Havana, Cuba Report of what it's like to live there

Personal Experiences from Havana, Cuba

Havana, Cuba 10/02/17

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No, I have lived in several cities in Asia and the Western Hemisphere.

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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?

D.C., no direct flights, connect through Miami, Charlotte, or Atlanta.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Less than 6 months.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

U.S. Embassy

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Housing is all rented from the Cuban government. They are generally large but not all of them. Commute times are mostly 15-20 minutes.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Very difficult to get anything here. Some European brands but availability is hit or miss. Cost is high. Use your consumables.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Everything.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Mostly Cuban food (rice and beans) but a few very good Italian restaurants with wood-fired pizza grills.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Santanilla ants - or mini fire ants. They are everywhere and I hate them.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Non-existent. We help each other take mail and packages back to the US when we go on R&R.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Almost everyone has some sort of help, either gardeners, nannies, or maids. Prices range from 10-12 dollars a day.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

A small CrossFit gym is close to the embassy. The Marines do not open their gym to the U.S. embassy community.

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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?

Cash only.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

None that I know of.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

You need to speak Spanish.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Not organized, and while I would not fear for my safety if I got on one I would fear for where I might end up as opposed to my desired destination.

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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?

Something reliable. And cheap. Bring all of the parts.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Satellite dishes on the roofs of houses - very slow connectivity. Don't plan to stream anything, though video chat works ok if it's not cloudy.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Embassy provides.

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Pets:

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?

People with pets seem to do fine.

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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 local economy jobs available.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Very relaxed.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

The U.S. embassy is on ordered departure for attacks against diplomats. So yeah.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Health care is not great, everybody medevacs out for anything serious.

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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?

I think it's fine, other people complain. It's heaven compared to Asian megacities.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Think South Florida.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Small and shrinking. Morale is in the toilet.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

Bid on Havana with extreme caution!

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

If it went back the way it was before the "attacks," absolutely. As currently staffed, never.

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3. Do you have any other comments?

Oh yeah, beware of hurricanes.

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Havana, Cuba 01/02/16

Background:

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.

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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.

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3. How long have you lived here?

2013-2015.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Government.

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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.

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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.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Take. It. All.

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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.

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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.

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Daily Life:

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

I'm not sure, but maybe there are.

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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.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Yes, it is not set up to be accessible to all.

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Transportation:

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Pets:

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.

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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.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Very few or none. The government of Cuba wouldn't like that kind of thing.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

I am not aware of any, but I haven't looked into it either.

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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.

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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.

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Expat Life:

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Very nice paintings.

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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.

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10. Can you save money?

Maybe, depending on how much you travel.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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4. But don't forget your:

everything.

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Juan de los Muertos.

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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.

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Havana, Cuba 05/04/14

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Have also lived in London, Guatemala City, Warsaw, and Bogota.

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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?

Washington, D.C. Theoretically, only a few hours. However, it can take as long as two days to reach any U.S. destination other than Florida because charter flights between Havana and Florida cities (first leg) are infrequent and unpredictable. For example, you may arrive at the aiport in Havana to learn that your 11am flight has been changed to 5 or 8 pm. Since the charter companies are not affiliated with the major airlines in the U.S., some travelers have missed their connecting flights and simply had to buy new tickets. Because the risk is high that you will miss your connecting flight, many simply schedule an overnight in Miami/Tampa and connect the following day.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Since July 2012.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

U.S. Department of State. Working at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Americans live in houses (and a few apartments) leased from the Cuban government. Most are great houses, full of character but they all older and need ongoing maintenance. Getting supplies and replacement parts is a constant problem. Some have damp or pest problems. However, the Section does a pretty good job keeping them livable. Commute times are increasing (although there is still relatively little traffic in Havana) all the time. They range from 10 to 25 minutes on a regular day, depending on the location of the house. U.S. families are located in Miramar, Flores, Cubanacan and Siboney. You can look up those neighborhoods on a map pretty easily.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Fresh fruits and vegetables are available in agro markets (separate from the supermarkets). Cost and quality are pretty good but availability is very seasonal. Since Cuba imports very little fresh food, you will rarely find fresh foods that don't grow in Cuba. Don't count on finding apples, blueberries, peaches and so on. Mangoes, avacadoes, broccoli, and lettuce are availble for only a few weeks or months every year. Potatoes can be difficult to find. The cost of dry goods ranges from the same to significantly higher than in the U.S.

You can never count on finding any given item when you go shopping. We've experienced shortages in butter, milk, flour, dish washing liquid, ketchup, eggs, and even beer since we've been here. It's rare to find whole grain products of any kind. Spanish foods, such as olives, canned tuna, olive oil, capers, canned red peppers, are the most reliable. Sometimes there is a good range of cheese, sometimes almost nothing. We used to buy bread at the bakery, but after a couple of suspicious loaves, we've been baking our own. Since living in Cuba we've learned to pasteurize fresh milk, make cheese, raise chickens, and bake bread. That said, if you are very flexible and patient, you will eventually find everything you NEED to get by. We've seen it as a good opportunity to learn to live more simply, and still we're ridiculous consumers by local standards.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

HEPA air filters for all the bedrooms.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

There are now quite a few good private restaurants but they are not cheap. Many cheap cafeterias have popped up, too, where you can buy inexpensive pizzas, etc. but the quality is not good. You won't find any foreign fast food chains. The Cuban government continues to run many of the restaurants. In those, the food will almost always be so-so and the service bad, but there are exceptions to that rule and they seem to be improving (or my standards are changing...).

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

There are not huge insect problems here. Heavy insecticide spraying keeps the levels down. However, some mosquitos do carry dengue fever. I've had several friends hospitalized with dengue. Some cockroaches.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

U.S. Interests section employees are dependent on their colleagues to hand-carry mail out of Cuba that they want delivered within the U.S. Small items (non-liquid, no electronics) can be sent by pouch, but not everything arrives. There is no APO/DPO. Most people return from the U.S. with large bags filled with supplies.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Good and very inexpensive. There will be issues with hiring the right person or people, but in general you can find employees who are smart, educated, hardworking and reliable.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Yes they are available but I don't know the cost. I've seen fliers for spinning and pilates. Many people hire private instructors/trainers as well.

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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?

If you are from the U.S. you cannot use credit cards or ATMs. Europeans and Canadians use them, but have to be vigilant for unexplained charges on credit cards.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

I'm not aware of any, but there may be. In general, there are few religious services.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

It helps a lot to speak Spanish but only a few words are absolutely necessary.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Probably. The city infrastructure is old and crumbling.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Not really. You can't count on public transportation at all. Taxis are available and range from very cheap (the Almendrones, old American cars from the 40s and 50s that run set routes and pick up multiple fares) to pretty expensive (any taxi contracted from a tourist spot). The U.S. interests section runs shuttles to and from work for employees that don't want to drive. For nearly everything else, you need to drive, unless you live in Miramar.

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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?

I've never heard of a carjacking. Check the rules, but I think the car has to be less than three years old in order to import. Parts are often not available so bring extra and get a supplier set up before you come. Some ground clearance is a good idea, since roads often have big holes and sometimes flood.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

You can get a satellite connection at a high cost, which is not particularly good. I think we pay around US$80 per month. You lose service frequently, and always during heavy rain. There is a daily download limit of 475 mb, unless you have an even more expensive package. It's better than dialup though. Technically, none of these connections is legal and could be taken down at any time.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

There is a single state-run provider. No choices. All the U.S. mission officers and spouses are assigned a cell phone and pay for non-work calls.

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Pets:

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?

No quarantine. In-home vet care is available. There are no kennels that I know of. People have had a lot of trouble finding pet food.

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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?

None. There may be occasional opportunities with diplomatic missions.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Not many that I know of, since few NGOs operate in Cuba. The International School of Havana has some opportunities for volunteering.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Pretty informal.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

No. There is no privacy, of course.That has to be considered by anyone who comes here. Petty theft/pickpocketing happens but is not a huge problem. There is violent crime in Havana but it doesn't usually touch expats unless they seek out the other side of life here. If you walk in certain parts of Havana, you will be approached constantly by people selling the various vices. In terms of that, it's better for women than men. Women are approached by male prostitutes but they are much more subtle; women are less likely to be approached by people selling drugs, etc.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Dengue fever and cholera. Athsma. Medical care is OK, but not great. There is a special hospital for foreigners with good doctors, but medicines and other supplies are not always available. U.S. interests section employees can use the medical unit, which has a doctor, nurse, and is well-stocked with medicines.

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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?

I think that it's not healthy. There's no smog but there are several other factors that have caused respiratory problems for many people, including very old cars burning dirty fuel, garbage burning, and broad spraying of insecticide in residential areas. Also, damp, mold, and pollens cause problems for some. All together, it's a heavy load on the system. Wind and rain do help keep the air clearer but I know several people (including myself) who've had athsma come back while serving here.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Very hot for six months, sunny and warm the rest of the year. Some heavy rains during hurricane season (very similar to southern Florida but possibly not as hot in summer).

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

Foreign children have three choices: the Spanish school, the French school, and the International School of Havana (ISH). We've had a good experience with the ISH lower grades. Every classroom has one Cuban teacher and one foreign native English-speaking teacher. The student-teacher ratio varies by class but in most classes there is one teacher for every 10-12 students. The campus is pleasant and has a good feeling. The school employs specialists in music, art, computer, language, sport, etc. There are many extracurricular choices every day, too. Most classes are held in English but starting in 2nd grade, students also receive Spanish language instruction. Many of the extra-curricular classes are held in Spanish as well. The school has a decent library and nurses on-site at both campuses (pre-K/early years classrooms are located in a different building about 4 blocks away).

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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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?

Yes, good preschool options are available and cost varies widely. Most people do not use daycare but hire nannies. Most Americans pay between US$10 and US$12 per day for nannies.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Yes, through the schools and also, sometimes, in Cuban-government run organizations. Recently, USINT children have joined Cuban swim teams and attended the national ballet school with permission.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Expat community is large and morale is pretty high. Things are most difficult for U.S. officials because we have more restrictions on travel, what we can bring in, etc. Diplomats and businesspeople from other countries are pretty happy here.

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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?

Most people get together with other expats, meeting in houses or private restaurants (paladars). Many people join the Havana Club, which has a restaurant, pools, tennis, mini-golf, and a private beach, but is strange in that Cubans are not allowed to join.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

At the U.S. Mission singles are pretty unhappy. They can't date Cubans and there are few of the social activities for young, single people that you would find elsewhere. Couples have been pretty happy. Families are the happiest, I think, because they can hire great nannies, the schools are pretty good, and our kids are generally happy here.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

I think it's OK. In any case, it's not bad.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Some of every kind of prejudice but I don't know that it's worse than you would find in most cities in the U.S. Many women will be annoyed by the attention from men but will not feel unsafe in most places and at most times. There are definitely skin color issues here but I don't get to experience how that plays out (since I am light skinned). I can say that I've heard more mildly racist comments from "white" Cubans than I have heard anywhere else that I've lived. Cubans claim to have achieved some kind of race equality, but that is far from the case.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Old Havana is beautiful. I have enjoyed visiting artists and art galleries. There are lovely, clean beaches 30 minutes from the city. It's a great place to learn something new - language, painting, music, tennis, scuba diving, etc. because it's easy and inexpensive to hire a teacher/guide.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Many opportunities to attend music/dance/etc performances. The beaches just outside the city are fantastic. The new paladars (private restaurants) are fun to try and some are very good.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Art, cigars (but you can't take the cigars to the U.S.).

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

You can absolutely save money, unless you travel frequently. The pace of life is very relaxed. Most Americans work about 40 hours per week, which is more by far than every other expat group. The weather is lovely if you like warm, tropical climates. Although decaying, Havana is a very beautiful city.

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10. Can you save money?

Yes, unless you travel a lot and eat out every night at paladars.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes, I think so.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Warm clothing, impatient attitude, need for convenience or privacy.

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3. But don't forget your:

OTC medicines, vitamins, etc., clothing and shoes for a tropical climate, whole-grain or gluten free products, soft toilet paper if you prefer that -- OK, anything you can't live without. Plus some creative problem solving skills.

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4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

I don't watch a lot of movies, but here are some that I know:

Juan of the Dead (English Subtitled),
"Memorias del Subdesarollo," and "Conducta."

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Be careful with anything written about Cuba because the authors are often hardliners from one side or the other. Here are a couple that I think carve out space in the middle:

Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey into the Heart of Cuban Sports,

Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana (almost 20 years later, the experience of an expat in Havana has not changed much -- read this to know how foreigners live in Cuba), and a selection of Cuban bloggers (many are translated to English), especially Yoani Sanchez

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6. Do you have any other comments?

Life in Cuba is full of daily frustrations. Getting anything done requires multiple tries and failures. It can also be difficult to witness how difficult life can be for regular Cubans. It's not a place to come if you value privacy or convenience. But, aside from the many frustrations, is not so bad for expats.

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Havana, Cuba 08/14/13

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Yes.

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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.

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3. How long have you lived here?

15 months and counting.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Government - USINT.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Daily Life:

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.

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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.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

A few with varying levels of quality.

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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.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

No newspapers. Folks have arranged English language TV.

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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.

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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.

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Transportation:

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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Pets:

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Very little support for physical issues.

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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.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Swimming lessons, private horseback lessons, other lessons abound, very little in team sports.

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Expat Life:

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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).

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11. Can you save money?

Yes, if you do without some of the higher priced groceries and Miami supply runs.

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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.

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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.

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3. But don't forget your:

Healthy snacks, rain gear, patience, dark humor, sense of adventure.

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4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Habana Blues, Juan de los Muertos, Fresas y Chocolate

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Pitching Around Fidel.
Havana Real.

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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.

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Havana, Cuba 07/09/11

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No. Surabaya, Indonesia; Chennai (Madras), India; Hanoi, Vietnam

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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?

It's a one-hour flight from Miami.

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3. How long have you lived here?

2 years.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

State Department posting at USINT.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Housing is on the large side, but decades of neglect shows. Materials are scarce and, over time, landlords have had to improvise. There is little traffic, so commutes rarely exceed 25 minutes.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

One of the areas where Cuba is lacking most is this area. Good produce is hard to find and sometimes not even good-enough is to be had. Products, even staples like salt or butter, will disappear from the market for weeks at a time. One needs to build up a stock of supplies to make do.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Virtually anything you need, including appliances, food and condiments, toiletries, sports goods, etc.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Despite a rich tradition, current-day Cuba is not well known for its culinary offers. That said, there are plenty of restaurant, both state-owned and private. Good sushi, Cuban, Chinese and Italian can be had. Prices range but for the most part are under equivalent prices in Europe and the U.S.

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5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?

A real challenge. There are "organic" urban farms, but not in the sense we know (e.g. they use pesticides of unknown origin).

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6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Mosquitoes, termites.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Virtually impossible.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Plenty of availability. In the US$175-250/month range, not counting state fees of $100 month.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Yes. The best I have seen is in the Havana Club. The Occidental and Melia hotels have facilities too. Not top notch.

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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?

It's a cash economy, and not only for Americans (who are unable to use credit or cash cards).

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

There is at least one weekly Catholic mass.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

No.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Spanish is absolutely necessary.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Significant. There is little infrastructure for people with disabilities.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Taxis are affordable and plentiful. Call service is not reliable, especially at night, and cab conditions vary.

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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?

SUVs would be useful when it floods. Cars need to be newer than 5 years to be imported, and can only be sold within the same visa class (diplomats to diplomats, journalists to journalists, etc.).

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

No. State-provided internet is very expensive (over $100 monthly) and slow. Many people have (illegal) internet dishes.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Cuban SIM cards are increasingly cheaper, though calls remain expensive. At the time of writing, residents can purchase a SIM card for $30-40 from the sole state-owned supplier, ETECSA.

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Pets:

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?

No.

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

There are vets, but they lack medicines and current training. No kennels.

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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?

None at all.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Casual. Most business people and diplomats make do with short sleeved shirts. Long sleeve guayabera shirts or suits are de rigeur in more formal settings.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

It is relatively safe, despite sporadic criminal activity, sometimes violent. Trends are not reported, so it is hard to take precautions. One can expect little privacy, even in one's dwelling.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Medical care is spotty, Michael Moore notwithstanding. Most foreigners are treated at one hospital, which is better stocked than what is available for Cubans. But even that hospital is unreliable. Medevac is the best option.

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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?

Good overall. Vehicles are few but old and exhaust is noxious near the main thoroughfares.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Has two distinct seasons, hot-humid summer (July-September) and a cool winter (November-March).

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

No direct experience. There is an English language school, and a Spanish one. The Cuban government makes it very difficult for foreign teachers to obtain visas, so most teachers are Cubans.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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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?

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Yes, and it's extensive.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Very large, mostly diplomatic. Havana is said to have the largest diplomatic presence between Washington and Brasilia, exceeding even Mexico City. There is little private sector activity, but there are some brave foreign business people.

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2. Morale among expats:

Overall good, with exceptions. It's a demanding place in which to work and live, and most people learn to cope.

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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?

Quite a lively social scene.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Yes, for both families and singles, there are plenty of activities. The social and cultural scenes are lively. There are parks and sport events.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Yes. There is little visible discrimination, and a local gay community.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Like pretty much everything else, racial and gender atittudes are a frozen in time, and can seem very un-PC in today's world.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Many outdoor activities such as tennis, baseball and cycling. There are golf and horse riding facilities close to the city. Deep sea fishing and scuba diving available. There are numerous cultural events.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Art.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Safe, Socio-politically interesting, ability to save money.

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11. Can you save money?

Yes. There is little shopping to be done.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Be safe and don't leave too much behind.

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3. But don't forget your:

Don't forget to bring anything you can't live without. There is no guarantee that you'll ever find it locally.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Read Anne Bardach's Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana. There are numerous Cuban bloggers who provide an unvarnished view of life in the country.

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:







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6. Do you have any other comments?

Cuba takes some getting used to, but it's ultimately rewarding. Come armed with patience.

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