Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Cuba Connection Part II

Last November Michael and I gave a 15 minute talk on a rock-star-status stage in Paris to 5,000 Airbnb hosts about our Senior Nomad adventures. As I described in an earlier blog, the effort to come up with a presentation for the Airbnb Open we could do together without ending our marriage was a challenging one. But we did it and the marriage survived.
Under the lights and on the big screen in Paris.
We felt an immediate connection to another married couple under the same pressure. They were part of Airbnb’s big announcement about their ever-growing presence in Cuba. Sylvio and Julia Ortega own a beautiful ten-room hostal in Havana and they were there to enthusiastically invite all of us to visit. They too, had the giant stage to themselves. The difference was only one of them spoke English, so Julia was not only sharing her side of their story, she was translating for Sylvio as well. I am not sure if that made for extra anxiety or if it might have been to her advantage.
We were happy to continue our Airbnb-lifestyle in Cuba!
We quickly bonded around our shared experience, and now that we could visit Cuba on our own and continue Airbnb-based lifestyle we made plans to visit them as soon as possible.
During the holidays we planned a three week visit for early February. We knew we’d spend our first week in Havana with the Ortegas, and from there we put together an itinerary that would give us a good overview of the island by using The Lonely Planet, travel blogs and advice from friends who had been there.
We used Lonely Planet to help us with our itinerary.
As we close in on our 100th Airbnb, we consider ourselves to be experts at using the website, but trying to book rentals in a communist country with little or no Internet access added a layer of complexity we hadn’t expected. 
You'll find many Airbnb choices in Cuba. Just be patient.
In some cases the Airbnb's we wanted were booked. Or were they? Because the internet is not available (as in banned) to individuals in their homes, ordinary Cubans gain access to the internet by standing in long lines to buy 1/2 hour or 1 hour scratch cards with a temporary user and password number on the back. Then they have to find a public park with a wifi signal (generously provided by the government) to use their cell-phone, or the rare laptop, to connect. Or, they can stand in even longer lines and pay to use a computer terminal at a government controlled internet station.
Near the park where there is wifi available. It's a social affair.
Most Airbnb hosts count on friends or relatives in other countries to field booking requests. Their contact then calls them to see if they have availability, because many of the private homes, or "casa particulars" as they are known, are also rented through European sites or a knock at their door by a tourist. The owner responds to the query, updates the calendar, and then the intermediary gets back to the interested party to see if they still want to book through Airbnb! It took longer that usual to find out if we had a booking or not. In the end we found five places that looked good. More on those as the story unfolds. Here's a link to a site with good information about Airbnb in Cuba:

We arrived in Havana on February 5th for a seven night stay at Casa Rosa Ortega and it was great to be reunited with Sylvio and Julia. They run a beautiful "hostal" - in Latin lingo that means their property is not a private home, but not a hotel either. There are ten rooms for rent on a property they own, and they offer food to lodgers and locals. Each morning we were served a delicious complimentary breakfast in the covered cabana, with lunch and dinner available upon request, and a bar open all hours. Our hosts were gracious and the staff couldn’t do enough for us.
The courtyard at Casa Rosa Ortega. Our room is on the right behind the table.
The cabana where you can meet other guests or play a quiet game of backgammon in the corner.
After two additional weeks in places that paled in comparison, and witnessing just how difficult it is to get goods in Cuba, we came to admire this couple all the more for their intrepid spirit and creativity. If you get to Cuba, do your best to stay in this rare oasis in the gritty city of Havana. Here's the listing:
A wonderful day at the Market with our host Julia
Early one morning Julia took me along on the daily market run. I am so glad she did because I was curious about how they managed to feed so many people based on the limited number of grocery stores or markets we’d seen - and most of those had very little to offer. Procuring anything in Cuba is challenging, but getting enough food can become an all day affair. Rum and beer however, are plentiful and cheap.
We headed to Julia's favorite fresh market for fruit and vegetables. There are no parking meters and parking lots are rare in Cuba, so for a good ten minutes we navigated the potholed side-streets around the market looking for a "human" parking meter. That would be a person holding a space with a couple of vegetable crates. You paid him a few pesos to squeeze into his space and he kept an eye on your car. There were a lot of these "meter men" around the market - and once I understood what they were doing, I noticed them all over Havana.
Paying homage to the keeper of the plastic bags at at the entrance of the market.
Our first stop at the market was to spend a few pesos to purchase a dozen plastic bags from the stern woman who sat squarely at the entrance. Sort of like using bathrooms here, If you want toilet paper, it's going to cost you.
Every day Julia gathers most of the requirements to make a full breakfast for up to 20 guests, as well as offering lunch and dinner on request. She goes to different markets depending on what she needs. The market we were going to had the nicest produce in her opinion - and since she had me in tow, she didn't want to expose me to the less pleasant parts of her daily shopping blitz.
Julia working hard to get the best of the best for all of us back at at the casa.
The market itself wasn't large but their were piles of impeccably fresh local produce on offer. We moved briskly down the narrow aisles, stopping at stalls where Julia is a regular. There was a lot of cheerful bantering and bargaining and it was fun to watch. We filled our bags with tiny bananas that were twice as flavorful as any I've ever had, ripe papayas, oranges, pineapple, avocados the size of a cantaloupe, fresh peppers of every size, gnarly tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs. The best moment was when Julia had a vendor insert a coring device deep into the flesh of a melon an pull out a sample so she see it was ripe all the way through.
Julia was frustrated over the lack of a few key ingredients that meant we'd have to go elsewhere to find. Apparently this happens often, and Cubans just shrug it off as part of daily life. As we went to different markets in search of meat, eggs and bread Julia would buy extra condiments and other staples that might not be in the same shop the next day. Another staff person was out collecting beverages and household supplies. It takes a coordinated team effort that includes staff and Julia's father to be continually on the prowl for provisions. And they have to do it every day.
This is an example of the store shelves we saw in Havana.
Ordinary Cubans receive monthly rations but they are meager and they to spend a great deal of time finding food as well. Here's a good article from the Guardian about the food situation in Cuba:
A mansion in ruins just down the street from where we were staying in Havana.

A classic car waiting for some love. Most have been retrofitted with polluting diesel engines.
Our experience of Havana outside of our beautiful casa was a further lesson in the harsh reality of life in Cuba. Casa Ortega is about a 15 minute cab ride from the center of Havana, so we were staying in a typical neighborhood where few tourists would ever see. Just outside our front gate we were immediately surrounded by once-elegant homes now in ruins. But those ruins are occupied - you can tell by the laundry hung on lines outside and we could see families inside darkened doorways. The poverty was palpable.
A street just a block from our house in Havana.
The streets were so full of kitchen table sized pot holes and that our taxi drivers reduced their speed to a crawl and cautiously wove from side to side to navigate around very dangerous conditions. Working street lights are a thing of the future so driving at night was even more difficult.
One of our favorite experiences was riding in these puttering little Coco taxis.
Michael at the famous Hotel National in Havana where we found a fast Internet connection.
Where is the Cuba everyone should see before it changes? On the margins, not in the touristic center. We did visit the old city, and walked the Malicon and saw plenty of shiny classic cars from the 1950's. We saw the statues and the tributes to Che. We danced to the beat and we could see that cigars are a necessity of life. And we met many wonderful people who were glad to see Americans. However, once you leave the postcard perfect center, or the beach resorts, you will find a harsher reality. And that is the Cuba worth experiencing now.
Thanks for following along,
Debbie and Michael Campbell
The Senior Nomads


  1. Wow, this seems like quite the experience!

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. The link for Casa Ortega no longer works. Do you have another way of reaching them?

  4. The link for Casa Ortega no longer works. Do you have another way of reaching them?