BEHIND the unassuming timber door and beneath the white leather couches lay a black and white tiled floor.
It might have been a humble lounge room but some quick manoeuvring of furniture made it into the perfect dance floor.
About four streets from the main drag of Santiago de Cuba, we were quickly put through the paces.
Forgetting the weight of the humidity for an hour each day, my friend and I realised Cuban salsa was a little different to previous classes we had taken.
We spent most of the first lesson on the base step, a cross behind move to each side.
Carlos built up our moves so that after a couple of lessons we were sure we could give it a crack on a real dance floor.
He might have mentioned something about us needing to practise a lot but, in our minds, we were more than ready to be twirled around by the Cuban hombres.
Carlos spoke only Spanish but he’s easy enough to follow if you ask him to show you the moves first.
In the Tivoli district – a French quarter with red-tiled roofs on homes overlooking the harbour – there’s a street that has what’s been described as a New Orleans feel.
Casa de Las Tradiciones and Casa de la Trova are most likely to draw you in.
There’s live bands and plenty of willing local hombres and mujeres, ready to show the tourists a good time on the dance floor.
If you stay till closing, you might be lucky enough to secure a ride home when a security guard turns taxi driver for a few bucks in his bomb, I mean classic, car.
Outside our dance classes, the humidity hung heavy like a trench coat worn on a 40-degree day but Santiago de Cuba is charming nonetheless .
On street corners you’ll see men playing mahjong and dominoes, kids using yo-yos and vendors selling veggies from carts.
Watching a woman running down the street while cradling her toddler’s bleeding head and screaming for help was just one of the bizarre things I encountered in Cuba.
But even more head-shaking was her climbing into a falling-apart car filled with people and the door flying open as they whizzed around the corner – presumably to a hospital.
Much more pleasant an experience was La Arboleda – there’s usually only one ice-cream flavour but make sure you line up with locals and don’t listen if they try to send you to the more expensive sit-down section. Amazing.
And if you notice people carrying buckets around the area – they are usually going to fill them up with ice-cream. Odd but I get it.
The Rex is one of the few places in town with wifi – sit up the top floor with a mojito and watch the world go by.
Beneath is a main plaza which makes for good people watching and the frequent trucks packed with people.
Given Don Facundo Barcadi based his first-ever rum factory here, it’s worth paying a visit to the Bacardi Rum Factory and the Barrita de Ron Havana Club.
Santiago de Cuba is a short plane ride from Havana but a long way from anywhere by bus.
There’s a night bus that drops off in cities all the way to Havana.
It’s 12 hours overnight to Trinidad – but you should buy your tickets while you’re in Havana because they only let you buy the tickets one hour before departure in Santiago which might leave you looking for accommodation again.
Trinidad is a photographer’s dream – cobblestoned streets, houses painted myriad pastels and classic cars on every street.
Kids are just as likely to be playing in the street as dragging a stubborn animal along.
Many deliveries are still made using horse and cart along the cobblestones – from flour to refrigerators.
The perfectly preserved Spanish colonial settlement was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in the 80s.
It also offers more great opportunities to practise those dance steps.
The alfresco Casa de la Musica offers lives music from mid afternoon until late evening on a stage flanked by stunning steps.
Plenty of men scour the crowd for dance partners.
If you don’t fancy dancing, just have a mojito or try the local (read: lethal) cocktail canchánchara on the steps to soak up the atmosphere.
But the place to be for the younger crowd is “The Cave” – known as Disco Ayala.
This late-night nightclub – open from 10pm to 3am – is literally inside a cave. It’s super cool.
There are bars all the way up Simon Boliviar Street if you need a top-up.
When you get to the end of those, turn right and keep going up the gravel and you’ll find in on the left.
Trinidad also has a great 30-minute hike above the cave with great views over the area, tours to a nearby waterfall and is close to beach.
A taxi to nearby Ancon Beach – which has umbrellas and lounges for a measly fee – costs about $8.
Charming Cuban men will fetch your drinks for you while you soak up the rays.
Just watch out for stinger season – ouchy.
DANCING: Dance teacher Carlos Lam offers personal classes for $10US per person for an hour at his home at 664 General Portuondo (formally Trinidad Street) near the corner of Calvario and Moncada, Santiago de Cuba.
He and wife Poaiguk also have a lovely room out the back for hire as a casa particular. Cuban mobiles: 52837715 or 52837706. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Nuclear threats aren’t the only tactic used by Seoul and Pyongyang in their decades-old antagonism.
Bizarre cross-border propaganda tactics, including fake cities and pop music marathons, are continuing to colour the ongoing conflict between North and South Korea.
The strange behaviour belies the very real nuclear threat posed by North Korea, which announced an expansion of its testing regime on Friday.
In the past, Pyongyang claimed to have successfully tested powerful hydrogen bombs – although the legitimacy of these claims were doubted – which was followed on Sunday with reports in state-run media outlet DPRK Today declaring the rogue nation could devastate New York.
“Our hydrogen bomb is much bigger than the one developed by the Soviet Union,” read the report, which cited a nuclear scientist named Cho Hyong Il.
“If this H-bomb were to be mounted on an inter-continental ballistic missile and fall on Manhattan in New York City, all the people there would be killed immediately and the city would burn down to ashes.”
Short-range ballistic missiles were tested as recently as Thursday: two were fired into the sea off the east coast city of Wonsan, flying approximately 500km.
But, as both sides have proved, there are more imaginative ways to antagonise your enemy than nuclear threats alone.
Building an uninhabited city of opulence and blasting propaganda messages and offensive pop music for hours every day were just some of the non-military tactics employed in the “ideological warfare”.
La Trobe University North Korea expert Benjamin Habib said the “inflammatory” techniques were a struggle for superiority on the Korean peninsula.
“All of these things take place in this battle to see which side is the legitimate government of all Korea,” he told The New Daily.
The countries themselves are poles apart – in the past four decades the South has joined the international community and become one of the most prosperous economies in the world, while the North severed ties with the outside world.
The relationship between the two countries has been strained since they separated in the late 1940s, although both officially claim sovereignty over the entire peninsula.
Pyongyang’s claims of a successful hydrogen bomb test in January saw the South resume blasting propaganda, pop music, and news and weather reports over the border.
The North soon followed, broadcasting propaganda for up to 20 hours a day.
“The speakers also blast music in the form of Korea’s much-loved K-pop, which is banned in the North. Songs from Korean girl band Apink, singer IU and boy band Big Bang – including their mega hit Bang Bang Bang – are on the propagandists’ playlists,” the BBC reported in January, adding that the noise can be heard up to 24km away at night.
“The North’s broadcasts are harder to hear – possibly the result of poor speakers – and carry its characteristically strident condemnations of Seoul and its allies … Pyongyang says it considers them an act of war and has threatened to blow up the speakers.”
Gijungdong, built in the heavily-guarded demilitarised zone between the North and South in the 1950s, seems like a fully-functioning town littered with multi-storey buildings, schools and even a hospital. About 200 people are claimed to live there.
But according to the South it was all a front: the buildings were uninhabited, the streets were bare and the only movement was on top of the 160m flagpole in the centre of town.
“City is probably a bit strong, it is the equivalent of a village of eight- or nine-storey apartments that are just a concrete shell and they are quite obviously not populated when you see them,” Dr Habib said.
“Almost everything that happens around [the demilitarised zone], it is all smoke and mirrors, but they have to keep it up for appearances sake.”
The village was believed to be an attempt to entice defectors from the South.
There was an additional surprise stuffed into balloons filled with government publicity in February – used toilet paper, garbage and cigarette butts.
It followed a back and forth between the two nations, after the North conducted its fourth nuclear test in a month in January. South Korea blasted pop songs and criticisms of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in response, prompting the leaflets from the North.
As an added bonus, some of the balloons were timed to burst, scattering their undesirable parcels.
It wasn’t only the government that launched these campaigns, citizen groups were also “needling” the other side with propaganda leaflets.
At times, the North responded by shooting at South Korean soldiers on the border.
“The South Korean government doesn’t like it when citizen groups do this kind of thing, because often their timing is terrible and it just inflames things,” Dr Habib said.
Sweden has become the first country to have its own phone number.
The Swedish Tourist Association has set up a hotline to connect callers around the world with a random Swede.
It is a novel approach by the Swedish Tourist Association, a non-profit group, to spark people’s curiosity about a country best known for exports like ABBA and IKEA furniture, and a social welfare system that boasts the most generous paternity leave in the world.
The phone number was set up to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Sweden becoming the first country to abolish censorship.
The Swedes who take the calls download a special app on their smartphones, when they have the app turned on they will receive a call from anyone who decides to call the number.
So the Swedes taking the calls have become unpaid ambassadors for their country.
The number has proven popular, with so far over 9,000 calls made since it began on April 6, clocking over 16 hours of chat time between callers and a random Swede.
Among the suggested topics of conversation are: northern lights, hiking, suicide rates, gay rights and darkness.
Some radio hosts in Dubai called the number and were connected to Gustav, who took the call while on a walk, describing the landscape around him to them.
“A park, almost like a forest, it’s very rainy, I have a parachute,” Gustav said.
This lost-in-translation moment had the radio hosts and Gustav chuckling, as they clarified he meant an umbrella.
Gustav said he had heard about The Swedish Number on the news and decided to download the app.
The radio hosts asked Gustav a few questions sent in by their listeners.
“So I’ve got a question from Jerry, how many IKEA furniture items do you have at home?” they asked.
“I’m going to build a new house soon, and I think I’m just going to go to IKEA and buy everything there to my house … But now my apartment is maybe 50 per cent.”
The BBC were also intrigued by the random Swede hotline and gave the number a go.
“Hello, am I talking to a Swedish person?”
“Yes you are … my name is Peter, I’m 60 years old nearly, and I am a typical Swedish man. I’m quite normal you know.”
The BBC radio hosts asked Peter why he volunteered to tell the world about Sweden.
“I thought it was a good thing you know, Sweden is a good country and if someone wanted to know something about Sweden, I can help them.”
For the unprepared, Cuba is as frustrating as it is charming.
You cannot use TripAdvisor’s “near me” function to find a good restaurant, massage or bar.
There’s no Google Maps if you get lost.
Guides like the Lonely Planet are your only lifeline when it comes to finding interesting things to see or do.
The tourist offices, if you can call them that, have long lines waiting to see one person while a handful of other staff stand around just watching.
If you get a casa particular owner that speaks English, you should be able to get some inside knowledge for Cuban salsa classes and the best places to catch live music like trova.
But the worst part is how quickly your budget is restricted without enough cashola.
So here’s a quick guide to make sure you’re more prepared than, um, some people I know.
But, honestly, taking a tour is the best advice I can give after nine days travelling in the dark.
Take cash and lots of it. Euros or Canadian dollars are best.
Cuba charges extra to change US dollars.
Many travel cards don’t work in the ATMS or in the banks as Cuba is a “sanctioned” country. Whatever that means.
You can order euros from Australia Post on its website, or in person, and it arrives a few days later.
The best rate seems to be at the airport on the way in. The currency exchange window is just after you exit the Havana airport, near the taxis.
Banks also offer good rates if you go in. If for some reason you don’t have enough cash and the ATMS are not playing the game, you can take your passport and credit card into an actual bank and they will let you withdraw.
A copy of a passport is not good enough.
The CUC – the currency tourists use – matches the American dollar.
You will NEVER have enough change in this country.
The bank and ATM will give you 10s and 20s which seem like low amounts but NO-ONE has change.
You’ll see them running to nearby shops, or even into houses, trying to find someone with change.
My surmising is that running two currencies means people can’t keep enough change in both. If you can get your hands on the local currency, you might have more luck.
But, unless you speak fluent Spanish, I’d be reluctant to try and trade on the black market.
If you get money at the bank or a currency exchange booth, ask for as many fives and coins as you can. Even run into a bank and change a few 20s into $1 CUC coins – you won’t regret the extra weight.
Cuba has $3 CUC notes (I know, weird, right) and $5 CUC notes which come in pretty handy too so get a mix of the smaller notes.
Good luck if you need to phone home. You’ll have as much trouble as ET. And, phone operators in Cuba say the country does not allow reverse charge calls.
For example, have fun calling your bank to find why your card isn’t working when you can only get a card that lasts 8.5 minutes and you’re stuck on hold.
It’s hardly annoying at all listening to a recording saying “your call is important to us” and they’ll answer as soon as possible.
If you line up at the Esteca store, you can buy $10 CUC card and then find a pay phone at a hotel to use it. Hotel Nacional and Hotel Ingleterra are among a handful that do.
If you’re lucky, your casa particular owners might let you use the card on their phone but not all do. They’ve been bitten before.
Ensure you know the right codes to dial out of Cuba and into your own country before you rock up. It’s +61 for Australia.
You know when you go camping and your phone says “no service” until you reach the main road again?
That’s basically Cuba. But the main road is not a long stretch back to civilisation – it’s just a handful of hotels where you can use a wifi card.
Again, you’ll need to line up at Esteca for an hour in the sun to buy a card or you should be able to buy them at select hotels. Get the five-hour one ($10 CUC) if you’re in Cuba a while. Otherwise, they usually come in one-hour blocks ($2 CUC).
The five places in Havana we found with wifi were La Floridita, Hotel Inglaterra, Hotel Nacional, Hotel Iberostar and Hotel Sevilla. They say you can get wifi in Parque Central too but I had no luck there.
The Rex is the best spot in Santiago de Cuba – grab a mojito on the top floor and overlook the city.
Another tourist says there is wifi access, again with the wifi card, in one of the Trinidad plazas but I cannot verify that personally.
Something important to know about the wifi cards is that you have to logout.
I was told that you if you don’t logout, the rest of the time on your card will continue and expire.
One way to log out was to log back in and then press “cerrar session” to end.
If you can’t figure it out, ask someone at the hotel where you’re accessing the wifi.
Overnight buses are very basic. No lights. Occasional foot rests still in tact. You’ll get a warning about doing anything other than a number one in the loo.
Check as soon as you get on whether your seat reclines, otherwise you’ll likely end up with a snoring head in your lap within the hour.
And take warm clothes, preferably a rug of some kind, because the air-conditioning that starts off refreshing quickly becomes unbearable. Take advantage of the loo stops at bus stations along the way.
Some bus stations will only let you buy tickets one hour before a bus leaves.
Others will let people book in advance, which means the bus could be sold out when you want to travel.
If you know your schedule in advance, buy the tickets in Havana where you can definitely book in advance.
A cab out to the Viazul station in Havana should cost $10CUC each way. Taxi collectivos can be worth it if you can share with others.
Even taxis over long distances aren’t too exxy.
For example, a collectivo from Trinidad to Havana costs $120 CUC alone but is obviously cheaper if split between four.
And half the time of the bus with loo stops on request.
It’s definitely worth staying in casas particulares both for the experience and the hip pocket.
They usually range between $25 and $35 CUC a night depending where you stay.
Some feel like family homes and some like well-oiled bed and breakfasts.
Expect lumpy beds and average pillows – but most have digital air conditioning which proves a life saver. Cuba is hot and humid.
They will charge $3-$5 CUC for breakfast but it’s usually worth it.
Get a card for the place you’re staying, you’ll need it when directing taxis back there.
They’ll tell you it’s $50 CUC for an hour and $90 for two hours.
But it’s easy to talk them down to about $35 an hour or move to another driver if you’re not fussy on the make, model and colour.
If you’re on a tight budget, like we were thanks to the aforementioned money issues, you can actually just ask them to run you from A to B. One suggestion would be from the ferry terminal to Hotel Nacional along the Malecon at sunset.
Then catch one of the coco taxis – seats in little yellow bubbles attached to a motorbike – back to the Old Town or Centro.
As for other taxis, I can guarantee that walking away will get your a better price. Haggle hard.