I knew very little about Havana besides that I would see cool old cars and get to witness vibrant street life. My week ended up being a roller coaster ride.
Right off, the highlights was the ten piece bands playing on almost every corner. I was surprised and amused by the 90s fashion and imaginative haircuts. The street life was as promised – people live their lives in public and are incredibly social.
For friends taking a visit, I would recommend checking out Fabrica De Arte which is a complex equipped with a theater, art galleries, multiple venues and eateries. This place alone would make a trip worth it. If you’re into jazz “la zorra y el cuervo” can’t be missed. Hanging out on the Malecon is both relaxing and eventful. Lastly, schedule time for aimless wandering because it’s one of the safest and most visually delicious places.
But be warned, communication is hard, the food is less than special, and the internet situation is 1996.
For staying a week more I’d recommend reading up on Cuba and Socialism (Real Havana was helpful, The Cubans , Cuba – behind the the embargo) because it’s a unique place. Socialism is strong and different from anything I could have expected. It was an austere gray layer behind the colors and it became a riddle I thought about almost the entire time.
On that note, I’ll continue to share thoughts from my experience…
What makes traveling in Cuba different
In a country where the monthly salary is $40 how did I find it impossible to spend less than $50 a day?
The answer to the money question during my week became the key to figuring out what was going on.
As a tourist, going to see music at a private restaurant and staying at resort in the beach you might not need to address this question, or feel it all. If you can’t communicate in spanish, you’ll likely have almost no chance to break out of the tourist ring anyway. However, if you’re a traveler that’s making your own path, and determined to dig deeper with at least basic language skills, Cuba will toss you around in an unfamiliar way.
My first example of this was asking locals how to get to the other side of town. They would suggest a taxi and wouldn’t tell me any other way to do it. There is no way a local could take a taxi because it costs $5-$10. After a day of taking expensive taxi rides, I finally discovered that the locals go to pre-determined streets and hitchhike for pennies. I started doing this myself without a problem, but another question lingered, if there is nothing for someone to gain why wouldn’t they tell me how to do it. When I would mention to someone that I knew how to “catch the bottle” (their term for hitchhiking) they’d be surprised and asked how I found out about it.
Two Money Systems, Tourism and an Abbreviated History
I couldn’t answer these questions on my own, so I spent 3 euros to access the internet at a hotel and downloaded a couple on history books to my kindle (the ones mentioned above). This move basically saved my trip because I had done no preparation beforehand besides asking a few friends what I should do in Havana.
I was already familiar that Cuba had two currencies. One that was given to the locals, moneda nacional, and one made for international trade that tourists use, the convertible peso, or CUC.
Before 1989 Cuba was supported by the USSR. Tourism wasn’t exactly welcome and cubans survived off their rations. Then when the USSR collapsed Cuba lost that support and its tobacco and sugar exports weren’t enough to support their people. This is when they entered what they call the “special period”, where the rations become so low that people began to suffer from malnutrition and some even starved to death.
Taking a hint from their Caribbean neighbors, they renovated hotels from the fifties, opened up the island to tourism and introduced the convertible peso (CUC) for tourists to use.
(I’m not going to go into this, but cuban history before the revolution when US gangsters took over and the US supported a corrupt president is eye opening. This place comes thick with stories.)
The CUC and tourism seemed to save Cuba from its resources problem but introduced pieces to the system that weren’t there before, and that initially worked only in a bubble.
Where their system was meant to have people be equal, some locals had access to CUCs if they worked in tourism. So if you make $40 a month like everyone else and then you receive $40 in tips from foreigners you’ve doubled your income.
Cubans are by nature made for community and collectivism. They call people who think they can survive on their own “autosuficiente” which is viewed as negative and anti-social. On the other side of this, when a neighbor needs a babysitter they’ll gladly cover, and you’ll see a kid on the street ask for a piece of a sandwich from a stranger and they will rip off a piece and give it to them. Cubans work together.
The caveat is as a tourist you’re not part of the collectivism. (You’d probably want to think twice about being part of it anyway because it would mean sharing your resources until you’re almost equal with everyone else.) As a tourist you’re a temporary source of the valuable CUCs. Call it paranoia but my experience was that cubans were collectively working to deplete you of as many CUCs as they can during your stay. Some argue it’s similar in other countries, but what’s different here is it seems that they work together as one big organism. You catch locals who don’t know each other proudly talking about hustles that make few extra dollars off tourists. They also don’t mess with each other’s games, so they don’t warn you if a random person is ripping you off, and sometimes whisper to each other to help the cause along. I could write a whole section about the short-cons and the long-cons going on here.
But to pull back a little, although I found this kind of stuff to be prevalent, it’s not a hard rule, and many people might actually let you be part of their lives without expecting anything. That for me became the exception though and I found it difficult to have genuine experiences.
Entrepreneurship and The Future
Okay so now the story continues with the equality part breaking down. What seems to be happening is that young people are interacting with tourists and the world. Where their socialism worked in a bubble before, the next generations wants to grow, wants to travel and have experiences outside of the island. Tourism is expanding and even though the internet is expensive they get to use it once in a while and see what people on the outside have. I saw one guy at the hotel on facebook go through liking different photos of cool shoes that his friends posted.
In a way, Cuba is entering another type of special period where entrepreneurship is becoming more welcome. As of 2011 cuban nationals can now have a private enterprise, before that all businesses were run by the government and you’d be an employee of the state.
Little cafes are opening up and you’re seeing new projects. Cubans are natural inventors and creatives. The streets are filled with life and sideways solutions to problems from having to work with little resources. It’s likely this same inventiveness in the young people will help the country rise and prosper when allowed.
On a much broader and psychological theme, I was thinking about socialism as direct way to deal with the core human quality of greed. The other side of the bill, is while it takes away greed by enforcing equality it simultaneously removes its kinder brother which are the fruits that come from the human desire to grow and improve our circumstances.
Now the question to me is how cuban socialism will continue as entrepreneurship saves the nation and ultimately breaks down the equality that the country initially stood far. Some people will survive, and some people will thrive and their excess will be clear.
Upside, Art and Creativity
I went this far without getting into how unreal the music and art scene is here. There is rhythm in the footsteps of these people. There is extreme presence. There are jokes and laughter in every corner. Spontaneity runs wild.
With food, shelter, education, healthcare all taken care of by the government, set in a stage of striking architecture, the streets of havana are a colorful playground. And maybe even as safe. I felt safe and was instructed to feel safe from both petty and larger crimes. You can walk around in most neighborhoods at almost any hours without much too worry about. It’s a mixed race place and racism seems to be low.
The highs of my roller coaster was from walking around and joking with people, although 80 percent of conversations shifted to them wanting me to gift them CUCs. The other 20 percent were worth the while.
I bought a fruit cocktail from a guy for 25 cents and he turned out to be a musician. He took out his guitar and belted me out a song right out of his window after a conversation about Egypt. I walked into a random house with a restaurant and I met Tommy, who was full of life and introduced to me all 8 of his chihuahuas.
And of course… the old cars that they’ve been preserved so well giving us capitalistic foreigners a time capsule. Don’t be fooled – the cars are only the hook into the cuban riddle. For friends who will be visiting from the USA as the flights open up, you shouldn’t be turned off if you’re visiting as a true tourist. It’s a fun, interesting and beautiful place. If you want to dig deeper, expect a harder ride.
Havana I will be back, and I’m sure you won’t be the same, but I will be a little more ready for you.