Why did I not meet the lovely, friendly Cubans everyone talks about?

Why did I not meet the lovely, friendly Cubans everyone talks about?

What’s up with people visiting countries and always, inevitably and predictably falling in love with its people? Each time I plan to visit a new place, I spend hours on the web reading about it. Travel blogs, online magazines, guides, travel diaries and what not. I don’t think I have ever come across a negative comment about the people of a specific country. Hardly anybody ever said publicly that the people in said country are unwelcoming, or that those of another are rude, pushy or lazy.

Privately though, it is a different story. And recently I have started coming across more and more blog posts that give a honest and personal version of things. That’s when I hear people say that really, they hated the people in a country and actually fled because they could not take the locals anymore. A friend of mine who spent years living and working in Peru finds Peruvians hardly amicable. Another who travelled across South America thought that people in Bolivia are rude and cold. What’s interesting is that I have a completely different opinion on both Peruvians and Bolivians. In my experience, they are both reserved people, yet so welcoming and caring. I have had some great encounters in both countries and hold great memories of the people there. Then again, I appreciate reserved people as I enjoy silence and time alone.

This goes to show that really, the way we perceive a people and a country is all a matter of individual perspective. It depends on how we feel while we are travelling, and sometimes even on who we are travelling with. And, quite importantly so, it depends on our ability to communicate, both verbally and non verbally.

Havana, photo 3, Cuba

People you meet at the book market in Havana

If what I say is true, I must not have been in a very good mood when I travelled to Cuba then (and none of my friends who have been there before and after me were in a good mood either!) because seriously, I did not like Cubans all that much. Mind you, I love the country and I could visit it again any time. I had a great time there, despite everything, and I even think that the second time around I would have a real blast and perhaps, knowing what to expect, I would not have such a hard time communicating with the locals. Because really, in the end it was all due to miscommunication and cultural differences.

But… was it?

I like to think of myself as a fairly open minded individual. I have travelled widely, and I have lived in various countries that are not my own. I have learned to communicate effectively with people from all over the world. However, try as I might, it was impossible for me to meet those loving, friendly, smiling, fun, relaxed and fantastic Cubans everyone talked about, to the point that I even wondered if we were talking about the same country, about the same people at all.

The Cubans I have met felt more like sharks I should steer away from, swimming against the current not to fall for their scams. They made such a strong impression on me that I actually started my blog in the very ambitious attempt to warn the world about what travelling to Cuba really implies. I suppose I had to digest what had happened though, as now, despite my various misadventures and the numerous scams, I end up recommending Cuba as a country to visit to just about anybody – with a number of scam warnings attached to my recommendations.

Read more about Cuba on my post on the things to do in Cuba.

I actually felt lonely in Cuba

I actually felt lonely in Cuba

What I found frustrating in Cuba was that I could hardly mix with the locals. I speak Spanish fluently (and in any case, not speaking the local language has never stopped me from communicating!) and I find that getting to know someone from the place I visit, sharing my travel tales, and even parts of my life, culture and country, as well as learning more about the country where I am travelling through the eyes of someone who was born there is always an enriching experience. I have always met amazing people during my travels who, for as brief the encounter, have always wanted to help me, to know about me, and to just talk for the sake of it.

I would have liked to chat but I felt a barrier

I would have liked to chat but I felt there was a barrier

Having an authentic experience: scams in Cuba

Hardly any of this happened to me when I travelled in Cuba. Any genuine conversation I would try to have would end up in an offer of sex (in exchange of money or a drink), in demands that I buy something or that I give away my clothes (including those I was wearing), or in a trickier scam attempt. Not so much of a cultural exchange – or perhaps it was a cultural exchange, just not the kind I was hoping for. Even if I tried to find an explanation for what was occurring, I could hardly justify it. Cuba is a poor country, I told myself. But then, I have been to places that are considerably poorer and none of this had happened and even those who had nothing were kind and helpful and not so hardened by life.

What about those people who’d approach me and start introducing themselves by saying: “I’m not like other Cubans”? In fact, they were not like other Cubans – way more sleek in their scams! They would present themselves as the most helpful people in the city, so good in their act that they seemed genuine. They would master a few words of Italian. They’d prompt me to watch out for scams and people working for commissions (called jineteros) and then offer to take me to a good restaurant or bar (hardly the one I may be looking for) to then sit and have a drink (which I’d offer, to thank them for their tips), leave without a word of thank you and get a commission from the owner in the end. Ah, the irony!

What about those who were celebrating their birthday everyday? I can’t even remember how many people I have met in Cuba who, after some small talk, told me “today it is my birthday” – and then expected to be offered a drink in a bar of their choice (scam warning: this is just a strategy to bring tourists to a bar or restaurant and get a commission from the profits).

All in all, the feeling I had was that people saw me as an ATM with legs that they could try to get cash from, or as a sexual object, or a passport, or all of that. There was no explaining that I was on a tight budget and had saved for years to be able to afford that trip, or that I was not interested in sex as I was in a relationship (I wasn’t, but you get the point). Nobody cared. All that people seemed to think about me is that I was a foreigner, therefore better off, and as such it would be fair to try to take advantage of me.

Station Baracoa, Cuba

The wall – casas particulares owners looking for guests at the bus station in Baracoa

Some other episodes that occurred to me during the few weeks I spent in Cuba made my opinion of the locals become less than positive. I spent my first ten days in Cuba fighting not to get scammed. The first thing that the owner of the first casa particular where I stayed in Havana warned me against was the existence of the jineteros. He made it a point that I learned to defend myself against them.

When he offered to take me to the ceremony of El Cañonazo in Havana, I gladly accepted – he was so well educated that I figured it would be a great experience. Then, a few hours before going, he said he could not make it and suggested his (less than talkative) cousin could take me instead, for “protection”. I said that would be nice of him, and he told me straight out to just pay him the entrance fee, the taxi, and a meal and drink afterwards. I was shocked. Had he not just warned me against this practice of having to buy drinks to men in exchange of company and protection?

I felt like I always had to watch my back

I felt like I always had to watch my back

By the end of my trip, I was well trained in recognising scams. On my first night in Viñales, I signed up for a salsa lesson. As the dancing school was undergoing renovation works, I had to take the class at the teacher’s neighbour’s apartment. The lady was nice, polite, her flat small but spotlessly clean. As we finished the lesson, I asked the teacher if he could suggest a restaurant for the night as I didn’t have time to look for one on my guide. The lady jumped at the occasion and said I could eat at her place. In disbelief for the invitation (was a Cuban really going to offer me dinner, at her house?), I started asking questions.

It soon became clear that I wasn’t going to be invited in the western sense: I’d have to pay for the food, I’d be served at the table and sit by myself. Just as in a restaurant, only this time sitting uncomfortably and slightly abashed in some0ne’s home. I told her I’d eat there the day after and suggested that the family, as well as the salsa teacher, should eat with me. I suppose I took them by surprise. But I think they were not surprised when the day after I did not show up as there was no way I would accept an invitation to then have to pay for everyone’s meal – my means were not such for me to be able to afford it, and even though I could appreciate the cultural differences, it would simply be odd to have to offer dinner to some complete strangers when I had been “invited” to their home.

However, the episode that well classifies as the worst and that still makes me angry if I ever think about it happened to me on my very last day in Cuba, in Viñales. The guide who took me on a tour of the valley seemed to suffer from mood swings. One minute he was kind and helpful, the next he’d leave me alone to bike and hardly said a word. All in all, he was rude. I had kept to myself, and he must have not liked it because at some point, when we stopped to have a break, he started talking to my Mexican friend in Spanish (as if I was not there to hear and I could not understand) and said that if he did not plan to have sex with me, he would. I felt like an object, and disgusted.

I was right there when the guide (on the right) asked my friend whether he planned to have sex with me.

I was right there when the guide (on the right) asked my friend whether he planned to have sex with me.

All in all, I suppose I did get a very authentic Cuban experience – as authentic as it can get for tourists. Because really, there is hardly anything as authentic as a Cuban scam in Cuba.

Don’t get me wrong. It was not all so bad and I actually met a few people who were nice. Although most owners of casas particulares were almost intrusive when wanting to find out about my future plans on the island (so that they could push the services of one of their friends on me, whether I liked it or not), others were very kind and talkative yet never pushy – one was so keen to practice his English that he took “advantage” of me on that; another was so motherly that she’d check on whichever guide that took me around and if he didn’t pass her test she would not allow me to go out; one more spent hours in Trinidad looking for the yogurt I asked her for, not knowing it was hard to find in Cuba. Some guides were protective of me to the point that they offered to go give a lesson to the driver who had scammed me the night before. A young man in Baracoa carried my backpack across town when he saw me bent over the weight.

Mojito time

I left from Cuba with a huge smile on my face – I wanted that to last

In general, my impression is that Cubans have suffered from the isolation that the embargo era has caused. They have all they need – food, education, healthcare. But nothing more than that. However it is in human nature to want more – and to find ways to get it, even if this means swindling unaware tourists.

Travelling in Cuba was tiring. I knew that any time I’d set my foot out the door, I’d be surrounded by people making demands, either openly or in a more sneaky way. I knew I could not go for a walk by myself, because nobody would respect my need for alone-time. I never felt respected as a tourist, as a person, let alone as a woman. I remember spending whole mornings saying “no” to taxi drivers who, one after the other, would ask me if I needed a taxi, although they heard me turn down their collegues’ offer just one second before. Did they never realise it was annoying?

I became almost aggressive any time I was approached by locals, because a polite “no thank you” would not end a conversation but turn into an endless rant which would inevitably lead to a quest for money, clothes (even those I was wearing) and whatever else I may have on me. I remember walking in the street without ever making any eye contact, or smiling, or answering to those who said hello, because I knew that there was no way they’d be interested in me as a person but they only saw me as a tourist to exploit to their benefit.

That was not how I wanted to travel. It made my trip less enjoyable, because there hardly was a memorable encounter with a local that was genuine and kind to me, just for the sake of it. I felt I could not let myself go and enjoy a conversation because if I lowered my guards there would be a scam waiting for me; and if I told straight out that I was not looking for company, or that I had nothing to offer, people would get offended. I tried a few times to be more approachable and I fell for scams – it happens to the most experienced travellers, really, but this did not make me feel any better. In the end I really felt I could not trust anybody, that nobody wanted to help me, ever – they only wanted to help themselves and make money out of me – and this is not an uncommon feeling among people who travel there.

I like to think the way I felt when I travelled to Cuba has a lot to do with my personality. I consider myself to be a “social introvert” – I like socializing, but I need a lot of alone time. I like observing, but from a distance. I don’t always want to be surrounded by people and I don’t necessarily want to talk all the time. In my experience, Cubans are the opposite of that: they very open, they like meeting people; they like to talk and they don’t have as much a need for privacy as I may have. Cuban homes are a mirror of Cuban culture and personalities: they are always open and people go in and out, often unannounced. I need people to ring my bell and ask permission before I can open up.

I now can’t help but wonder if, going to Cuba again, I would be able to finally connect more with the locals and have a more enriching experience, that cultural exchange that I felt was missing my first time there. I wonder if, knowing what to expect, I would be able to figure out the people I had to steer away from and those I could trust. I surely am ready to try.

Have you been to Cuba? What was your experience with the locals?

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is it really easy to travel around Cuba - via @clautavani

 

 

Highlights of Cuba

Highlights of Cuba

My trip to Cuba started in Havana, where I spent two full days browsing around its many museums and places of interest, including the Capitolio, la Cabaña, the Museo de la Revolucion and its famous Malecon. I then flew to Santiago de Cuba, known for its Caribbean attitude. This is a good starting point to hike La Gran Piedra or to just soak in the sun in Playa Sibonay. From there, I took the bus to Baracoa, where I arrived after an eventful trip which included a flat tire. Known as the city of the 29 rivers, Baracoa is purely tropical. Must dos include a hike of El Yunque, a boat trip around Rio Yumuri and the beautiful Playa Maguana. Baracoa is also the gourmet capital of Cuba: I had some of the most interesting food here, including shrimps in salsa de coco.

On the way to Trinidad (the most touristic city in Cuba), I stopped in Camaguey, which I did not really enjoy due to the tremendous heat and the high presence of jineteros and scams. 5 hours away, Trinidad is a perfectly preserved colonial city, with cobblestone streets, music playing at every corner, dancing and good nightlife, museums, good restaurants and a huge variety of daily trips in its surroundings. I particularly enjoyed Valle de los Ingenios and the hike from Topes de Collantes to the Salto de Caburnì.

About 90 minutes north, Cienfuegos is also splendid, and is a great port of access to El Nicho, with its natural pools, and to explore the amazingly clear waters and coral reef of the Bahia de Cochinos and Caleta Buena.

I concluded my journey in Viñales, in the North-West side of Cuba, which felt like the cherry on the cake: a valley where coffee and tobacco are cultivated, where mogotes appear just about anywhere. And it is not far from Cayo Jutias, where I spent a perfect day at the beach.

To read more about my adventures in this amazing island, click here!

Take me back to Cuba

Take me back to Cuba

Yes, I know my first few posts after coming back from Cuba sounded like I was a nerve wreck. I probably was. I admit I did not get much of Cuba while there, and with my “rich white girl” (ok, I am a girl and I am white but I am definitely not rich) it was hard to understand the point of view of someone whose daily life is a challenge to get by. All I did while there was trying not to get ripped off, which made me defensive and not very communicative. I should have relaxed, and live like a Cuban, I suppose. Quite simply, enjoying whatever I could get.

Now, sitting in front of my computer screen all day, living the hectic life, feeling the need to communicate whatever I do, however I feel, and to check what’s happening in the world, now that I have embarked on yet another task which keeps me connected with the world – this very blog – I can say I miss Cuba, and I want to be taken back there. I miss that simple life, where people talk face to face, or by phone. Where computers are not a must-have, where food is bought fresh every day, and there are only local products, where there’s not the problem of having to choose between a million kinds of cereals, shampoos, lotions and what not. Yes, I miss all that. I miss that tranquility.

And the mojito I made yesterday for my friend who celebrated her birthday at a local bar is only a demonstration of that. She’s been to Cuba several time, she is terribly in love with it too. She knew this was going to happen to me too. And when I was acting as a bartender and I handled her the fresh mojito, and told her “take me back to Cuba”, she laughed, knewing this was coming.

If you want my two cents, I think that every single day you spend in Cuba you should try to put yourself in the shoes of Cubans. Try to communicate, try to appreciate their life, try to understand their problems and share yours. Ask, listen, don’t act like a typical tourist, don’t expect to “buy” things as you would do in your own country, don’t expect the same kind of services you’d get back home.

No matter how much money you have, you can’t buy Cuba, Cuba is not for sale.

Budget accommodation in Cuba #2

Budget accommodation in Cuba #2

Casa particular Cuba – pronto!

After a long day on a bus, you have almost reached your destination, wherever that is in Cuba, and you realise that despite your best efforts you still do not have any accommodation in town. It is highly unlikely that this is going to happen, as your landlords from the previous casa have surely asked you if you need a casa in your next destination, have offered the casa of their friend, cousin, sister, or whatever. They definitely know someone there and they are most likely willing to make the reservations for you. But, you never know.

You shall not worry. As soon as you step off the bus, you will see what literally looks like a wall of people offering rooms in casas all over town. These is what how we were welcomed in Baracoa:

Baracoa

Baracoa welcomes us

We thought it was so bizarre to see that we could not resist taking pictures.

The same scene is going to happen in any bus station in any city or village you visit in Cuba. Do not think that just because people are there, looking for guests, the casa is not going to be good. Casas have to all follow certain standards. They are all going to have ensuite rooms, they are all going to be very clean. Those who are not on guidebooks obviously have less business and they need to go look for tourists directly. To landlords it is a major achievement to appear in a guide! Our landlord in Cienfuegos (Eugenio) was by far the nicest person we met, very modest and very sweet. He told us that one day he was at the bus station, as usual, looking for tourists. He found one, walked him home. He noticed the guy kept writing and writing, and assumed he was a writer. A while later, his name and house appeared on the Lonely Planet (which is where we found him!) and he is now doing much better. But that is how he started.

What happens if you do not like the room you got or if the casa you thought you made reservations for is fully booked? Again, this happened to us. We just left our bags at the casa and knocked at any door where we saw a sign that said “arrendador” (these are clearly visible). Landlords are usually keen to let you in and take a look, and in case they have no availability, they will send you to a neighbour where again you will be able to take a look. The overall process can last for as long as you wish – it is up to you to take the first room you find, or to look for something you like better. In Trinidad we even negotiated the price of our room – but this is not a common things to do. We managed to do so only because were literally were the third guests at a very new casa. In Baracoa we left the first casa where we stayed (Casa Elvira, in Frank Pais) as we could hardly sleep at night – the room faced the street and it was very very loud. When we woke up, at 7:30 am, we got dressed and knocked at another casa (Casa Yalina y Gustavo) and Yalina was so sweet at telling us that yes, she finally had a room for us, so we fled Casa Elvira.

All in all, you never need to worry about accommodation in Cuba. You will find a casa, even when the city seems fully packed. You will not be left sleeping in the street. There is always someone who has a room, or a friend, a relative or neighbour who has one. It is just a matter of slightly adapting, but as I have said before, the standards are always quite high so you should not worry!!

Check more of my Cuban adventures here.

I love shopping in Cuba

I love shopping in Cuba

Mine is an adaptation from the title of Sophie Kinsella’s famous series “I love shopping”. In fact, it is meant ironically. There is no such thing as crazy shopping in Cuba, unless by “crazy” one means literally going crazy in order to find needed things. It is not even a matter of not having enough money to buy what you need and want: it is a matter of having the money but not finding it!

Before leaving, whilst packing my bag, I thought of carrying two pairs of flip flops. After all, one never knows when those rubber things may break and another pair may be needed. My sister, who travelled with me, said it would just be unnecessary weight. If my flip flops broke, I could surely buy another pair in Cuba and that was it. Or not. I swear I hardly saw shops selling flip flops in the entire island.

We realised on our first day in Havana that shops were different, to say the least. All merchandise is kept behind counters, and whatever you may want to see, you’d have to ask the person at the counter to show you. Not to mention that there normally is a line outside, with a guard letting people in and out and not allowing more than a certain amount inside. Shops are not very inviting. You won’t feel like going in, have a look around, try on stuff, and buy. Merchandise is hardly exposed in a nice way (it is all wrapped). The same applies to grocery shops – most of all for things such as soaps, shampoos etc. Whatever you need, you have to ask for.

I love shopping Cuba, Photo 02

Shopping in Cuba is a hard business

The other problem we had was that there are no real supermarkets, those where you may get lost and where you may be able to find anything you need – from fresh fruit and milk, to meat, cheese, bread, soap, detergents and what not. Cuba knows only shops, some smaller, some bigger, but in none of them you will be able to do all your shopping. A shop that sells bottles may only have soda, beer and rum. If you want water, you will have to go to the one next door. Fruits and vegetables are only sold by small carts in the streets or in the mercado agropecuario. Same with meet – there are small carnicerias, you can see them every now and then, but it seems like there is no meat there. I have not seen a fishmonger in the entire island, which is interesting since we mostly ate seafood. And even if you can find what you need – pasta, rice, or even toilet paper, there is only one kind of it. We noticed that it was a bit ironic to call “Cierro Montegro” la primera agua de Cuba, since it also is the only one. And the same goes for beer, sodas, etc.

I love shopping Cuba, Photo 03

Tienda

I guess that for anybody who is not used to the Cuban system it will take a while to shop for daily needs. When we wanted yogurt, the landlady at our casa particular was so kind to spend an entire day looking for it in Trinidad. When we needed toothpaste, we had to ask her, as we were unable to find a shop that would sell it.

Another thing we noticed is that there are some shops which seem to sell second hand clothes. We eventually realised this was the case. These are called tiendas particulares (private shops) and I suppose owners get their stuff one way or another (I am pretty certain that the clothes I gave away here and there ended up in some of these shops!) and then sell it. But you know, in an island that does not really know free commerce, people have to make do with whatever they have. Cubans hardly make a distinction between female and male clothing. If it fits, they will wear it. So you will see super-cool guys wearing a blue-girl t-shirt tight as a second skin. And you bet they will fix and keep fixing clothes. Nothing goes wasted.

The good thing about having so little choice when shopping is that you will not be wasting time wondering which cereals to buy, which t-shirt you want, and what not. You will have more time to spend with friends, relatives, talking and living life, you will be less consumed by the want for things, since you will hardly be able to get them anyways. At least that is how we – westerners coming from countries with a free market – felt. I suppose it was refreshing to us, but it may be tiring for Cubans who have to live a constant battle to get what they need.

The other side of the coin is that there is a huge black market, where people sell and buy just about anything and they hardly declare whatever money they make to the competent authorities. Casas particulares have to register whoever sleeps at the house, and the number of nights. So they have to pay taxes on that. But they do not register whatever meals you may be having there, and hardly any of the owners give customers a receipt when they leave. Some of them don’t say anything when they “forget” to give you receipts. Some others openly admit that this way they can round up a bit extra CUCs. And the rush to get CUCs from tourists can be seen in many other ways. Drivers will “accidentally” stop for breaks right outside their friends homes, who will rush out to offer drinks, food, sweets, bananas and what not. Surely they will get a percentage of the profits. Same with tourist guides. All drivers and all landlords know tourist guides. None of them will show you any accreditation, and you will have to negotiate the price, and you can bet you will again accidentally run into them on the way to a site and will end up hiring them.

The need for CUC is so desperate that even in state owned shops sales assistant will refuse to give you receipts. This is an account of what happened to us at the airport in Havana. A lady in front of us at the counter had the brilliant idea of paying her rum in Euro. But instead of making a conversion, and paying the exact amount she owed (say it was 20 CUC, so it would have to be 15 Euro), the cashier made the conversion 1 CUC = 1 Euro. She did not give any change, and she kept the rest. My sister asked for a receipt, as she claimed that she might be needing it when cathing our connecting flight in Paris airport. She then went back to the same shop to buy more, and again demanded a receipt. However, she had to argue with the sales assistant who did not want to provide it, claiming “she had already given one before.”

For as much as I appreciate the revolution, I wonder how it is possible, in 2013, to live in a country where there hardly is any free commerce. The poverty we saw, the rush to get the precious CUC in any possible “legal” way leads me to think that socialism, for as good an ideal it was, is hardly applicable to real life.

What is yet more interesting is that the myth of Che Guevara, one of the leaders of the revolution, one of the strongest critics of capitalism, is possibly the main source of money in Cuba. Any goods you may buy speak of him: t-shirts show his pictures, the same goes with paintings, postcards, hats. Bookshops mostly sell photography books of Che Guevara, or his biographies, his diaries, etc. Factories exploit his name by publicizing the fact that they were opened up by him.

I love shopping Cuba, Photo 04

Che Comandante Amigo…

Having read a lot of Che Guevara life, thoughts and ideologies, I can’t help but wonder if he would like the island today, if this is what he fought so hard for, if he would be proud to see that his face is on any painting, t-shirt and good tourists can buy, and he – the very critic of capitalism – is indeed the only capitalistic good in Cuba.

Want to find out more about this amazing country? Read here.