If you are a woman and you EVER doubt that you are an attractive one: go to Havana. Walk down the street, pass any man (young or old) and listen just as you've walked by...cause you are sure to hear every single one of them say, "Hola linda! Hola preciosa!" Which literally means, "Hi cutie, hi precious." Obviously this will boost your confidence unlike anything else!
Cuba was BEAUTIFUL! My friend and I met up for five days in Havana and added on a little side trip to Viñales to see the tobacco fields. I smoked for the first time in my life. The cigars are made from dried leaves that are then fermented in rum, coconut, pineapple and honey for a year. After they roll them, they dip the tip you puff on in honey before lighting the other end. It I didn't end up wheezing and using inhalers and nebulizers this definitely could have been the beginning of a new addiction for me. Alas, I'm apparently a lousy smoker or just have cigar-induced reactive airway reactions that only made it worth trying once.
Cuba itself was extremely interesting. The changes that little island has seen in the last 70 years is surreal. All the hotels, restaurants, businesses, stores, hospitals, etcetera are owned by the government. The tobacco farm we went to gives 90% of it's product to the government. When you take a real taxi, it's owned by the government. The professionals who work in medicine, law, science, etcetera are paid peanuts. For example the woman I stayed with is a pediatric surgeon and she makes $60/month. I asked her what the motivation is to go to school (which is free as is health care) and she said that you have to love your job. Our old car tour guide told us he is an accountant by education but makes more money giving tours so yep that's what he does.
The stores were also striking. When you go inside a grocery store they have only a limited offering but a lot of the product. For example one store had an entire aisle full of cereal but only two kinds. In the next aisle were jars of olives, all the same kind. The next had bags of powdered milk (they told me you only get real milk in the country) and one kind of pasta. There was no pasta sauce in the whole store and I saw one tub of nutella under lock and key behind a glass counter along with mayonnaise and mustard.
The appliance stores were similar. You would walk in and see an entire wall of boxes: all the same microwave. If you wanted a toaster, you had one kind to choose from. It was interesting to say the least. I still don't know where the restaurants get their food to provide a constant menu. I mean, I understand the government owned ones probably have access somewhere else but the private ones (government has made changes to a lot of things since Raul, Fidel's brother, took over power 8 years ago including the right for people to run restaurants out of their homes and to use their own cars as taxis)...no clue how they get the same food to keep a menu going.
The country itself is breathtaking. Pictures don't really do it justice. We toured the old city by foot, took a car tour for all the around Havana parts and then jumped in a mafia-car to drive out to the valley and see the tobacco. All in all: super awesome.
Answers to questions people ask me: Yes you can go to Cuba but you still need a reason. The process was extremely lax. When we bought our tickets they asked us to check one of twelve boxes listing reasons to go. Then at the airport when we checked in they had us sign a form saying that was the reason. They sold us a visa when we picked up our tickets (50 dollars) and that was it. We entered Cuba with nary a question or suspicious look. Once in Cuba your credit card and atm card won't work (well someone told me there are limited areas where Mastercard sometimes does but we didn't even look). We booked our rooms through airbnb ahead of time so that was already paid for. We also booked the tours ahead of time but paid when we got there. The internet is not readily accessible although in the last several months people are getting access in their homes (one place I stayed had just gotten internet in the past week)...there is a catch though. You have to buy an internet card (between 3-5 dollars) to log in and that usually only lasts about an hour. It wasn't worth it for us so we just went without. Because of the difficulty of getting online, expect any interaction you have with cubans online to be delayed!
Well I guess this is a long enough blog! I'll end with my favorite part: my last day my friend took off in the morning and I had one more night before I flew out. I headed out and walked in the non-touristy part of Havana. I tried to buy something from a bakery and couldn't because I only had CUC (tourist money) and not national pesos (local money). Finally I found a bakery who was selling eclairs and sold them by the bag. I had about eight when I walked out and that was about six more than I could eat. So I sat down on the curb, looking out at the water, and started munching. A little old lady without any teeth sat next to me and the first thing she said was, "I'm a grandmother." This got her going about every family member in her circle (she was a little demented I think) so I offered her an eclair and of course she accepted and just as I handed it to her a police van and police car pulled up right in front of us. Five guys jumped out and three ran towards us, past us and into the building behind us. For a second I was taken aback, thinking I was breaking the law by giving the lady an eclair! But then the two guys standing guard in front of the truck starting asking where I was from, why I came to Cuba and before you knew it I was offering them eclairs too! The little old lady and the weirdness of shooting the breeze with cuban cops who were anything but scary made my day. And the eclairs were pretty yummy too!