By Noah Graff
Center of Havana, Cuba. 2012
Now that United States has begun normalizing relations with Cuba, I get irritated at times when Americans who have never been there give me their predictions about the country’s future.
I’ve been to Cuba twice, both unbelievable experiences, and I will flat out say, you can’t understand what Cuba is like from watching the news. You can only get a good idea of the place by going there and talking to its people.
Both times I traveled to Cuba (illegally) I wanted to blog about my experiences, but we made a judgement at the time that it was best to keep it quiet, as it was breaking the law after all.
But now Cuba is becoming the good guy, so it’s time to give you the scoop.
As of today, Americans can still only go to Cuba legally if they travel with a chartered group, for instance a trip to tour the country’s art work or music, or a humanitarian mission. I traveled to Cuba in April 2012 and January 2014, and did it the cool, fun way. A friend and I flew to Cancun where we then connected to Havana on Cubana Aviación. When we arrived in Cancun we went to an office right next to the Cubana Aviación counter and in 2 minutes bought Cuban visas for $20. When we entered Cuba, customs stamped the visas instead of our passports—so Uncle Sam wouldn’t know. Of course, I’m sure the U.S. government has a record of our flight’s manifest, and I am definitely on a list of perpetrators that would materialize if I were nominated for the Supreme Court.
For my 10 days in Cuba, I brought a money belt with around $2,000 in cash. In Cuba they don’t take American credit cards or ATM cards. You pay for everything in cash, so you better bring more than enough, although if I needed cash there are many Western Unions over there. Once in Cuba a tourist must exchange their currency for CUCs, the Cuban currency for tourists. One CUC approximately equals a dollar. Cuban citizens use a second currency, the Cuban peso, also called a CUP. One CUP converts to around .25 CUCs. For this reason, some goods and services cost a quarter of the price for Cubans than for foreigners.
For tourist accommodations in Cuba there are two choices, staying in hotels run by the Cuban government, some that appear as though they haven’t been updated for decades, or renting a room in a casa particular, a house run by one of the luckier Cubans who inherited large digs following the revolution. I, of course, chose to stay in the warmer but more humble casa particulares, great places to meet Cuban people because the owners have nothing to do but sit around and guard the fort all day. One of the few legal private enterprises in Cuba, casa particulares cost approximately between $15 and $25 per night to rent a room. The owners cook great breakfasts or dinners for lodgers for around $5 a person. Our breakfasts usually consisted of an omelet, amazing fresh pineapple or guava juice, and café con leche. I was told that the casa particular owners have to pay a huge portion of their earnings to the government and have a limit of around $25 that they can charge lodgers. Most sources say that on average Cubans make $20 a month, in addition to some food staples and subsidies from the government. After all the money is taken from the casa particulares for taxes and maintenance, I’m guessing that many owners make only slightly more than the country’s average pay.
So how does it feel to actually be in Cuba? As I walked the streets of Havana, beautiful live latin music bombarded me, talented modern artists pedaled original paintings for a pittance from their studios, and tourists from around the world roamed next to me. I would walk past buildings falling apart surrounded by garbage that may have been abandoned for decades, and then I run into immaculate beautiful plazas that reminded me of those in European cities. But then I was reminded that I was indeed not in a European city when my Cuban private guide I had hired off the street (for $20 per day) was interrogated by the police who demanded to know why he was walking around with American tourists. The hated Cuban policemen roam everywhere, from the streets, to the parks to the beaches, there to make sure the Cuban people know their place, and to protect tourists like myself—one of the most important resources of the Cuban economy. The Cuban government tries to do all it can to please tourists, which is probably why it allows the casa particulares and paladars, family restaurants in people’s homes, the one other common legal private enterprise in Cuba.
I was pleasantly surprised at the calmness of my Dad, ever the worrier, when I told him I was going to Cuba. But as a culturally literate person, he knew that Cuba was one of the safest countries in the world. The safety is a result of Cuba’s ban on all elicit drugs and guns, and the fear of Cuban criminal punishment—I don’t know what it entails, but I’m sure it’s bad.
One of Noah’s hitchhikers in Cuba.
Enjoying our safe surroundings, my friend Al and I picked up a variety of hitchhikers on our 550 mile, 10 hour road trip from Havana to Santiago, the original Cuban city, which I personally preferred to Havana. We picked up all sorts of people along the way, including a lawyer, teenage school girls, and a Guajiro (farmer), who saved our butts when we had driven two hours in the wrong direction. We generally only offered rides to women, thinking that they would be safer, but several times when we asked men for directions, they would proclaim, “I’m going there!” Before we could say no they would literally jump into the backseat.
Cubans are some of the most outgoing people I have ever encountered, they are friendly and always willing to talk. Being from the United States people looked at us like exotic fruit. The U.S. is only 90 miles away, yet its people are banned from visiting. The Cubans wanted to know what the United States was like, women would half jokingly ask us to marry them, and every guy always had a beautiful cousin, or sister, or even fiancé they would offer to call at that moment to introduce us to. Sometimes I found it annoying, perhaps I disliked it because the desperation was so overt.
Some Cubans are outspoken and want to discuss politics, while many are content with talking about very little interesting. They have a talent for sitting around and doing virtually nothing for hours. Not one Cuban I spoke with said they liked their government or communism. They hate that they do not have the rights and freedoms found in Western countries. They hate that no matter how hard they work, they will not receive better pay. People told me that the Cuban newspapers blame the United States for the country’s problems, but they know it’s BS. Information about the outside world is impossible to block today. Tourists from all over the world tell Cubans what it is like elsewhere. Cubans buy bootlegged DVDs and listen to current music from around the world. Internet use there is extremely expensive and slow, but it exists.
People in Cuba told me that there will be a revolution there one day but nothing will change until Fidel is dead, wherever he is. One day soon I think the beauty and simplicity I found on my trips will be diminished. I don’t think the Cuban government is going to sell off the country to developers in the United States tomorrow. Right now a person must be Cuban to own property in Cuba. But things will change, and I hope in the end the Cuban people’s lives are improved. I loved going to a place with relatively few Americans, where I “wasn’t supposed to go.” In addition to enjoying Cuba’s beauty, history and energy, I loved visiting a place where Internet is scarce, 25 percent of cars are antiques, and where some women look at you like a rockstar just because you are from the United States.
But so what. That’s just my own selfish feelings. If the Cuban people will be better off with the United States lifting sanctions and allowing tourists to go to Cuba, then I feel good about it. I just hope that in the end, when the next revolution occurs, the Cuban people end up better off than they are now. To me that is far from certain.
Questions: Would you like to visit Cuba?
Are you happy the United States is renewing its relationship with Cuba?