Our experience of Cuba was comparable to an on and off relationship, shifting from love to hate. A constant flood of mixed emotions playing with our hearts. 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 like the salsa beats and Reggaeton playing at every street corner.
“Don’t try to understand Cuba, just enjoy it. It would take you 100 years to understand it”. A piece of advice bestowed upon us in the beginning of our trip by a Cuban coffee farm worker. It stayed in our back of our minds throughout the whole trip. We started our journey in Havana and traveled through half of the island, avoiding Varadero and the all-inclusive options.
The most interesting part of Cuba was it’s people. A wave of Spanish colonists killed most of the natives in the 16th century and started bringing entire tribes of African slaves into the country. You will find the most incredible mixes, skin tones and eye colour. In all the countries we have visited we have never seen such a mix of people standing together no matter their colour or religion.
Cuban people are very photogenic. The way they looked back at the camera- it was almost as if they wanted to show the world their true selves, uncensored.
We experienced Cubans as friendly people, sparking conversation when asked to be photographed, eager to know which country their face would be seen in.
Juana was sitting on the side walk in a street in Havana Central, smoking a Cigar, when Dinah asked if she could take a photograph of her. Wearing tennis shoes and a dress, she had this natural confidence about her. She initiated conversation asking Dinah to find her a foreign husband as most local men were either gay or married to foreigners. She came from Camagüey 40 years ago and has lived in calle Jesus del Penitente ever since.
This was something we heard many times. For some Cubans, marrying a foreigner was their plane ticket out of the country. However, the government made it difficult for Cubans to get close to foreigners. We saw a Cuban male get arrested for making out in the street with a foreign girl.
Rafael was a 60-year-old man who bought us Cururucho which are peanuts in a cone shaped paper that cost two Cuban Pesos, it was the first time someone had bought us anything. We were so surprised, almost waiting for the catch. He told us about his son who had moved to Portugal, he had got out. He was one of the few youths that got out. Rafael just wanted to talk to us and wanted nothing in return.
We met many parents who were so proud of their children who were able to move towards a bright future and study or work overseas. A bright future is not always a reality in Cuba where Doctors earn around 35 euros a month and teachers around 25 euros.
Maria was walking through old Havana when her blue eyes caught Dinah’s attention. Maria spoke about her dream for her granddaughter, she wanted her to be successful in Germany, she wanted her to join the few that manage to get out.
Cubans were friendly and warm but we got the impression that they had a need to escape their island and were always keeping an eye open for any opportunity a tourist could afford them.
Gender diversity was paid tribute to through a sculpture on the street of the Malecon. The Malecon is a popular hangout for transsexuals and prostitutes. Even though Mariel Castro, the daughter of the current president, Raul Castro has done a lot of work towards changing societal attitudes and spreading a message of tolerance, we found that people outside of Havana were less tolerant and some people were scared to identify themselves as anything other than straight.
Cubans really expressed themselves through their art and dance, impressive street art filled the streets of old Havana. Everywhere and on every occasion people were dancing. Perhaps dancing gave them a feeling a freedom they lacked in their daily lives.
We saw most beautifully maintained cars made in the 1950’s , the past and present conflated. The innovation is incredible; the vehicles are kept running by hand built improvised parts.
After the revolution Castro nationalized all educational institutions. All public education is free and all students wear school uniforms with the colour denoting grade level. Younger kids wear maroon colour uniform and the older children wear brown/ khaki colour similar to the colour worn by government officials.
The streets of Havana are like none other, there is always something going on, there is always some live entertainment for you to watch while eating your lunch or dinner. And we don’t mean live music or salsa dancing, people are the entertainment.
Because there is no consumerism or reality TV shows, entertainment is found on the street. Graffiti on the walls of the city leaves a long lasting impression, the existence of real freedom of speech.
We encountered many dogs and cats, we were told by a local that dogs look after tourists better than locals do. Chanelle could give testament to that, a dog led her to her casa particular when she got lost after a night out in Trinidad.
We heard other travelers say that their enjoyment of a city was always related to the quality of the relationship they formed with the host of their casa. We ended our trip in this amazing house in Havana and enjoyed our time there, thanks to our host Daisy. She was our Cuban mother, cooking for us, sharing her bottle of rum and telling us all the neighborhood gossip.She showed us how it’s possible for Cubans to live on one dollar a day.
It was hard to explain to most hosts that we are actually travelers with a passion for discovering other cultures and we wanted to live like a local. Most of them would see us as just another tourist, coming to have a good time, drinking rum and smoking cigars on a pretty beach…We did some of that, but seeing Cuba from the inside was what we really wanted.
We noticed the generational differences between the young and old, the older generation were more conservative, the “rules” were respected and the informants informed. Many told us about the revolution with fire in their eyes.
We found a growing alternative scene even in Cienfuegos, a coastal laid back town, tattooed and pierced youth craving a change… for better or the worse, we wouldn´t know. But the next few years will surely mark the end of an era. If you want to visit Cuba, it´s NOW!
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*photos were taken by Dinah Cook.
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