Cuba was a bit of a last minute add on to our trip. Wally was really keen to go, and I was curious, but I can’t say I had this burning desire to go like a lot of people have. It seems to be the trendy place to travel to for the last few years and most travellers you meet will tell you ‘you have to go now before it changes’ and so on and so forth. But regardless of the research I did on this country (and believe me, I researched the butthole out of it), I wasn’t able to really get a feel for the place. The photos of it didn’t look particularly pretty, the food seemed to be terrible, everyone complained about the jineteros (essentially street hustlers) and it just seemed really difficult to get around. Havana seemed to me like it might be similar to my favourite city in latin america, Cartegena Colombia, but less colourful & harder to navigate. And the rest of Cuba seemed really jungly, which is exactly the type of terrain we were exploring in Costa Rica.
However, the fact that this place divides so many people, aka they either love it or they hate it, made me curious as to why. I also found that most people really struggled to describe what it was like, which is bizarre. Usually you can compare a place to somewhere similar, in order to give someone an idea of what it’s like, e.g. “Granada, Nicaragua reminds me of Cusco, Peru, but the mountains are all volcanos” or “Uvita, Costa Rica, is similar to Taganga in Colombia, beautiful but dangerous”. But Havana & Trinidad are different. There’s really nothing that you can compare them to. And I honestly think that this comes down to 2 things – the culture & how this culture is formed politically & historicaly, and the people. I have never been anywhere that is even remotely similar to how people work, play & interact with tourists. And I’m not even sure if I can describe it. The only thing that comes to mind is what our casa particular host said to us: “In Cuba, everything is hard. Everyone is struggling. But everyone is struggling with a big smile on their faces”. What she meant was, life is hard. Making a living is hard. Getting equipment, supplies, funding or support is hard. But everyone is happy. I did not meet an unhappy person in Cuba.
There was one man, a little bit younger than us, who ‘spruiked’ for us to come into his restaurant in one of the main squares, Plaza Vieja. Normally I wouldn’t go into a restaurant in a main square, they’re usually overpriced and touristy, but we were hungry and had already been looking for somewhere easy to eat for almost an hour. This guy wasn’t the usual spruiker, he was polite and simply interested in showing us the menu. He asked where we were from and (as most people do) proceeded to make a hopping action and talked about how much he loves kangaroos! He sat us at our table and told us how lucky we were to be born in Australia, and how much he would love to go there. We told him he should one day, and he opened up with the story of his life. He was a university student studying web development (for devices like Android & iPhone), which he was able to do for free, due to Cuba’s socialist system. However jobs in digital (and most other industries) are paid by the government, and so he had very little earning potential once he graduates. Instead, it is more profitable to work in tourism, as tourists have a lot of money. I asked him if he was able to one day work for himself and he just laughed. I guess it was a silly question. He said that life in Cuba is so difficult. They have all these basics provided for them (food, healthcare, education) but if you want anything more than that, it is almost impossible to get.
It’s too difficult to earn your own income, start a business, make your own way. Things are changing as laws are relaxed around owning a private business, but the only people who are ‘capitalising’ on the new rules are the rich. The average joe is left behind. When you think of how much an Android developer would earn in Australia, it’s hard to see this guy waving down potential customers in a tourist restaurant. But the whole time, he was smiling. He looked happy. He knew he didn’t have much, and that his life was always going to be hard, but he was still happy.
I just kept thinking about how much we have back home in Australia. Literally everything we could possibly imagine. Most people I know have all of this too. And yet, how many people in Sydney would you say are truly happy? Mostly you hear about how busy people are, how they hate the traffic, how unaffordable the housing is, how our government is failing us, and how rubbish the avocados are at the moment. It just seems that the more we have, the less happy we are with it. The more choice you have, the less happy you are with anything sub-par. But there are nations of people out there who have absolutely no choice, they get what they’re given. I came home with a new outlook, how amazingly lucky we are to have been born here, to good families.
I can see why some people wouldn’t enjoy Cuba. There is no Coca Cola. There is no take-away food. Forget ice-cream vendors, or just grabbing a quick drink from a quiki-mart. The menus in restaurants are limited, and often what’s on the menu is actually not available. I’ve heard of pizza places that don’t serve pizza! It’s tricky to cook your own food if you’re on a budget. And unless you’re prepared to really get your hands dirty and interact with the locals (preferably with at least SOME Spanish), you’ll find it hard to get around & get to the best attractions. Oh, and accessing internet is almost impossible.
Of course, the architecture was beautiful, the monuments grand, the cane fields immense and the old cars add a great deal of character. But where Cuba really shone was the open & free jazz amphitheatres, where mums & dads could salsa while their kids played on the stairs. Waiters delivering cold Cuba Libres to wherever you were sitting, then stopping briefly to dance themselves. The buzz in the streets as every single person in Trinidad was preparing for New Years Eve by slaughtering their only pig for the year, and loitering out the front of their simple but colourful homes so they could drink with their neighbours. The complete strangers who surrounded our very lost taxi, summonsing other neighbours to make sure we found our destination ok. Our Casa Particular owners, a Dutch woman and her Cuban husband who would watch TV with all the doors to the street wide open, and jump up from their chairs, welcoming us into their homes every time we returned. They told stories of their life in Cuba and reiterated how hard everything was, but at the same time how happy and alive and energetic they were for living there.
Now I understand why Cuba is so hard to describe. And I don’t think I can with great accuracy. I also now know why people love it or hate it. But I for one loved it!