A month ago I went to one of my dream destinations: Cuba. I can’t speak for the whole of the country, as I only went to Havana, but I would say that my trip was more “interesting” than fully enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong, I plan to visit again and it was definitely at least partly due to my poor organisation. I didn’t realise how difficult it can be as a tourist there – naivety is the word I think best describes my trip.
Things I thought might make a nice change, like not having easy access to wifi or mobile coverage, quickly turned into a massive pain and stress; we were on different flights, so once the first person boarded their plane we had no idea when we were all going to be in contact again. Our reservation wasn’t received by the lovely people who ran a hostel near the Estadio Latinoamericano Baseball stadium because she hadn’t had wifi to check and therefore all the beds were full. We stayed in her half-renovated apartment for the first night, which only had access to cold water, on mattresses on the floor. Not really ideal.
When I got off the plane, the first thing I noticed was that the Spanish was very different and quite hard to understand. The family we stayed with were beyond lovely and tried to do everything they could to help us out, and once you started chatting to locals in Spanish they were nice and helpful. Even so, people working in the airports and shops really didn’t seem as friendly as in Mexico or even, as my friend from Newcastle noted, “people in London are more friendly than this!”
Another thing, was that we had to change our money into the tourist currency, CUC. We could easily change money into Cuban Pesos from then on, so I assume it’s a kind of money-making scheme on the part of the government – the CUC is about 1:1 with the euro. We refused to pay ridiculous amounts of money for taxis everywhere, so we used the Guagua (pronounced wawa) buses, where you pay the equivalent of 0.016 CUC per journey, instead of 2-5 each. There’s no denying it was uncomfortable, sweaty and would definitely violate British health and safety standards, but my god it was a great deal.
Nonetheless, there was definitely a general divide between the tourist economy and the economy of the Cuban nationals, and I just hated that in some areas it was impossible to avoid being a typical tourist. In old Havana we were quoted 15 CUC for a second-hand book, and 25 CUC for a dress in an insalubrious market. No Cuban in their right mind would pay that but, if the price wasn’t written down, they could try and charge whatever they wanted. Unfortunately we were actually just stingy students!
In terms of food, I admit when we stayed around the area of our hostel, which definitely had its own habanero community, you could pay about 1-3 CUC for a meal. Venturing into other, nicer, more touristy, areas you could pay 15 CUC easily. That may have seemed reasonable if I was coming from the UK, but I’ve just spent the last four months in Mexico. I did like that we could eat in people’s houses, it felt like an insight into the real life there. On the other hand, it surprisingly hard to find something that came with vegetables and/or wasn’t deep fried, I presume due to trade limitations.
I don’t mean to be super negative, I just honestly felt a much bigger culture shock between my part of Mexico and Cuba, than I felt between Mexico and the UK. It was strange, I was suddenly aching for the comfort of my Cholula home, not just my London one.
In terms of the actual trip, on our first day in Havana we went to Playa Guanabo, a beach on the east cost. It was a bit of a baptism of fire as we had to get two different guaguas. One thing I liked about Havana was that if you asked someone for directions (which proved hugely necessary for us) everyone knew where you wanted to go and were very helpful, sometimes taking us directly to the stop we were looking for, or one man even gave my friend some Cuban pesos so we weren’t ripped off by having to pay in CUC. The guaguas to the beach were hot, cramped and we had to travel about an hour and a half to get there but, once there, it was definitely worth it.
I really wasn’t in Havana very long, but over the next couple of days we mainly explored the old part of the city. There was a lot of beauty, though it was mixed in with peeling paint, decay and collapsed buildings too. You could really tell the richer areas from the poorer ones.
Although some friends had told me not to have high expectations of Cuba, I have to admit I didn’t really pay too much notice. I guess I figured once you’d waded through the more difficult aspects, there would still be some kind of ideal society buried underneath. I’ve studied Stalin’s Russia and I’m not blind to the failings of communism, but I’d also heard a lot about how Cuba had the best healthcare in Latin America, how it was the safest place in Latin America and that it had a more equal society. In other words – it’s all relative. I’ve seen the corruption, extreme poverty and fear that many Mexicans face today. Certainly, capitalism hasn’t worked in Latin America either.
Visiting Havana though, I’m not really convinced. I said before that some people didn’t seem very friendly but, in actuality, it seemed like more than that – a lot of people seemed outwardly miserable. Maybe it was the area we were in (i.e. not touristy), but it wasn’t the impression I had in my head of happy-go-lucky Cubans drinking mojitos and dancing in the sun. A Cuban woman we met at university in Mexico, told us “we go hungry but we’ve always got a smile on our faces”. This is a sad thing to hear anyway, but I got the impression while many Cubans may continue to smile, it certainly wasn’t the case for all of them. The poverty amongst some was palpable, living in buildings that frankly looked unfit for use, wearing worn-out old clothes; the relatively high income for others was shown, much like anywhere else, through wide screen TVs, sound systems and big refrigerators. In other words, it didn’t exactly seem like an egalitarian ideal.
We spoke to the family we were staying with, who essentially said they’d love to go to America but they couldn’t. Even if you had the money, they said they could only travel to Russia or Guyana (though I’m unsure why this is the case). The celebration of Fidel’s death in Little Havana in Florida contrasted sharply with the attitudes of mourning within the city itself. Of course, the Cubans in America are there because they desperately wanted to leave and so are unlikely to be sympathetic to the revolutionary cause. Nonetheless, the family we were staying with made me wonder how many other families longed to be elsewhere.
The limitation of Internet, its high cost (1 CUC an hour) and poor quality, is something I also find frustrating. The Cuban Government place the blame on the trade embargo and yet still block and restrict websites with dissident views. It seems to me that limited Internet service is used to avoid the spread of knowledge because, as everyone knows, knowledge is power. To me, the limitation of Internet, is a demonstration that the government is weak. It seemed distrusting of it’s ability to keep people there of their own accord, so it has to limit the rights of its citizens. I’m not trying to say that western countries are perfect or completely democratic, but I don’t doubt that most people live in the UK because they want to, and they are able to access information pretty freely.
The Museo de la Revolución kind of felt a bit like a 1984 dream as well. Again, I’m sure there’s bias in American museums but I don’t think that in itself excuses it in Cuban ones.
Apparently everyone supported Fidel and the new regime brought in great reforms that hugely improved the lives of every single Cuban. They had a chronology of “Some aggressions carried out by the United States against Cuba” during the sixties. No negative things about Cuba or their government were mentioned at all. As a student of history, I find this hugely frustrating. Even if you are on the “right side” of history, no one is flawless. It’s exactly what Germany seek to do the opposite of, and I have deep respect for their attitude. It should be one taken on by more countries across the world, certainly including the UK, but I’ve not really witnessed a “historical” museum that whole-heartedly biased before. It was a shock but, then again, perhaps that shows my naivety more than anything else!
It was also obviously strange going into shops that were half empty, with only a few products all made by the same brands. I wasn’t sure if it was even ironic that this brand advertised itself as the “No 1 en Cuba” considering it was the only brand of water I ever laid my eyes on.
It was quite a sad state of affairs, one I now realise is as a result of the trade embargo by the US. As someone who generally scorns how materialistic society can be, I ended up going into half empty supermarkets and thinking: Is this it? Where’s the choice? Why do people have to pay 2 CUC for a small pack of crisps or a packet of biscuits? Why is the coca-cola equivalent more available than water? Why is a 250g box of dry pasta priced at 6 CUC?! I wonder how different things would be if relations with America were better. Would a a more capitalist economy diminish Cuba’s more desirable elements, such as great healthcare? With the slow but sure thawing of relations between the two nations, maybe we’ll soon find out if there has to be a trade off.
Havana, then, wasn’t really a city break as such. Although I could appreciate the beauty and the atmosphere to an extent, the daily grind of the city and the hotter climate really wore me out. That being said, I hear from lots of people that the first time visiting can be difficult but it’s much easier once you know what to expect. I do genuinely look forward to going back again and exploring more of Cuba. I’ll make sure to drop the naive attitude!