Monday May 13, 2013
Our first order of business now that we were checked into Cuba was to exchange some of our US dollars for CUC. Fortunately our neighbor/translator Christine was back and was going to help us do just this. Since there’s not much most Cuban’s can do with US money (remember, we’re not supposed to exchange anything between our countries) we pay a higher exchange rate than most countries and only get $0.88 on every $1 we change out. Canada apparently has one of the best exchange rates at $0.96. Christina, for today at least, was able to help us out with this exchange rate. She hails from Washington very near Vancouver and travels around with Canadian cash on her just for stops like this. She was leaving the next day and still had a decent amount of Canadian money on her so she traded us our US money at a 1 to 1 rate so we could get a better exchange while turning that money into CUC. Then going above and beyond (as if just trading the cash wasn’t enough) she walked us out to a little exchange shop on the street, no only so we could locate it for future necessity, but so she could handle the translations and we wouldn’t be left there babbling and making wild hand gestures which would happen if we were left to our own devices. In rapid fire Spanish that would leave my head spinning even if I had been studying the language for a few years (which I have…..15 years ago….) she joked and laughed with the tellers as she exchanged some last minute cash for herself and then separately exchanged the $200 we had paid her back at the marina.
We thanked her profusely while she replied that it was no big deal. On our way back she asked if we wouldn’t mind quickly stopping off at one of the pharmacies so she could grab something. I’m getting incredibly low on my hypothyroidism medication and since this may be our only time in a Cuban pharmacy with a translator I asked if she could request a refill for me. It turns out they had exactly what I needed, but not knowing how a new brand would affect my system I only took two boxes of 20 tablets. Christine paid for both hers and mine and when I asked how much I owed her she just laughed and said, “Well if you can spare it, yours came to $0.025”. Yes, that’s right. Six weeks of my medication cost me less than three cents US.
Second order of business was food. We dropped off most of CUC back at the boat and took once more to the streets of Cienfuegos. Wanting to have some more cash on us for the rest of the week we grabbed some USD and went back to the exchange shop we had just come from. We converted another $200 to CUC, and once we had that we pushed $20 back towards the teller and asked for Peso Cubano, or local pesos. For the most part, tourist, American or not, are not supposed to be spending with the local money and should only be paying for things in CUC. The topic on dual money in this country is more than I could explain in this post, even if it were the only thing I was writing about, so if you’d like more information on it just click here. So we weren’t supposed to be spending local money (ok, we weren’t even really supposed to be spending CUC), but one thing we did know about the local money is that if you can get your hands on it and take it to the right places, you can buy things cheap! And the two things we heard were abundant and cheap here were pizza and soft serve ice cream. We were now in Cuba, we now had Peso Cubanos in our hands, and we weren’t going to sleep until we had these two items in our stomach. The mission was on.
Weaving out of the side streets back to the main Melecon we walked past the waterfront of the bay and towards the center of town. It’s a lovely place with old French inspired Neoclassical buildings and a prado running through the center of town, lined with trees and benches. The area was so beautiful and we were surprised we didn’t see more people out soaking in the ambiance, although it was still fairly early in the day. We couldn’t forget about our mission and had an eye out for ice cream or pizza past every pastel building we passed. After a good mile or two of walking we realized the main road was probably for tourist and we’d do better on one of the side streets. Taking a random turn we walked passed groups of kids that we just getting out of school and I’d have to stop every 30 seconds to look around me and say “Oh my god, this is so beautiful!”. I was so busy looking at all the buildings that I almost missed two school girls in uniform walking down the sidewalk with ice creams in their hand. Running up to them I asked “Con permiso, busco dulce de leche”, and pointed at their cones. They looked at each other, then and me, and then back at each other, thoroughly confused. I pointed once more to their ice cream and asked “Donde esta?”.
Now, for anyone who knows Spanish, you’re probably about on the floor laughing. What I had done was walk up to them and ask “With permission, I’m searching for sweet milk”. The only part I may have gotten right was the end where I asked “Where is it?”. Stupid high school Spanish. I think I did get my point through enough though, since they looked back to the direction they had just come from and pointed. We had a lead. Following the street we saw more and more school kids with cones in their hands. The further we got down the road the taller the cones were, meaning they had to have just purchased them. Finally we spotted it. Tucked into a small door with no sign indicating what lie there, was the ice cream shop. I indicated to the guy passing out cones that I wanted 2, and handed him 10 pesos. In return I was given two tall soft serves, at the grand total of $0.40. With one of the two items checked off our list, we made our way back out to the main street to oggle the buildings and prado a little more. People were beginning to get out of work and it was becoming more bustling.
We kept going until the center walkway ended and decided to take one of the sidewalks back so we could get a closer view of some of these buildings. There was a large group of people crowding the doorway to one shop and spilling out into the street. Looking to see what all the hubbub was about we peeked in the door to find out….it was a pizza shop. And they would serve you up your own double cheese pie for only 10 pesos. Jumping in line I ordered one for each of us along with a couple of tamarind juices which were quickly shot back while we waited for the pizzas to cook. Once they were done they were placed on small cardboard sheets and we walked out the door. Taking a seat on one of the benches outside we dug into the pizzas only to find they weren’t quite what we were expecting. The dough was very soft and the cheese had a distinct but strange taste that neither of us were very fond of. Eating what we could, we sat and people watched in the golden rays of the setting sun. When I couldn’t touch any more I passed my leftovers to a few of the dogs wandering the streets. I wanted to stay in that spot all night and take in the city, but my eyes were fighting the fatigue I had been battling all day and it was time to go. Taking in as many images that day as I still could, I made my way back to the marina, utterly exhausted and completely content.
Boat in repair at the marina.
Strolling the Paseo del Prado.