Havana, Cuba: Culture Shock Round 2

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.
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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.16107679_10211750273296240_101376688_o

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.
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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.
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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!
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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.
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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!
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7 thoughts on “Havana, Cuba: Culture Shock Round 2

  1. Citizens of poor countries require visas to visit rich countries. Cubans require visas to visit the US. Restrictions on travel to the US are determined by the American government through their embassy, not the Cuban government. They cap annual visa approvals at about 20000.
    It is also important you know that Coke isn’t ‘banned’ by the Cuban government. Being an American company, they are subject to the trade embargo imposed by the US government. The US embargo prohibits American companies from trading with Cuba.

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    1. I see. The man we stayed with gave the impression that he himself was restricted from entering the US, and it was my understanding that you needed an exit visa/permission to leave Cuba, though perhaps that’s changed? I understand that visas are necessary, but due to the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, I was under the impression that Cubans were given special preference and in previous years even granted immediate political asylum. Yes, I wasn’t 100% clear on what elements were related to the trade embargo and what was related to government policy, apologies, I’ll change it accordingly.

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      1. A requirement for permission originally existed because the government that overthrew Batista wanted to ensure that members of the Batista regime couldn’t flee the country. The cited justification for this policy was theft and other crimes that had been committed. Batista himself fled with an estimated $300million. Afterwards, bureaucratic inertia and other considerations ensured that the law requiring permission lasted for decades. It was scrapped about a decade ago and Cubans who want to travel anywhere just need the destination country to grant a visa.
        That said, last year, the government changed policy for doctors in certain specialties. These specialists are now required to notify and get permission from authorities before traveling. The new policy was a response to shortages caused by the Cuban Medical Parole Program. This program was created by president Bush to entice Cuban doctors serving in foreign countries with the offer of automatic residency in the US. Cuba has as a result suffered a significant loss of human capital. Several thousand doctors opted to leave for the promise of fabulous wealth in the US this year alone. These are doctors who underwent education free of charge in Cuba. In addition to ending ‘wet foot dry foot’, Obama also ended the medical parole program. To learn more you can read the following articles:

        http://www.latimes.com/world/mexico-americas/la-fg-cuba-doctors-20170114-story.html

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      2. Thank you for the information! To clarify, I didn’t intend this to come across as a pro-US or an anti-Cuba piece, or even one that’s particularly informative (it’s kind of just meant for my friends and family). I just went in with expectations I’d love it and found it to be pretty draining — to walk for 20 minutes and not find water, to have the people around you actively tell you they wish they didn’t live there, or that they were going hungry. I understand more clearly that this may be more as a result of trade restrictions than anything else, and I hope that the situation continues to improve (though with the election of Trump, quien sabe?)

        I also kind of felt like in lots of places tourists were only seen as a necessary evil. I’m not saying that I expected people to welcome me with open arms, but there were times I felt like I was infringing and was actively unwelcome.

        What has been your experience with visiting Cuba?

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  2. I’m sorry I have burdened you with political/historical information. Please feel free the delete my comments.

    Regarding my experience, that’s bound to be different because I’m from a really poor country. As a result, I have good knowledge of being surrounded by beggars. My suggestion is that to enjoy Cuba, you need to do extensive research. Attractions may include ecotourism, diving, and an exploration of the arts scene. A good guide may be required or you could read up on your own. The people you probably encountered are called Jinteros. They are hustlers who are largely disliked by the public.

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    1. No not at all, it’s all great to know. I meant to do more research into the country once I’d left but I didn’t get round to it.

      I don’t think being surrounded by beggars is by any means exclusive to a poor country, it’s something I’ve encountered more in many areas in the UK and the US than I did in Cuba. Though I take your point, it would be a different perspective.

      Yes, I think I went into the holiday without realising how much research I should’ve done beforehand. I feel like if I had gone for a typical package holiday or stayed in a big hotel, or just had more money, my experience certainly would’ve been more relaxed.

      Perhaps. Within the tourist spaces it definitely felt like people were trying to hustle us, but I’m referring more to the attitudes we experienced within the non-tourist spaces. Despite speaking Spanish we were very clearly marked out by our appearance. An example of an interaction we had, was when we asked someone where a specific bus stop was, rather than show us he kept saying we shouldn’t go on the bus at all, that we should just take a taxi like the other tourists do. He ultimately did show us where the bus stop was, but he seemed annoyed by it. At first I wondered if this was because he wanted us to take a friend’s taxi, but it was us who stopped him in the street to ask and he it didn’t seem like he was trying to sell anything (he just told us to hail a random one of the street). The whole interaction just seemed a bit odd.

      More on the public transport than anywhere else did I get this weird feeling of “Why are you here?” It felt like people were at best confused by our presence, at worse disdainful of it. Maybe it was an intrusion and I didn’t fully understand the ramifications (we were always the only tourists on the buses) or maybe I was misinterpreting this, like I said, when we got chatting to people they did tend to be friendly.

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  3. Awesome post…I might go with my mom in march for a week language immersion. I think Cuba is so fascinating both because of it’s messy history and how citizens seem to respond when asked about the revolution. I really liked what you said about the museum being frustrating and feeling powerless. I really hope I go!

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