Dear Cuba, you remind me of a girl I knew in high school. Well actually I never knew her, but I wanted to. She was beautiful from a distance and everyone wished they were her. On closer notice, she was just as flawed. With the bright colors and fancy cars it would be easy to mask the clear unhappiness. Yet I stilI wanted to know this girl. I knew there was more hiding underneath her smile.
When I booked my trip to Cuba I had no idea what to expect. Aside from pictures of old cars and even older men smoking cigars there was virtually little information out there. Like most Americans in my age group, the embargo meant we knew very little. I was in college when I heard a woman speak about her travels to Cuba via Canada and I became intrigued. As a journalism student I wanted to know what the people thought. The people that were there during the revolution, and the people who stayed. It would be 20 yrs til I made my journey via the Dominican Republic. Three weeks in Cuba, and I have formed my opinions. My information isn’t coming from fact checking but from talking to people on the streets, in the cabs, on the bus, at the beach. What everyday people think is what motivates me to travel, not the opinion of my government or theirs.
The vail is starting to lift on Cuba, but its not the loosining of restrictions that persueded me to go. It was more the thought that I needed to go before the lift of the embargo opens the flood gates and Cuba becomes a tourist trap. It took getting there to realize I was too late. Like most Americans I was under the impression Cuba was in a repressed bubble. Trapped 50 years ago there would only be old cars and old ways. I also expected their 3rd world status would make for a very affordable trip. My ignorence cost me literally. Tourism is Cubas #1 industry. Canadians, Europeans, Latin Americans have all been traveling there for years. Americans are showing up late to the party. Not unwelcome but unexpected guests. This causes a bit of inconvience as a traveler. My American credit card was unusable, US dollars are charged and extra 10% to exchange, finding and booking online deals was unheard of.
I was not deterred. I’m a budget traveler with a nomadic spirit. My mother nicknamed me The Wanderer due to my habit to wander off and fearlessly explore (causing her much grief and admiration at the same time she admitted before her death). My goal was to interact with everyday people. I had no desire to sit in fancy bars sipping mojitos and sleeping in expensive hotels. Both are unaffordable to the average Cuban so the chances of meeting everyday people would be unlikely. I recently saw an interview with Anthony Bourdain where he seemed to almost brag he was eatiing in a place locals can’t afford. I respect him in many ways but that is not my ideal story telling.
Upon landing in Havana it’s clear you are in a different mindset. The female airport employees were wearing very short uniform skirts, high heels, and black lace stockings. My husband didn’t seem to mind. Which was good because we waited at baggage claim over 2 hours for our suitcase. Using Couchsurfing we booked a home stay (called casa paticularas) for our first night to get our barrings. It was now after midnight and to our surprise our host was waiting for us despite arriving 3 hours late. He walked us to a cab. A faded blue mid 50’s American car. I couldn’t tell in the dark what model but you no longer had to pinch me, I knew I was in Cuba.
Our host Epid lived on the outskirts of Havana, which made his place very cheap. At $10 CUC (almost equal to a US dollar) for a private room per night this would be the cheapest place we stayed in Cuba. By morning I learned my first lesson on Cuba. Take your coffee black. They only have powdered milk in most places we went. In fact I only had real cream in a cafe in Trinidad where they were known for the best espresso. The table next to us turned out to be a fellow Portlander. If there is one thing people from the NW do well its finding good coffee and becoming a regular.
Epid offered to show us around the neighborhood which consisted of several drab apartment complexes made colorful only by the line drying laundry hanging from most balconys. He explained as we walked his building was built by the Americans the others by the Russians. We didn’t have to walk far (although it felt like it in the heat) to come to a small shoping center, a school, and a row of metal shacks (Cuban version of food carts). Hoping for my first taste of local food I had to eat. To my surprise it was pizza. Cooked in small cast iron skillets with a choice of toppings we ordered a couple different combos. The quality reminded me of the make shift pizza I created as a poor college student. Hot dogs sub for canadian bacon, cheese is low grade, but the tomatos were amazing, local, and fresh.
There was a bus stop at the center so we decided to go into Havana. A ride costs one national peso. I should explain Cuba has 2 forms of currency. There is the National used primarly by the locals and the CUC mainly used by tourist and high priced goods, not essentials. It takes 25 National pesos to equal 1 CUC. This can be very confusing if you carry both (which I recommend) and some Cubans will use the confussion to there advantage. Sometimes they will even try to tell you to pay in CUC even after you just watched the local in front of you pay in National. Cubans have mastered the poker face and rely on our politeness and ignorance. They are not dishonest, just opportunist. Back to the bus, like most things in Cuba, the bus system is government subsidized. Which is why it is so inexpensive. They are safe, pick pockets are possible, and can get very crowded. I never really understood what packed like sardines meant until I rode the popular line that goes to a locals beach. I had some of my best conversations on the city buses around Havana. The bus stop is also where I saw the raw truth in the situation. Well dressed, to the point of gawdy, women stood near a fresh dead dog with no concern. People finishing a soda just tossed the bottle to the ground. No one carrying who might step on the broken glass. Yet as busses came and went young people assisted the elderly getting on or off. Tough looking men quickly stood aside and gave a seat to a mother with a small child. If there were no seats a mother already sitting would take a strangers baby on her lap. It was then I realized Cubans look out for themselves, but mostly they look out for each other.
I came to Cuba to hopfully blend in, make friends, here what they think about Americans. I learned they don’t really care about outsiders. Only the ones working in the tourist industry are excited to end the embargo. It will mean more money for them personally, not the rest of the country. Maybe the girl from high school intrigid me because she had no interest in having me around except where it benefited her most.