10 things that surprised me about Cuba

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I loved Cuba. It’s a fascinating place on the brink of change. The 1960 US imposed trade embargo looks to be on the way out and people will say “we have to get there before the embargo lifts and everything changes!”. But it’s already too late, the small Communist island south of Florida known as Cuba is changing. And for the better. Tourism is booming (with so many Canadian and German tourists!), greater numbers of Cubans are gaining access to the internet as well as other things previously quashed under the trade and travel limitations. But there is still a long way to go. Here’s some things that surprised me about this amazing country:

At the airport

1 The first thing that struck me at the airport is that all the immigration officers are women. They wear khaki uniforms so short and tight they almost look like sexed up Halloween costume uniforms. Most of the officers are also wearing fish net stockings, bright red lipstick and don’t smile.

2 After getting through immigration we joined the long line to convert our Euros into Cuban money. There are two kinds of Cuban money: Cuban convertible pesos (known as CUC) and Cuban pesos or monetary nacional (know as CUP). One convertible peso is worth about 25 Cuban pesos. Touristy areas only take CUC and CUP is used more by locals. We converted 600 Euros into CUC, then I handed back 10 CUC and had it changed to CUP. Confused? So was I. Especially as the pile of 10 CUP notes was bigger than the pile of CUC.

3 We took a modern taxi into Havana and I began to develop a headache from the fumes of the traffic around us. The old cars, buses and trucks look amazing but leave clouds of noxious smoke behind them wherever they go.

City life in Centro Habana

4 We stayed at the only hostel in Havana, located in a neighbourhood called Centro Habana. This is not the touristy Old Town but a densely populated neighbourhood filled with businesses, dogs, young and old people. I loved how rather than being shut up indoors there were people everywhere; kids playing soccer in the streets, women sat on stoops chatting away, men gathered around a fierce checkers or chess game. I imagine not having the internet at home fosters a more interactive face-to-face lifestyle.

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5 Before we got to Cuba I read a fascinating blog post by an American expat living in Havana. In it the writer refers to the concept of “resolvemos,” which translates roughly to, “we’ll figure it out.” As the writer puts it: “It’s a national mantra, used in every household to describe overcoming challenges. People will say, “I resolved eggs today,” meaning they were able to find eggs.” I was amazed too see examples of resolvemos everywhere, from kids skilfully playing soccer with a half deflated basketball to a grandmother pushing a makeshift pram made from a supermarket trolley lined with cushions.

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These guys resolved a table for their chess board

From what I saw, Cubans in Centro all lived in apartments in various condition (some literally crumbling) and I loved seeing how well they embrace urban living. People have mastered the art of dangling things on string from their balconies to save a trip up and down the stairs. You’ll be walking along and all of a sudden a key or a broom on a string descends from a balcony and into the hands of a waiting friend who lets themselves in or to an elderly lady who begins to sweep the pavement for the third time that day.

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Apartment living can be perilous for pedestrians though as people regularly dispose of buckets of water and other trash simply by tossing it over the balcony railing. One afternoon a smattering of egg shells narrowly missed landing on my head.

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Food in Cuba

8 Since 1962 Cuba has been under a food rationing system called Libreta de Abastecimiento (which translates to ‘supplies booklet’). A lot of people rely on this system but there are also food markets and other stores where food can be purchased, as well as a thriving black market. Under the rations distribution system, people buy subsidized food and other items from their local bodega or store. The quantity they are allowed to purchase depends on the family members and their ages as documented in the supplies booklet. A person can only purchase rations from their assigned bodega which looks something like this:

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That blackboard behind the counter is a distribution blackboard displaying the products, prices and limits

Being so used to regular supermarkets I was surprised by the stores, how empty they seemed and that they still had over the counter service.

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There really aren’t many restaurants outside the tourist areas where meals are pretty expensive.

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The old cars

9 It’s hardly a coincidence that most of the beautiful old cars you see around Cuba date back to before the 1960 embargo. Before the revolution Cuba had a fairly strong urban middle class with a passion for American cars. Once trade with the US stopped, people hung onto their cars and have kept them running ever since, no easy feat considering the scarcity of parts. Just how dilapidated these cars are and the fact that they continue to run still blew me away. Some of them are almost completely bare on the inside and others in the tourist zone are in mint condition.

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Most of the old cars operate as private taxis or as taxi collectivos, which are public car pools crammed with people inside. We took one to Vinales and while it was fun, the fumes and noise got a bit old towards the end of our 5 hour journey.

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Cuban cigars

10 I’m not a smoker but the cigars really are better in Cuba. Amazingly, the ones from the farms are completely organic and nicotine free. We visited a farm in the tobacco region of Vinales and the farmer rolled a perfect cigar, dipped the mouth end in honey and let us smoke it. He also explained that 90 per cent of tobacco from farms goes to the government. Tobacco is one of Cuba’s biggest exports.

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Tobacco plants

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The finished product

Have you been to Cuba? Would you like to go?

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14 Responses to 10 things that surprised me about Cuba

  1. Lynne O'Brien says:

    Wow Bec,
    This is such an amazing post! You’ve nailed the lifestyle and it’s fascinating.
    Thank you! I feel like I’ve been there.

  2. Alexis Harris says:

    Definitely on the ‘to do’ list!

  3. I love all the gorgeous colours. Definitely on my travel ‘to do’ list as well!

  4. Edna says:

    I’d love to go to Cuba — love the concept of resolvemos, I’d never heard of that before!

  5. Jess Carey says:

    I love the sound of the whole “we’ll figure it out” concept… also, the food/grocery situation fascinates me! I had no idea it was like that!

    • Bec says:

      It’s funny, I didn’t really notice the lack of convenience stores and little supermarkets everywhere at first… But then it became impossible to find bottles of water!

  6. Latoya says:

    I am planning Cuba in July. How did you book accommodation? How much should I plan on spending for cheap/mid-range accommodation? Did you know anyone who stayed at a Casa Particular (homestay)?

    • Bec says:

      Hi, we booked Rolando’s Backpacker Hostel in Havana online. Then the staff at Rolando’s called ahead to Vinales to book our Casa Particular. There are so many Casas in Vinales that you could probably just turn up there and find one. The accommodation we stayed in was all around $US20-25 a night. Hope that helps!

  7. Pingback: My favourite places from our 16 month trip | My Bloggable Day

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