Posted by Marisa Campain
Read Part 1 here!
I first became interested in visiting Cuba because of the country’s unique history and lifestyle that seemed very different from that in the U.S. I struggled to imagine a place so close to the U.S. where private property was illegal and Marxism was written into the constitution, but I was eager to see such a place if it existed. It ended up that a lot of the crazy things I read about life in Cuba were true or had been true at some point – Cuban society has changed too quickly over the last decade for travel resources to reliably keep up. I found this society to be complex, inefficient, and often difficult to navigate, but with patience and help from the locals, I came to understand and enjoy the Cuban way of life.
My first week in Havana was very frustrating, largely because I was placed in a big hotel without a good contact to help me get around. It was challenging to access things I had before taken completely for granted, such as the internet. Transportation was also a struggle because Havana’s infrastructure is so poor. Things like snack food and toiletries, of which there is an excess in the U.S., were either expensive or impossible to find in Havana.
Then, come the second week, I suddenly found myself surrounded by friends. I met one friend on the boardwalk and another in a store near my hotel, then more on the beach and in the hotel lobby. These friends helped me understand Havana’s many idiosyncrasies – they explained the complex system of unlabeled set-route taxis in Havana and even got me a Cuban SIM card (which foreigners are not allowed to rent for themselves) so I could make calls within Cuba. I walked with a group of art students in the Worker’s Day parade, discussed politics in the living room of my friend’s family and spent several days with a group of teenagers in a small town outside Havana. The Cubans were outspoken and opinionated but also unfailingly warm and open with me. I have a few friends there who still manage to finagle enough internet to send me an email now and then, and the maintained contact never fails to make my day.
I was impressed with the creativity and resilience of the Cubans as well as how interesting they were to interact with. The average government salary in Cuba is 25-30 dollars per month no matter how educated or well-trained a person is: from college professors to engineers, almost everyone has to work several jobs to get by. Basic food staples are subsidized by the government, but all other goods are more expensive than in the U.S. and thus almost impossible for people to afford. Cubans work around this scarcity with ingenious resourcefulness. For example, after the embargo took effect in 1961, no new American cars or replacement parts could be sold to Cuba. Despite very limited access to tools and car parts, Cubans have kept thousands of these now-classic cars running for sixty years.
The Cubans also had a worldliness that surprised me, considering the lack of internet access and free press in the country. Part of this was their education – according to the World Bank, Cuba has the best educational system in Latin America, and many people attend the state-subsidized universities. I think another factor was the accessible and affordable cultural enrichment, such as Cuban-made art, literature, and film, as well as movies from around the world, which all Cubans are encouraged to explore.
I went from being lonely and frustrated in Havana to interacting with some of the warmest and kindest people I’ve ever met. Havana is a beautiful city and the Cubans are a beautiful people, and getting to witness their culture firsthand was worth every bit of struggle it required.
And finally, a few notes on traveling to Cuba:
- There are two different currencies in Cuba. Cuban pesos (CUP) are typically used to pay the government (like for subsidized food and utility payments), and are worth 1/24 of a CUC. One CUC is supposed to equal one U.S. dollar, but there is a 13% tax when changing American dollars to CUC. This only applies to American dollars- if you bring Canadian dollars or Euros you don’t have to pay the tax. Confused? Welcome to Cuba.
- Don’t try to get funds from Western Union because foreigners aren’t allowed to receive money from abroad (also as of May 2016). You have to find a trustworthy Cuban that you can pay to pick up your money in his or her name and then give it to you. (I’m not kidding. An American of my acquaintance had to do exactly this and it’s standard protocol in Havana.)
- Don’t try to get a SIM card for your phone either, unless you are willing to pay $20 per day. If you have a friend that can loan you one that’s ideal. Note: cell phones can call collect because Cubans are always broke, so expect the money on your prepaid account to disappear very quickly if you hang out with Cubans.
- Expect lines for any public service if you don’t want to pay the elevated tourist rate: public buses, movie theaters, grocery stores and even ice cream parlors can have lines for several hours.
- Don’t expect advertisements but rather revolutionary messages and images of Fidel Castro/Che Guevara plastered on walls and billboards around Havana. Don’t be surprised by anti-U.S. monuments and signs left over from past ill will between our countries. Most Cubans don’t pay any attention to these things – in fact, many of them have family members in the U.S. and would much rather tell you about that than discuss politics.