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Cuba Part 1: First Impressions or Culture Shock

This is Part I of a multi-part series on Cuba. Cuba is a fascinating dichotomy of old meets new; it is a country filled with contradiction–hope, oppression, beauty, decay, vibrance, austerity… There is nowhere else in the world like it. I have never had so much writing material to work with from only a week-long trip; so stay tuned for more!

Cuba: there is no place like it in the world. Only an hour from Miami by air, this enigmatic country feels more like a world away. I have wanted to travel to Cuba for as long as I can remember. My husband and I have roots in Cuba, each with a set of great-grandparents that emigrated to the United States. This personal tie to the country was not my real impetus for going, though. I love exploring the “unknown,” studying cultures and places that the average American doesn’t travel to or fully understand, and bringing back a piece of it to share. Cambodia, Morocco, China, Turkey, Thailand, and Bosnia have fallen into that category. And yet, while these countries all involve traveling across the globe, Cuba, a puddle-jump away, feels more foreign and out of reach to most Americans than any of those countries.

I have so much to share about the Cuban way of life–I have never learned so much in such a short period of time. I literally have a full notebook after just one week of traveling. Throughout our travels, I found the people to be warm and welcoming, excited to share their culture and to learn about ours. This enigmatic country is so different from our own that at times it is a bit overwhelming to try to grasp it all, let alone relay it properly. So, I’m going to do what many writers do when they’re at a loss for where to begin, and just start at the beginning!

We arrive at the Havana airport on a sunny Saturday. Other than a slightly bumpy landing, our flight has been uneventful. Our first sight upon exiting the plane is a Cuban flag flapping in the breeze on the runway. It’s almost as if the flag is waving hello; a little greeting to let us know we’ve officially made it! Well… almost. First, we have to collect our checked luggage which can take quite a while. Everyone traveling into Cuba seems to have the maximum amount of allowable baggage. There is an entire section by the carousel dedicated to bulk items–furniture, bicycles, televisions… I learn later this is because U.S. good are a scarce commodity as a result of the embargo. Visitors and Cubans who are permitted to go abroad typically bring goods in for friends and relatives or to quietly sell on the black market. The combination of an inundation of goods, and the quickly learned fact that ‘Cuban government’ and ‘efficient’ are not synonymous terms, and we are in for a bit of a wait.

Nearly two hours later, we emerge from the airport with our luggage successfully in tow. At this point, I am a little concerned that our tour company, which has promised to meet us at the airport, may have given up hope and gone home. There are throngs of people waiting outside of the arrivals terminal; it is a tad bit overwhelming. Luckily, we find two Wijincuba employees, Tony and Livan, patiently waiting to greet us with a welcome sign and cold water. Tony introduces himself as our guide for the next 7 days, and Livan, as another guide who helps to run the company.

Walking through the airport parking lot, we get our first taste of Cuban classic cars. There are many eye-catching 1950s classics, as well as several eyesores. In addition, there is a mix of more modern vehicles, most with brand names I’ve never seen before; we are led to one of the latter. The car has a BAIC brand name and resembles a jeep. I mention I don’t recognize this, and Tony laughs and says its Chinese, that we probably have the real thing in America. (Sure enough, when I get home and google BAIC, I find it is a knock-off of the Jeep brand.)

During the 30 minute drive into Havana, Tony, a 34-year-old, genial local, tells us a bit about the city and Cuban daily life. His information supplements much of what I’ve researched before we left. 2.3 million people live in Havana, many with jobs funded by the government. Salaries average around the equivalent of $20/month. While there is some disparity among professions, for example, a doctor may make $60 and a nurse $25, it is no comparison to what educated professionals make in most other countries. Food, health care, education, and housing are all government-provided (technically).

Cuba operates under a two currency system: the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and the Cuban Peso (CUP). The CUC is worth 25 times as much as the CUP. With the exception of rare instances, tourists only really need to worry about the CUC. Tourist restaurants, stores, and hotels are all priced in CUCs. For locals, however, the CUP is a way a life. Most professions are paid in CUPs and their local bodegas, where they use their ratio books, are priced in CUPs.

Everyone gets a ration, whether they work or not. Known as La Libreta, the rationing system has been in place in Cuba since the 1962 U.S. embargo. The system is supposed to provide citizens with their basic food needs–rice, cooking oil, white sugar, brown sugar, coffee, and some meat (usually chicken). Each household gets a ration book that has an assigned number. The book contains a list of their household members, along with their sex and dates of birth. Cubans must go to the store associated with their residence, and the store clerk there must keep track of what each family member obtains on their permitted ration list each month. What you’re allowed to obtain depends on everyone’s age and gender, for example, milk for children under 7, pregnant women, and those over 65. Often, however, items are scarce, particularly meat, eggs, and milk. Procuring rations can be difficult, with stores regularly running out of ration items. Other foodstuffs carried by the bodegas are significantly subsidized but often out of stock, as well.

When Cubans want to buy items that they cannot find in their local store, they are forced to purchase them at “dollar stores” (those that take the CUC). There is a much greater variety of food at dollar stores, but the price is also substantially higher. Many educated professionals (doctors, engineers, university professors) have resorted to taking on second, higher-paying jobs as taxi drivers or waiters to supplement their meager CUP incomes. Ironically, the professions taking in the highest incomes in Cuba are oftentimes the ones that typically take in the lowest in the United States.

Everything in Cuba seems to involve some type of bribe, kick-back, or black market deal. If you want to be seen by the local doctor, a gifted ham or a few CUC will go a long way to getting you to the front of the line. If you get pulled over, the officer may be willing to look the other way for a small bribe. If you want to buy a television or cell phone, you find someone who “knows a guy” to hook you up.

Tony tells us that he commutes more than two hours each way to Havana when he has a client. Apparently the four hours in the car is worth the CUCs– even at $1.20/liter for gas. He recently built a room onto his mother’s home for his family and lives there with his “wife” (they are not legally married, Tony tells us weddings are too expensive) and daughter. His 5 year old daughter is clearly the apple of his eye; he lights up whenever he talks about her. He tells me he is looking to buy her a puppy at the end of this trip with his earnings. Partially, this is for her–she has been begging for a puppy. (Dogs cost a lot of money to feed, so it is a strain on most Cuban households.) Mostly, however, the purchase is for protection and Tony’s peace if mind. His profession often takes him away from home for days at a time. Tony’s home has been broken into three times since the recent hurricane, once while he and his family were at home. He worries about his mother, wife, and daughter home without his protection.

I ask Tony if he learned his English, which is quite good, in school. He laughs and tells me no, it was actually mostly from watching American movies as a kid. Tony loves American movies. His favorite actor is currently Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He can’t get enough of his stuff.

The roads in Cuba are a chaotic mix of classic cars, jalopies, newer cars, horse-and-buggies, and motor scooters. Periodically you’ll pass an ox cart carrying produce, jam-packed public bus, or an old Soviet army truck transporting farm workers in the back. I am already glad that we chose not to drive on this trip!

As we begin to drive through the streets of Havana and make our way toward the historic center, I am taken aback by the level of decay in some of the residential areas. Buildings are literally falling apart. People are occupying lower levels of complexes where the top floors have collapsed, fragments of balconies are clinging precariously to facades, and some of the streets would barely qualify under that definition. There are no homeless, the government provides housing if you don’t have it. However, while housing may be provided by the government, it is far from the standards to which we are accustomed.

The historic center is in markedly better condition, but there is still an overall ramshackle feel to many of the edifices. We are staying in a Cuban private residences. Home stays are one of the ways Cubans are now permitted by the government to bring in some additional income. There is a government approved list of 201 legal small-business occupations the Cuban people are permitted to engage in, including room/home renter and restauranteur. It is very important to me that we spend our dollars in Cuba with the Cuban people–a privately run tour company, AirBNBs, and paladares (private restaurants).

Our AirBNB is an apartment located on the second floor of an unassuming local street, Aguiar, in Habana Vieja (Old Havana) near the Hotel San Miguel. There is a barbershop down below and locals bustle up and down the street outside going about their day. We have a bedroom (air-conditioned), living room, office area (which also serves as a second bedroom), bathroom, and kitchen all to ourselves. There is also a small balcony with a table and two chairs from which we can people-watch. All of this we have for less than $75/night. Paladares can range anywhere from $15 per night upward depending on what you are looking for– a steal compared to vacation lodging in the United States.

Felipe meets us at our AirBNB. He runs Wijincuba, our small-business tour operator for the length of our stay. Felipe speaks 4 languages fluently, including English, and he employs about 8 guides through his company. He is extremely professional, and you can tell that he is very proud of the business he has built. He effortlessly runs through the itinerary we have agreed upon over the last several months, including some special requests, making sure that everything is correct. Felipe thinks of everything, even calling to make our first dinner reservation for us so that we have somewhere to eat tonight. He also presents us with a welcome gift, a small bottle of Cuban rum and two 1-hour wifi cards.

Wifi is another thing we take for granted in the United States that is not a given in Cuba. In fact, it’s relatively difficult to find a hotspot, let alone a halfway decent connection. We spend most of our trip completely disconnected (kind of a nice break actually). There isn’t in-home wifi like in the United States. Until 2008, owning computers and DVD equipment was illegal in Cuba–and priced out of reach for most Cubans anyway. Now, it seems like the government just restricts internet access instead. The few times I attempted to access the internet in Cuba, I experienced 1990s dial-up levels of frustration. Cuban internet hotspots are notoriously slow; most sites will barely load and some are blocked altogether. There is also no such thing as free wifi. You must purchase hourly cards (with a login and password) from state-run ETESCA stores for $2 CUC each. The wifi cards are all the more appreciated when I see that the ETESCA store lines in every city we visit stretch down the entire block with Cubans patiently waiting their turn for hours to purchase wifi or cell phone access. Livan has procured the wifi cards for us, more than likely on the black market where you pay a premium but get to skip the line (some Cubans make a living of buying the cards to resell).

In addition to being a tour guide, Livan is an English professor–which explains his excellent English. He doesn’t live in Havana, either. When I ask about ingesting the water/ice in restaurants with our weak American stomachs, he tells me to stick to bottled water. Livan says that the best way to know if ice is filtered in restaurants is to look for ice-machine shaped cubes. The larger places all have ice machines which have filters on them, so that ice should be ok. (I follow this advice for the rest of my trip and have no issues, so there must be something to it.)

Livan tells me his town doesn’t have running water; he pumps water directly from a well to get drinking water and other household water needs, so his stomach can handle most anything. I am immediately transported in my mind to my home with my washing machine, dishwasher, hot shower, flushing toilet, ice machine, filtered tap water… I can’t even begin to imagine daily life without running water. Sometimes we don’t realize how much we take for granted until we are visibly reminded of those who have a completely different way of life. I ask about showering, and Tony laughs and tells me there isn’t a person in Cuba who hasn’t had to bathe with a bucket of cold water over their heads at one time or another.

Running water is not a given, even in Havana. Sometimes the water supply is cut off to parts of the city for days at a time. When I was booking our AirBNBs, I actually took note of places where people mentioned they had a backup supply. Many of the locals who can afford it have water cisterns on their roofs as a contingency for these times. These are things most U.S. citizens wouldn’t think to look into before heading off on vacation in the states unless they were going camping. Yet in Cuba, it is just a regular part of daily life.

I ask Felipe how his business has been doing since the announcement of upcoming travel restrictions under President Trump followed by the U.S. State Department warning against citizens traveling to Cuba as a result of the mysterious sonic attacks on U.S. Diplomats. Cuba had not been much of a U.S. travel destination since diplomatic relations were severed in 1961. However, with the 2015 reestablishment of diplomatic relations under President Barack Obama, easing on imposed travel restrictions, U.S. air carriers now servicing Havana, and cruise ships again pulling into Cuban port, there has been a steady stream of curious U.S. travelers once again visiting the island nation. Felipe’s smile falters a little. He tells me they had 14 upcoming U.S. bookings, and of those, 10 have cancelled since the announcements–it has had an enormous impact on his business, as well as his employees’ livelihoods. He is both relieved and happy to find that we have decided to come despite the warnings.

When President’s Trump’s announcement first came out, I worried about potential new restrictions that could affect our trip. However, since the restrictions were anticipated to mostly relate to doing business with the Cuban military, I just ensured that we didn’t have anything booked that could be affected. I booked private residences, planned to dine in paladares, and hired a small-business tour operator. And when the U.S. State Department travel warnings came out, I did my research. The only people that have experienced any symptoms to date have been U.S. Diplomats (and their family members) working in Havana in an official capacity. The reports all pointed toward the attacks occurring in their hotels, residences, and offices. There wasn’t solid evidence as to who was behind the attacks, but diplomats appeared to be the sole target. Since we were not visiting Cuba in any official government capacity, nor staying in any major hotels, the odds of us experiencing any difficulties as tourists seemed slim to none. I had hoped for small business entrepreneur’s, like Felipe’s sake, that other travelers would look at these warnings with a similar common-sense approach. Hopefully, as time passes, people will relax and begin to rethink their plans.

Before Felipe and Livan depart, we pay what we owe them for the trip, and they exchange some U.S. Dollars to CUCs for us so that we will have some local currency (tomorrow morning we will exchange more at a bank). This is another way that Cuba differs from travel elsewhere; we had to bring cash with us to cover our entire trip. I am happy to pay them up front. Their company is more than reputable–I did my research, and they have nothing but stellar reviews–and I do not like carrying around so much cash. Cuba is very much a cash economy, Tony jokes that no one puts money into bank accounts where the government can track it.

U.S. credit cards, debit cards, and checks do not work in Cuba.* However, even if they did, I rarely come across anywhere in Cuba that actually takes credit cards (other than major hotels and very large businesses). For U.S. citizens, the simplest solution is to bring enough cash for the entire trip and convert it to CUCs once in Cuba at a bank or currency exchange. The CUC is actually tied to the U.S. Dollar, but the Cuban government charges a 10 percent fee for all U.S. dollar cash conversions. That, combined with a currency exchange fee, puts the exchange rate between 0.87 and 0.88 CUC per U.S. Dollar. It initially seems crazy to me that their money is worth more than ours, but our purchases (lodging, food, souvenirs), also tend to cost much less.

Felipe and Livan wish us well on our trip and give us their cards in case we need to contact them during our travels. I wish them luck with their upcoming tours and tell them that I hope they see more Americans braving the hurdles to visit their intriguing country. It has definitely been an educational experience already! With a final farewell and a handshake, they leave us in Tony’s capable hands for the next 7 days.

Credit for Some of the Featured Photos: Kyle Perkins

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