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Mi visita a Cuba

I was recently honored to have a speaking engagement accepted for CubaConf 2017. The conference lasted Tuesday through Thursday, so I flew in on Monday and left on Friday, giving me some buffer on each end of the trip to get settled in and explore the city a little bit while I was there. I’ll write about the conference itself soon, but I want to first talk about my experience in Havana.

I learned about the conference from Tarus BALOG in blog post and he was who I reached out to as soon as I knew my talk was accepted. Turns out he had a room in an AirBnB that I could stay in, perfect! The trip quickly turned into a gathering of minds with him and a colleague from OpenNMS giving presentations as well. I was picked up at the Havana airport mid-day on Monday by a cab sent by the AirBnB. But before we get to the AirBnB, let’s talk about cars.

Whenever I saw anything about Cuba, the cars from the 1950’s played a role. They’re on the posters, post cards, advertisements, image searches for Havana, everything. This is caused by the trade embargo which limited imports after that decade. But things have loosened in recent years, how true is the rolling museum of cars in Havana today? There are definitely some modern cars, but wow, there really are classic cars everywhere. From what I’ve read, they’ve also got all kinds of crazy things under the hoods as the resourceful Cubans did whatever they had to parts-wise to keep these old cars running. This is a great article about it all, with tons of pictures: Here’s What Cuba’s Car Scene Looks Like In 2017.

We stayed on the third floor of Gallery III – In the Heart of Old Havana, a building which contained three condo units rented out as “homestays” via AirBnB. Our host Yaima met me upon arrival and kindly shared some cake the staff was having to celebrate her birthday. I wasn’t sure what to expect with this lodging, but was generally pleasantly surprised. The WiFi was not working the first couple of days we were there, and it was only on by-request in the common area downstairs anyway, more on internet access later though. I took the bedroom with the smaller (but still Queen!) sized bed and a bathroom for myself right next to the kitchen which included a stall-less shower and drain in the middle of the room. My roommates for the week took the larger rooms and more modern bathroom, though I did borrow their shower one day. We had a little trouble the first day with hot water, which meant some quick cold showers, but they were able to fix that on subsequent days, even if we did have to strategically time our showers around others in the building.

Everything else was wonderful. The condo itself was beautifully decorated and well-lit. They stocked the refrigerator with bottled water (you can’t drink the tap water), sodas and beers that they billed you for at the end of your stay. In spite of the 80+ degree heat, simply opening the doors on both side of the condo and running a fan made for an incredibly comfortable place to chat, or read, both of which I did a lot of during my stay. The bedrooms had individual units for air-conditioning, which was valuable to a good night sleep, and essential later in the week when I wasn’t feeling well. They also provided breakfast each morning for what amounts to $3/day and there was always at least one staff member there to keep an eye on the cameras, watch for us having trouble getting inside, provide recommendations for food (or pharmacy!) or to turn on WiFi when we needed it. They also had staff who cleaned the condo and made the beds every day, a nice touch I wasn’t expecting.

After settling in a bit I was able to take some time to walk around Old Havana. I walked over to Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro, another one of the Havana icons. Then made my way past expansive, beautiful hotels, sadly many of which landed on the restricted list for US travelers on November 8th, while I was there.

The rest of my afternoon was spent at the AirBnB condo reading and relaxing following what has been a crazy month of travel for me. My roommates arrived in the evening and we made our way out to the first cocktail stop: Floridita. You see, my friend Tarus is not only is an open source enthusiast, but also runs a Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails blog! He was the guy to know for cocktails in Havana. Now, the big claim to fame that Floridita has is as the birthplace of the Daiquiri. We ordered a trio of them. Unfortunately they had run out of grapefruit juice so we couldn’t enjoy the papa doble (Hemingway daiquiri). Ernest Hemingway was a daiquiri fan and had them at that very bar! I got my selfie with Hemmingway while I was there and we enjoyed live music. As the evening wore on we decided to also eat at the restaurant there. Specializing in fish dishes, it was a perfect ending to the evening.

Throughout this lively Monday I was tweeting, but that’s only thanks to a very expensive Digicel SIM that MJ bought for me for my trip. $25 for the first 100MB, then $50 for each subsequent 300MB. I’ve grown accustom to my Project Fi SIM working in most of the world, so it was a surprise to my wallet when I had to pay such a premium. Still, I quickly learned why. All the internet I encountered on our trip was mobile internet. Old Havana is dotted with public access points that people buy access to by the hour via codes they buy at local shops. This is what my traveling companions did, and this is also how the AirBnB worked, since they were near (or owned?) one of these public access points and they just covered the costs as part of business, and this is why we needed their help when we wanted to get online. This created a fascinating side-effect: you could always tell when you were near a public access point because everyone was on their phones. Elsewhere? Not so much! It did come as a surprise to me that this is also how many organizations do internet access as well, the university where the conference was held had a LAN for us to upload our slides and share photos on, but no outside access, they advised using a nearby WiFi park with the cards if we needed access. Even people working at tech companies there in Havana told us that they did most of their work locally on their LAN (yay GitLab!) and only synced up to the actual internet at specific intervals. I’m convinced that they must be much better technologists if they don’t have the ability to Google answers to everything, hah!

Tuesday and Wednesday were pure conference days. Tuesday night found us at a conference event, which they put on every evening during the conference at various locations throughout Old Havana. Walking through Old Havana to and from the conference venue and events was a exploration unto itself. There were a few streets shut down to car traffic and filled with tourists and shops. I was able to pick up some post cards and stamps to send to my regular recipients. I skipped the rum since I’m not much of a rum drinker and didn’t want to check my bag on my way home, but I did pick up a couple cigars, though I’ll have to think about who to give them to. No one smokes anymore …but they’re Cuban cigars! The infrastructure there leaves something to be desired, the humid climate wreaks havoc on permanent structures, and there’s evidence of that throughout Old Havana. There are also a lot of pot holes and it’s often difficult to figure out just where you want to walk. Still, walking at night with a group felt pretty safe, and I got to see lots of cats, who appear to come out after dark!

Unfortunately my stomach became the ruler of all my plans starting Wednesday afternoon. I was struck with a brutal bout of travelers diarrhea and forced to remain at the AirBnB for the third day of the conference and the social events, one of which was at a brewery! So sad! I also missed further cocktail adventures with Tarus and Alejandro, no cocktail at the Hotel Nacional for me. In addition to bio-breaks, Thursday was essentially spent napping and listening to audiobooks since I wasn’t even well enough to read or look at a screen. I did get to visit a local pharmacy though, and that was a nice adventure. I was sick for several days though, but thankfully by Friday I was well enough to at least tolerate getting on a plane.

I shall conclude by talking about cars again. A real treat awaited us when we came downstairs to catch our cab to the airport, an orange 1953 Pontiac!

It was my only opportunity on this trip to actually ride in a classic car, and I was really pleased with how well-maintained and improved it was. It lacked seat belts that I instinctively reached for upon getting into it, but it had top notch air-conditioning. The round side mirrors had blinker lights built into them. And everything about the car was shiny and beautiful, like many of the classic cars I’d seen. It’s clear that the owner spent a lot of time maintaining it and it was a beautiful way to conclude my Cuban trip.