Disclaimer: This article will not do justice to my entire experience and thoughts of Cuba and its people (I would need to write 3 or 4 articles about particular experiences), so don’t be alarmed if I don’t address something you expected to see.
Cuba, the home of Fidel; the adopted home of Ché and Hemingway; home to the Mojito and Daiquiri; and now my home for several days. I had envisioned this visit for years, so by the time my plane touched down, Havana felt like home. I promised myself that I would live like a Cuban, whatever that meant.
If you plan on living like the locals when you get to Cuba, you will need a lot of patience; and I mean PATIENCE! From queuing to change money (which all tourists do), to queuing to buy groceries, waiting for a bus or taxi collectivo, and so on, life as a non-affluent Cubano can be very difficult; I went to a state grocery store for locals and ended up waiting in line for an hour just to buy bottled water and a few snacks. You can imagine the heartbreak felt when I realized I had to go to another store to buy bread. I lost my entire afternoon just trying to buy groceries. Through it all, I nearly passed out from the soaring heat, witnessed the state-rationing of goods sold to Cubans, and was regaled by stories of the lovely people I waited in line with. I don’t mean to sound cliche, but I’m not sure I’ve met a nicer people.
Having read a lot about the history, I came to Cuba determined to experience the country as a local (not entirely possible for reasons I can’t cover in the piece), so besides getting online my first night to inform my family that I was safe, I went off the grid; living in a casa particular, eating what and where the locals ate, drinking with them (by the way, don’t drink the tap water, you will thank me later. Sometimes you’re never macho enough. I found out the hard way), shopping with them, and of course, dancing with them! Broken Spanish notwithstanding, they took me as one of their own and conferred upon me the title of Cubano Honorario. They probably do that to all foreigners but I felt special. I can see why Hemingway settled here.
Almost every Cuban I developed a friendship with would ask me if I was for “Socialismo o Capitalismo”. My answer often depended on whether I was able to get a read on them. Some would speak with pride on communism and wealth sharing/distribution, while others railed in private about the lack of freedom and earning potential, etc. One Cubana almost brought me to tears telling me how much she earned working for the State versus how much she needed to care for her and her child. Out of respect, I will not share those numbers.
So much fun, so many stories to tell, but la piece de resistance has to be the time I spent with children from troubled homes in their Catholic school/residence. I was going to spend my birthday in Havana and I swore to myself that I would do more than drink Cuba Libres and smoke Cohibas. I remembered that my mum had always spoken glowingly about doing things for orphans, so I thought I’d spend my big day with kids who have been dealt a hard hand to start life. With the kind of love they showed me, one would think I was the one who needed assistance. Their smiles lifted me; their joy made me appreciate my life even more. They didn’t care or even know that I brought them gifts, they were just happy to see me, a human who had an interest in them. Those kids gave me the most memorable birthday gift I ever had. Without doubt, my best day in Havana. What I’ve found is that there is real joy in giving. Please take the time to do something nice for someone in need; you will be richly rewarded. I promise.
And then there’s Rodolpho! A Cuban angel sent to guide me around Havana. I ran into him on my second day in town. I was lost and needed directions so I asked the next person I saw for directions. Instead of him simply telling me where to go, he insisted on walking me there himself. And that was how an unemployed Cuban (he sold newspapers part-time) I had never met offered to show me the “real Havana”. We trekked for almost an hour round in circles looking for an orphanage (incredibly hard to find), haggled market prices together, drank roadside Guarapo, and sparred each other in a boxing match (he was once an amateur boxer). Rodolpho went down my list of things to do in Cuba and ensured that we ticked every box. The weirdest part of all this was that, outside of paying for food or water, he refused any payment. I had to insist and damn near threaten him on my last day for him to reluctantly accept compensation. All he would say was that I was his brother and he wanted me to be happy in Cuba. He spoke no English whatsoever, which made it a little tough, but he would remind me what felt like every five minutes, that his brother lived in Miami and had been there for five years. It was clear that he was very proud of what his brother had achieved in going to America. He also spoke with pride everywhere we went, even though it was painfully embarrassing, as he introduced me as his “friend from America”*. He did this in spite of my repeated requests to stop.
Sometimes, people do good things simply because they are good. Rodolpho is one of them. If I gave him everything I had, it wouldn’t be enough.
Rodolpho, you won’t read this, but you proved to me that one’s social welfare has nothing to do with what is in their heart. If it did, you would be wealthy beyond comprehension. Muchas gracias por todo, mi hermano.”CUBA!”
If you visit Cuba, please take something for the locals, anything. From toiletries to toys to clothes. The smile on their faces would make it worth your while. And while we are on this, it doesn’t have to be Cuba, do something for the less fortunate in your neighborhood. You won’t end poverty, but who you help would gain far more than what you would lose. Actually, you would both win. Trust me.
Drinks: Cuba Libre (because you’re in Cuba), Daiquiri, Mojito, and for the brave ones, Guarapo.
Eats: Sandwich Cubano (see Cuba Libre), Bistek de Pollo – must be in a local restaurant, and of course a Ropa Vieja which, strangely enough, I didn’t see much of. I forgot to ask if this was one of those exports that the locals didn’t care much for.
Live music: you cannot go to Cuba and not watch a live band. If you’re just as lucky, you may catch the Buena Vista Social Club! Catch live music at a bar or restaurant. Floridita is a must; you can have your Daiquiri here as well. And for mojitos, go to La Bodeguita del Medio.
Sightseeing: Finca Vigia (Hemingway’s house), Plaza de le Revolucion, Walk the malecon at sunset, etc. For more, message me or leave a comment.
You definitely want to plan on using a local guide. It could make all the difference.
Song of the day: Despacito by Luis Fonsi. This song was recommended by a dear friend, Sabina who wanted me to make this my theme song for this travel leg. I can’t quite do that, but since they played the song every time I went dancing, I’ve made it my Cuban anthem. This one is for you Sabina. Abrazo.
*Each time Rodolpho introduced me as his American friend, the vendors would either charge me a higher price or charge me in CUC*. While it seemed normal to me, Rodolpho wasn’t having it. He would object and a shouting match would often follow.
CUC: Cuban convertible pesos. The currency used exclusively by foreigners, as opposed to CUP, used by Cubans