Havana, Cuba Report of what it's like to live there - 01/02/16
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?
No, I've lived in Europe, Africa and Asia.
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?
Western U.S. Due to the charter company layover in Miami, this trip takes longer than it appears on a map. We generally have to sleep in Miami in at least one direction, usually in both directions. This may improve with the anticipated commercial flights, as these should allow you to check your bags at a normal counter on one end of your trip, and retrieve them on the other end, without having to essentially leave the airport and check back in again in Miami.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing is varied-- mostly ranch-style homes from the 50s and 40s with back yards, about 20 minutes drive from the embassy. There are many maintenance issues. There are a couple of serious duds in the housing pool, but most of the housing is quite nice.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
There is probably no post with less availability of groceries or household supplies. You are foolish if you don't use the consumables shipment. One of the greatest frustrations here is driving around all weekend looking for coat hangers or butter and not finding what you want. Everyone builds little hordes of food. When you have built up your food stock over a couple months, you will feel better. Just bring everything. Remember, there is no mail here. We made many trips to get suitcases of food to bring back to Havana. Once, when we were losing our minds, we went to Miami just to go shopping, and mostly for food.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Take. It. All.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are some nice restaurants, but they are, again, really very similar to one another. There just isn't a lot of variety in ingredients or knowledge here. Cost is about $20 a person for a nice dinner. There is not really very much when it comes to fast-food or take-out or delivery. Just some kind of bad pizzas delivered on motorcycles.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
There are very small mosquitoes that get into the homes and carry dengue, and there is an amazing variety of household ants. We haven't really had classic sugar-eating kitchen ants, but we've had plenty of grout-eating, wood-eating ants and some very tiny ones that burn your skin and cause little boils.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
In a major morale hit, we went from being able to receive at least very small packages to now only being able to receive flat mail. Too bad for kids having birthdays or people needing more meds for their pets or just a tiny part. The embassy promotes a sea shipper, but it takes 4 months and is terribly expensive. Mostly, we wait until we until our next trip to the U.S. and bring stuff back in our suitcases. Some embassy workers have jobs that bring them to the States often for work, but others have to just wait until their next R & R leave or pay for a shopping trip.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Many are available at about $200-$300/month full-time. This is one of the best posts for domestic help, in my opinion.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are some options for memberships at the hotels and at the Havana Club.
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?
For Americans, that still isn't possible.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
I'm not sure, but maybe there are.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Quite a bit. Not many Cubans speak English; they are mostly the the tourist hasslers in old town.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes, it is not set up to be accessible to all.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Yes, they are both. But they are crowded, and it isn't very easy to understand their routes.
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?
Bring extra wipers, air filters, and such, because things like like that are hard to find and expensive.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
There is no post with worse internet access. It is $80 a month, works about 75% of the time, has a download limit that would prevent streaming even if it were fast enough. Usually it's not strong enough even for Skype video without cutting out. It works okay for phone-over-internet and browsing and emailing.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Not much choice here. Just an embassy phone with no email, no internet---just an expensive call/text plan.
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?
I have heard of people being happy with a vet here, and then someone else said the same vet killed her kitten. Certainly, it is easy to find a dog walker.
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?
No. But there are usually many good EFM jobs at the embassy.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Very few or none. The government of Cuba wouldn't like that kind of thing.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Unusually casual. Cuba is more casual than anywhere else in Latin America. Ladies in their fifties and sixties will wear stretchy pants with flags on them and a bright halter top. Even official uniforms at stores and the airport involve fishnet stockings and short skirts. Anything goes.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
No, this is one of the safest posts out there. I feel very comfortable walking around late at night. Once, I was walking through a neighborhood late at night (it was a poor neighborhood and people were partying and drinking outside) and I suddenly thought how scary this neighborhood would be anywhere else in the hemisphere, but how safe and friendly it is in Cuba.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Cuba has well-educated doctors, but I hear that the quality is not as high as it once was. The facilities are lacking as well. Medevacs are the norm.
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?
Air quality is lovely.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Actually, people's allergies seem to be terrible here. Some people have discovered allergies they never knew they had. But at least the pollution is almost nonexistent, so it sort of balances out.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Too hot in the summer, particularly because most of what there is to do is outside. Not many places to beat the heat. But those 4 months are a small price to pay to receive 8 nice-weather months.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are three international schools: ISH, the French school, and the Spanish school. Communication is poor at all three, but teacher-student ratios are excellent at all three. The French school gets out early (1:30?) and doesn't offer a lot of extracurricular activities. The Spanish school churns out truly bilingual kids and has a warm atmosphere, but it also has the worst parent-school communication. ISH is okay, but the coursework isn't very challenging overall.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
I am not aware of any, but I haven't looked into it either.
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?
There is a preschool called Pikabu that is inexpensive and very sweet. It is Spanish language only, but it has an international clientele.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
There are some extracurricular sports, but just in a pick-up game kind of way. There are no real teams at the international schools. There are lessons available for martial arts, dance, tennis, and swimming.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Moderate size. There are many tiny missions in town, so there is a diverse community of diplomats. The morale among American officers is variable, with most seeming to have moderate morale. The frustrations of living in Cuba affect some more than others. "Home-life" morale does seem to be better than "work" morale, which seems to be pretty low.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Mostly, we go to each other's houses, to kids parties, and to dinner at various restaurants. There are also good music venues and an art scene.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Definitely so for families with young kids (not much going on here to keep teenagers happy). And there are many happy couples, especially if both work at the embassy. There is not much here for an adult with no kids to do if they don't work at the embassy or an international school. I have met some very lonely singles. It isn't just a dating issue; there just isn't much of a crowd for single friends. It is a very family-focused post.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Yes. Again, it is better if they are a couple, because singles of any sexual orientation might be a bit lonely here. But Cuba seems to embrace gay and lesbian people more than other latin American countries do.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
There are not obvious problems, but scratch a little deeper and racial prejudices do exist. Gender stereotypes also exist, and it there is a bit of on-street sexual harassment, but doesn't seem severe at all.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Visiting beaches out of town, eating in beautiful restaurants with pretty views, walking around old town early in the morning, or along the malecon.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
There are beaches near and far: Vinales, Trinidad, and Santiago de Cuba. There is an unfortunate sameness to towns and cities outside of Havana, and that can be boring. Also, diplomats can't stay at "casas particulares", they have to stay at hotels. So we end up staying at expensive all-inclusive hotels that have a sameness about them. The best gems seem to be in Havana itself.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Very nice paintings.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The best things about visiting Cuba are: walking in a beautiful, atmospheric, and unexpectedly large old town, and going to the beach. The best things about living in Cuba are some of the things Cuba lacks as a post: no or little pollution, traffic, crime or terrorism. There is also skilled and inexpensive household help available.
10. Can you save money?
Maybe, depending on how much you travel.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I knew the lack of items for sale would hurt, but I didn't realize the extent to which the embassy would have no mail, and that the city would offer few goods. Also, I wasn't fully understanding how cut off from the states and family I'd be-- with such bad internet and such expensive phones and high-priced tickets ($500 for a time-consuming flight to Miami, 45 minutes away). But there are many great surprises here, too.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, I would. Cuba isn't a bad post--- but it IS a frustrating post. 80% of the time I was happy to be there. It is safe, clean, baby-friendly and beautiful. The winter weather is lovely. It is an exotic and unique place. And this is an interesting time to be in Cuba. Cuban culture is friendly and lively. And the rum is top-notch and very inexpensive. Nanny costs were great for us as well.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
impatience. Cuba requires every ounce of patience you've got. Did your glasses break? Order a new pair on Amazon and pick them up when you are back in the states in eight months. That sort of thing.
4. But don't forget your:
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
Juan de los Muertos.
6. Do you have any other comments?
Cuba is changing fast- - -both as a country and as a posting. Seek out up-to-date info when bidding. Talk to someone there at the time you are bidding.
Also, it is difficult to get to know lots of Cubans. It isn't like other posts; in that respect. There are many barriers.