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.
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!”
Airbnb has made a world of difference in Cuba since it arrived around 2 years ago. A local guide in Trinidad that I found through Airbnb experiences explained how it opened up more and more casas (guesthouses) to the world market and also gave entrepreneurs like her a platform to offer their services. It’s a big part of the larger trend of more Cubans opening up business, however small, in recent years.
However, while things are going well with Airbnb now, she doesn’t know if or how long it will last. There’s an inevitable instability that Cubans have come to accept, which she tried her best to convey with this:
“When you are born, the government gives you a bowl made of rope. You’re just a baby, so you don’t know anything about it, but okay, you take it. Then there comes some day when things are really hard and there’s no way out. But you remember the bowl, so you take it out and roll it, and you decide you will follow it to wherever it goes. And you follow it, and things get better. But at the end of the rope is the government, and it can roll the rope back up whenever it wants.”
Airbnb is just the newest thing to follow, and it can be taken away in an instant. She and many others are riding high on the wave now, but they are very pragmatic about an impending crash. As she says,
“My father wants to buy new chairs for tourists to sit in at the farm [where she runs another experience], but I told him that we need to wait. We can’t invest money that we don’t have. We can’t invest for the future – what future?”
Horseback riding up the mountain to a waterfall is one of the common activities to do in Trinidad, Cuba. I met a couple earlier in Cienfuegos who gave me a warning, though – their horses trotted the whole way, bouncing them fiercely up and down, and they were the sorest they’d ever been. If you’re riding a horse, you want to either be walking or running, but never in between.
To avoid the same discomfort (and in no small part due to the fact that I know how to slow the horse down, but not now to make it go faster), I went at a slow walk the entire way. All the other tourists kept passing me – bouncing, though, I might add! – and the cowboy guide I was with must have been bored out of his mind.
But I still got to the waterfall and the pristine pools below it fairly early, before it got swarmed with tourists. Maybe it took more time, but I like to think I’m a little less sore!