10 Things I Learned About Cuba

January 5, 2015

During the Trip of a Lifetime…

I was fortunate to visit Cuba with my wife in November of 2014, just a few weeks before President Obama announced the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba and a host of changes that would be coming to the island. I had always wanted to see Cuba “before things opened up” to witness the daily life of the people and see how things really were. A lot is said about Cuba in the American media, and depending on where you are from, how old you are, and where you sit on the political spectrum, American opinions about Cuba are various. I needed to see it for myself. So after securing the necessary documents we were able to spend two weeks in Cuba on a person-to-person license, basically a cultural exchange during a very agenda-heavy trip that included visits to all kinds of places and no beaches. This was not your typical Caribbean day in the sun.

Being half-Cuban, I was hoping to connect with my past and see the land of my grandparents. They came to the U.S. long before Fidel Castro was in power so they were not dissidents, or political refuges and no, they did not get here on a raft (it’s amazing how many times I’ve been asked that question). My perspective on the so-called Cuban situation is much different than someone whose family had to flee the country in the late 50’s and early 1960’s. I will try my best to keep the politics out of this and keep this focused on what I observed. After spending 11 educational days in Santiago, Havana and Matanzas I came home with a new, informed perspective on Cuba and felt fortunate to have been one of the last Americans to visit the island before things opened up. Here are 10 things I learned about Cuba.

1. Old Cars Are Everywhere

I thought the images of old cars that you see speeding along Malecon or navigating through the narrow streets of Havana were a romantic embellishment of the photographers or filmmakers who wanted to capture the spirit of Cuba, sort of like how every clichéd image of Minnesota includes shots of either lakes or snow. Minnesota has a lot of those things, just as Cuba has a lot of old cars. They were everywhere. I thought they would be only taxis but it seemed like every fourth or fifth car in Havana was a 50’s era Ford, Buick or Chevy. Even in Santiago, or on the highway between Havana and Matanzas I saw plenty of beautiful old cars with fresh, shiny paint jobs that were a joy to look at. I was stuck on a bus for most of the time though, so I never had the chance to ride in one. (click any photo to see a larger image)

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2. The Two-Currency System Can Be Tricky

Cuba has a dual-currency system. Most Cubans are paid in the peso (CUP) while tourists use the convertible peso which is locally referred to as the “kook,” officially the CUC. I won’t go into detail about the background of this system, you can read more about it here. The CUC is the more valuable currency, worth about 24 pesos. As a tourist I carried and used only CUC, until a friendly vendor at a small corner store pulled the old switcheroo on me. I bought a bottle of water for 1.75 CUC, handing him a 5 CUC bill and he gave me my change in coins – what I thought at the time was 3.25 CUC. A few hours later I went to a different shop to buy a can of cola and tried to pay the 1 CUC price but quickly learned that I was holding a handful of pesos (CUP). Instead of getting my 3.25 CUC in change, I had been handed pesos that amounted to roughly .50 CUC. Okay, so the first guy was able to scam me out of a few bucks and yes, I was able to use the pesos he handed me to buy that cola. Certainly a learning experience – one that cost about 3.25 CUC in tuition. Take a look at the photo. One of these is a CUC and one is a peso. Can you tell the difference? Other than the image and the 1$ marking, they are almost exactly the same size and weight.

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3. Capitalism Exists

See above. People were trying to make a buck everywhere. From cab drivers constantly shouting out, “¿taxi?” to the friendly street hustlers who love to fall in love with your CUC, Cuba was the most capitalist communist country I’ve ever been in. Okay, I’ve only been to this one communist country but there were numerous examples. Take bottled water. In a true planned socialist economy, shouldn’t the price of water be the same everywhere you go? In theory at least? I found that the price of water was completely market-based. A 1-liter bottle may have been 3 CUC in the hotel, 2 CUC in the small shop just down the street and only .75 CUC deep in the Cuban neighborhoods. And you were expected to tip everyone everywhere you went. Waiters and drivers, sure, I was expecting that. But when a group of dancers performs and pulls you onstage to do a little rumba the next thing you know they’re handing you their CD and asking for 5 CUC. I even had one little old lady approach me in an art gallery and lead me to the bathroom. I thought she was leading me to another exhibit but no! As she pointed me around the corner I was expecting to walk into a room of sculptures and instead found myself standing before a toilet. She waited outside until I finished, and so I gave her a tip.

4. Revolutionary Imagery Is Everywhere

I didn’t see a lot of advertisements. Not for Coca-Cola or McDonald’s (televised baseball games have no commercials so between innings, they announcers just keep talking while you watch teams switch sides – same goes for pitching changes) but I did see a lot of patriotic marketing. Photos of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos were everywhere. Banners were draped from buildings with images of Vilma Espín and Frank País. Statues had been erected all over the island honoring José Martí and Antonio Maceo. Usually the images were accompanied by some kind of loyalist message such as  “Todo Por La Revolución” or “Vas Bien Fidel.”

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I saw the famous image of Che Guevara represented in 3 ways: government patriotism, tourist junk, and artwork. Here are some examples:

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5. Restaurant Food Was Just Okay

The food for the most part was inconsistent. I had some fantastic Cuban sandwiches and some ropa vieja that was made just right. The beer was cold and the mojitos were (for the most part) really good. I even had grilled lobster at a small out-of-the-way place in Havana. This restaurant was also the only place that served fresh vegetables. The rest were canned. Most meals consisted of a slab of meat (pork, chicken or beef), a pile of rice and then some kind of bland vegetable – usually from a can. Some places offered bread and plantains and everyone offered bottled water. But when your beverage choices were bottled water for 2 CUC or a cold beer for 2 CUC you might as well order a beer – I always want my CUC to go to a good cause. The coffee though – the coffee was strong.

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6. Toilet Paper is Scarce – Bring Your Own!

We brought two rolls of toilet paper, a package of tissues and a package of wipes and were glad we did! The only places that consistently had toilet paper were our various hotel rooms and those were not refilled unless the roll was nearly empty. Even the bathroom in the hotel lobby had no toilet paper. Restaurants? No toilet paper. Most didn’t even have a toilet seat. Museums, tourists locations, government buildings? Maybe, but don’t count on it. In fact, toilet paper was so hard to come by that I found myself stashing paper napkins whenever I was lucky enough to come across one.

7. There is Food on the Shelves But It’s Not Very Healthy

We had a chance to visit a grocery store in Havana that was frequented almost entirely by Cubans – I saw only a handful of curious tourists. Expecting to see empty shelves and a major food shortage, I was very surprised to see the shelves were well stocked with pasta, canned vegetables, crackers, cookies, sardines, bottled water, beer, wine, more rum than anyone could ever drink, and plenty of sugar drinks. Not the healthiest choices, but far from the widespread shortages I’ve heard about all my life. I was able to replenish my own supply of snacks and make off with a few beverages as well.

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Just down the way from the grocery store was a running store. I was very surprised to see this. They had some descent stuff, and even carried my brand of shoes. You could pick up a pair for about 40 CUC. Not a bad price!!

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8.The Country is Rich in History and Pride

I suppose you get the same thing when you visit Washington D.C. Statues of the country’s most famous leaders. Monuments erected in memory of their glory. Grave sites etched with profound saying and decorated with eternal flames. I definitely felt the pride and it was most apparent at the grave of José Martí, Cuba’s national hero. He’s basically the Cuban version of George Washington, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson all rolled into one. His grave was the largest moment in the cemetery, was guarded by soldiers who changed guards during a small but impressive ceremony every half hour, and his image was splashed all over the island. Here are some shots.

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9. The Rum Was Plentiful

It felt like it was everywhere. A small street-corner cafe might sell nothing but ham sandwiches and cola but have an entire wall of rum bottles taking up half the store. At the dancing and musical performances we attended, rum was poured and shared by everyone. The mojitos were tasty and went for about 3 CUC but you could by a bottle of rum, or “ron” as it’s called on the island for about 5 CUC. Maybe more, maybe less depending on where you were. This was something I never complained about. There were cigars too but they were nearly as abundant as the rum!

People often drank it straight from a glass, and passed their glass around for others to share. At fist, I thought I was entitled only to a small sip, kind of like the wine in Catholic church, but was encouraged to quaff down as much as I wanted. When my glass was empty, a bottle was always offered by a smiling face that encouraged a refill.

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10. Cubans Know their Baseball

One afternoon I was walking through Havana wearing a Minnesota Twins hat and in the span of just a couple hours had about a half dozen men shouted out, “¡Minnesota!” or “¡Twins!” In one bar, the bartender found out our group was from America and kept asking us if we liked the Giants, who had won the World Series just a few weeks before. I insisted that no one cared about the Giants because they won the Series three times in the last five years and that the Royals were the team everyone rooted for as lovable underdogs. The bartender didn’t want to hear this but the next night I returned to his bar and found him dressed in full Giants garb. And what do you know – I just happened to be wearing my Royals hat. We both got a big laugh.

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What a journey.

When I returned home and people asked me, “How was Cuba?” I could only shake my head and give them a one word response, “Unbelievable.” They usually followed up with, “Would you go back?” Another one word response, “Absolutely.”  I would go back to Cuba. Definitely. But not yet. Not for awhile. I want to let the new diplomatic relationship with the U.S. take hold. Let things work themselves out and go back in 5, maybe 10 years to see how things have changed. To see if they have toilet paper, and better food choices and spare parts for those old cars. I worry that the U.S. will come in and ruin a culture I saw to be very pure, by building a Starbucks on every street corner and teaching the people about such capitalistic ideals as KFC and heavily-scripted reality TV. But I’m also hopeful that things will improve and that the struggle, which I saw to be very real, becomes not so much of a struggle anymore. Here’s to Cuba, here’s to the people and to an island that I love so much.

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Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Yahoo! Arts and Entertainment. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards. Connect with Mark on Twitter