We recently got back from Cuba and after spending a week there, I am somewhat at a loss for words to express the whole experience. Prior to the trip, I did not know what to expect. I did some research and the consensus was that visitors had a great time in Cuba – tropical weather, beautiful architecture, friendly Cubans, feeling like they’ve traveled back in time – what’s not to like? I assumed I would have a similar experience, and to some extent, I agree with all the positive things other travelers have said. But, on the other hand, what I didn’t expect was to come back with such mixed emotions. We learned so much about Cuban life and history that, upon reflection, made this trip one of the most eye-opening and unexpectedly humbling ones I’ve ever taken.
For starters, the evolution of everything Cuban is directly influenced by its history of Spanish and French colonists, slavery, the Americans who occupied the country pre-Castro times, Castro’s Marxist and Leninist ideals, and the country’s strong ties to the Soviets. The result of that evolution has led to present day Cuba where the architecture is a diverse hodgepodge of colonial, neoclassical, art deco, baroque, and eclectic styles – especially in Havana. The history of 300 years of slavery has led to constant reminders of this past – from the statue of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes (he freed his slaves in the 19th century which started a movement) in Havana’s Plaza de Armas to live artistic reinterpretations of the white slave owners and black slaves in Trinidad’s old town. Finally, the effects of Castro’s rule permeates the fabric of Cuban life today. Practically every business is nationalized (it’s only in the last few years that Raul Castro has allowed for some privatization of businesses), Cubans receive a measly $20-$25 per month salary, and contrary to public belief, while the government subsidizes much of daily life (for instance, it costs pennies to ride a bus, medical care is free, education is free), Cubans still find that the monthly salary is not enough to cover the essentials. For instance, while they get a ration of food per month – a small amount of rice, beans, a chicken leg, oil, sugar, salt – it’s not anywhere close to being enough to stave off hunger. As one local put it, Cubans just want to be able to have enough to eat. As a result, most Cubans rely on their secondary sources of income from the black market. So, while having a small business is now legal in Cuba, Cuban’s have been entrepreneurs for far longer than that. Now they can just do it all legally.
As a traveler used to the modern conveniences and comfort of our first world countries, going to Cuba was like stepping back in time, but not to any specific era. Take Havana for instance. The buildings are decrepit and often missing bits of facade. The paint, once vibrant, is overdue for a paint job.
There are big chunks of pavement missing as if road construction started but never finished. Some some of the streets are cobbled.
The streets are shared by rusted old bicycles, motorcycles, rickshaws, Soviet cars, classic American cars, Chinese cars, and even some newer model cars from the 90’s.
I even spotted a rare newer Mercedes on the street but was told that must have been the car of a diplomat. The stench of exhaust is inescapable. Vendors sell art, drinks, fruit, and even churros, on the street corners.
The accommodations are bare bones: small rooms with hard beds and pillows, and a fleece blanket. There’s scant internet connection if at all. The city visibly worn. It’s not uncommon to spot an abandoned building. Electrical wires above look like a game of cat’s cradle gone wrong.
Present day Havana reminds one of the past, but it isn’t clear when in the past. It’s as if all the bygone eras co-exist simultaneously and nothing’s yet caught up to the present.
“Stepping back in time” was our biggest motivation for going so in that respect, we achieved our goal. Cuba is on the cusp of major changes to its way of life. Raul Castro has brought more change to Cuba in recent years than has happened in the last fifty: Cubans are allowed cell phones now (they had them prior but now the phones are legal), they can own their own businesses, they are free to travel (but none do given how expensive it is), and they even have internet access (albeit only if they buy a wireless card.. and even then the connection is painfully sloooooow). Change is already happening. Then, on top of what’s going on domestically in Cuba, it’s now easier than ever for Americans to legally visit this forbidden island stimulating the tourism industry. As more money pours into the Cuban economy and as capitalism takes a stronger hold there, it’ll be interesting to see how quickly the way of life evolves.
In future posts, I’ll share more about what we did, how we did it, and of course, tips for visiting Cuba.
Have you been to Cuba? What did you think?