Oh what a day! I woke up bright and early because my Airbnb host wanted to make sure that I was OK before she left for work for the day! I figured I’d start my day instead of sleeping for another hour as intended.
I read a bit on my Kindle, then got ready for the day. The minute I walked outside, I was wishing for a jacket! It was chilly and slightly misting. I was surprised. Not the best weather for my first day in the Caribbean. Oh well!
I walked to the park where Rafael and Claudia had told me that I could buy internet. I made it there easily, but couldn’t find anywhere to buy ETECSA cards. Dozens of cars were on the street, but they clearly were not where you purchased cards from.
I approached a woman who was sitting by herself, and thankfully she spoke English! She told me to walk two blocks to the west to find ETECSA to buy cards. Three blocks later, I gave up. West was the opposite direction of Old Havana, where I intended to spend my day. I figured I’d find something along the way.
I almost got hit by a bus, but finally made it to the Capitol building. Hm. Where to go from here? I found Central Park, the meeting place for my Airbnb tour, yet I still needed to locate ETECSA. With time to spare, I typed it into Google (I had downloaded Google Maps of Havana and so I was able to search without Internet) and found that the Obispo location for ETECSA was not far.
At ETECSA, I was very confused by the process. What a nightmare! I was told I needed to sit and wait. So I went to sit. There was a man directing everyone where we were to sit. He ignored me so I chose my own seat. Somehow, everyone was called before me. Even people who had come in after me!
Everyone was waved through quickly to the front desk, one after another. Finally, I sat up front, irritated with the whole situation. It had been almost 20 minutes. He glanced at me, and instead of waving me to the front of the office, he sent me to the very back. Why did I have to wait? No clue. Why was I sent to the back of the building instead of the front, along with everyone else? No clue. It’ll remain a mystery for forever.
I was asked how many ETECSA cards I wanted. I replied, “20, or however many you can give me.” I was hoping to get a week’s supply all at once. She told me, they could only give 3 per person, but I could come back in an hour for three more. Fine. Whatever. I let her see my passport and paid her 3CUC (1hr=1CUC). With that, I had internet. With only 30 minutes until my tour started, I set out to find a hotspot right away. Central Park happened to be one, so I sat there to be online and wait. I assured everyone that I was alive, and sent them some pictures to appease them.
At 10:30, I stood up and began to look for my guide. I finally approached a man who was standing alone and asked if he was the guide. He told me that we were expected to have 6 other people in the group! We waited for almost 20 minutes, but no one else showed. So I got my own private tour of Cuba!
My guide, Fernando, was fantastic. His English was the most impeccable that I had encountered thus far. And even as I write this at the end of Day 1, it remains the most impeccable. He formerly worked as a translator for the government, which is a part of the reason his English was so superb. He was incredibly knowledgeable and told me so much about Cuba! We covered a lot of ground in two hours. And luckily, at this point, the weather had gotten better. Sunny and no more drizzles.
At the end of the tour, my feet were SCREAMING. I had tried to wear my Birks hoping to avoid that ugly break-in period. Bad call. I definitely did not avoid it. I headed back up to ETECSA to grab more internet. Once there, it was a much quicker process! He sent me back very quickly. I realized the ETECSA store WAS an internet hot spot, so I stayed there for almost an hour, catching up on internet usage. Then it was time to head to activity #2.
With my feet very nearly bleeding, I made my way towards the Arts District of Havana. Halfway there, I decided I needed food. I had forgotten to pack my snacks in the morning (yes, I travel with food), and hadn’t eaten since my flight the night before. I stopped at a cart on the street and bought a banana!
I walked to Jesus Maria 20, the bar at which we were meeting, snacking on a banana. I leaned against the wall, and realised I was 15 minutes early! I could feel that the ocean was close by, so I decided to walk over and see it while I waited. As I was about to go, a man stopped me and tried to tell me something about my banana. Due to his poor English and my poor Spanish, I didn’t get what he was saying. I felt bad. However, I asked for the garbage and he was actually kind enough to throw my peel out for me!
And so, now banana-less, I walked to the ocean. Halfway there, I was stopped by a man who wanted me to eat at his restaurant, some John Lennon place. He was super nice and friendly. His wife was from Chicago so he was excited to meet another Chicagoan! I told him I’d try and come back and headed to sit by the ocean.
At this point, I needed to do something. I pulled out the flat sandals that I had in my bag in case my Birks failed and threw them on. It was a WORLD of difference. With happier feet, I headed back to the bar.
At the door, I showed security the screenshot of my Airbnb experience and asked if I was in the correct place. He told me yes and sent me up the stairs to the rooftop! I walked up and hesitantly showed the waitress the same picture.
She smiled and pointed me towards the table where a girl was seated. I walked over and introduced myself, thinking she was the photographer! She said, “Oh I ordered some food, I hope you don’t mind.” And I was ecstatic because despite the banana, I was starving! I ordered a hamburger and we made small talk.
A few minutes into our stilted conversation, another girl showed up with a camera. It turned out, the girl who I was sitting with, Marcela? She had also booked the experience! We each believed the other to be the photographer! However, Lisi was our real photographer.
Lisi held conversation with each of us as our drinks arrived (Marcela had a mojito, I was boring and just had a water!). Then she invited us up to the upper level of the bar to start the photo session. As we were ascending the spiral staircase, our waitress delivered our food to the table. Marcela and I decided to keep taking photos and wait to eat. She went first, and then went down to eat, then it was my turn!
Lisi and I then went down to join her while I enjoyed my hamburger! I have NO IDEA what was on it, but it was delicious. And, it was only $6! We chatted for awhile, then asked for the check and began taking more photos in the bar. Finally, we were ready to go!
We hit the streets, looking for fun murals and street art to pose with. We had the best time with Lisi, and the three of us all hit it off. After taking several photos in the streets, we wandered into an art gallery. Lisi wanted to take photos of us in the gallery. It turns out we had just missed salsa lessons! However, the band had hung around. The next thing I know, Marcela is salsa-ing around the gallery like a pro, and it was a full on dance party!
And all of a sudden, I’ve got a guy trying to teach me how to salsa, as Lisi is snapping pics of my inadequacy and Marcela’s grace! It further proved that I cannot dance. Oh well. I tried, and had an absolute blast!
From there, we headed to take more photos with street art. I ran into my banana vendor friend, who was super excited to see me again, and very very friendly. So that was fun. After posing with many other murals, I glanced at the clock to see that it was 4pm! Our photo session was from 2-4. I looked at Lisi apologetically and told her I felt horrible that we had gone over.
However, she told me that she wanted us to get all of the pictures that WE wanted. The Experience promised that we would get to see the Capitol, and since it was included, Lisi wanted to make sure we got pics there. I am so so grateful to her for sticking with us crazies!
My feet had been faring much better up until now, but as we were picking our way through the chaotic streets of Old Havana, I felt it. The blister popped. Instant, horrible pain. I refused to say anything and simply limped along beside them, trying to keep my gait normal.
We reached the Capitol and I told Lisi to go ahead and shoot Marcela first, as I wanted to deal with my foot. Ugh. I looked down to see the blister to end all blisters on the sole of my foot. Thanks Birks! I stuck a bandaid on, knowing it was a futile attempt.
Lisi snapped some pics of me in front of the Capitol, and then we walked (I limped) up to the very front of the Capitol, where she took even more pictures. At this point, I threw my Birks back on, hoping they would help support my blister rather than antagonize it, as my flat, unsupportive sandals were doing. It helped, but not much.
I very nearly was hit by a car as I was crossing the street, but I survived! And so ended our photo shoot. Lisi gave us tons of recommendations, and we all took a selfie! At the end of it all, her photo count was upwards of 700 photos of us. Oops. But the results were absolutely amazing. Of the three photo shoots I did while in Cuba, Lisi’s pictures were my favorite.
Marcela wanted to check out a clothing store Lisi had mentioned, so I tagged along with her. Clandestina is a Cuban clothing brand, and they had some amazing stuff! I felt bad that both my budget was so tight, and that my suitcase had so little room to spare. Marcela bought a super cute t-shirt, and we chatted with the employee about wifi and where to find it. And about what their lives were like without it! It was a fascinating conversation.
We decided to get dinner together at El Dandy, a restaurant that had been recommended to me several times. However, when we crossed the street to head in, the doors were locked! We were told that there was a meeting going on, and the restaurant would not open for 30 more minutes, if we wanted to wait and come back.
I realized the ETECSA was not far from where we were, so I decided to head up there and told Marcela she was welcome to join! We each bought 3 more ETECSA cards (this time I got waved STRAIGHT back with no sitting and waiting! — moving up in the world), and sat down to utilize their wifi. Before we knew it, we had been there for nearly 40 minutes! We were able to connect on social media, exchange pictures and videos, and catch up with our social medias, emails, and messages! Time well spent.
Then we headed back to El Dandy. We were stopped by a man who wanted to sell us tickets to a salsa festival! Marcela was excited because she thought it was the one that she was going to, and she wanted me to get tickets and join! If not for my foot’s bloody condition, I totally would have.
However, she soon realized that what the man was talking about was different from the salsa festival she had bought her tickets for. She decided to think it over and see if she’d rather go to his. We went to sit in El Dandy, and she decided that she wanted to get tickets to this different one!
We ate a delicious dinner. I had carnitas with a traditional Cuban drink called Canchanchara. It was STRONG. I shared with Marcela and she agreed! I couldn’t finish it. After dinner, we asked the friendly security guard for directions to buy the tickets for the salsa festival. I told Marcela I would walk with her to do it. However, his directions confused us even further. we decided to first go to her Airbnb, so I would know how to find it tomorrow. (441 Villegas). After she showed me her place and swapped out her purse, we headed to look for salsa tickets. We realized it still wasn’t the right place, and she gave up on attempting to go to salsa for the night. We said our goodbyes and finalized our plans to meet up for tomorrow (making plans is REALLY hard when you have no way to contact the other person day of!), and that was that.
I decided to walk up to Central Park to connect with my parents one last time and let them know I was alive. Due to my foot, I was definitely taking a cab instead of walking the nearly 3km back to my Airbnb! I got online at Central Park, and touched base with home and the rest of the world. Then it was time to find a cab.
I approached a group of men and asked for a taxi, showing them my Airbnb address. They all looked befuddled. I tried to explain, it’s not far from here, I walked this morning! After several minutes of head scratching, they quoted me 10CUC, a price that my screaming feet happily agreed to. I climbed into the cab and bid Old Havana goodbye.
However, that was not the end of my day! My cab driver took me to the wrong location. I put it in Google Maps and showed him that we needed to be heading the OTHER direction on Padre Varela, the street I was staying on. We did a U-turn and headed back my way. All of a sudden, we were passing places I’d passed on my morning walk. Irritated, I handed him his 10CUC and said I’d walk. Luckily it was less than a block away!
Home at last. I took a shower, very gingerly, as I protected my poor foot. Fun fact: my Airbnb shower was clearly not pictured online due to its size… I hardly fit! 12 inches from the curtain to the wall, and less than 3 feet wide! I pancaked myself in and faced the curtain, trying not to move at all, because any move I made simply glued the shower curtain to my wet body. It was an experience.
I crawled into bed, ready to sleep for years. Just checked my step counter– I walked over 10 miles today. It’s fine, I’m fine. Why did I not eat more? I should be starving. And super thirsty. Hm. I resolved to not walk nearly as much any of the following days, my feet were in rough shape.