One night recently in Old Havana, I noticed a group of eight people sitting on the curb or standing in the street outside a fancy restaurant. They were in a semicircle, and they held smart phones and laptops that lit their faces with blue light. It was an internet hotspot, and these folks were grabbing emails and downloading info from the web. There was something a little sad and eerie about the scene: People on a dark Cuban street trying to make a connection to the outside world.
Cuba has a lot of things going for it. But a strong internet infrastructure is not one of them. Home access is virtually unknown. So restaurants and hotels that offer internet access are magnets, even late at night. People pay a fee to log on and catch a weak signal.
Even at Havana's famous Hotel Nacional, internet access is a luxury item for which you have to pay extra. You stand in line at the hotel's business center to buy a password for Wi-Fi access. (The Cubans pronounce it "wee-fee.") I think it was 15 hours for about $11.50. (I might have the amount wrong.) You had to use the online time within 48 hours. Then go stand in line again.
I like to stay in touch with loved ones when I travel, which can be difficult if the trip is an international one. Since my cell phone wouldn't work in Cuba, I figured I'd use part of my 15 hours internet time to Skype or Face Time. That didn't work. At first I thought it was because the internet connection was so painfully slow. I then learned that the Cuban government blocks both services. The best I could do was to text using Apple Messages, which is not nearly as satisfying as talking to someone.
So I found myself hanging out in the hotel's ornate lobby, where the hotel had a telephone service. You write a telephone number on a slip of paper and hand it to a nice woman at the desk; she dials the number, points to a phone on the desk and you get to talk to your wife in Missouri ... for $5.10/minute. I do remember that amount because it was especially painful after an eventful day with lots of news to share. Oh, if you only get her voicemail, it's still $5.10.
One Sunday afternoon, again in Old Havana, I went with some new friends to the Hotel Ambos Mundos to try its version of a daiquiri. (Quite good.) The hotel also was an internet hotspot, and dozens of people gathered in the street outside the lobby to touch the web. In the bright light of day, the scene was not sad like the one of people huddled around their screens in the dark. Instead, there was something communal and happy about the afternoon session. People read their devices and talked with their friends. Reminded me of the old days when people sat around on Sunday afternoons reading newspapers and chatting. With vintage American cars plying Havana's streets, nostalgia somehow seemed an appropriate emotion.
As an aside: Not having internet service on demand is not a disaster. Being off the grid for a while can be liberating.
Jim Patrico can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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