Last September I spent a couple of weeks travelling around Cuba, and was really surprised to see how different the country was compared to the picture I had in my mind. The following are my very personal impressions.
Since I can remember I’ve always wanted to travel to Cuba. Many family members and friends of mine had been there, and they had all told me wonderful things about their time there; how friendly and generous everyone was and how welcomed they made them feel. The days before my flight I was of course really excited and full of expectations.
My first association with Cuba had always been equality. I thought Cuba was the country where everyone had the same and there were no social classes, a working utopia. I was in for a surprise.
The first unexpected thing I noticed were the amount of smartphones. Keep in mind that in Cuba it´s almost impossible to find wifi, so why did so many people need Smartphones? And how could they afford them?
As my time in Cuba progressed and I spoke with all my hosts from the Casas Particulares I began to realize the huge gap between the people who work in tourism (eg. renting a room) and the people who work for the state.
I was told that in a day of renting a room one could make a worker´s monthly salary (25-30 dollars). My host in Havana was able to sometimes go out to eat at private restaurants, an impossible feat for most Cubans.
It is no surprise – seeing that most money to be made is through tourism – that you see desperate Jineteros everywhere in hotspots like Havana or Trinidad. Unfortunately these people will make your trip very unpleasant, following you for blocks trying to sell you anything, from cigars to a cab ride. Not taking no for an answer and trying to rip you off when possible.
I was also told by some Cubans that apparently there are a couple of people who own huge portions of land where they have fruit plantations, which I thought after the revolution was not possible anymore.
Recently a law was passed and now people can sell their houses, even if they got them from the state during the revolution.
I also saw a lot of new cars in Havana and many were not for rental but actually had regular Cuban plates.
The image I had of Cuba in my head was nothing like the real Cuba I saw, as this equality I expected to see seemed to be long gone.
My advice if you want to travel to Cuba is to skip the big cities and tourist landmarks and go to some smaller towns. Always stay at Casas Particulares and go eat government Paladares. Try to talk to people who are not used to dealing with tourists, they will be the most sincere and friendly and the ones who will show you the real Cuban life. Try to visit the wonderful university in Havana or a school.
Go to Cienfuegos, stay at Casa de la Amistad and meet the owners, the loveliest people I met in Cuba. An old couple who will talk about Che Guevara teary eyed and will make you feel like home with their warm smiles and wonderful home cooking.
They might be hard to find, but there are still some places where the Cuban utopia manages to survive.
Despite the fact that at times I felt disappointed while in Cuba I have to admit it was extremely interesting to visit the island at this time.
You can feel that things are changing really fast and that there is more change yet to come. Being somewhere in the midst of change is always an exhilarating experience that makes you feel like you are experiencing a piece of history. I just hope the changes that come are in the best interest of the Cuban people and don’t bring more of the social or economical inequality that characterize our capitalistic economies.
But the most important lesson I learned on this trip was a lesson on expectations. Expectations can be a dangerous thing while travelling; set the bar too high and you’ll probably be in for a huge disappointment. Better leave expectations at home and just take an open mind with you. Every trip worth taking will be a learning experience.