Even though living standards in Cuba have improved, there is still a big gap between it and the West. As a guide recounted,
“Funny story, I had a friend from Canada who came over to Cuba, and I told her that I could apply for a license for her to stay with me so that she could save money. She was saying ‘oh no, it’s okay…’, since she actually just didn’t want to be rude, but she agreed.
“She lasted for 2 days.
“I drew the bucket for her when she wanted to shower, and after 7 minutes, I heard no sound of water. So I went to ask if everything was okay, and she said ‘I don’t know how to do it.’ I had to scoop the water and pour it for her.
“My mother asked, ‘how can she not know how to do it?’ But, I said, it’s not hard to understand. ‘She was born with a shower over her head, she’s never used a bucket before.’
Most guesthouses have shower heads now, but a lot of locals, like my guide, still use bucket showers.
The Cuban concept of time is not very exact. A guide warned that if a place posts hours of 9-5, it may not actually open until 9:30 and you shouldn’t expect it to stay open much longer after 4:30.
I experienced this firsthand at the National Museum of Fine Art. It was already afternoon and the museum “closed” at 5, but I stubbornly took the bus and didn’t get there until 3:30. That’s okay, an hour and a half, right? But the place is gigantic, with 4 long and dense wings.
At 4:40pm, the lady guards, stationed every 20m or so to make sure you don’t touch or take photos of the art, started calling “Cerrado” and shooing museum goers out. I protested that I still had 20 minutes, but the guard only pretended to check the time and waved me out of the wing. I snuck into the last wing that I had left to see, but by 4:50 was escorted out of that one too.
Outside in the hallway, all of the guards for all of the other wings were standing impatiently, waiting for the one last guest to GTFO. I walked towards the exit in a large parade with at least 30 guards. By 4:58, the place was locked up. I guess “close at 5” doesn’t mean “operating until 5,” but rather “we’d better be on our way home at 5!”
Internet has come slowly to Cuba. Until 3 years ago, there were only dial up modems that an Airbnb host said sometimes took 30 min to an hour to load a page. Now there is WiFi, but it is only offered by a government agency, ETECSA, in certain public areas. To access it, you need to buy WiFi cards that cost $1/hour for Cubans and foreigners alike.
It looks like there are other WiFi connections available, but these are in reality homeowners or business owners who have purchased antennas to siphon off the same ETECSA WiFi. You still need to buy a card to use it, so the government doesn’t care.
Though WiFi is accessible, Cubans still cannot fully take advantage of it. They cannot buy domains and make their own websites; if a business has a website, it is made with the help of friends or family outside Cuba.
And with few credit cards and none that work outside Cuba, there is no online shopping. The same Airbnb host is now able to watch cooking YouTube videos at home thanks to increased WiFi speeds and an antennae, but she cannot buy the cooking implements that the videos recommend on Amazon. Step by step, she says, step by step. But she hopes – ojalá – that the steps can come faster.
When you live out of a backpack it’s hard to buy souvenirs, as whatever you buy you commit to carrying around. In a market in Trinidad, I came across some unique hand made jewelry with roses crafted from shells, and forced myself to wait 24 hours to see if I really wanted one. Two days later, they were still on my mind, so I made my way back to the market.
The guy at the booth didn’t remember me, and surprsingly the prices had increased by 30% in 2 days. By then, though, I had convinced myself that I wanted one, so I settled for $15 (down from $18) for a necklace instead of the previously quoted $12. It’s hard to find items that are hand made instead of factory-pressed nowadays, and told me he had copyrighted this technique of making roses out of 18 individual shells. He was a bright enterprising man who spoke Spanish, English, French, and also proudly showed me that he could say the word “shell” in Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean. So I got caught in an experiment in pricing; oh well, I don’t mind giving the extra to support him.
Okay, that’s a lie, the extra $3 does bother me. It’s only $3 to me, but that’s a lot in Cuba. Maybe there’s a lesson in there about grasping opportunities the first time, or at least negotiating harder. But I’ll make my peace with it. Best of luck to him with the shell jewelry business!
I am usually very vigilant about keeping my possessions safe, with my valuables spread between my big backpack, my day pack, and sometimes a money belt. When I went to the beach for the first time in my travels in Sri Lanka though, I realized that none of that mattered because my money belt was in my daypack, which was just sitting there waiting for someone to grab while I was in the water. Thankfully that didn’t happen, but lesson learned.
Now, at the beach near Trinidad, Cuba, I had a reformed plan to keep my things safe. I still had lots of valuables with me, but I hiked about 1km out along the beach to where only a handful of people were in sight, found a large driftwood log, and cable locked my daypack to the log. This way, (1) I could stare down anyone who came within 50m of my bag, (2) they’d have a hard time prying it loose, and (3) even if they did, they’d have to run 1km with it in the sand.
Foolproof! But just as effective and a lot less stressful is simply going with someone who can help watch your bag for you. I think I’ll go for that approach next time. But meanwhile, I was still able to enjoy the beach!
At the edge of the old historic center of Trinidad, Cuba, is a natural cave converted into a discoteca (nightclub). To get there, you walk through some poorer neighborhoods and then arrive at a stony path up a hill. About 100m up is the entrance, just a “Cueva Alaya” sign above steps leading down into a room-sized cavern.
Up until you enter the cave and continue downward, it’s hard to believe that there could be much underneath. But it opens up substantially, with multiple dance floors, a bar, and even a massive space dedicated to nothing but bathrooms. And like every good discoteca, it has a DJ booth and multiple screens playing music videos. The only inconvenience of being in a cave is the occasional water dripping from the ceiling over the seating areas on the edge.
This time, to avoid having my casa hosts worry about me like the ones in Viñales did, I told them beforehand that I was going out. They were still concerned about me going to the cave alone, and tried to see if a relative, a young niece that liked to party, might be able to accompany me. But she hadn’t received her most recent paycheck yet and couldn’t afford the $5 entrance fee (for both Cubans and foreigners).
I assured them that I would be okay, and indeed I was. I ran into someone I met in Havana before at the entrance of the cave and didn’t have to dance alone. But unless it’s the normal Monday night routine to watch telenovelas until 1am, I think my hosts stayed up anyway to make sure I was okay.
Cuba is surprising safe. More than once, I’ve walked by myself on dark streets in the middle of the night. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, but I never encountered any issues.
It wasn’t always this way. The guide in Trinidad took me to a poorer neighborhood (above) called “paipa,” the sound of punches, because people got into such frequent fights. When the guide was 19, she went with her family on a overnight vacation, and they returned to find their apartment emptied. And even 10 years ago, whatever objects that were reachable from the window tended to go missing. If she hung up a pair of underwear to dry overnight, it would be gone come morning.
Now, though, she does her laundry at night and leaves it hanging out to dry without worry. Now, “why would people risk getting in trouble for stealing when they can make money running business?” They have something to concentrate on, which keeps them out of trouble. And they have the means to buy what they want, so they don’t have to steal.
Quote from a guide: “Every Cuban has their mother’s name and their father’s name. But I say there’s a third name that every Cuban has: uncertainty.”
There are certainly lots of frustrating things that come with life in Cuba, but the guide says that always, her motto is “embrace it”. Accept what you have and do what you can with it.
She does discuss the frustrations with her friends sometimes though. They need to talk about it, as everyone needs a release. They get together for drinks, and for the first three shots they talk about it. But only for shots 1-3. Then, they finish. And they enjoy instead.
The fall of the Soviet Union, which Cuba depended on for trade, hit Cuba hard. It ushered in a period of economic crisis starting in 1992 called the “special period.” The same way I guess you would call a bully a “special child” or tell an aunt who wants an opinion on her terrible cooking that it is “….special.”
All Cuban families have ration cards with a list of items that they can buy from the government at basically-free prices. Before, with support from the Soviet Union, the ration cards had 30+ items on them. All of a sudden, when the special period started, that dropped down to only 9.
During this period, Cubans learned to live without. One example that a local guide gave was that, in the absence of toilet paper, people used newspapers instead. But there was one benefit: “Cuban asses are really smart!”