Havana, Cuba Report of what it's like to live there - 08/14/13
Personal Experiences from Havana, Cuba
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Chicago. About an hour flight to Miami if all goes well.
If all goes off the rails you can be stuck in the airport for 6 or more hours. This has happened on numerous occasions between 2012/13 and has affected everyone and including the Chief of Mission. Many people stay overnight in Miami rather than chance missing their connecting flight. Airlines will generally not rebook you for missing a connecting flight as they are not in the same system as the U.S. Treasury Charter Flights. The Tampa flight is more reliable but does not fly as often.
3. How long have you lived here?
15 months and counting.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Government - USINT.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing is a crap shoot with some being overjoyed with their house until they learn that their 50 year old cistern has cracked and they have no water. Others seem unhappy with large but plain houses. All things considered a fair majority of the houses are very nice with wonderful detail touches from Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Modernist styles that leave you wondering "who lived in this place before Castro?" The sole landlord is the Government of Cuba and all residences are leased, it is very difficult to acquire new houses.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Grocery bill can vary from week to week depending on availablity. If there is nothing to buy you'll spend US$20 bucks, if milk shows up that week along with chicken and some other items you might spend US$400 stocking up for a family of 3. Produce is cheap but supply is extremely seasonal and sporadic.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Healthy snacks, sports equipment. If you want it ship it- the majority of houses have decent storage or old servants quarters/in-laws houses.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Mostly terrible but a few bright spots- most if it you couldn't call "fast" Can range form 10 cents for a flimsy piece of pizza to US$12 for all you can eat roasted chicken, beans, rice, and fixings. Very little in the way of American fast food or restaurant culture. The Paladars do try very hard- though it is difficult to maintain supplies and cuban cooking can be very bland and boring. One sushi place, one Mexican place. You have to manage expectations on service, seasoning, etc.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Ants, cockroaches, termites. Nothing post can get its hands on does much. Raid Bug Barrier has helped keep cockroaches at bay.
You won't win with the ants. Learn to respect them and come to an understanding.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Mail is received via pouch- subject to arbitrary rejections and delays. Sometimes one month sometimes 12 months delayed. Sending is done by informal pony express, officers handcarry mail and small packages as they fly out.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
US$50/week for full-time housekeeper US$30/week for part-time gardner.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
A few with varying levels of quality.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
N/A for Americans. Cards can be used by other nationals if not issued by, associated with or a subsidiary of an American bank. Double check before swiping.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
No newspapers. Folks have arranged English language TV.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Survival Spanish will do, more job opportunities for spouses with a 2/2 or higher. Easier to find what you are looking for in groceries or otherwise with language.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Street are pothole ridden and the sidewalks are often worse. Very few buildings are accessible. Elevators are rarely a sure thing.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
No trains in town, mostly sporadic and relatively unreliable buses- pick pocketing an issue. Taxis outside hotels are reliable and affordable but good luck hailing one on the street or calling one.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
SUV - with all the oil, filters, belts, wipers, fluid you could ever need for two years.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
No. Painfully slow satelite internet. You will not stream, you will not telework. US$89/month
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Post issues one- your smartphone just became a very small tablet with no data access.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
As a matter of practice no. They will tell you this- but no one follows up.
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
Some vets, no kennels. Most dog owners help each other out while on leave. Medicines are in short supply.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Very relaxed. Front Office, Pol/Econ and PD will wear jackets, ties, pant suits for meetings and usually in the office. But jeans and a tucked in polo are acceptable.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Very safe for most crime, take normal precautions of your average city. Zero assumption of privacy.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Health Unit is honestly incompetent. Teeth cleaning and vision services (contacts and eyeglasses) are afforadable on the local economy. Lots of pregnant women who seem to do fine despite lackluster med.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Moderate. Havana is one big construction zone/junk yard in various state of progress/decay. A lot of dust flying around but no worse than bigger cities.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Hot and Rainy from May/June to October. Hurricane season peaking in October. Mild from November to April, but it can still get hot during the fall and winter months. Humidity is no worse than a summer in DC.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
3 at post. An IB International School, Spanish, and French School. The International School runs from great to mediocre the older your child is. Parents are generally happy with all of the schools, though communication is an issue at all the schools. It's very difficult for teachers to get Visas at times so much of the staff at the schools are Cuban Nationals.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Very little support for physical issues.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
No experience but all of the schools have pre-schools.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Swimming lessons, private horseback lessons, other lessons abound, very little in team sports.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Small. Private businesses don't come here for fear of nationalization (The Spanish hotels are 51% owned by the government). Not a huge UN presence or other NGO. Most diplomats are family households. Makes life rough on singles.
2. Morale among expats:
Surprisingly good. Not great- but most people do fine by keeping a positive attitude and not dwelling on the negatives. A sense of humor is a must.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Lots of dinner parties, cookouts, cocktail hours, kids parties. There is plenty of stuff to do in town if you look for it and don't need a CLO or an MWO to force feed you activities.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Great for families, good for couples, TERRIBLE for singles under the Non Frat policy.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Yes, vibrant gay culture with an active, though sometimes underground, gay rights movement.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Racial issues can be seen with some African American officers reporting prejudice and discrimination.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
World class cigars at comparably cheap prices. Very little traffic. US$10 in-home massage, US$20 salsa lessons. High rate of spousal employment. Locals are incredibly warm and welcoming despite relations between U.S. and Cuba.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Nice beaches to the east, Cigar shops, Excellent Ballet, Great baseball (different stlye of play though), toursit spots are nice a few times but lose their luster when you consider the real world on the edges of them. CLO and the Marines have an active event schdule throughout the year.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Artwork, cigars, rum, old advertisements from the Pre Revolution period
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Very affordable househelp and lessons in almost anything you can imagine, mild weather November through April, natural beauty in the mountains and coasts, cigars and rum if that's your thing, You can save money if you go without and stay on island (thoguh I don't recommend the latter).
11. Can you save money?
Yes, if you do without some of the higher priced groceries and Miami supply runs.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, but I wouldn't want to come back.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Heavy winter coats, appetite for spicy or salty food, presumptions about the Cuban people, consumer hobbies.
3. But don't forget your:
Healthy snacks, rain gear, patience, dark humor, sense of adventure.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Pitching Around Fidel.
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
Habana Blues, Juan de los Muertos, Fresas y Chocolate
6. Do you have any other comments?
People who want to be happy here generally succeed at that. People who want to be miserable always succeed at that.