Reflections on Cuba

August 24, 2015

Cuba is unlike any other place I’ve ever been. I don’t even know where to begin in describing it. I spent three weeks and made my way all over the island, from Havana all the way to the east coast in the secluded beach town Baracoa.

Now that I’m finally sitting down to write about my experience, I’m realizing how hard it is to explain this place to someone who has never been there. Because it’s so much more (and less) than the superficial photos of old cars (however beautiful they may be). I’ve been in Cancún for the last month–the place people go before and after Cuba because the cheapest flights are there–so I’ve had the chance to talk to many others who have just returned from there. And that tends to be an instant bonding session, “did we just become best friends?” kind of talk.

I’m not going to lie: Cuba is not my favorite country. I think that travelers paint rosy pictures of their trips, even when they didn’t have such a great time. Maybe it’s the brain not wanting to admit that you’re wasting your ridiculously valuable vacation days and hard-earned money on a trip that wasn’t quite what you were expecting. Whatever it may be, I’ve found that people are quick to say that a place is awesome and amazing, but slow to say that a place they traveled to was rather subpar in a lot of ways. Well, I’m going to say it.

Cuba kind of sucks in a lot of ways.

Some of the rest of this post might seem like complaining. What can ya do.

Socioeconomic inequality

Probably the biggest problem stems from the fact that it’s a really poor country where every citizen earns about 20 dollars a month from the government. Think about that. If I lost a twenty dollar bill somehow, I would be a little sad, but then I’d think, “oh well, it was only twenty dollars. It could’ve been worse.” That’s a month’s wage for a Cuban. The difference in socioeconomic status between you and everyone you’re going to meet is practically unimaginable, even if you feel like you’re a shoestring budget backpacker.

This inequality quickly rears its head as you walk the streets. People will seem so friendly at first. They’ll smile and greet you, “Hola amigo! Where are you from?” My first day in Havana I couldn’t walk 30 seconds without having a conversation with a Cuban who wanted to talk to me. “Holy shit are people friendly here,” I said to myself. But then I realized that at the end of every conversation, they wanted something. Every single time. They’re not talking to you because they want to meet a foreigner. They’re talking to you because you have access to money in orders of magnitude far greater than they’ll ever have, and there’s a chance that they might be able to get some of it from you.

Everyone will tell you that Cuba is safe. I was told this a hundred times while I was there. It’s not that Cubans are going to pickpocket you. They’re going to try to scam you so you willingly give them your money. (That said, I have heard several people who had things stolen from them in Cuba).

The scams take a lot of different forms. One that people tried on me numerous times was to tell me that there was a music festival going on today, and then offer to show you where it is. Then they bring you to a bar with live music and stay with you, and when the bill comes you’re going to be paying for it. The thing is, it’s not a real music festival, or anything of the such. There is live music 247 and everywhere in Cuba. They just brought you to the nearest place that they could hear music playing and told you it was something special.

I had one lady talk with me for thirty minutes before begging me to buy her milk for her kids.

When you ask someone for directions, often times the person will offer to walk you there. Sounds nice of them, right? Except they will be expecting you to pay them for the service. This can be pretty frustrating when you’re just trying to find something.

“Excuse me, do you know where X street is?”

“Yeah, I’ll walk you there!”

“No, just like. Is it in this direction? A couple blocks or something?”

“Don’t worry about it, I’ll walk you there!”

“No, I don’t want you to walk me there. I just want to know if I’m going in the right direction.”

“Ok I’ll show you!”

“You can walk with me but I’m not paying you if you come with me.”

“Oh. Yeah it’s two blocks in this direction.”

And of course people are trying to sell you stuff. They will try to sell you anything. And the humorous part is that they’ll just be randomly guessing. “Cigarros, amigo? Taxi a Habana, amigo? Música en vivo? Bici taxi? Un buen bar?” All while you’re walking away. It seems like they’ll never stop guessing things you might need. No matter what city you’re in, no matter what time of the day, if you walk past a taxi you’ll probably be asked if you want a ride to Havana. I mean, what are the odds? Does that ever work for them? It’s fucking 5PM and we would get there in the middle of the night, and I’m just a random person with no backpack walking around. What are the odds that I would want a taxi to a far away place? Why do so many taxi drivers ask this??

It’s just kind of unfortunate in general. One of my favorite parts of traveling is meeting local people and learning about their culture that way. I just felt like everyone I talked to wanted in my wallet. I started walking around the streets with tunnel vision. People would try to talk to me and I would just ignore them. When a persistent person wouldn’t go away I would yell at them to leave me alone. And I hated that that’s what I became.

And I understand why they do it. If they can get $1 from someone, that’s like two day’s worth of work. And they have families they need to support. If I were in their position I would be doing the exact same thing. I know that. But at the same time, it sucks as a traveler.

The food is terrible

The food is impressively bad. This is coming from someone who can eat rice and beans every meal without batting an eye. Gastronomically speaking, I don’t need much to make me satisfied. I’m like the opposite of a foodie. I think every meal I get at every restaurant is a solid 10. Easy to please.

And then there was food in Cuba.

Restaurants in Cuba come in a few different varieties. You have your local currency restaurants and your tourist currency restaurants (more on the two currency system later). The tourist currency restaurants are fucking expensive, so unless you have a good job and are on a short vacation, you’ll probably want to skip them. Within the local currency restaurants, you have a few options:

  • Cafeterías - The cheapest of the cheap, the dirtiest of the dirty. These are everywhere. They almost never have seating. They’re usually a window in a wall with a small menu.
  • Paladares - This is basically someone’s home, and you eat in their dining room. Usually pretty cheap, but they can charge what they want.
  • Restaurantes de Moneda Nacional - An actual restaurant where you can sit down that charges in the local currency.

When I first arrived in Cuba I couldn’t believe how cheap the food at cafeterías was. You can get a ham or egg sandwich for $0.10. Wow, give me eight please! Then you realize that it’s actually pretty disgusting. They leave these sandwiches out all day, hell, maybe for days at a time. And if you’re in Cuba long enough, you’ll see animals being butchered in the beds of pickup trucks. Just out in the street, somebody hacking off parts of an animal in the blazing sun at midday. Nothing is hygenic and the first time you get diarrhea you’re going to really start questioning whether or not you want to keep eating at the cafeterías. A Cuban I met on the first day of my trip told me that the food at these places is so bad to the point that it will actually hurt you. I laughed. Until about two days later when I completely understood.

Paladares can be pretty cool. It’s just a normal Cuban family cooking you a meal, and you can find really cheap ones. You can find paladares that charge $1.50 for a huge meal, including soup, salad, rice, beans, fish, drink, etc. The problem is finding these places. They aren’t restaurants, so there aren’t big signs. It’s just someone’s house.

Restaurantes de Moneda Nacional are the cream of the crop for eating in Cuba. They’re normal restaurants in every way, and they accept the local currency (even though they’ll probably try to give you a separate menu in the tourist currency, demand for the menu de moneda nacional in your best Spanish). I actually had some great meals at these places. The problem is finding them. And good luck asking people, because people are going to try to bring you to their friend´s restaurant so they can get a kickback.

It’s also worth noting that you can go to a restaurant that charges in tourist money and try to negotiate the prices down. This worked for me sometimes. I split a $5 ($2.50 each) turtle dinner with a friend and it was more food than the both of us could eat, and actually really delicious. If you find a good restaurant, you’ll probably just want to go back there for every meal. The problem is that if you’re traveling you’re probably only in a city a day or two, so by the time you find a gem it’s time to leave. Some cities I had luck finding great restaurants and other cities I walked for hours, past hundreds of cafeterías, without finding a normal restaurant in the local currency.

There isn’t much variety either

Best case scenario, you’re going to get rice and beans, with your choice of: pork, beef, chicken, or fried fish. And that’s if they have everything. It’s likely they’re out of pork and beef.

And the salad? Cucumbers. Often cucumbers with cabbage. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get some tomato, but don’t count on it. One time, after a week and a half of cucumber salad, I got a tomato and I wanted to cry tears of joy. The little things, right?

And how could I forget: peso pizza. The brother of the ubiquitous cafetería, pizza is everywhere. It costs about a $0.25. Most days I ate pizza. Because you can only walk around unsuccessfully looking for a restaurant for so long before you cave into getting pizza that they’re practically giving away.

On my first day in Cuba I saw a person pushing a cart of crackers around the street. I’m talking bags of white flour crackers. And I thought, “who would buy that?” The answer, as I would learn about a week later, was me. Because you’re going to give up looking for food, or be stuck on a bus, and you need a backup plan. In a normal country that might be peanut butter or nuts. In Cuba, it’s white flour crackers. If you’re lucky they’ll have salt. If you’re really lucky you can find the ones with garlic. #cubancrackerexpert

Ok whatever I’ll buy food at the grocery and cook at home

That’s what we said, too. A group of five or so of us threw in money to make a dinner. We dreamed of all the vegetables we could buy ourselves. The problem is that there just aren’t really that much food in Cuba. That’s why every salad is cucumbers and cabbage–there just isn’t really anything else. We ended up making spaghetti, and a sauce with onion and garlic, garnished with avocado. That’s as fancy as we could get. And it was expensive. Like, I think somehow that was one of the more expensive meals I had in Cuba (granted, still cheap–Cuba is cheap).

Confusing money system

This is really annoying. There is the Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). The CUP is the local currency and you can trade one CUC for 24 CUP. One CUC is about one US dollar.

Tourists are technically only supposed to use CUC, but they’ll give you CUP as well if you ask for it. And you need both. If you pay for everything in CUC you’re going to be spending way too much.

Sometimes it’s so hard to know which currency prices are in though. I’ve had a sandwich for 3 CUP and a sandwich for 3 CUC (a 24x more expensive sandwich). I’ve had ice cream for 1 CUP and ice cream for 1 CUC. I’ve had beer for 5 CUP and–okay, I never paid 5 CUC for a beer, but I’m sure in certain bars and restaurants that would be the price.

It gets more confusing, because Cubans refer to both currencies as pesos.

“Cuánto sale?”

“Cinco pesos.”

“Uhhhh… moneda nacional o CUC?”

It’s an awkward question. One you’ll have to get used to asking. Basically, “Is what you’re selling ridiculously cheap or ridiculously overpriced?”

Only once did someone try to force me to pay in CUC the regular CUP price. A bathroom at a bus station cost 1 CUP ($0.04), and when I handed the lady a peso she got really pissed off and started yelling at me:

“Ustedes pagan en CUC” she said, as she pointed at me.

“Por qué?”

“Porque.”

I was mad, but was in a hurry and needed to piss, so I walked off. She started talking to another employee about what happened.

“Intentó pagar en pesos. ¡Ja!”

I walked around the building to the other side, where there happened to be another entrance, and paid in CUP. Unfortunately my bus was leaving and we literally had to run to catch it, otherwise I would’ve walked back around to tell the old lady that I got into the bathroom for one peso.

But that was the only time where someone tried to get me to pay the same price in the tourist currency. Usually if something is, for example, 6 CUP, they might get you to pay 1 CUC, which is still 4x too much, but nowhere near as bad as 24x.

Certain things you can only buy with CUC. For example, bottles of water. So you always need to have both. Then you’ll have two sets of bills and two sets of coins. It’s super fun.

Everything is difficult in Cuba

Nothing is easy. I already talked about how finding food was difficult. But finding water can be even harder in certain places. Cuba doesn’t have convenience stores or really anything remotely similar. And Cubans don’t drink bottled water. So when you get out of the tourist places, good luck. There were places where I couldn’t find bottled water, and eventually resorted to drinking tap water. And then ended up getting diarrhea for weeks. So that was fun.

Transportation isn’t easy either. The tourists are supposed to always take the Viazul buses. But good Lord is everything about the Viazul a mess. In order to buy a ticket you have to have your passport, and they all of your information into a DOS program (I’m guessing almost none of you even know what DOS is). To print one ticket took about three or four minutes. So get a line of twenty people and imagine where that takes you.

My first Viazul experience, I got in line to buy a ticket, only to find about 20 minutes later that it was only an information line, you couldn’t actually buy a ticket there. I got in the only other line and waited a half an hour before finding out that this line was only for advance tickets (leaving tomorrow or later) and I was wanting a same-day ticket. So I walked into a separate room and found a third line. After waiting in this line, I was told that they only sell tickets 30 minutes before the departure time. So, for example, if the bus leaves at 4PM, you can’t buy the ticket at 8AM. On the day of, you can only buy the ticket 30 minutes in advance, so at 3:30PM in this case. Keeping in mind how long it takes for them to print tickets, this turns into an absolute nightmare. Because in addition, there simply aren’t enough buses for certain routes, so buses are full and not everyone can get on. So that 4PM bus you want to get on? You’re probably going to have to stand in line all day, so that you’re at the front when they’ll actually start selling them at 3:30PM. Good luck.

Plus Viazul is expensive. But you can’t take the local buses. Trust me on this one. And sometimes, the local bus is the same as the tourist bus. But the ticket lines are in different rooms, there are different waiting rooms, and then when it’s time to leave, the tourists get on first, and then the locals get on second. But the local paid a tenth of the price the tourist paid.

So to avoid the awfulness of Viazul and its high prices, the main other alternative for tourists is camiones. These are old military transport vehicles. They’re all metal and have no suspension. They’re hot, uncomfortable, and if it fits it sits. But they’re cheap. And there’s no buying a ticket in advance. When one arrives you just hop on it. So they’re actually more convenient than the tourist buses.

Baracoa, Cuba
A camión
Baracoa, Cuba

Internet

The Internet, or lack thereof, is also pretty impressive. As of July 1, less than a week before I arrived, the situation is actually substantially better. Now you can go to a TECSA store and buy a prepaid card with an hour of WiFi for 2 CUC. You can then use WiFi in the major plazas. Before this, though, you had to go to a government Internet cafe place, where supposedly it would take about half an hour to open an email. So as of July 1, things are better. But nobody has Internet in their house. And $2 for an hour in the park is still pretty steep, even for me. I can’t imagine paying that on their salaries. I never used the Internet while I was there for three weeks.

Shortages

The country just doesn’t have certain things at certain times of the year. Maybe they haven’t had potatoes for months, and then all of a sudden you see somebody on the street with potatoes. “Where did you get those?!?” And you go get all your money and go to that store and buy all the potatoes you can afford. You buy some for friends, knowing that they would do the same for you if they found potatoes. There’s always a shortage of something. Usually a lot of things. When I was there nobody had any pens. People would beg me to give them a pen almost every day.

People are lazy

This is everyone’s stereotypical communism comment right? Well, it’s actually pretty true. It’s incredible how lazy people are. Sometimes you’ll be at a store or restaurant and there will be a handful of employees standing around, sitting around, talking amongst themselves. Basically doing nothing, and certainly not helping you. Part of me gets it: if they do a good job, they get paid exactly the same as if they did nothing. At the same time, most jobs in the rest of the world are like this. If you make $7 an hour in the US, you don’t make more or less depending on how good of a job you did. But it was really noticeable in Cuba that people people just didn’t do much at work. I had several Cubans tell me that they had friends or family who moved to the US, and then came back to Cuba, because in the US you actually have to work. Yeah, no shit.

That said, life in Cuba is tranquil. People don’t have a lot, but they don’t have a lot to worry about. They don’t have a lot to do, but they don’t have a lot they have to do.

People can be rude

I noticed day after day that people are okay with cutting in front of you in line. I’m talking, blatantly. If I was the last person in line, and a Cuban came up after me, there was a good chance he would just stand right in front of me. If I was in the middle of the line, they wouldn’t do it, because that would mean cutting in front of other Cubans. But to cut in front of a foreigner was no problem. This happened countless times, and I just don’t really understand it. If I saw a foreigner in line in the US, I would never think it was okay to cut in front of him.

Propaganda is everywhere

At first, it’s pretty cool. Look, there’s a five-story building with Che’s face on the side of it! But it’s everywhere and starts to get old. Interestingly, so much of the propaganda is about the revolution. How revolution is good, brave, the right thing. I wonder if it’s going to incite another revolution for the same reasons.

Baracoa, Cuba
Fidel, Raúl, and Chavez - we love you, we follow you, we remember you. Baracoa.
Baracoa, Cuba

Okay, not everything was bad

Certain aspects of Cuba I really liked. People hang out in the street and they know everyone in their neighborhood. They don’t have smartphones so instead of being glued to their Facebook feed they set up a table in the street and play dominoes. Seriously, that’s something that they actually do all the time. It’s so cool to see. They have places where you can go play chess for free. Randomly you might find a chess table in the middle of a park with all the pieces there. It even re-sparked my interest in playing!

Life is just so much simpler there. That has its own advantages and disadvantages, but in a way it was charming.

And Cuba is seriously cheap. I’ve heard people say that Cuba is expensive and others that it’s cheap. Well, it depends how you travel. If you look for the moneda nacional restaurants, if you take the camiones instead of the tourist bus, if you walk instead of taking taxis, Cuba is crazy cheap. But you have to be willing to give up some comfort.

The first week I was so excited to be in Cuba. It’s really unbelievable in some ways, like you just stepped out of a time machine. It’s really amazing in that regard. By the second week I was starting to get frustrated with things, but it was still new enough that it was okay. By the third week, I was pretty done with Cuba, and was counting down the days until my flight back to Mexico. Landing in Mexico made me so happy. When I saw an Oxxo (7-Eleven) I cried tears of joy. I can buy a water in there!

I’m glad I went. Now I’m glad I’m back. It was cool to see, especially before it starts to change and becomes like any other Caribbean country. That said, it’s good to be back in Mexico.

Penned on August 24, 2015 by Kevin Sweet.

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