Cuba, a country of music, bad drivers and extremely tight clothes – where the cars have more pictures of Jesus and Mother Mary than seatbelts, and where rum is cheaper than Coca Cola. Yes, they actually have Coca Cola here now, one of many signs that Cuba is slowly opening up more and more. In just the last year there have been a lot of change in the country and it seems to only accelerate forward under the lead of Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother.
We must admit that we didn’t know much about Cuba when we first came here. “Of course there will be Internet so we can research our trip and ATMs so we can get money!” – famous last words by Tuva.
There is a communication monopoly in Cuba, which means all telephony and Internet is provided by one company. The little Internet that exist on this island is very slow and costs a small fortune each time you want to use it in either a internet café, or in one of the more posh hotels (we know of two in Havana with WiFi). And the speed goes up and down like a roller coaster, which means Skype and FaceTime is a no-go.
Luckily some of our cards work with the few ATMs that are here, though not our BankNorwegian VISA credit cards. It’s much worse for Americans (US), since all banks and cards affiliated with US banks are banned from Cuba, meaning you have to bring lots of Euros to the country or withdraw money at ridiculous charges.
Something that we learned very soon after we arrived is that Cubans are very proud of their history and heritage of independence wars and revolution(s). Every town has a square, plaza or park dedicated to Jose Marti, the liberator of Cuba in 1898, when Cuba got their independence from Spain. There are also equally many statues of him around as there are government buildings, and there are a lot of government buildings in Cuba.
As for the revolution there are pictures, t-shirts, hats, artifacts and even haircuts with the face of Che Guivara everywere you turn (yes, a guy had Che shaved in to the back of his head!). Che is of course one of the main heroes from the revolution 54 years ago, together with Fidel Castro (Él Presidente) and the somewhat lesser known (at least outside Cuba) Camillo Cienfuego, who has a street named after himself in every town. So of the three revolution heroes, one got the tourist souvenirs, one got the presidency, and one got a lot of streets.
Another thing you notice pretty fast with Cuba is their warmth as a people, at least the ones we met in the various casas we lived in. They rent out their homes as Casa Particulares (a room or two in their own home) to tourists; make breakfast, dinner and drinks to you; and give you advice on what to do, who to not talk to and how to not get robbed or scammed at the street. We were lucky and booked our first night with Ari in Havana, which basically took care of everything from there, as she has many friends across the country who have casas and could help us around. Everyone was very welcoming and wanted us to have as good time as possible in their casa, and we got to know very warm and happy people who did their best to earn the necessary money for living, as it’s no secret that the regular wages for workers in Cuba is not very high – a doctor makes about $40 a month = 230 NOK, and pensions are around $11 = 60 NOK. In comparison we are spending two monthly salaries each day on sleeping and food, and we’re staying pretty cheap.
The people on the streets also seem very “friendly”, wanting to help us with everything from taxi, to cigars, restaurants, salsa festivals and more. We were told the first night by Ari to “not talk to anybody on the street, just ignore them and walk on, and they’ll soon lose interest”. It seemed a bit harsh at first, but as for Havana (Vieja), you just have to do this to avoid being scammed by the many street hustlers. It seems every Cuban knows the words: “Hey my frien’!”, “Taxi?” or “Tazi?”, “Restaruan’?”, “Cigar my frien’?!”, “Special pri’ for you, my frien’!”, “Happy holiday amigo, where are you from’?”. Even some kids lighted up when they saw us, ran towards us and presented their open palms saying “Dollas?”. You get a bit cynical after walking in Havana Vieja for a couple of days, but luckily we put down our guard some in Viñales and Trinidad, which are much smaller towns and where the people seemed more genuinely friendly and trustworthy.
To avoid being hustled into some random restaurant and overpaying to cover the hustler’s commission we were tipped by Ari to go to “Los Nardos”, supposedly one of the best restaurants in Cuba. When we asked her if the food was any good she answered “It is very okay”, which didn’t seem very promising. After standing in line for 40 minutes and freezing our asses off at the table right under an air-conditioner on full speed, we found that “Very okay” was being very generous to the famed restaurant, with a kitchen similar to the cafeteria at my high school. We later checked out TripAdvisor and found three restaurants among the top 5 in Havana, that we tried. All of them were decent and pretty inexpensive, but at the same time confirmed the rumors we had head ahead that Cuba is not a country for gastronomy. We also found the food in the various casas to be “very okay” and be on par with many of the restaurants we tried. All in all the food in Cuba is “very okay”, but after a couple of weeks you get a bit tired of the same rice and black beans that are served with each meal. Not to mention that the only spices they seem to use here are salt, pepper and some garlic, though only sparingly.
The next thing you notice is the extremely tight clothes. It doesn’t matter if you’re young, old, small, big, or very big, you’re supposed to show your body. The (a bit older) ladies also seem to like tops with bling-text that says something like “Boy Toy” or “Sexy Mama” or worse.. And the miniskirts are a chapter for themselves. They are short and are worn by all women, no matter age, occupation or (as earlier mentioned) body shape. You’re a tour-guide – wear a miniskirt. Police? – miniskirt. Nurse? – better wear a bit shorter skirt and throw on some fishnet stockings. Schoolgirl? – miniskirt (or in reality shorts with a flap that make them look like skirts, or shorts underneath). We’re not saying whether it’s good or bad, we’re just reporting how it is.
Cuba is also well known for their old American cars from the pre-embargo era. These cars are everywhere and most of them have a “Taxi” sign on them. They have been maintained for decades, and although their old, gas-guzzling engines have been replaced with new diesel engines and most have new HiFi installed, they still have that old look and feel, not to mention their total lack of airbags, seatbelts and other safety measures. A part from the old American cars there are also some almost as old and just as dangerous Ladas, tiny Fiats and also some newer imported cars from China, Japan and Europe. (almost) Everybody drive like pigs in Cuba and their horn is used all the time to say “Hey! I am coming behind you fast, so get out of the way!”. We reluctantly had some trips with the old American cars, and even a trip with a Lada that barely didn’t fall apart. Luckily we survived to tell the story :)
Finally, it’s the music and dancing. It seems every restaurant has a band playing (and everyone is playing Chan Chan), no matter how small, and every town has a Casa de la Musica, where the locals show off their crazy slick dance moves to amazed tourists. The rhythms are contagious and you can’t help but shake your money maker a bit, though not enough to get embarrassed. This is of course accompanied by their national rum based drinks such as Mojito, Daiquiri or Cuba Libre, and the smell of cigars being smoked everywhere (mostly by tourists).
All in all we have had a great time in Cuba, although we have to say that the food and lack of Internet are some factors that limit our time here. We have learned a lot in the few weeks we’ve been here, both of the people and their culture, and we’ve even made some Cuban friends.
Hasta luego Cuba, we might meet again..