Getting to know Cuba

I don’t even know where to start with Cuba. As I write this I’m in a poky little airport on the island of Cayo Largo with an inexplicable 2 hour wait for a plane that is already on ther tarmac and all the passengers in the terminal sipping mojitos or cold beer. But then perhaps inexplicable is the best word to describe this country?

I’m not going to profess to somehow be an expert after a few days in Havana or just over a week in a decent hotel on a tropical island but you start to notice things here. Havana has to be one of the most photogenic cities around, with crumbling colonial architecture left to decay since the Revolution in 1959, thousands of old American cars on every street corner and beautiful people everywhere you look.

Classic Car

There’s no Americans here (and I mean it in the nicest possible way but it’s kinda nice) due to frosty relations between the two countries which have even flared up during this trip thanks to comments my the Miami Marlins coach saying he loves Fidel Castro, something he has since been forced to apologise for. To be honest I don’t really understand why it should be such a big deal, Cuba as a nation couldn’t pose any less of a threat to the USA at this point in time.

Alas, back to this strange place. You can feel the lack of resources through the nation, whether it’s making old Plymouth’s and Lada’s keep running, the limited items in the shops in front of which huge lines suddenly form when stocks come in or the continued use of ration books. Despite this, I’ve come here as a tourist and stayed at a very nice hotel where virtually everything seems available.

Potentially more strange are the conversations you have with people in Cuba, there’s an acceptance their country is comparatively very poor with places such as the Canada and Europe and that their confidence in Fidel and Raul is perhaps waning (for want of a better word). Many people I have spoken to have outwardly complained about their leadership and said the country will only improve when they are both dead. It almost feels like there is the potential for an event similar to the Arab Spring here. But, and there is always a but, Cuba is home to 12m people, 5m of whom are said to be in the police and will inform on dissidents who can be detained without charge.

Let’s move onto the currencies of which Cuba has two, the peso and the convertible peso or CUC (which is pretty much equal to a US Dollar). Local people are paid in pesos while tourists must convert their money into CUC. Items in many if not most shops are priced in CUC so many Cubans will have to change their money into CUC to buy items. Those items due to restricted supply actually turn out to be incredible expensive, I saw a bottle of shampoo for sale in a supermarket (albeit one in an upmarket district of Havana) for 11 CUC. I just didn’t expect that in a poorer country before I arrived.

Because of this, there’s a thriving black market here for almost everything. Meat which costs a fortune in the supermarket will be hawked by anyone who can get their hands on some through methods which are not neccesarily legal.

This black market even extends to jobs. Based on people I’ve spoke to, a typical job in Havana might pay you anywhere between 300 and 700 pesos per month, that equates to 12-30 CUC or US$ per month. That is not much to live on! This makes jobs in hotels highly valued due to the comparatively lucrative tips one can earn. Jobs in most hotels are said to require the employee to speak a second language, preferably English. Many staff in the Melia Havana hotel I stayed in could not speak much English (nor it seemed French as my Spanish is currently very poor) .Yet people I met who conversed in very competent English complained that they were unable to get a job in such hotels as their English wasn’t deemed good enough and those in the hotels had gained the jobs through ‘informal’ relationships.

I’m pretty sure I’ve only scraped the surface of the country, if that. I’m not sure I understand why the incredible Capitol building isn’t used more for the government (unless they don’t like that it looks like the White House other than for tourism purposes). I haven’t got a clue why when tourists are such a lucrative source of income to the country that more is not done to get them to spend money (hint: more souvenirs or tours about the Revolution would be an excellent idea Mr Castro.)

I’ve probably sounded a touch too critical about Cuba but I really don’t want to. I love the place, the people have been so friendly, Havana and Cayo Largo have been incredibly beautiful and any country which gave the world the mojito deserves some credit! How many cities in the world will you find a scrapyard containing old steam locomotives you can climb all over but rusting away just yards away from an such an incredible capitol building?

El Capitolio

Heck, in Cuba you have an international airport that has it’s own beach at Cayo Largo, where you can hear the annoucements as you swim, if I hadn’t already cleared security and be in the bar writing this I’d be back out there catching the last few rays of the day.

Time isn’t a particularly relevant thing in Cuba, so I think I’ll have another cerveza while I continue waiting for my flight….having seen the ageing Soviet plane I’m about to get on, I might need it!

P.P.S. I survived!

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4 thoughts on “Getting to know Cuba

  1. Pingback: Cuba: Photo Blog | It's all Michael Palin's fault

  2. I have been to Cuba three times. Luckily for me I was born Canadian. No restrictions for us Crazy Canucks to go to Castro’s Cuba. I have seen Castro’s act first hand. Cuba is an enigma. Most of the time the food sucks, the music is great, the people are generally friendly but very poor. Food is scarce to come by, the black market is rampant and there is really no infrastructure.

    There are very few if any inter-city buses for Cubans to ride on. You’ll see hundreds of people hitch-hiking from city to city on the Auto Pista (main highway). We picked up two women doctors who had to hitch-hike from Havana to a small town 50 miles down the road to visit their patients.

    You can walk through the streets of Habana Viejo or Vedado and you will see a whole of people with a whole lot of nothing to do. For those Cubans who are lucky enough to be working in a tourist hotel and getting tips in the form of the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) life is less difficult. However, if you are an ordinary Cuban family you’ll be scraping by on your $18 a month salary and food rations. Women have to sell themselves to make ends meet. Go for a walk on the Prado in Old Havana or sit in a bar on La Rampa and you’re guaranteed to meet a woman for sex.

    The beaches are fantastic, the mojitos are inexpensive and the cigars are out of this world. I just wonder if the present Cuban infrastructure can handle an influx of thousands of American citizens. There are not enough good hotels, to accomodate that many people. Hopefully, the Cuban people will find a way with help from the Cuban-Americans who have left the island for America and other parts of the world.

    We can all only hope and pray that things will change for all Cubans when the Castro brothers and their ilk leave this life so Cuba can be returned to its people. Would I go back to Cuba? I’d leave tomorrow just to hear the music!

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