Cuban impressions

April 6, 2008 - Cancún, Mexico

I simply cannot get my head around Cuba. The easiest way to explain it is that there are two Cubas: the one that the Cuban residents live in, and the one that the foreigners visit. Rarely do the two merge to a great extent, unless you dig deep and venture off the well-worn tourist path (and avoid the beaches).

There are two currencies in Cuba. Residents use, and are paid in, Cuban Nationals. Foreigners exchange their money for Cuban Convertible Pesos. Both currencies are known as pesos, but are identified as MN or CUC. The difference is 25:1. That is, there are 25 MN to one CUC. So, as some unfortunate travellers in my tour group (not me) learned the hard way, it´s not advisable to exchange your CUCs for the same amount of MNs, or you end up with about a 25th of what you started. The monthly wage for a Cuban resident can be as low as 15 or 20 CUCs, which means there is a huge gap when foreigners waltz in with wads of cash and think little of spending 3-4 CUCs on a mojito or 120 CUCs on a room in the National Hotel for the night. One CUC is worth a little more than $US1 at present.

Hotels are another complexity. Until last Monday, 31 March, Cuban residents were not allowed into Cuban hotels. It´s a major sign of the changes that are happening in Cuba at the moment that Cubans were granted access to the hotels last week. In addition, the facilities that are in these hotels, including international tv such as CNN and internet access, have been made available as well. Cubans have been allowed to use mobile phones for a while, but Monday was the day that they were legally allowed to buy a handset. Previously, someone outside of Cuba had to buy it for them. This doesn´t mean that all Cubans are now suddenly talking on mobile phones, watching CNN and surfing the ´net, but if they can afford it, they can now legally do so.

All this adds up to a lot of socio-political issues as Cubans are starting to grapple with the 21st century. Horse and carts are common along the three-lane national highway that never has a traffic jam, there are simply not enough vehicles around to cause it. All government vehicles must car pool - there are wardens to stop the vehicles to fit more people in. This leads to old trucks rattling along the road with 30 people squashed into the back, and the local buses being very overloaded. However, the tourist vehicles are not subjected to the same laws, and we cruised around Cuba in a new bus, with comfortable seats (including seatbelts), air-conditioning and plenty of space to stretch our legs and watch the music videos playing on the tv.

Some of the food we ate was from the black market; the supermarkets rarely have more than a few different items, and often shelves are empty. The food was often much better than I´d expected. Lots of fish, pork, chicken and lobster. The cheese far outweighed Mexico´s white variety, and the black beans with rice or as a soup were delicious. There were few spices, save a bit of salt and pepper, but our cooks were often creative with the natural flavours of the meals. Tropical fruits for breakfast every day and lots of eggs to keep up the protein. However, I felt uneasy that we had so much food, when the supermarkets, and no doubt, the pantries of many Cubans who we came in contact with, were empty. It was yet another sign of the two Cubas.

The Cubans I met were often involved in the tourism industry (the chance to rub shoulders with people who carry loads of CUCs means that tourism is a prize industry to work in), and my limited Spanish vocabularly definitely didn´t help when I ventured further afield. However, I got the feeling that tourists weren´t really supposed to venture too far - all businesses in Cuba are owned by the Government (except home stays and market stalls that are highly regulated), so the tours all went to the same destinations and showed the tourists what the Government wanted them to see. Stand here, take this photo. Go in the first door, do not walk further along that building. Sometimes it wasn´t that rigid, but it definitely felt like I was only getting a glimpse of the real Cuba until I ventured out beyond the inner city squares.

The organised tour that I was on was designed to break through some of these barriers through music and dance, and we had a fantastic time doing it. Salsa and percussion lessons during the day and live gigs and dancing at night. It was a fantastic way to immerse myself in part of the Cuban culture and appreciate all things musical. The common interest of the group members helped us gel, and it was a sure sign of a great tour that everyone remaining in Havana after the tour ended continued to go out together and share the Cuban experience.

It´s clear that Cuba is changing very quickly. The scaffolding along the malecon is a sure sign of things to come, as beautiful Art Deco and turn-of-the-twentieth-century buildings are restored to their former glory. I hope that the restoration is true to form and not accompanied by too many modern buildings that stick out on the skyline; Havana is a special place and already there are signs of the modern era emerging, with a few glitzy restaurants on the foreshore.

Further inland, I doubt much is likely to change quickly. There are still a lot of manual jobs that could be replaced by a machine, but until that time comes, Cuba will remain a paradise to visit, where time moves slowly and the grass is always green. My only advice is to check it out for yourself.


April 6, 2008
Salsa and percussion lessons! I'm so jealous :)
Denise Otkin:
April 6, 2008
I loved the way you explained cuba we only get to see and here what they want us to, It sounds like you could have culture shock, and really become grateful for what we all have in this changing world we live in today.
conner shinn:
April 7, 2008
Randomly came across your blog.. Interested in this type of adventure.. Wanted to see if you could give details into how you developed this trip.. IE. websites, travel, most specifically- how much you budgeted for this trip. Thank you.
April 11, 2008
Hi Katie

An excellent account of our experience in Cuba. Hope the Spanish lessons are going well.

Buena suerte, chica!

Anne xxx
jaci moore:
April 15, 2008
You do look as if you are thriving. Well done for embracing it all so well. Certainly makes me want to put my boots on again.
Bernadette Heffernan:
April 15, 2008
Dear Kate,
Grandma said to tell you she is enjoying the postcards and reading about your travels. The postcard from Guatemala was a big hit,in particular the bit about the stations of the cross!
Derek & Camilla:
April 16, 2008
Hi Katie

Got your card today 16th April, to go to Sean Colleen & Gabe will get it re addressed and on it,s way tomorrow. We have visited your Blog, great read, look forward to following your trip.

Derek & Camilla
Matthew Quick:
April 16, 2008
Hi Kate,

Loved reading this one - it's amazing to hear first-hand what it's like in Cuba. It's one of those places that always seemed to be such a contradiction in so many ways, and maybe the "two Cubas" is the reason why. Keep up the brilliant blogging!

Cheers - Matt.
Cara Lanyon:
April 22, 2008
Hi Katie,

You are looking fabulous by the way! Some brilliant photos so far. I am SO envious of your music and dance tour - definitely sounds like the way to see Cuba! Very exciting changes going on there. Looking forward to the next installment...
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