Cuba Prep - Part 1
Mar 30
Considering a Cuba trip to keep up with the Obama family? There's good news if you are: Starwood is planning to manage two hotels on the island. This means more flights to Cuba, and it's possible individuals will no longer need government approval before traveling. Even this week before Obama landed, it was announced that US banks can now accept / honor transactions made in Cuba. Progress!

If this news intrigues you, how about some packing tips. Why? Well, per the above article about Starwood:

...hotel accommodations in Cuba are often overbooked and very outdated. Travelers have complained of musty-smelling rooms with poor air-conditioning or no toilet paper and unappetizing food at state-run hotels.

And that's in a hotel. I don't know about you, but my image of Cuba was glamour, not musty rooms. Good old-fashioned glamour, undoubtedly learned from movies. Whether it was Johnny Depp frolicking around the island in linen in The Rum Diary or watching Nucky Thompson of Boardwalk Empire negotiate deals in a seedy bar, Cuba has been shown as glamorous. Dangerous, perhaps, but definitely chic. And that image is fiction. Cuba is old and neglected and falling apart:

In Havana alone, it is said that three houses collapse either partially or completely every single day.

That's a horrifying statistic, and yet, it's in individual homes that most tourists will stay, and where most restaurants are located. (Read more here.) This contrast between preconceived notions of Cuba and its reality is why packing tips are necessary (IMHO).

If you thinking, Well, I'll just stay in one of those Starwood places, let's think this through. Presumably it will take some months for Starwood to get these two hotels up to their standards, with toilet paper, toilet seats, internet, and other basic amenities American tourists require (yes - a toilet seat is an amenity). Let's talk numbers: Hotel Inglaterra has 83 rooms, and the Avenida has 186 rooms, so only 269 rooms will be managed by Starwood to start. Not too many rooms, is it? (Here's another article about shortages.) There are a couple of other high end hotels in Cuba, but most people will still be staying in casa particulars, or rooms in private homes. I was in Cuba for Christmas 2015, and stayed in a casa particular in old Havana, which is a slum. There were still no (zero) drugstores, clothing stores, grocery stores. If we had forgotten a razor or sunscreen, too bad. There were grocery stores of a sort: small rooms with glass cases. In the cases would be a (single) pack of gummy worms, a couple of bottles of shampoo, a package of crackers. Each would be priced at about 5 CUCs. Since an average Cuban makes 30 CUCs a month, these are not items for purchase by the locals. These are for tourists, and the selection is minute. (It's also comical if you're coming from a country with 750 brands of dental floss.) The local populace buys from government stores, or - if they're lucky - gets goods from relatives in Miami. At the airport I was chatting with people bringing massive bags packed with consumer items into Cuba for family - everything from underwear to TVs. Local Cubans have access to very little, and as a tourist, you will be in the same boat. So bring what you need, and perhaps what others need as well.

Consider taking the following items. And, consider how you will dispose of these things and their packaging once used:

1. Drugstore items: There are current articles about Americans trying to set up partnerships in Cuba in order to import / export, and the legal and societal issues that are preventing a smooth path forward. So don't count on any finding a Walgreens anytime soon. Some items you don't want to forget include:
- Condoms
- Tampons, pads or this.
- Neosporin, bandaids, Ace bandages, blister pads, Imodium, EmergenC
- Pain meds, like Advil and Tylenol
- Sunscreen and aloe
- TP and wipes
- Tissues, or better yet, hankies
- Spare toothbrushes and plenty of toothpaste

There is a shortage of TP in Cuba. If you stay in a hotel you might have enough, but there won't be any in restaurants, coffee shops, casa particulars. Tissues are a luxury: I saw none while there. Wipes are a great idea for clean up in general, but remember this: No TP, feminine products, or wipes can be flushed. Anything you use will go in the garbage and end up on the street in bins for pick up. There is a lot of trash in Cuba, including a lot of trash in the ocean. Consider how you want to contribute to that pile up. Keeping a damp washcloth and soap in your bag is an alternative to wipes, for example, and much kinder on the environment.

2. Clothes, underwear, soap: Obviously you are taking clothes and underwear. But if you forget anything, you won't be able to buy it. I take an abundance of underwear everywhere, and I was super glad of that habit in Cuba. Same with the handwash soap; I used it every day. This is a hot and sticky climate, and washing your clothes is a necessity. There won't be a dry cleaner or laundry available, and I wouldn't rely on a hotel taking care of this (until you hear otherwise from travelers). Also, quick-dry fabrics are genius in this climate. Don't forget:
- Sun hat
- Sunglasses
- Towel for the bathroom / beach
- Washcloth
- Umbrella for sun protection / rain if you're so inclined
- Swimsuit
- Wicking socks and walking shoes

3. Food: This is more of an alert. If you're a traveler, you're probably accustomed to doing as the locals do. Just in case, be aware that you won't be able to get a granola bar or a bag of chips at the corner as there is no corner store. There won't be a tea selection. The owner of our casa particular charged a premium for coffee and recommended we bring our own if we visited again. It's hard for locals to obtain coffee. Weird, right? I recommend packing some fallback food to get you through unforeseen events: Power bars, tea bags, favorite coffee or tea. The food in Cuba is far better than it was even a few years ago, and there's plenty of alcohol. However, all drinks made with ice could cause you a problem. Don't forget the Imodium. Also, I've heard recent reports that with the increase in tourists, food shortages are occurring. Some snacks in your suitcase could save the day.

I dislike packing this heavily, but in hindsight I would have taken even more stuff. I forgot Bandaids, for example, but someone else on the trip had enough to share. I used hers and she used my Advil, as I brought a healthy supply. This will happen to you - you will need to share, so take plenty. My other hurdle is not leaving trash behind on a trip. In Cuba I felt this acutely, as there is trash everywhere on the streets and in the water. I did not want to contribute. As I look at this list, though, I don't see too many items where a zero-waste alternative is an option. This may be one of those times where you loosen your garbage rules and eat the granola bar in a plastic wrapper or use the non-biodegradable wipes. No judging from this corner. That's why we try so hard most of the time, right? To ease our guilt or discomfort during those times when creating waste eases our way, or is flat-out necessary.
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