Birthday parties aside, my recent lack of Blog activity has been due my undertaking a long awaited trip to Cuba - (followed by a stop in Dubai - about which a little more later)!
Cuba - what a great trip it was. For nationals of countries that are permitted and are able to go for a visit, I recommend you do so - but do it sooner rather than later.
Any opening up of the country due to a change in relations with the USA (although recent comments by President Raul Castro seem to put that likelihood further on the back-burner) will result in a number of conflicting situations. The additional money that will inevitably pour in will be welcome, but only if it ends up being widely distributed and therefore ultimately ends up in the right hands, rather than in the pockets of a few. The modernisation programme that will, or should follow, could bring new state of the art and user-friendly buildings and facilities to the country, but will this be at the expense of the existing, beautiful architecture where the only real problem seems to be general (and in some cases chronic) dilapidation? A sympathetic restoration programme would create in Havana a city of huge appeal. But will the pace of change be so fast that the inhabitants will lose their character, their easy going charm and amazing good nature - replacing it with greed and an increased crime rate?
On crime, I have to be honest, I walked down some pretty dark streets quite late at night but at no time did I feel I was vulnerable to danger - maybe I was stupid, perhaps I was lucky, but other visitors I spoke to seemed to have the same positive experience. And every city in the world that you visit has areas that are "no go" anyway. I am sure that Havana is no different.
Getting to Cuba in the first place is not hugely difficult - unless you are determined to enter via the USA. In that event, swimming will be your best bet - as long as you can keep your visa dry. Canadian airports, Latin American, and of course European gateways all offer a variety of almost daily services. (And don't forget; if you are leaving from Europe remember to fly from a non-British airport, as your airport tax will be considerably lower - or non-existent). Visas, not stamped in your passport in case you end up in an immigration line where you will be viewed suspiciously, seemed easy to obtain. We got ours in Hong Kong.
Once on the ground you sort out your currency, and off you go. Oh, "sorting out the currency" takes a little getting used to. Cuba is a cash society. If you have a credit card (as long as it's not on a US bank), you can occasionally use it in hotels, depending on how well the systems are running at the time. Friends who were with us even found it difficult to use their UK Bank cards, but happily good old Hong Kong came to the rescue and our cards were well accepted - except we hardly used them as all credit card transactions "attract" at least a 10% surcharge.
And then you have to negotiate your way through the "problem" of paying for things. This is a cash society with a difference. Two currencies; one name. The Peso (Convertible) is for the tourist and the Peso (National Money) is for local trade. As a foreigner you will generally use the Convertible Peso (the CUC). Easily changed at the airport, in hotels and at the various exchanges around town.
But look, all of this can be found in the very excellent Lonely Planet Guide for Cuba and, I am sure, other guides too but our "Planet" was certainly up to date and informative.
For us - Havana was an experience not to be missed. Pedestrian only streets, great music, but do not go with high expectations of a gourmet paradise. The food is basic, "comfort food" in many cases, and you can eat in people's homes. The choice is not huge, but palatable. Our favourite "home" was Doña Carmela out near the Fort (visit the firing of the 9 p.m. gun at the Fort and then head down to Carmela afterwards - reservations needed, as it's popular). Our favourite bar was La Lluvia de Oro on Obispo Street. The band they had in there the nights we visited was really good, and I am told they have been around a while. Ride the 1950s Cadillacs, visit the museums, tip a CUC here and a CUC there - you will suddenly find barriers removed in Museums. And relax.
One week in Havana? Too long probably unless you have special interests - but we got out and visited Viñales, as well as Pina de Mar - and on the next visit (yes, we must go back), we want to get to Trinidad (the city in Cuba, not the Island) and Santiago de Cuba.
Visit the bars that Hemingway frequented, but drink in the bars he didn't; the prices don't have the Hemingway premium price tag - and do visit Hemingway's house. It's worth a look.
Havin' a good time in Havana? You bet.