Well dear readers, we are nearing the end of my 5-part travel series with topics including:
-Mental preparation for travel abroad
-Differences between traveling alone and traveling with a group
-Language and cultural differences
-Navigating your way through a new city
-Physically adapting to a new environment
In future posts, you can expect to learn all about the ups and downs of the transportation system here in Cuba. (This week for me it has been mostly “downs”, but I digress…) Here, however, I am writing a general list of suggestions and warnings for travelers to foreign countries concerning navigation and essentially trying not to get lost.
Those who know me well know that navigation has never been one of my strengths. I go by landmarks and memory, and if you are trying to give me directions I need to hear “go left at the Citgo”, because if you say “go east on Elm” I am lost. But in Cuba, I quickly discovered I get lost either way! For the first several days everything looked exactly the same to me, eliminating any change for success with my “navigation by landmark” approach. In addition to this, it took a while for me to reach a comfort level where I was willing to ask random strangers where I was or where to go. When I tried asking for help I faced a series of obstacles ranging from not being able to understand them to having the nice Cuban stranger inform me that I don’t need to go home, I need to go into this shop or restaurant and relax…. VERY frustrating, to say the least.
So, I have prepared these 5 basic suggestions based on my experiences as an aid to future navigationally-challenged travelers:
1) Getting your bearings
I will start with an anecdote about my least favorite part in all of Habana, the capitolio area. I call this my least favorite because practically every time I have ventured to the area surrounding the Capital building I have managed to get myself hopelessly lost. Without fail, the next day one of my Cuban friends has accompanied me to the scene of my navigational nightmare to show me where I went wrong, and upon my return to the capital it happened all over again, leaving me convinced that the streets outside of the Institute of History magically shift every time I exit the building. (Maybe I get this theory from reading too much Harry Potter, but I am sticking with it!)
Even if I was lucky enough to come across one of the cheap taxis while wandering aimlessly, I never knew which one was heading towards my apartment because I had no relative idea where my apartment was located in relation to the capital. Finally one day it sunk in, and I discovered that if I am facing the capital and the Institute is on one side of me and the Paseo de Prado on the other then my apartment is “That Way!”
Granted, at any time I could have hailed an official taxi and been driven right to my door, but for 10 times (or more) the cost of taking a bus or Cuban cab. For this reason, it is important to quickly learn your bearings in a new area. Using obvious, constant markers such as the largest building, the ocean, mountains or a monument (or the street grid system if you prefer!) you must study the layout of your new city before venturing out on your own.
2) Public Transit
Besides being the obvious economical choice for getting around, public transport can also provide a unique view of the people and culture in a new country. This is particularly true in Cuba, where you can get closer to massive amounts of Cubans in one 5-minute bus ride than in several weeks of average interactions in stores and restaurants.
Several volumes need to be written on the guagua (bus) in Cuba, but do not expect that from this author, as I have a decidedly love-hate relationship with these dangerous contraptions. I love them because I love Cubans and, as I just mentioned, you will not find this many Cubans in this small of a space anywhere else. I hate them because they have no set schedule that I can make out, they are packed to the point that it is often hard to breathe, the drivers seem to feel they are carting livestock rather than people, and drive accordingly, and I have yet to determine if they actually have set, reliable routes.
For my personal sanity and to avoid being as much as an hour late to classes and meetings as a result of waiting for a guagua, I made the decision when traveling alone to either walk or take a Cuban taxi. These taxis are fantastic and, to my knowledge, do not exist in the US. Cuban taxis, or almendrons, (the word for the still-running antique US cars prevalent on the streets in Cuba) are basically carpools that run throughout the city and surrounding areas at all hours of the day for a little more than the price of the guagua. Thanks to Cuban ingenuity and the massive size of older automobiles, these cabs can hold between 6 and 16 passengers, depending on the size of the car and the size of the passengers.
There are two methods for travel using a Cuban cab, the first being the well-known practice in the US of hailing a taxi as it drives down the road. In Cuba, however, this process is slightly different. Since these cabs hold numerous passengers all wanting to get to different places along one route in a somewhat timely fashion, a driver will not stop every time someone signals for a cab. When the driver passes a parada (bus or cab stop) with several people waiting, he will hold his arm out the window and point with his finger to indicate in which direction his cab is heading. If you are going that way, you signal him to stop. Here again, this form of travel requires exact knowledge of your location in the city in relation to your destination.
The other method for taking a Cuban cab is by finding a street with a line of cabs parked on the side. Here, there will likely be a man shouting street names or neighborhoods like a scalper outside Wrigley Field on game day. Upon finding the cab heading in your desired direction, you enter and wait until the cab is full to capacity, ensuring the driver makes maximum profit per route, minus the generous tip he gives the “scalper” for filling his cab. However, if it is a slow time on the streets and you are the first passenger, you may find yourself waiting for as long as 45 minutes before the driver puts the car in gear, in which case you should maybe consider walking.
I love the idea of living in a city where you can walk anywhere you need to go, or just go for a walk one day if you are bored. As I mentioned in my previous post, one Sunday morning after my arrival in Cuba I walked out my front door and started walking and did not make it back for 4 hours. Besides being good exercise, walking can be a great way to really see your new surroundings and get to know the area. But walking also has its obstacles.
Besides the obvious initial potential of getting lost, you must also consider outside factors such as the weather. Here in Cuba, if I know I will be walking a lot I always bring an umbrella. Serving a dual-purpose as a parasol, my bright pink umbrella can protect me during my walks from the oppressive Caribbean sun and random sprinkles or tropical downpours that can occur without a moments notice this time of year.
In addition, though you may have a fantastic pair of heels or sandals that go perfectly with your outfit, you need to wear tennis shoes while walking here due to uneven pavement, random rusty metal obstacles in the sidewalk, and the probability that you will have to run across an intersection at some point to avoid being hit by a renegade guagua.
That being said, walking is my preferred way to get around in Cuba.
4) Memorize your address
This point is particularly vital for travelers staying in casa particulares or hostels as opposed to large, well-known hotels. If you are staying at the Hotel Nacional, for example, any driver in Habana will know exactly where to take you. However, anywhere less “famous” and you may not have the same luck.
To highlight the importance of this I will share a personal story:
During one of our first nights in Cuba this past June, a group of us with the delegation went out for the evening. We had an official cab come and pick us up right in front of the center and planned to take a cab back at the end of the evening. My roommate and I decided to cut our evening short and walked outside the discoteca to find a cab. We found a driver and told them we were heading to the Martin Luther King Center. He stared at us blankly. We repeated that we were staying at the Martin Luther King Center in Marianao. He stared at us blankly. Neither of us knew the address so we just started blurting out the names of nearby stores and landmarks, but since most actual stores in Cuba are the same and cafeterias are labeled cafeteria, there was no way to give him exact information except that it was by a library. He offered to just drive us around Marianao until we saw something that looked familiar, but as two young women alone at night that seemed like a precarious plan, so we sat outside and waited nearly an hour for one of our friends who knew the address to come out and get us safely home.
My point in sharing this story is that you cannot assume that every cab driver will know where you are staying, even if it is a hotel. Since you do not need to be lost alone at night in a foreign country, your best bet is to memorize your address and cross streets immediately upon arrival.
As far as my personal navigation saga with Habana is concerned, I am nearly a month into my life here and I am fairly certain I have it mostly figured out. I can walk, signal a cab or hop on a guagua in any part of the city I am familiar with. Thanks to a clever street system of numbers and letters rather than names, I can even navigate by street names! (Thank you, thank you… No applause necessary.) However, the process of learning my way around was challenging and, to be perfectly honest, at times really scary. Hopefully these tips will help future travelers as they learn their way around a new city.