For the past month, I have immersed myself in Cuban life so as to attain an understanding of the realities in this socialist state. From the green plains of the rural countryside to the towering peaks of the Sierra Maestra, the white sand and crystal-clear waters of Varadero to the 500-year-old cobblestone steps of Trinidad, Cuba is astonishingly beautiful in so many ways. With that said, life here is vastly different than popular perceptions of 50's glamour and idealistic freedom fighters. Despite its flaws, it is the Cuban people that make traveling to this truly one-of-a-kind island all the more worthwhile, proving to me time and again that they are uniquely forthright and good-natured.
To know the real Cuba, you have to familiarize yourself with its complex racial and religious makeup, as well as its rich colonial history. On 27 October 1492, Christopher Columbus arrived to Cuba's eastern shore. Shortly after, Santiago was born, which became the Spanish capital in the Caribbean, and starting point for Pizarro and Cortez, among others, who when on to conquer much of the New World. Cuba became a powerhouse in sugar production. After the natives were killed off by disease and over-work, the island amassed an unprecedented amount of African slaves. This population has had a dramatic impact on Cuban culture, forming the foundations of its iconic music, and introducing the form of religious worship known as Santeria, which is still very much alive today: a pantheistic cult based on the Yoruba people that incorporates some elements of Catholicism. Believers are easily identifiable because they are dressed in all white. Some consider it a status symbol, as there are many costs of membership, like animals for sacrifice, and figurines needed regularly for rituals.
While people will admit that their government is far from perfect, tales of the 1959 Revolution play an important role in modern Cuban identity. A socialist revolution under Fidel Castro overthrew the right-wing government of Fulgencio Batista, which was backed by the military and elites. Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, who lost his life crusading in Bolivia, remains a highly romanticized figure, and you cannot walk 10 feet without seeing his image on a T-shirt, wall, or car windshield.
The Cuban people beam with enormous pride and enthusiasm, and are always in the mood to party (or at least for some rum). Take a night off and dance salsa at a local dive, I promise that you will not regret it. If brazen nightlife is not for you, check out one of the captivating jazz clubs, attend a classical music concert, or cheer on the home team at a baseball game. There is a huge rivalry between Havana and Santiago in pretty much every way, and it all that tension is taken out at the stadium each year.
The sheer number of people that would approach me each day when I am just trying to walk around and enjoy the scenery, or silently read a book in the park was overwhelming at times. It took a lot of patience to not get fed up with heckling taxi drivers block after block (what makes you think that I need a cab right now?), or street vendors that call out every nationality they can think of to try to get your attention (apparently I look Italian). Admittedly, I failed at times, snapping back at them with a few choice words in Spanish, or a glare from Hell that I hope none of you ever have to see. I always regret it. No good comes out of getting upset by someone living life the only way they know how. Tolerance pays in dividends; every encounter reveals something about the culture, no matter how trivial or bothersome it may seem at the time. For every soliciting vendor, or scavenger with half-hearted smile that chats for a few minutes before asking me to buy them a pint of Havana Club rum, there is someone that would approach me with a genuine interest in conversation, and is willing to share their take on Cuban life. I cannot tell you have many sincere, thoughtful discussions I have had. Afterwards, we shake hands as friends and equals, and we go our separate ways.
STANDARD OF LIVING
Most people in Cuba work for the government to some capacity. Up until about five years ago, you had no other choice but to. Now, very slowly, people are being granted access to open their own private enterprises, which are pretty much limited to in-house restaurants, bed and breakfasts, repair shops, and hair salons. College is free in Cuba, but many do not take advantage, as a degree hardly equates to higher pay. I spoke to a surgeon of over 40 years that makes $35 per month. The average salary is between $10-15 per month, and unemployment remains rampant. Many young people live with their parents well into their 30's because they simply cannot sustain themselves otherwise.
I have had conversations with doctors, dentists, economists, shipbuilders, musicians, law students, cult priests - you name it. I have stayed at some very comfortable, yet modest homes, but I have also spent time in the more common reality for Cuban city-dwellers, known as bohios: cement shacks with aluminum roofs and unfinished floors. Despite this seemingly grim circumstance, never have I heard a single grumble or complaint, and I have been astonished to find a people so very generous with the little that they have.
Throughout the course of my journey throughout Cuba, the blatant hypocrisies, injustices, and violations of seemingly basic human rights perpetrated by their government did not cease to amaze me. The Cuban system is one based on overt terror tactics and propaganda, used to strike fear in the eyes of dissenters, and adoration amongst the masses. There is but one political party, and those that speak out or organize against it are liable to indiscriminant imprisonment, at times without due process.
It is evident that the Cuban government has sought out to put their own spin on history, and jam it into the hearts and minds of the people one government-sponsored billboard at a time. These signs and murals can be found on nearly every street, aiming to glorify the Revolution, its leaders, and the Communist Party, or project their barefaced political agenda. One such billboard featured a noose, calling the U.S. embargo on Cuba the "longest genocide in history." While U.S. sanctions on Cuba only proved to hurt the commoner by stifling economic growth and limiting access to basic commodities, it was hardly genocide, and to even compare it to one puts to shame anyone that has ever heard of the Holocaust, ISIS, or the colonization of the New World.
While I have enjoyed taking a break from my lifestyle of immediate Internet gratification, I do not think it is right that people have such little access to the Web. To get online, you have to wait in a line for upwards of three to five hours to either purchase a temporary card, good for an hour, or to put money into your account (Cuban citizens only). After that, you have to wait in another line, which is often equally as long, to use one of the government computers, since the WiFi is often times unreliable. Bearing in mind that no other country in Latin America has this problem, I contend that this is merely another ploy by the government to keep their people in the dark. I have learned to become more grateful for all of the great ways to use the Web, whether it is communicating with friends and family, reading the news, or Googling the answer to some obscure question that pops into my head. With that said, these are exactly the things that this government does not want its people to do. Rather, they would prefer to feed them hand-picked news stories on TV and in the papers, and remind them how "just" the government is for rationing them one-pound of chicken per month, without having to worry about them becoming exposed to the finer realities elsewhere.
I will speak to three successes of the government. The first is safety. Crime is essentially non-existent in Cuba, though mainly due to the extremely heavy police and military presence, and very strict penalties for those caught breaking the law. For the most part, you are pretty safe while walking alone, even at night.
The next is healthcare, which is free to all citizens, regardless of age or ailment. Cuban doctors are actually quite good, arguably the best in Latin America. It is actually a shame that they are so underpaid that many elect to leave the country to serve elsewhere, often times in other countries in Latin America, or in Africa.
The last success of the government has come in the form of agrarian reforms. Before the Revolution, 1.5% of landowners controlled 46% of the land, leaving poor campesinos to tend to it, earning essentially nothing. Land has henceforth been well distributed amongst rural workers, and their quality of life has greatly improved since Batista, though they are still relatively poor.
I earnestly hope that the recent changes under Raul Castro, such as the loosening of restrictions on free enterprise, continue and accelerate, as the current system is both dismissive and inefficient. I have no doubt that the upcoming surge of American tourists will boost this country's struggling economy, as well as provide new outlets for American industry, which would be a mutually beneficial relationship. With that said, Cuba has undergone periods where people were allowed to practice free enterprise, not unlike today, and these rights were rescinded within a few years. While I am optimistic that this will not happen again, others in this country are not.
Cuban food revolves heavily around cerdo (pork), yet they don't cook bacon, which is a damn shame. The most common cut is lomo (tenderloin), generally either pan-seared, sometimes in a salty, roasted red pepper and garlic sauce, or breaded and fried, which is more commonly the case. A typical dinner also consists of a side of rice, either blanco (white) or moro (brown, with black beans), and a salad consisting of chopped cabbage, avocado, and cucumber, dressed with vinegar and salt.
As for street food, you can expect to find little hole-in-the-wall cafeterias every block selling the same ham and cheese sandwiches, or pizzas of ham, extra cheese, or both. I search for places that can serve me up a few fried eggs for brunch, which are cheap and made on the spot, so I know they have not been roasting in the sun with the creepy-crawlers like the sandwiches.
Do not get me wrong; there are some really great restaurants in Cuba if you can afford them. As a budget traveler, however, I have not had that luxury. I really love food, so this has probably been the hardest aspect of traveling for me. With that said, the objective of my journey is to do as the people do, which includes eating at local joints. I spend the first few days in a new city trying out new places and asking people where is the best food for the low. When I find one that is both appetizing and the best bang for my buck, I stick with it. If you ever travel to Cuba, prepare yourself for a lot of pork, and too much salt.
Fruit is a different story. Mangos in Cuba are truly unbelievable, as well as the guava and tamarind. It is common to find freshly squeezed juice to accompany your meal. Bananas are also plentiful and packed with flavor, though small. A banana goes for one Cuban Peso, or about five cents.
The coffee is to die for, homegrown in the Sierra Maestra. One shot of this bad boy will have you firing on cylinders that you did not know you had, and Cuban sugar is as good as advertised. The best cup can be found at La Isabelica in Santiago, which also serves up live and spirited Afro-Cuban jams.
Last, but certainly not least, is the ice cream. Those that know me well will tell you that I am an absolute fiend for the stuff, and nothing is better to beat the blistering Cuban heat than a five-cent cone of chocolate-strawberry twist (or four). For the finer selection, head over to Copalia's, a popular chain throughout the island, or go to one of the countless other heladerias. Dulcerias also specialize in everything else sweet, and it is not uncommon to see someone walking around stuffing themselves with cake.
Looking back on my experiences in Cuba, I am constantly reminded of the simple acts of generosity that have come to define my stay. I will never forget the day that a young family saw me alone at the beach and invited me to spend the day with them, or when a group of friends bought me twelve scoops of ice cream after I was educated about Cuban reggae by one in line. Consumed by the pursuit of influence and importance, it is all too easy to forget the tender side of human nature, which exists in each of us. While it may seem that I am especially critical of the Cuban government and other inefficiencies in this country, know that it is only because I believe that these people deserve better, as they remind me very much of my people in Detroit and the greater American Midwest.
A visit to Cuba is truly one like no other. Whether you are a classic car enthusiast, coffee and cigar junkie, or an avid beech-goer, there is something for everyone at this Caribbean paradise. For the thrill-seeking backpacker, prepare yourself for a raw experience, as patience is a must for longer stays. If you just want to take a vacation and stay in one of phenomenal hotels, you will absolutely not be disappointed. Take a chance to witness the stunning landscapes, charming architecture, and one-of-a-kind culture. By visiting Cuba, you will be embarking on an adventure unlike any other you will ever experience, and I have no doubt that you will come to love it as I have.
Next stop: Bogotá, Colombia.
If you would like to know more about my experiences, or would like to see more photos, feel free to contact me.