveled to a lot of countries this is actually the first time I have taken a trip abroad entirely solo.  Aside from an almost-panic attack when I couldn’t find the place to change my USD into CUCs (one of the two national currencies in Cuba) at the Havana airport getting to the hotel all went as smoothly as possible.  I’m staying for two nights at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba; it’s pricey so I definitely need to find a better place, probably a casa particular (a room in a private home) asap…that’s what’s on the agenda for tomorrow.  I tend to feel cautious and unsure the first few days “in country” wherever I go so I saw the value in “splurging” on a nice hotel.  Hotel Nacional is total toursity gringo-land for sure and despite feeling as ease and at home here, I immediately was glad that I was going to find some place more authentic (whatever that means…) to stay for the duration of my trip.

Here are some of my initial impressions:

  • Havana being “stuck in time” seems largely untrue, or rather it just glosses over too much to be true.  Something stuck in time infers that nothing changes and aside from the historic cars nothing here has escaped the passage of time and ruin. 
  • When I came out of the arrivals gate at the airport there was a massive crowd of joyous looking Cubans all waiting for friends and family members.  I started to think that these people hadn’t seen their family members for years probably but then also quickly wondered if it was just a cultural thing.  (Carmen confirmed its mostly cultural.)
  • Citizens are many times the pawns of people in power.  
  • On the drive from the airport to the hotel I was trying to compare what I have seen in other parts of Latin America (México, Belize, Nicaragua, Panama, Guatemala, the Caribbean) and India to what I was seeing in Cuba.  More on that to follow but the first thing to stick out was the lack of commercial advertisements.  I honestly had to mentally picture the streets of Ann Arbor and compare them to what I seeing on my drive to realize the shear amount of advertising we see in the US / the shear lack of commercial advertising there is in Cuba.
Flying into Havana

Flying into Havana

Looking toward Centro and Habana Vieja from the Malecón

Looking toward Centro and Habana Vieja from the Malecón

Exploring the Cuban Missile Crisis / October Crisis tunnels with the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in the background

Exploring the Cuban Missile Crisis / October Crisis tunnels with the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in the background