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.
As I have already explained in a previous post, it is really hard to shop in Cuba. If you run out of shampoo or soap, you may have troubles finding more. However, you may want to carry a little extra stuff to give around to people in the streets. Yes, you heard me! It is very very common in Cuba for tourists to be stopped and asked just about anything. We were prepared to this, and carried lots of goodies, but if I ever go back (and I will!) I will definitely carry a larger variety, and even larger quantities.
Here is a list of what you can carry:
Clothes: anything, really, and in any size. Even children sizes. It is so hard to find clothes in Cuba that people will stop you in the streets to ask if you have any clothes for them, and they even get as far as asking you to give them your t-shirt.
Pens and pencils: I guess they are hard to find. Lots of children asked for them, and even adults. Very cheap to us, very precious to them, whatever the reason.
Schoolbooks and colours: children love them.
Soap and shampoo: yes! It is actually a bit hard to find shampoo, so in any case carry some extra for yourself.
Chewing gum and candies: you will end up having children all around you, but that is nice, right?
I have no idea what people do with the stuff one may give them. Chances are that they may sell it and make some cash out of it. But who cares, as long as it helps them live a little better?
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 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!!
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.
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 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.
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.
You have prepared your trip to Cuba, you have reviewed your Spanish, taken classes, practiced with Spanish friends, watched Spanish movies and tv. You are enthusiastic and can’t wait to test your improvement on site. Then you land in Havana and feel lost. Nobody speaks Spanish, and you can hardly get a word of what people around you say. Why oh why, you wonder! Well, take it easy on yourself. It is not your fault. Cubans do not speak Spanish. Or at least, not the Spanish you would imagine. It is so different from what you may be used to that it literally sounds like a completely different language, almost like a dialect from somewhere in Africa. And it may well be, as it is so incomprehensible. It is so different that I have even met Mexicans or Argentinians who had troubles understanding Cubans.
It will take you a few days to get to hear the accent, to distinguish words, to learn the musicality and appreciate the sound. Cubans use words that are not normally used in “traditional” Spanish. Matrimonio? Ah, well, that is pareja – couple. Carro? That is coche – car. And so on… It seems to be a complete mixture of words taken from Spanish, American English and Italian. But you will get by, do not despair.
Cubans will make sure that, one way or another, you do understand what they say (that is, if they want you to!). They will encourage you to speak and learn, and show appreciation for your efforts. My Spanish is ok, I had a few key sentences that I have learned to say so well that I was constantly asked whether I am “Espanola”! This made me really proud 🙂
You do not speak a word of Spanish? Well, you can bet that you will have no problems: guides usually speak very good English. And the locals, the ones you meet in the streets, the owner of casas particulares and paladares and businesses will make their very best effort to speak a few words of English, some of them speak excellent Italian, and if this still is not enough, they will point you to things, use sign language, try to find a friend who speaks English and what not.
Hi, my name is Claudia. One day I packed my life and started traveling… except I packed too much. Follow me as I fill my life with dreams, drop the weight and inspire you to live your dreams. View and download my media kit here (updated July 2019). Learn more about me here…