Cuba. It’s a fascinating country. A country seemingly stuck in the past. Traveling to Cuba feels like traveling back in time. Back to a time when smart phones didn’t control our lives, cars were classy and colorful and music was playing in the streets. But not everything was better in the past. Here are 10 things I’ve learned in Cuba.
1. Ignorance can be bliss
During the two weeks I spent in Cuba, I had one hour of internet access. No, not even an hour, maybe 40 minutes. Free WiFi is non-existent and the only way to get internet access is by buying expensive access cards and sitting among dozens of Cubans with their eyes glued to their laptop or phone in some town square where the government provides a hot spot.
So, for two weeks I was cut off from the rest of the world. No news, no Facebook, no Whatsapp, no nothing. During those two weeks, the terrorist attacks in Paris happened. And I had no clue. I didn’t hear a thing. While I agree that knowledge is power and ignorance is what keeps people from moving forward, it felt liberating to spend those two weeks in this little bubble of isolation. To be blissfully unaware of all the atrocities happening every day. To just be happy for a while. At least until I came home and my phone connected to the World Wide Web of bad news once again.
2. A Cuban’s casa really is your casa
Since 1997, Cubans are allowed to rent out the rooms in their homes to tourists and they take full advantage of this chance to make some extra money. Cubans basically invented Airbnb long before it became popular. If you want to experience the real Cuba, there’s no way around the Casas Particulares.
By staying in these Casas, you’ll get a glimpse of what Cuban life looks like, you can taste real Cuban food (often better than anything you’d eat in a restaurant) and have some truly interesting conversations with the owners. And virtually every Casa has the same amazing rocking chair. And yes, they totally rock (duh!).
3. When a doctor works as taxi driver it’s considered a smart career move
Cuba is a socialist republic. This means that, in theory, everyone earns the same. Whether they’re saving lives or scrubbing toilets, every Cuban earns about 50$ a month. In the last couple of years, however, 181 jobs were freed from government control and people working in these jobs (mainly jobs in the tourist industry) can earn as much as they want. As a result, a taxi driver earns daily what a doctor makes in a month. I repeat: a doctor’s monthly wage is what a taxi driver earns each day! The simple fact that there are doctors left at all is a miracle.
4. As long as a pothole doesn’t have its own zip code, its nothing but a bump in the road
You know that pothole on your way to work? The one that hasn’t been fixed in weeks? It’s not even really in your way but, man, it’s a disgrace. What will people think of your neighbourhood? Well, Cuban roads look like Swiss cheese in comparison.
It’s impossible for cars to stick to their side of the road. Instead, they constantly swerve from left to right as if they were avoiding obstacles in a video game. But hey, if there’s still enough road left for one car, why fix it? When they finally do decide to fix it, matters turn from bad to worse anyway.
5. The only thing available aplenty is rum
Supermarkets are harder to find than a needle in a haystack. Even if you manage to find one, most shelves are empty because everything in Cuba is rationed. Unless you try to find rum. Bread? Nope. Fruit and Veggies? Nuh uh. Water? No way, José. But rum? Somehow there’s never a shortage of rum. And it’s incredibly cheap, too. Maybe that’s the point. Because nobody cares about fruit and veggies after a bottle of 7-year-old Cuban rum, am I right?
6. Electricity and water don’t mix? Ah, pish posh!
Cubans seem to mix everything, not just rum and coke. One of the best examples are the cars. The body of a Cadillac, the engine from a Peugeot and whatever’s left of the interior belongs to a Russian Lada. And everything’s held together by duct tape.
A cocktail of water and electricity seems to be another Cuban standard. Why a shower head needs electricity and what these wires actually do remains a mystery, though.
7. Change is everything
No, I don’t mean change in the philosophical way. I mean cash. Hard, heavy cash. Coins to be precise. Traveling in Cuba turns you into a coin hoarder, strutting around, jingling with proud, bags full of these shiny metal plates. Why, you might wonder? Well, they are the secret password to any bathroom. No matter where you are, a restaurant, a museum, the beach, no matter how clean or filthy, you will need a coin to be granted access. And they’re gone faster than you might think. So, keep them close and use them wisely.
8. Good connections are half the battle
We all know that Vitamin C makes the world go round. Cuba is no exception to this rule. Especially if you stay at a Casa Particular, you’ll benefit from the great connections of your hosts. You need a taxi? Sure, my neighbour can drive you around. You need a place to stay in Trinidad? No problem, the cousin of my sister’s husband has a great Casa. A tour guide, a dive instructor, someone to take you horse riding? Whatever your wish might be, they will know who to call.
9. Cubans and tourists are different species
Cubans pay with the Cuban peso, tourists with the peso convertible. Tourist can take boat rides, Cubans are not allowed on board. There are buses for tourists and buses for Cubans. The omnipresent bicitaxis (part rickshaw, part sound system on wheels) are supposedly not for tourists, they drive them around anyways. The so-called tourism apartheid reigns every aspect of Cuban life. That’s not just incredibly unjust but also leaves a bitter taste in every traveler’s mouth. Thankfully, things seem to be changing under the new government.
10. Hasta la victoria siempre!
Even though the Cuban revolution happened more than half a century ago, it still dominates the Cuban landscape. There are banners everywhere, slogans calling on the Cuban people to fight for their country, to protect their nation’s pride and glory even until death.
The ever-present faces of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara keep a watchful eye on everything that’s going on in their country. And not just them, there are eyes and ears everywhere.
This is why it’s very difficult to find someone who will talk openly about what they actually think of the revolution and the state of their country. But those people do exist and when you find them, they’ll grant you a unique view into the depths of Cuban society.
What did you learn in Cuba? What struck you as unique and unusual?