The Trump effect on travel

flight arrivals jan 2016
Havana airport arrivals board January 2016
flightapril2017
Havana airport arrivals board April 2017
crowded airport
Arrivals busier than ever in 2016/2017

Virgin Atlantic is my preferred airline to travel between the UK and Cuba, which I have done many times since 2011, and our baby due at Christmas will have her first taste of Virgin travel in March next year, when my husband and I bring her home to Havana to meet all the family. So while I am in the UK, waiting to have the birthing experience that suits me best (see later blog post), I see that I have missed Richard Branson’s visit to the island.

https://www.virgin.com/richard-branson/visiting-cuba-and-scientific-advancements

I sincerely hope that changes in the US airline industry, together with current US politics towards Cuba, do not affect Virgin’s flight schedule to the UK, our lifeline from home to home!

Alaska Airlines took over Virgin America last year in a $2.6m merger, and this year it was confirmed Alaska will take over all Virgin America flights.  Today I read that Alaska Airlines will stop flying to Cuba as of 22 January 2018. Its inaugural flight to Cuba – Los Angeles to Havana in 5 hours – was in January 2017 and I had the privilege to tour lead the first passengers, a plane full of Alaska Airlines employees excited to experience the result of their hard work to win that potentially lucrative route.  I also made use of this new direct route to attend a college reunion this summer in Los Angeles, delighted to find old friends within such easy reach by plane finally. When JetBlue finally opened up direct New York – Havana flights last year, I took the first opportunity to catch a plane for 3 1/2 hours and visit old friends, having missed out on years of seeing these friends because I was based in Cuba. It all proved a little too late, as I just used one of the still remaining direct flights to attend the funeral of one of those friends, who died early in life of cancer apparently related to the effects of 9/11. Before the easing of travel restrictions to Cuba under Obama in 2015/2016, and the first regular commercial flights between the two countries since the Cold War, the only way was to fly to a third country, very expensive and over 20 hours travel time.

new routes

However, President Trump brought in new regulations last week that put an end to independent travel by Americans to Cuba, and Alaska Airlines estimate that 80% of their passengers were just that – curious-minded Americans travelling not in a tour group, which has made up the bulk of my work for over 5 years, but individuals keen to explore this once-forbidden territory. Well, it’s forbidden again, folks, and because of some dumb-ass politics that make sense to no one.

Sun Country, Spirit, Frontier Airlines and Silver Airlines have all ceased travel to the island, and America, Sunwest and JetBlue have all reduced their flights to Cuba. After a year of uncertainty around Trump’s proposed rolling-back of Obama’s measures to improve relations with Cuba, plus a summer of hard-hitting Caribbean hurricane activity, this is no surprise, I suppose. My husband experiences this drop in visitor numbers to the island first-hand as the director of a music group playing in a restaurant in Old Havana. There were many days in August to October where not a soul entered the restaurant, yet the band has to keep on playing. Our fledgling AirBnb business is also not seeing the amount of interest yet that I feel sure it would have seen a year or two ago. Most of the enquiries we have now are from Latin Americans, Cuban Americans or Europeans, but a year ago you couldn’t walk in the streets in Havana without hearing excitable American accents around you (they weren’t Canadian, I checked, plus the Canadians tend to stick to the all-inclusive resorts). Cubans with 5 year US visitor visas have also been travelling to the US in lesser numbers, waiting to see what would happen with new regulations. When those visas expire, those Cubans will now need to travel to a third country to renew those same visas, following the US government’s indefinite suspension of visa processing in Cuba, blamed on a spate of alleged ‘sonic’ attacks on US embassy employees in Havana. The overall picture then is not looking good…

Advertisements

Cuban baby on the way!

What I love about being pregnant in Cuba…having a beautiful sea pool in which to swim where I see fish and feel weightless, I get priority..in cafes, taxis, the airport..

Ordering an omelette I get served first when they spot the bump, I get given the front seat in communal taxis so I can stretch out my legs, people feel.quite free to touch the bump (which I enjoy). And my husband tells everyone with pride I am pregnant in case they didnt notice.

What I love less… being big in 80-90° humidity, the constant advice however to not swim in the sea even though its calm, or at least enter backwards to avoid waves on the bump, to stay at home and relax, to eat no bread, pizza, pasta or flour to avoid swollen feet (at a post-hurricane time when eggs, cheese and vegetables are hard to find), having swollen feet!

Havana after the rain

 

(Lines to buy the toilet roll after shortage in hurricane)

I arrived back in Havana just some days after Hurricane Irma ravaged Cuba and created the most severe flooding ever seen in Havana. Our basement was flooded and my husband’s friends have come over to take apart our electric scooter to wash and de-rust and hopefully bring back to life. It’s our lifeline, that bike, and the only way we could have achieved all the things we did over the last year – fetching pieces to furnish our new apartment, running errands prior to our wedding, finding me lettuce or tomatoes or potatoes or cheese or milk in my earlier pregnancy, when I was desperate to eat a balanced diet. Now we are back, and I am 6 months pregnant, I am concerned again about eating well and enough. From the UK I brought cheese, nuts and raisins, cereal bars and peanut butter, cous cous and quinoa, and when we go to Panama this weekend, we will bring back even more supplies. The local market has very few fresh vegetables, as transportation and the farming was severely interrupted by the hurricane, and in the supermarket this morning, over 20 people were in line to buy frozen hot dogs. It looked like a shipment just came in. They are cheap and a good way to filler a meal, and no one had less than 4 packets in their hand.

After two glorious months of eating all the food I like, convenience shopping, Amazon, having anything I want delivered to my door, internet when I want it, etc etc, it’s going to hard to re-adapt and remember why I love it here. Especially as it’s still raining some every day, still humid as hell, the Malecon is closed for post-hurricane repair and the tourists have disappeared (my Virgin flight was under 1/5 full and many of those were Cubans going home to visit). Tourist season has yet to start.

Today we tried to find a carpenter to put up shelves and build cupboards as we have no decent storage in most of the rooms or bathrooms that we want to rent. We have wardrobes with rails but no shelves, bathrooms where you can’t put anything except your toothbrush, a kitchen where I have get on my knees to retrieve pots and pans and food from under the sink. Many carpenters are however out of work because there’s a shortage of wood, and any storage units bought in a government store comes imported from China or somewhere and costs a fortune. Forget IKEA, Ebay, thrift stores, pound shops, car boot sales, garage sales etc. This is Cuba, you have to invent or it doesn’t exist. Short of chopping down some trees myself, I don’t know the solution. It’s just unfortunate that at a time when I am desperate to create some kind of nest and prepare for our baby (which we will have in the UK), put down roots, finally unpack my case and settle down, we’ve got no furniture to be able to do it! So much so that we are heading to Panama this weekend to try and buy lots of necessities like furniture to be shipped back to Cuba, which will hopefully arrive before we arrive back with our baby in the New Year. They might not arrive though in time for the high season when we want to fill our rooms, despite the spartan decor thus far. My husband gets sad when I get so despondent, but now he’s seen a little of the life I’ve led back home, he understands better how challenging this can all be.

(Our kind friends protected our windows, and heavy rains still create drainage problems).

Hurricane Irma

flood

My heart absolutely breaks as I watch the images from Havana and the rest of Cuba from the comfort of my UK hotel room as I work on a tour this week. Cuba prides itself on hurricane preparedness, and my husband has been through many, including his first while still in his mother’s womb, but this is the worst he can remember. We could so easily have happened to be there right now, but selfishly, in my 6-month-pregnant condition, I am so grateful we are not. Our Havana apartment is located 2 blocks from the Malecon and I have seen from the images that the water has come in much further inland that that, up to half a kilometre in places. There is no currently very limited electricity in this city of 2 million, though I am happy to hear from my stepdaughter that essential buildings like the hospital where she works have power. Anyway, I don’t want to be walking around pregnant knee-deep in flood water, nor suffer the humidity of September with no electricity, or walk up the 4 floors to our apartment because the elevator doesn’t work. I am lucky though to have that choice.

No doubt our  electric motorbike is floating around in the basement of our building, and though my husband is hoping a little grease and anti-rust treatment will bring it back to life, I am doubtful. There is no insurance available in Cuba, and with a baby on the way, the $2,000 needed to replace it cannot be a high priority right now. For our family-to-be, a car would obviously be a better option, but at $15,000 minimum spend (for a 20-year-old Russian Lada) that isn’t an option either. Thankfully L’s family are safe and their houses are still standing, with no damage that we know of. We have friends though that live in sub-standard accommodation at street level, or in buildings that should be condemned but there is nowhere else for them to go. Buildings collapse all the time in Havana after heavy rain, as the weak building structure dries out after a soaking – a young guy we know lost his whole family while he sat on the toilet one night and his building fell down around him. This is a city where the resources are not there to maintain the 60-year old housing stock, where building materials are expensive and hard to come by.

So my heart really breaks as Cubans struggle already to find the resources to live on a day-to-day basis, and the continuing grip of the ridiculous embargo from the US, which is unlikely to be removed during the Trump-era, will just make recovery from this harder. This island depends on tourism income to keep afloat, and the severe damage done to Cuba’s northern cays will serve a flow to tourism for now. My husband also warns me that agriculture will be severely affected and we should expect to struggle to find many food items when we return in 2 weeks time. I am already planning the food items I want to pack to keep us and the bump sufficiently well-nourished on our return. As well as the nappies and wet wipes we are already packing in preparation for baby, we also want to bring extra supplies for those friends who have suffered and need help. We’re going to need a bigger suitcase.

Cuba, my love

Wow, life has sure been busy since our wedding in February. As I write, I am sitting in a hotel in the UK whilst working on a tour, and my husband is in London, making new friends and learning on his own how to navigate London transport and getting around with limited English. Our home is in Cuba, (actually 2 homes, one place to live and one to rent out on AirBnB), but as I am now not only a newly-wed but also 6 months pregnant, we decided to leave Cuba for the summer. Pregnancy in the humid summer heat of Havana was unbearable and so we have been enjoying a 2 month long ‘baby moon’ in Europe. We are missing family and friends in Cuba, and watching Hurricane Irma unleash her fury across the Caribbean has left us worried for those on the island. Cubans also need to resort to more creativity to protect themselves from the damage of a hurricane, lacking basic materials like plywood or stepladders, as these two photos of Florida and Cuba compare…

Thankfully, it seems Cuba was spared the ravages inflicted on Barbuda and the Virgin Islands, although Hurricane Jose is of course following in her wake. I’ve not experienced a hurricane and will surely do so in years to come, but for now, I’m grateful for an easy pregnancy and to be fully in my comfort zone, in the UK. Treatment earlier on in the pregnancy at Havana’s ‘foreigner hospital’ was excellent, and not expensive, and I don’t doubt giving birth in Cuba would be a good experience. Cuba has an excellent record in maternal care. Giving birth in Cuba would also make good material for this blog (yes, I did consider this point!). However, in terms of comfort and convenience – the hospital near me in London, with its birthing pool and mood lighting, everything in my language, my sister close by (well, Spain, but closer to the UK than Cuba!), the range of supermarket choices available for pre and post-birth meals, the home delivery options, Amazon.com, my car to get us around when needed, NCT classes to meet other local mums, and the wonderful cafes in my neighbourhood with coffee and cake – delivery in the UK won hands down. The blog will just have to wait for tales of bringing up a baby in Havana. And we will welcome visitors/babysitters anytime!

Screenshot_20170825-222351

Living for the future

20170218_191609It is 5 weeks since marrying my Cuban partner here in Havana and I just said goodbye to my second group of travellers since going back to work. They wished me well and at least one of them said ‘I wish you lots of luck, you’re going to need it’.

This makes me chuckle. I don’t know if they meant the fact of getting married, or marrying a Cuban, or marrying a Cuban and living here. Or all of this! Of course, like any newly-wed, I imagine, I feel it isn’t luck we’ll need, but just more of what we have – great communication, shared values and sense of humour, and a strong mutual attraction and plenty of love. However, living here already is testing, and committing myself to living here..well, yes, I do have some of sense of trepidation. The bureaucracy here does sometimes remind me of those old American cars they keep going after so many years, but one without wheels that you need to move anyway. You push and push but ultimately another skill is required, a way around the problem, a little bit of charm, making friends, thinking outside the box, resilience and patience. My husband has all these skills in quantity, myself not so much. Still, I am learning and feel a better person for the education
.
Of course, we have the option to move together to another country if it all gets too much, but his life is here, and with a little money life here is pretty good. There are shortages of goods, lines to make for the simplest of things, plenty of things that don’t work, changes in regulations and the law from one moment to the next, a lack of the shops and commodities I have always been used to, very limited internet, I could go on. BUT things are improving, and the reopening of US-Cuban relations has definitely helped. I feel optimistic, it is a country that has also achieved great things, and could achieve so much more. What’s needed then? An end of the US embargo against the island, for sure (and no, that hasn’t happened just because the US and Cuba have relations again), and a relax of the controls placed by the government over its people, stifling opportunities and economic growth. Cubans are hard workers if you let them work and earn decent money. The economy needs to work and then people would stay. The revolution isn’t over, but it needs an update. Hopefully, with my new husband by my side, my patience will last long enough to see it all happen. The Cuban people deserve it.

Cuba welcomes you my friends

LETTER TO MY FRIENDS AND FAMILY ARRIVING IN HAVANA FOR MY WEDDING NEXT WEEK

Dearest friends

Very soon you’ll be coming to Cuba,, most of you for the first, and I hope not the last, time.

It’s quite a conundrum, Cuba, and living here presents lots of challenges – shortages of goods, a bureaucracy to make you tear your hair out, lines for the simplest of things, little decent shopping (!), no foreign media, slow and not widely available internet, lack of decent information such as what’s on listings or news about openings and closures.
Now, I started with the bad, but the good is..very little crime, no drugs, guns, gangs and little serious violence, wonderfully inventive, creative and decent-minded people who do not put money and status and the value of time before community, solidarity and looking after each other. The Havana architecture, while falling to ruin, is spectacular, the art and culture is a highlight, and the ever-present influence of the sea, the Atlantic ocean washing across the Malecon, and the glorious beaches just out of town, gives this island capital a wonderful edge. Not to mention the heroic Cuban joie-de-vivre and sense of humour (while no one opinions too loudly in public, humour tells a thousand tales).

So, when you find no water available to buy in the airport or they only have mayonnaise to serve with your toast in the morning, which occasionally happens, or half the things on the menu in your restaurant are unavailable, please bear the following in mind. Just over twenty years ago, after the fall of the Soviet bloc, Cuba was plunged from the good times of trading with its communist partners into a ‘special period’ of severe shortages where nothing got imported, Soviet subsidies disappeared overnight, Cubans lined up for food and found nothing available, cats and dogs began disappearing from the streets, you get the idea. It was harsh and Cubans don’t like talking about it. There was no petrol/diesel, blackouts to save energy lasted for hours and hours (imagine non-working fridges and air-con in a tropical country) and people biked miles and miles to school or work or waited hours for a bus that might appear, and then did the same again to get home. In the mid-90s, the dollar was legalised and the government began encouraging tourism, which now is the major income generator in the country. That and the revenue from the ever-growing diaspora of 2 million Cubans living abroad, many in Miami.

Cuba depends on tourism but doesn’t have the resources to improve the infrastructure that the ever-increasing tourism demands, especially now Americans find it easier to come and visitor numbers are increasing at a crazy rate. (So are hotel prices because there aren’t the rooms available in the limited number of hotels in existence so prices have sky-rocketed this year – thanks Obama! His visit and moves to improve relations have created even greater interest in the island, among curious and adventurous Americans, and the rest of the world keen to see the place ‘before the Americans arrive’. It is too late, my friend!

Anyway, the relationship with the US very much defines the island, since the Spanish-American war of 1898, through the 1930s and 40s and 50s when Havana became an exotic playground for Americans gamblers, tourists and the mafia. Meanwhile, many rural Cubans lived illiterate and desperate lives with little education and opportunities to improve their lot.

The ‘triumph of the revolution’, which is the noun for revolution here, changed all that. Within a few years, Cuba had achieved one of the world’s highest literacy rates, built schools all across the island, with free education for all up to masters levels, and introduced a free universal health system, which led to great achievements. But 50+ years in power with the same government is too long, and things have stagnated, the infrastructure has crumbled, and the US embargo against the island has made and continues to make things very difficult. Foreign businesses are prevented from doing business with the island for fear of angering the Americans and losing business interests in the US. But remember the great stuff – comradeship, community, friendly locals, wonderful music, safe walking in the streets late at night, gorgeous beaches with the 2nd largest coral reef in the world to its north, it is unique and feels like stepping back in time. But..useful to always take the good with the bad.

Safe journey!

DIY in Cuba

It’s pretty exhausting buying and setting up a home in Cuba. Also it is very expensive. Now that we have family coming to stay for our wedding next month, it has also become quite stressful. This large apartment was vacated and cleaned by the previous owners, with whom we have become good friends, but the couple that owned the place with them took everything out when they left – gas water heater, light fittings, light bulbs, shelves. Now the rush is on to replace those items, and furnish and fix up, in a country where even sourcing a mattress, new water heater or white paint, for example, is a huge challenge.

We saw an advert in Revolico online today, the Cuban version of Craig’s List or Gumtree., where locals sell their gwe ood online, many imported from Panama at very low cost (only permanent residents, or Cubans can do this though, and they need to get a visa first. Appointments for visa applications are available by booking on the telephone between 2 and 4 on Thursdays. The line is always busy.) Thank heavens wifi is so much more available than before – without Revolico, we could buy very little. What we need just doesn’t exist in government stores, and when it does, it’s astounding how much things cost. Cheapest Chinese oven $700 cucs/dollars/£610, washing machine $600/£525, fridge $750, 32 inch TV $600 and up, single bed frame $500. So instead, we drive around Havana on our electric scooter and look for things we need in four or five government stores, and we may come home with something – washing up liquid, a floor mop, a bucket, batteries, glasses or a salad bowl. I dream of finding all those things in the same shop but it’s highly unlikely. We find out who’s selling what by word of mouth among friends, what they call Radio Bemba (radio lips). Remember there’s no advertising here, so no commercials or publicity to alert one to where things are. This week a lady advertised so many things on revolico I can only assume she was moving…fridge, sofa, beds and mattresses, TV, dining room set, washing machine, writing desk..and the infamous water heater! By the time we saw the week-old ad, there was nothing left but a couple of armchairs. Yet all these things could be available in the same megastore in the UK, or just one website in fact, and today was a harsh reminder of how wonderful that would be here.

Of course, finding a fridge on sale on Revolico in some distant suburb of Havana then requires thought as to how the bring the item home, finding a truck that can handle it, or a taxi for smaller items, or in my arms on the scooter if we can get away with it. Also, a significant amount of cash as very few of these items are payable by credit card. Here, cash is king, we even bought our apartment worth quite a few thousand dollars in cash. Stored in a suitcase until the sale was ready to go through. It has really been quite an eventful year!

Now, I really must go. ….we have go across the city to pick up a 40 inch flat screen and bring it back on the moped.

The Malecon

img_0894

It’s the first cold front of the New Year and the wind howls at our window every night. The view from where we live is spectualar, ten floors up and a view of the sea and part of the seafront boulevard Malecon, the so-called ‘sofa of Havana’, but now I understand why so many people close in their balconies, especially at this height. The wind is whipping the Atlantic over the Malecon wall, some of the nearby streets are flooded, and the traffic is heavier than usual in surrounding streets, as the police close the expressway of the Malecon to cars. The salty water does so much damage to the usually pretty ancient cars anyway that it’s wise not to subject them to other than optimal conditions.

Last night L and I walked a while in the middle of the closed-off Malecon, a wonderful feeling when you know that usually you risk being knocked down just trying to cross this fast-moving avenue of traffic that sweeps from the tunnel exit of the Miramar neighbourhood (this goes under the Almendares river as it empties out into the sea) all the way along the Vedado and Central Havana neighbourhoods to Old Havana. We are just lucky to live so close to this famous boulevard, so integral to the image of Havana, and referred to in so much Cuban music.

It’s a wonderful place to go for a walk or a run, or to go in the evening and enjoy the street life, where many go in lieu of spending money on an entrance to some club. Couples sit and canoodle, dreamers sit and gaze across the Florida straits towards Miami where no doubt they have some family living there now. Popcorn and drink sellers ply their trade to the friends and family hanging out on a Saturday night, others bring rum and guitars and make a party for anyone who wants to join – foreigners bringing rum will feel especially welcome!

This was one of my first experiences here six years ago, and the openness, warmth and strength of spirit of the Cuban people has still never ceased to amaze me. When choosing where to live in this city of 2 million people, I was very fortunate to be able to choose to live so close to this focal point of my Havana life.

A New Year in Havana..

A new year in Cuba and I said goodbye to my last tour group of 2016 (and first of 2017). I always feel a bit flat at this time, after so many days of wonderful company and conversation with interesting, intellectual and fun Americans. And suddenly they are gone. At such a turbulent time in American politics, it’s been nice to be able to discuss such issues with people directly affected, although it won’t just be the US that suffers the fallout of this presidential election decision. The rapprochement between the US and Cuba really hangs in the balance right now, and nobody knows which way Donald Trump will go. Still, Cubans are nervous. For decades, they’ve enjoyed a unique immigration status in the US, needing only to land on US shores to be able to claim the right to live, work and stay in the US. This is the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy. You land on shore and your foot stays dry, you made it, congratulations – in one year, you’ll have a green card. You get caught by coastguards in the Florida straits, your foot still wet, and they send you back to Cuba. It’s not that Cuba is such a terrible place, but when you are a young professional, educated, half your family is in the US, and the only work you can find is as a taxi driver, it’s tempting to want to try your fortune abroad. This is an island too, sometimes just the very fact of being from an island leaves you with a desire to cross the water and see what’s out there – I know that, coming from Britain.

Suddenly, they are gone. It’s a chance though to now focus on projects at hand – fitting out and furnishing 2 properties which L and I plan to live in and also rent out, and also prepare for our wedding on 18 February, here in Havana!

Kindly folks keep asking if we are getting far with the wedding planning…I would say no! But we have a wedding planner here (who apparently organised Madonna’s recent birthday here) and the dresses, suit and rings are bought. And venue booked.. That’s something. Weddings here are often smaller affairs, due to restrained budgets, and many couples don’t marry just to avoid the costs. This wedding will be cheaper than one in the UK or USA, no doubt, but still more expensive than an average Cuban to Cuban wedding, I imagine.