Our Man in Havana

I was going to do a list of some of the highlights of our trip (and still might) but I just came across a business card for a taxi while sorting the various papers I accumulated during the trip and so I thought I’d focus instead, on one of the singular highlights of our trip.

One of the “must do’s” we’d been told about a Cuba holiday was a trip into Havana.  The obvious route is to book a bus charter through your travel company but we decided to be a bit more adventurous and book a private taxi to take us in.  Early in the week, my brother-in-law talked to one of the servers at the main restaurant in our resort who said they knew a driver and that it would be 200 pesos for four of us to go in – much less than the 67 pesos the tour company wanted per person.

My brother-in-law and his girlfriend (who wasn’t yet his fiance but would be by the end of the trip!) decided to take the Jungle Safari Tour instead but the server was still quoting us a figure of 200 pesos for just two people.  That seemed a bit excessive so I talked to someone else in the restaurant the next night and after an 11:30pm confirmation phone call to our room, we were quoted 120 pesos for the day with all tolls, gas and related expenses included. That sounded perfect (plus was still comparable to the tour company price) so we went ahead and booked it.

So there we were, on the second last day of our trip, unsure what to expect other than there would be a yellow car waiting for us outside the hotel at 8am with a driver who “spoke pretty good English”.

Well, our fears about the car being a rusty 1957 Chev were quickly dispelled.  Instead, the driver had a canary yellow, blinged-out 2004 Peugeot.  As for his English, I think I’d been conditioned by all the foreign exchange students I’ve known in Canada who always apologise for their poor English when they usually have a better grasp of the language than I do!

His English wasn’t that good but he did speak well enough that we could communicate on the basics.  (I kept thinking his English was about how well I’d be able to speak French if someone dropped me in rural Quebec.)  His passing resemblance to Adam Sandler also helped add humour to his lack of facility with the language!

So after some initial “oh crap – we made the wrong decision! Can we still catch a tour bus?” thoughts – which disappeared by the time we left the Varadero peninsula, we were on our way to Havana, two hours away.

Visiting Havana was a great experience but equally worthwhile was the opportunity to spend a full day with a young Cuban, sharing and exchanging stories of our respective lives.

His name was Pavel and he was 34 years old.  Born in the mid-1970’s with two parents who were police officers (all details of this post subject to translation errors – I never heard him mention this detail but Shea said she did), it was logical that he be given a popular Russian name.  But he was obviously a Cuban youth who was enamoured with the material lifestyle of the rest of North America.  Beyond his blinged out car and brand name clothes, he proudly told us that he’d named his two children Amy (2) and Ricky (9) – “good American names.”

Being the child of police officers, you wonder if he had certain privileges that others may not have and we were surprised to learn that he’d even spent six months in Jamaica playing semi-professional baseball when our understanding is that the vast majority of Cubans aren’t free to travel outside the country at all.  When we stopped at a tourist look-out on the way into Havana and I bought him a Coke (imported from Mexico, not the US obviously), he told us of how you could get Coca-Cola in Cuba but no Pepsi which he’d gotten hooked on during his time in Jamaica!  (This gave us an instant bond as I’m a Pepsi man myself!)

Beyond his parents and travel, it was clear that he was in a privileged position with his and his wife’s jobs.  If the average Cuban salary is 20 pesos/month, us paying him 120 pesos for the day is like the equivalent of paying him six months wages for a day’s work – pretty decent money, even after the expenses for gas and toll booths.  He had an LG cell phone – sent by a godmother (this word skuttled us for a long time at lunch until I loaded an English-Spanish iPhone app I downloaded before we left) in Toronto.  His car had a DVD player mounted that the front passenger could watch, a pretty sweet Panasonic stereo.  He said he had a computer at home but it was broken right now.  I don’t notice these things but Shea was the one who noted that he was dressed in brand-name clothes from head to toe.

He said his wife was a server at one of the five star resorts in Varadero (they lived in a town fifteen minutes past Varadero on the opposite side of Havana.  Though they live in an apartment, both owned cars) so they are both fairly well off by Cuban standards.

When we talked of baseball, he proudly named the various Cubans who were playing in the Major Leagues along with details of their contracts for “seventy-million dollars!”, “one hundred million dollars!”  He said he had a New York Yankees ball cap that was one of of his prized possessions.  (On the other hand, the Blue Jays cap he got from a Jamaican friend who now lives in Toronto – “not so much”.)  This was also possibly a mis-communication but it seemed like he thought the Expos were still in Montreal, not realising they’d moved to Washington DC in 2005.  I asked if they could watch major league games on TV and he said they get bootleg DVD’s with the games burned on them.

Although not a professional tour guide in the “check the clipboard, keep to the schedule” sense, he did a really good job of ferrying us around Havana to all of the major sites – we visited the Museum of the Revolution (again, it was the people more than destination that were fascinating as our visit happened while two different groups of students were touring the Museum and I spent as much time looking at them – how they dressed, how they interacted, what they had for supplies – as the displays.  We walked through Old Havana stopping at many smaller shops that I don’t think would be on the normal tourist beat (he popped us into a perfume store that had a “museo” in the back which basically consisted of a few display cases showing pre-Revolution beauty products – a 1950’s bottle of Palmolive or a small tube of Colgate.)  After lunch, we hit a large souvenir flea market by the docks where the cruise ships come in and finished our day in Revolution Plaza where we took the elevator up to the top of the 35 story Jose Marti Memorial Tour but decided to skip another museum tour as we were all (including Pavel who said he would stay longer with us but hoped to get out of town sooner to be home to his kids as well as avoid some bridge construction that apparently started at 4pm.)

By staying so close to us most of the day, he even got in trouble at the Revolution Plaza where, instead of letting us cross a fairly major roadway unaided, he escorted us to the pay window then decided to come up the elevator with us when the clerk offered to let him up for free (it was 3 pesos each for Shea and I.)  When we got back to the car, an armed military guy came to the window and said “chauffeurs must stay with the car!” and we both had a chuckle at this.  “Sure, next time!”

I’m sure there are lots of details I’m missing – our conversation covered everything from speed limits on the highway (he was diligent about dropping down in speed when the posted limit changed) to snow (he’d obviously never seen any.)  I tried to broach politics a couple times but he didn’t seem to want to engage unlike pretty much every other cab driver we experienced during our week in Cuba.  He did repeat the common line we heard from multiple people – “in Cuba – two people, one police officer.”

There were some moments that were a bit more…eye-opening…that we weren’t in the same world we were used to.  For example, we expected to be taken directly to Havana as the paying passengers.  But passing through Mantazas (which is the town he grew up in) on the way to Havana, he said something about “needing to pick up a parcel to deliver with a friend.”  We did a detour through town and when he got out to go into a house, I leaned back to Shea and said “Hmm, either we’re picking up a parcel or he’s giving a friend a lift into Havana.”  Turns out it was just a parcel but when he put a square package in a brown paper wrapper in the glove compartment, Shea and I couldn’t help but (jokingly – we’re almost 100% sure it wasn’t) think “hmm, I wonder if it’s drugs in there?” 😉

Although I’m sure he would’ve taken us to see whatever we wanted, he seemed to be focused on hitting the main attractions without too much interest from his side to see if we wanted to go a bit further afield or check out anything different.  This was also clear at lunchtime where he made a gesture of asking where we wanted to go for lunch but basically pushed for a single restaurant.  It was pretty good but when we went to pay (we wanted to buy him lunch), Shea saw him take the CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos) for his meal off the tray and substitute in local Cuba pesos.)  Again, since CUC’s are worth a lot more than the local peso, it was a way for him to make a bit of extra cash.  (We’ve heard that lots of people in Cuba get kickbacks for bringing tourists to certain restaurants, bars, attractions and so on.)

Overall, it was a great experience and one of the highlights of our week.  I told him I’d put his name and number on the Internet (another weird thing I might cover in another post – being in a country where, for all intents and purposes, the Internet doesn’t exist) so if you’re ever in Varadero and want a taxi into Havana or elsewhere, give Pavel a call at: 619812.  Tell him Jason & Shea from Saskatchewan sent you!

(Oh, and in conclusion, Shea and I both agree that if we never hear another Marc Anthony song, it will be too soon!  Pavel had a CD on replay for the entire trip












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  1. From Head Tale - Throwback Thursday – #tbt – Our Tropical Vacation History on 13 Feb 2015 at 12:09 am

    […] Memorable moment: Doing a private tour into Havana with a local “tour guide”  […]

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