My husband and I returned August 26th from 9 fascinating days in Cuba. I had fully intended to post throughout the trip, however – internet is accessible in NO private homes. Aside from a few upscale hotels, the only access is in select public spaces, using code cards @ $2/hour. Who sells these cards? The government. Is there any incentive to expand internet access? Hmmm. We did not immediately understand the reason for these mysterious clusters of people staring at devices.
Group shot 1: local people outside Havana hotel. Group shot 2: tourists in Trinidad.
To visit Cuba independently at this time, we (US citizens) must choose one of twelve reasons why we went when we return through US Immigration. Tourism is not an option. I was going to choose journalism, although actually no one asked. I wrote up my impressions anyway, to share with anyone interested in these people in need of so much, living in great hopes of immanent change, though knowing this change will come very slowly.
My musician husband, Vic Shepherd, and I decided to go to Cuba over a two week period we both had off – which generally falls in August. By the way, we both speak Spanish to some degree. I’m pretty comfortable in conversation, a little sloppy on verb tenses. We met a few taxi drivers in Havana who spoke English, but all other communication was in Spanish.
I had met through the world wide family of puppeteers at a puppet festival in Patagonia, Argentina a couple years ago, a two woman performing troupe from Cuba (now in the process of building with their own hands a “casa de titeres cubana” (Cuban house of puppets) in Junín, Argentina), who were then in the process of emigrating to Argentina for better work opportunities. I reached one of them, Geraidy, through Facebook and she responded immediately with contact information for her friend, Maria, manager of the band Aceituna Sin Hueso, a fabulous and well known Cuban band.
We had been reading the Lonely Planet Cuba book (whose information we found to be at least 5 years out of date) and chose to spend 5 nights in Havana and 3 in the 500 year old city of Trinidad and Maria invited us to spend the last night at her house not far from the airport. Maria found lodging for us in B&B style casas particulares in Havana Vieja (the quite sizable old section), Vedado (a newer section of Havana along the malecón, or sea wall), as well as in Trinidad.
Since Americans still may not travel directly to Cuba unless with a tour group, we went through Cancún, Mexico, spending one night in the actual city – not the hyper-touristy beach area – at each end of the trip in a modest and comfortable $30/night hotel.
Entry into Cuba was no problem at all. The official at at Imigracion asked if I wanted my passport stamped and I declined so he stamped a separate paper as the visa. Returning to the US was also no problem. They did not even look inside the passports so a Cuban stamp would not have even been noticed.
Cuba was really hot, which is no surprise as it is south of New Orleans. Air conditioning in public places is the exception rather than the rule. When we were invited to a fantastic concert in the National Theater, many audience members were using elegant folded fans. Electric fans are sometimes strategically placed in restaurants.
The Havana airport had neither when we left. I would recommend a trip in a cooler month although the high European tourist season is November, December, and January and we were told Trinidad anyway is extremely crowded then. I would try maybe October or February. August is also quite busy.
Cuba is more expensive than we and other travelers we met expected. It is significantly more costly then Mexico. Lodging is reasonable in the casas particulares (about $30-$40/night including breakfast) but transportation by bus is high and meals can be high as well.
We talked with people and asked questions everywhere, speaking with drivers, waiters, musicians, our lodging proprietors, Maria and her friends – and everyone was very eager to share information on personal thoughts and experiences of their lives, their opinions of their government, the country’s economy and available resources, feelings about the US, and hopes and expectations for the future. By the way, we did not meet one other US visitor, but many from all over Europe and other parts of the world.
Warm and friendly people, Fabulous music, Stunning architecture, Fascinating history!
I want to share what we learned because we found that we in the US know very little of what is going on there although they are our close neighbors and wonderful people who have, from what we learned, been abused by government after government. Many feel that they are living, as one new friend and father of an eight year old daughter said, a life with no future. I am very inspired to read a lot more about their history. Travel there does help the economy and is fascinating. From our experience, it is extremely safe – far more than the US. And by the way I am reading a fascinating book found in the New Orleans library comparing and contrasting Louisiana and Cuba slavery and cane plantation histories called Degrees of Freedom by Rebecca J. Scott. Highly recommended!
The large old part of the city featured majestic buildings in meticulous to crumbling condition, including castle-like forts from the 1500’s, cathedrals (none used at present as churches as present government prohibits that), elegant buildings from the 1700 and 1800’s, cobbled streets, American cars from the 40’s and 50’s, Russian cars, various taxi vehicles.
Wandering the picturesque streets, we found handicraft shops and markets, small restaurants offering seafood, rice, beans, pork, chicken, beef, not a lot of vegetables, and bars particularly featuring mojitos (rum, fresh mint, sugar) and no general merchandise or grocery markets. We walked a lot and were mystified by this.
We were informed that the government has put no money into infrastructure for decades. One local organization has some hotels and shops that contribute towards renovation. Many larger establishments such as the national hotel and the airport were at least co-developed between the government and a foreign interest and many are run as such permanently. As a “socialist” country, it appears that capitalism is a strong force, although the people complain a lot about government taxation on any attempt as entrepreneurship.
But culture is a powerful force and certainly isolation has not been a bad thing in maintaining this. Our wonderful friend Maria invited us to the fantastic show at the Buena Vista Social Club.
THE CARS: The old cars are so common you sort of get used to them – after lots of photos. They were left behind when middle class families fled the country at the time of the revolution and the government kept all of their belongings. Therefore, many of these belong to the government and the taxi drivers that use them are paid a low government wage. Some have been in families for a few generations now. Vic asked lots of questions and learned that a very few have original engines, most have creative hybrids of Asian diesel engines and Russian transmissions. The cheaper taxis are the Russian Lada cars – a bit newer but without the glamour. They are often privately owned and we were told cheaper to ride because without insurance. A driver in Habana Vieja noted that visitors find the old American cars so beautiful, but they are no novelty to the locals, who would much prefer new, modern cars – which are not imported at all. Traffic is always light simply because there are not many cars (for the size of the city).
STREET LIFE: So, I did get to meet a puppeteer here – performing in the large Plaza de San Francisco. He said that a few years ago an Italian puppeteer spent time here teaching about traditions of Polichinela, which is what Victor Joel Ariosa, of Polichinela de La Habana was performing – to the great delight of an excited young crowd.
We stayed in three of these rooms rented by owners. Sometimes the owner lives there, sometimes not. As tourism grows, this is causing similar problems as in New Orleans in loss of affordable housing for residents. There are lots of these and they are easy to find by this symbol. Two of ours were really nice with super friendly proprietors and nice breakfasts. One could have had better AC, and this was the light switch – but it was in a great location and we stayed 3 nights.
We happened to be in Havana for their annual carnaval, which is mainly a street party and parade with floats and music for the crowd to dance to. We met maybe one local who likes this celebration – others said there was too much drinking. We hung out for a while in the really nice family scene, but it was apparent that the parade would not happen til much later and we had an early bus ride to Trinidad the next morning. OK – call us jaded.
Very good bread, and yes, those flattened “Cuban sandwiches”. Rice and beans, and shrimp, fish, and lobster in restaurants were sometimes overcooked. Like anywhere, better deals found off the beaten path in tourist areas like Trinidad.
Food for locals is a very different story. They have sort of like ration books showing the very limited supplies each individual receives monthly: approx. 5 lbs. rice, 2 lbs. beans, some cooking oil, a small packet of coffee, seafood is listed, but we were told they never receive that, maybe couple lbs. chicken or pork. No beef. And for women, 1 pack of 10 sanitary napkins.
I do not understand all the details, except that the people are accustomed to creative survival on very little money, if they live outside of the tourism industry.
The markets contain single brands of very basic necessities (pasta: spaghetti and shells, rice, black beans, canned tuna, olives-apparently viewed as a staple maybe from Spanish influence?, cooking oil, laundry soap, etc.), along with one whole wall of rum. Some markets had a lot of empty shelves, too. We were directed to a “large” market, thought we were mistaken because it was so small, wandered around looking for the large market we envisioned, finally realized that had been the only one.
The ubiquitous mojito (rum, sugar, mint, and ice) sold in every bar and restaurant, necessitates lots of fresh mint (yerba buena). When we stayed with Maria, I got to find out first hand how all this mint gets to the bars. Maria and her friend have a a daily cottage industry job preparing neat mint sprigs and delivering them to a couple specific bars in Havana Vieja. They make about $10 a day, and said this covers their food. They also have to take a daily taxi to and from the city for the delivery, so I guess this is the net profit. They prepared Mojitos Frapés with left over leaves: Lots of leaves off the stems. sugar to taste, rum, and ice blended. Yum! Try it!
BLACK MARKET, POLICE, ELECTIONS, HOPE
We were told that anyone working for the government steals as a matter of survival, reselling items to supplement very paltry wages. All factories are government owned, as I understand.
We were also told that the police openly take items from anyone (not tourists) they may “suspect” of having Black Market goods. We were told as an example, if a person went to the country and their friend gave them a couple fish to cook at home, and they were observed by the police to be carrying these , the police may take them. Another example related to us was, if in possession of a quantity of beverages purchased for a party, the police may accuse the owner of stealing, or Black Market, and confiscate them for their own use. A man we met even said he takes a circuitous route on his horse (common transportation outside the city for the many people without cars) to visit his sister across town because the police may take the horse, making him pay to get it back. We were also told that people are encouraged to spy and report to police.
In this version of a socialist government, there are elections, however we met several young people who told us they do not vote because the process is so diluted as to be ineffective. They said there are levels of government, such that they may vote for someone, who votes for someone else, who votes for someone else – and they had no trust whatsoever that their vote had any impact on final selections. Some said they had voted in the past, but lost faith in the system. The general feeling, from the people we met, was that the showcased socialism was only a hollow shell masking an ineffective and abusive government.
Everyone we met was glad Americans were there and hope for closer ties with the U.S. in the future.
TRINIDAD AND MUSIC!!!
This city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and fascinating example of a well preserved 17th century city. It is a huge tourist site with lots of casas particulares, access to beaches and interesting tours.
We toured the old sugar mills, which was just what I had been reading about in Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba After Slavery, by Rebecca J. Scott. There are a lot of similarities to the south Louisiana plantations.
And there is lots of live music in Trinidad: in a main plaza, on the street, in cultural centers, and bars. We figured we could have stayed in Trinidad 10 nights and not heard it all. The music was absolutely and consistently fantastic! There are music schools for children and university programs as well. However, we learned from conversations with a lot of musicians, none are paid by the bar or restaurant where they have regular jobs. They play for tips only. The audience is all foreign tourists, and we noticed, few tip when the band brings around the tip basket. We do not know how they survive. Guitar strings are very hard to come by. Some guys we met were amazed when Vic told them how often he changes his guitar strings – for optimum sound playing table to table at Commanders Palace, and his many other gigs. This would be impossible for them – not only are strings expensive, they are basically unavailable. He gave away the extra strings he brought along with a couple slides. There were lots of opportunities to jam. We want to find a secure way to send them to them but communication is very difficult due to the limited and expensive internet access.