Being in Cuba may awaken in you strange sensations. None of the typical things you feel when traveling, such as awe or wonder. Instead, you may feel a combination of compassion and despair that creates something akin to numbness. It resembles the symptoms of shock.
Before I go on: I’m from Miami. I have Cuban family. I grew up eating plátanos, palomilla steak, and ropa vieja in Hialeah. Going to Cuba was no small decision. Some of my friends and family members disapproved. I used to think they were stupid. I’ve been to Russia. Vietnam. China. How bad could it be? Canadians go there all the time…
At First Glance
It’s not easy to read when you get off the airplane. It doesn’t speak to you right away. I expected many more government propaganda signs. The only ones I see are faded. It doesn’t look different from any other run-down communist country. Dilapidated buildings, stray dogs. It looks like any other tropical country too. Swaying palm trees and the smell of burning foliage and trash on the street. Donkey carts, horns, and the occasional fruit cart. Nothing we haven’t seen, heard, or smelled before.
People smile, people frown. People fix things. I don’t see a socialist utopia or a debacle. And for the first few hours, I’m thinking all the things I heard were overblown. And then I tried to buy a bottle of water.
To the guest house owner: “Where can I buy water?”
“I don’t know. You can try the cafeteria over there.” Points. We go to the cafeteria. All they got is a 250ml bottle. OK for now but the tap water is no good. A few sips won’t kill you, but not to guzzle straight for 3 weeks. It took us days, literally, to find a store that sold big bottles of water.
If you’re criticizing me by now, if you think I’m blowing it out of proportion, it’s probably because all you saw was Old Havana. And maybe Trinidad.
Your sink probably had a tap, too.
In Old Havana everything presents itself with a semblance of normalcy. Now I know it’s all a fucking facade. All those whining Cubans-in-exile in Miami I used to think were a bunch of Republican numnuts, well, now I just want to give them all a hug.
Cuba has a relatively high rate of suicide, the highest in all of the Americas. After a day or two of being there, I could understand why this was so.
I spoke with the owners of our casa particular, who, like most other Cubans we spoke with, opened up instantly when speaking about politics and the bloqueo. They are not afraid to speak, which I guess is a little surprising. Many cried when they spoke of their sons, daughters, moms, dads, aunts, uncles, and brothers who left the country, some actually by one of those crazy dinghies you read about, and never came back.
In addition, you and your kids have little to strive for. No matter how hard you work, you can’t accomplish anything. Sure you get free education and health care, but what else? On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Cubans don’t get very far.
Yes, the people are “resourceful,” “resilient” and all those other clichéd words used to describe Cubans. What do you expect? Why do people think being resourceful and resilient is something uniquely Cuban? What else are they gonna do? Have you never been to India? Go anywhere with real poverty and you will see resilience and resourcefulness. So shut up and get real. The thing with Cuba is, it didn’t have to be this way and it doesn’t have to be this way. They know it, we know it. Their free health care and education allows the government to stand on a moral high ground, but if you have half a brain, you can see that high ground is built on a crumbling foundation. It’s not working, it never did work.
Nowhere else in the Caribbean save for a few choice spots like Puerto Rico has so much lingering evidence of urban colonial life. It is gorgeous, the architecture. During our 2 week road trip we visited a half-dozen cities and large towns, all of which boast European-style town squares several centuries old. Evidence of former wealth was everywhere. And THAT, my friends, is what makes Cuba so frustrating. Cuba without the revolution would have been the richest place in the Caribbean and could very well help to promote economic growth throughout the region. Instead, it’s a place where you can’t buy water, toothpaste, or toilet paper. And the peasants the revolution was supposed to help? Ahhhahahahah, that’s funny.
You can buy rum. Very easily. And cheaply, even the proletariat can afford it. Oh and you can now surf the Internet, in those lovely old town squares. That is cool.
I’m not going to say that it’s all bad. We enjoyed ourselves. We learned a lot. We drank rum almost every day, often with locals in city squares. The music is good, the art is colorful. We ate well–stone crabs, whole fish, lobster. Our rental car never broke down (it was Chinese, BTW). We went to one beach near Cienfuegos, which was one of my favorite cities.
I would go back. I will go back. Cuba was one of the most difficult trips I’ve taken, but I’m glad I went. You will be too. But if you’re afraid of “The Americans” coming and “ruining” Cuba, please stay home. You suck if you actually believe that white privileged propaganda of yours. Go because you want to open your heart and mind.
We visited in January-February of 2016. We rented a car in Havana and drove to:
- Sancti Spiritus
And a few other places en route. We stayed the private bnb-style places called casas particulares. At the time of our trip, AirBnB was not available to non-American travelers, making it very difficult to make bookings. Now, I think that has changed and if so, you will have a much easier time than we did.
If you need any tips about where to stay or eat, or what to see, please feel free to message me and I will help as best I can.
If you go…
Why not book an Arts Encounters tour? This Miami-based company offers exclusive art-focused itineraries of Havana. They will get you into galleries and venues that you can’t typically visit, allowing you to get under the pulse of change.