(Note: Joan Shnier and Jake Chazan wrote to us before leaving for Cuba, wanting to know if they could visit a synagogue in Havana although they were staying in Varadero. The report below tells of their experiences. There is much valuable advice here, including how an overly-cautious tour representative can prevent first-time visitors from having a full experience.)

Dear Richard:

My husband, Jake Chazan, forwarded your exchange of email to me so that I could add a few comments about our recent trip to Cuba. Now that we are back and have our creature comforts (and heating), my perspective is much more positive. I think we may have been overly cautious, but between what we read in the tourist guide books and on internet and the briefing by our tour rep, we were a bit frightened to strike out on our own. For example, our tour rep advised us NOT to rent a car because 1)the cost of renting and of insurance is expensive and the rules are very different than in Canada and the US and not always to our advantage 2) service centers are few and far between and there are relatively few motorists on the highways and should we run into car trouble, it could take a long time to get help and if it did arrive, they could just as easily try to harm us 3) we were advised most definitely NOT to drive at night because at night #2 is even more problematic.

We were very disappointed that we could not make it to the synagogue in Havana. The official, government licensed taxis charged $90 each way and then we would have had to pay for their time while they took us around Havana. We were advised NOT to make a private deal with an unofficial taxi or private person as this is illegal and could get the Cuban driver into a great deal of trouble if caught. Not to mention what might happen to us, although our rep did say that the government is not usually interested in harassing tourists.

Nonetheless, the Montreal family Jake mentioned to you did just that and paid about $100 for a return trip to Havana where they managed to visit the Orthodox shul and spend a short time with the chazan and his wife. There is a local bus service to Havana that uses new and comfortable buses and is more reasonable, but it only runs 3 x a day; the one way trip is 3 hours, the last return from Havana is around 4 p.m., and it drops you off on the outskirts of Havana. So then you have to make your own way into the city and back to the bus stop. Our rep advised us NOT to take that bus and NOT to wander around Havana alone. Although another person in our tour group said he had been to Havana many times and wandered around everywhere, our rep said that he has heard and had first hand experience with many unpleasant situations and that contrary to the popular belief that Cuba is a very safe place, many bad things happen and we should be very cautious. He has lived in Cuba for 3 years and seemed to know what's going on there.

So, as you can imagine, we were very reluctant to be adventurous. We took an organized tour to Havana and only afterward learned that it is possible to make a deal with the tour operator to take the bus in and be dropped off and picked up at a designated spot on the tour. If we had known that in advance, we may have left the tour for a while, gone to the shul and then joined up with it again for the return trip. I don't know if the cost would be less than for the complete tour. The tour cost $63 per person including lunch, and they may have charged less just for the transportation. That's another option to look into.

We stayed at the Arenas Blancas hotel on Varadero. It had a good location within easy walking distance from the town of Varadero. The hotel was very clean, but the food was another matter. It was plentiful and I'm sure it was all very sanitary although since we didn't eat the pork, and many of the side dishes also contained pork, not to mention the fact that the rest was not very appetizing, it was not a gourmet experience.

And I guess you know that in Cuba, you take what you can get, so in the morning you may get a grilled cheese sandwich on white bread and in the afternoon you might get it on a hamburger bun, or a hunk of French loaf, or a hotdog bun. To be fair, there was always chicken, usually a fish dish, many times they had seafood, lobster, shrimp, but as we had been cautioned against eating the shellfish etc., we didn't eat it. We were told that the water in Cuba, at least at the resort was safe to drink. The hotel has some kind of filtered water and we drank it with no ill effects. However our rep advised us to drink only bottled water and NOT to drink the tap water, especially the children, although he himself drinks it. They also advised us that to be really safe, we should only drink carbonated water since the carbonation process kills all bacteria. Even the bottled non carbonated water is sometimes suspect, although we drank it and didn't get sick. He also told us not to eat the fresh salads so we didn't, but we noticed that most people did and did not get sick.

Our rep told us that the food in the restaurants outside the hotel was not much better, but the couple of times we did eat out of the hotel, the food was considerably better, or maybe we were just starving and it seemed that way.

Believe it or not, Cuba is very expensive. Or at least it seemed so to us who use a very devalued Canadian dollar. The local taxis in Varadero charged $1.00 per kilometer so if you lived in one of the hotels at the far end of the strip away from the town and you wanted to go into town every day, it could cost you $20.00 for a return cab ride every day. In Havana they are renovating the old city and some of the restaurants there are charging premium prices. For example, a main course could cost between $16.00 and $25.00. That may seem normal for a big US city, but in Cuba, I think people expect some value for their money.

I keep remembering little details from our trip that might be useful. When you need to use a washroom in a public place outside your hotel, there are restroom attendants who will demand payment for about 4 squares of toilet paper. They can be quite insistent. One female attendant in one of the museums actually hissed to get my attention when I walked into the bathroom without first putting money in her dish. My advice is: ALWAYS carry your own toilet paper when you leave your hotel. Try to have small change to put in the dish, otherwise you will be paying a dollar each time you use the bathroom. If you donīt have change, donīt be embarrassed to take change from the dish. Donīt worry about the currency of the change because you can just recycle it on your next stop.

I don't know if all the precautionary advice is in fact warranted, but you can imagine that we felt very nervous about doing any exploring. Which is a great pity because I realized when we were in Havana that it must have been a spectacular city in its heyday. They are beginning to renovate Old Havana and the old colonial buildings are magnificent.

I can't really understand why our rep was so cautious. Bad things happen everywhere, as you say, even in Toronto!!! But then again, maybe he knows something we don't. It is his job after all. The next time I go though, I will not be so timid.

I just thought of one other piece of information which might be useful. Before we left we read that American Express travellers cheques were not accepted, so we ran all over town to get Master Card cheques. But when we arrived, we were told that they are accepted at banks and hotels because they can change them through Canadian banks. I don't know if the Amex cheques we get here are different than the ones issued in the States, but if they are not, then Americans can take them. The other thought that ocurred to me was that Americans who plan to travel frequently to Cuba should apply for a Canadian credit card, if they haven't already done so. We didn't actually cash our travellers cheques because they take such a high commission, around 4% we were told, and between our cash and credit cards we were well covered.

Another bit of info that I left out was that the Montreal family we met brought down a whole suitcase full of kosher food, including milk, which they froze and defrosted when they arrived. I don't know how they managed to get it into the country, because I thought you are never allowed to bring in food, but maybe that only applies to fresh fruits and vegetables. They brought in cold cuts, cheese, peanut butter, bread, hot dogs, cereal, you name it. I don't think I would recommend it, but after our gastronimic experience, it doesn't seem to be such a bad option.

I also just remembered this detail. We had US family on our flight from Toronto. Two grown sons and their elderly parents. The children wanted to be able to keep tabs on the parents so they brought along a walkie talkie. Also a laptop. These were both confiscated on arrival and they held up our bus to the hotel for nearly an hour doing the paperwork. They were told they would get the items back when they left, but I don't know if they did. So be careful what you bring in, because they take their restrictions seriously it seems.

Joan Shnier, Toronto