For the full photo diary of my time in Cuba please click here
Our first human interaction in Cuba involved a long drawn out questions and answers session with immigration officials who stepped in to pull us out of the arriving throng within just a couple of minutes of exiting the plane. Why the handsome chap with a bushy beard and the U.S. citizen with camera bags seemingly dripping off every perch (bar bags are routinely mistaken for cameras) were singled out I’ll never know. Everyone else save for the only two black people on the flight were long gone by the time we’d finished explaining away our four cameras, our respective careers (they had me write down the films I’d worked on), where we were heading and why. With hindsight it doesn’t seem so strange, we got used to the feeling of big brother watching us and became all to familiar with the racism sadly inherent in Cuban society.
Our second set of human interactions in Cuba involved cold heartedly batting away the porters that descended on us at arrivals and then the unsurprising task of playing hardball on a taxi price. Again, this set us up for what was to become standard practice over the next 30 days. In Cuba there are Cuban citizens and there are tourists, two demographics that are encouraged to live apart in dramatically different worlds; tourists have rights and money, Cubans are controlled and generally poor. Maybe it is no surprise that the less fortunate of these groups should hound their privileged visitors for just a small token of the wealth they lack. Nonetheless the constant badgering for money and custom is something that will no doubt raise the bile of all but a few of the innocently ‘rich’ tourists.
Then came our third social introduction to the delights of Cuba; Rosa, whose house we were to stay in in Havana. Cuba is famed for its network of casa’s, private homes where the owners are permitted to house tourists, very much like B&B’s. Rosa was lovely; kind-hearted, helpful, slightly eccentric and happy to have us there. This was another theme that would roll through our time in Cuba; the vast majority of casa owners that took us in were kind and generous, offering a really commendable standard of accommodation considering the limitations they worked under. Within little more than an hour of being in Cuba we’d been introduced to some of its major annoyances, issues and treasures, all in the context of a strange and dated world that appeared fragile and on the brink of collapse. And this was just the start…
It became obvious during that first taxi ride into Havana that this is no ordinary country. My most immediate thought being ‘this country could really use a lick of paint’. All the buildings and visible infrastructure appeared to be horribly run down, lacking any freshness or sparkle and in dire need of renovation. It seems naive looking back now, but I really hadn’t expected such a drastic change on Mexico. There was much I had been expecting though: The old 1950’s ‘Yank Tanks’ really do exist as working taxis, there really is a confusing dual economy and obvious stamps of Soviet influenced Revolutionary symbolism and architecture do sit rudely beside grand markers of a rich colonial past. Such factors are well documented and characterize consequences and by-products of the socialist rule over the country. The despot leadership of Fidel Castro and his misplacement of socialism on Cuban society has stunted Cuba’s development in unfortunate ways that are sadly instrumental in drawing vast numbers of curious tourists.
I didn’t travel to Cuba for its mountains, rivers and landscapes, I flew there just like all the other tourists, to witness a unique freak of a nation, a living breathing monster born of misguided twentieth century political hope. Contemporary Cuba is a sleeping beauty pinned reluctantly beneath a thick duvet of socialism. It’s been left to wallow in Cold War defiance by a hateful leader whose inadvertently guided his country towards reliance on outsiders. Backed into a corner, Cuban society is being pimped out to tourists and we can’t resist. The freak show draws us in, only to be confronted by the realities of real people with real lives. Cuban people do exist, this country isn’t just a curious political experiment , nor engineering museum piece, it’s a place where people and families live work and die.
Our first evening in Havana really set our heads spinning. We left Rosa’s apartment and strolled down the dark smelly cloistered avenue of Simon Bolivar to the Parque de la Fraternidad and Disticto Capitolio before meandering our way back through intimidating dark narrow streets. It was so so dark, with street lamps barely emitting enough light to reach the pavement below. Despite there being virtually no vehicles about, the air was dense with exhaust fumes and despite any apparent purpose, the dilapidated street corners were thick with people. The whole atmosphere struck me as quite Dickensian. What the hell was this crumbling urban hole of humanity we’d stumbled into. We certainly wouldn’t have gone for such a stroll after dark in any other strange or major city centre but here it was the infrastructure that intimidated, not the life that shuffled around within it. We were both stunned into silence by what we’d found, everything was strange.
The next morning we ventured out in an attempt to find our bearings and stock up on some much-needed food. A wander down to the bus station to book our tickets out east and an unproductive search of the local food market led us in a downhearted trudge back to the casa. Retreating to our room we shut the door and admitted absolute bewilderment. The streets were empty of cars but busy with people, none of whom seem intent on working, the store shelves held a light smattering of things you wouldn’t want to eat and the whole atmosphere felt alien. We were hungry, our comprehension and confidence completely shot through and had absolutely no idea what money we could use where. We wondered: What is this? Why is this? Why the hell are we here?
After the initial shock had subsided we gave ourselves a proverbial kick up the arse and ventured out to China town, determined to eat. We ate, it was terrible, but we managed to eat enough to nourish some buds of confidence. The learning curve had started and the weird world of Cuba began to reveal its possibilities. Turns out that we had fallen in at the deep end, things were unusually quite because we had flown in on a Sunday with the following Monday being a national holiday. On the Tuesday, our second full day in Havana, it was with a certain relief that vehicle traffic and Police appeared to levels more befitting a large city and a reassuring urban urgency descended on the sleepy shell we’d witnessed. Still, Cuba is confusing and whenever you arrive it takes some time to get used to basic and essential things, such as money.
Money in Cuba is confusing and food generally disappointing and limited. The country runs a dual economy with two currencies, moneda nacional pesos and the Convertible (CUC). The pesos are predominantly used by citizens and the CUC’s by tourists, although to buy many things only CUCs are accepted. One CUC is roughly equal to US$1 or 24 pesos. Moving in the CUC economy is expensive but if you manage to infiltrate its peso sibling then life can suddenly get very cheap. Problem is that as a tourist its pretty much impossible to access the peso economy to the extent that you can survive off it, thus as a budget traveler it’s almost inevitable that your time in Cuba will be more expensive than you’re used to. The casa’s were paid for in CUC’s at 15 to 25 CUC’s a night. The casa’s provided the easiest and most enjoyable food option for us too. I am a vegetarian and thus very limited in Cuba, everyday I ate omlettes, rice, beans and fruit at a cost of around 4 CUC for breakfast and 7 or 8 CUC for dinner. For lunch we bought biscuits and large boxes of crackers to be enjoyed with peanut butter, if we could find it (very very rare outside of Havana). Our main dips into the peso world were for 5 peso cheese pizzas which are available everywhere and can be really nice (to start with) and ice creams, a steal at 1 or 2 pesos. Generally though, we found Cuban markets to be very limited, the variety of fresh produce exceedingly narrow and food eaten in casas and restaurants to be quite bland. If I had my time again I’d take a very large bottle of hot sauce and a couple of jars of good peanut butter with me.
It’s not just in the economy that tourists are segregated from the people, it happens in person too. The big towns and cities have historic centres that are painted up and patrolled by police to ensure the safety and easy passage of tourists. Here you’ll find restaurants and bars that often won’t even let Cuban’s in, even if they can afford the prices. We only went to one restaurant bar in Havana and were horrified that the ‘authentic Cuban experience’ offered included real Cubans as servers and nothing else. Elsewhere in these towns and cities are alternative unsanitized centres where the residents shop, meet and conduct their business.
When out with fellow Englishman, Ramon, in Havana, I witnessed at first hand one way in which this segregation is maintained. Ramon is in Havana for a year as part of his university study, as an aspiring boxer he was drawn to the country for its reputation in the sport. Half Jamaican, Ramon looks Cuban, something that attracts him a fair amount of hassle from the Police. In just one hour walking in and around the historic centre of Havana with me and two other white foreigners, he was stopped and asked for identity papers by Police three times and it could very easily have been more. They didn’t like the idea that he could be hassling us and didn’t trust him in the area for the colour of his skin. Now imagine that you were a citizen of a country where you can’t innocently walk around your own city without getting constant attention from law enforcement when at the same time outsiders can come in and strut around as if they own the place. That would make me extremely angry. I could become so angry and resentful that I’d incite a revolution…
I often parrot on about how touring on a bicycle opens us up to communication with local people in places infrequently visited by tourists. Although Cuba is a small island crawling with tourists, there is still a well-defined ‘gringo trail’, routes upon which tourists are expected and catered for. On occasions we managed to spill from this rut, most notably when staying in unofficial, illegal casas such as in Chivirico and Sagua de Tanamo. This enabled us to speak with quite a wide cross-section of Cuban society and gather a passing understanding of the prevailing moods amongst the population. The overwhelming sentiment we heard was one of frustration with the restrictions imposed by a regime that is perceived to have rumbled past its use by date.
People in the cities, particularly the young, seem ambivalent towards the slight opening up and changes implemented since Raul Castro took over from his ailing brother. They can’t afford to buy cars or houses and doubt they ever will, they don’t expect to ever have the money or permission to leave the country and certainly don’t see any motivation in working for the state and good of their fellow nationals. The older generations generally showed more allegiance to the government as did those in rural areas. However, I can’t help but feel that they may be indoctrinated; living in this propaganda filled bubble too long to effectively separate pride at being Cuban from allegiance to the Revolution. There are undoubtedly real differences in opinion and expectation from the Revolution (it wasn’t just a single event in the 1950’s but an ongoing process), an array of views that could potentially form the basis of a passionate and effective democracy. But across the board I think the people know enough about the world beyond Cuban borders to know they are being left behind in many respects.
Modes of transport are one of the most obvious ways in which ordinary Cuban people have been left in a bygone era. The big old 1950’s American cars are unavoidable and as an initial novelty a real fascination. After a while I found that I didn’t even notice many of them, they became the norm and often invisible. The ones I couldn’t help but notice where those that spewed out the most noxious exhaust I’ve ever experienced. 30 days on a bicycle in Cuba will probably cost you two years of life. In some urban areas I swear that you’d get cleaner air out of the butt of a lit cigarette. Fortunately two less environmentally demanding forms of transport dominate in most towns; bicitaxis and horse and carts. The bicitaxis were everywhere and a minor annoyance to us with their never-ending attempts to tempt our custom. Horse carts were also in no short supply but fit and healthy horses appeared a luxury. I cannot judge the owners and handlers of the horses for they live in a different world to that I’m used to, but the treatment and state of some of the horses broke my heart.
Animals were everywhere in Cuba; grazing in the town squares, sniffing around village streets and even hanging out on the autpistas. I have long possessed a soft spot for pigs so it never failed to amuse me to see them all over the place, seemingly roaming free. Goats on the other hand are new to my affections. They seemed to be everywhere, particularly down in the Oriente and have managed to win both Justin and myself over with their hilarious acts. On our wettest day of riding we’d pass bus shelters and see goats patiently standing on the seats or under the awnings of houses sheltering from the rain. Goats appear to be able to find shelter anywhere, eight of the industrious little chaps even managed to squash themselves into the inside of a concrete sign. Their young ones are cute and like to practice jumping, the male ones have the most enormous balls and they brightened our days no end… Cuban goats I salute you.
In conclusion I think it’s fair to say that after 30 days on the island, we were glad to leave. There can’t be many places that I think everyone should visit at least once, yet would not be interested in returning to myself. As a mash of contradictions, complications and oddities, Cuba is unmissable. Many people visit Cuba because they’ve heard that it is changing and want to see things before they ‘improve’. Although some residents there would dispute that this change exists at all, there is in reality no doubt that somethings happening; just this week it finally became legal to buy and sell real estate. Cuba exists within a bubble, many people and forces are pushing to break through the membrane and burst that bubble, but it just grows. For many people both inside and out of Cuba the bubble will only burst with the death of Fidel and Raul Castro, once that happens who knows what will happen. I’m glad I experienced Cuba like I did but sincerely hope that the future holds a controlled opening to capitalism and democracy. I used to have hope for socialism, after the last month that hope is dead.