The entire Western hemisphere is a mix of the rest of the world, with a dash of the remaining indigenous populations. Cuba is no different, passing through the hands of various imperialistic powers since the time of exploration. The people, with their relaxed, welcoming ways, make Cuba.
I could write for ages on the various people we met, those who hosted us and those who really made our time memorable. This particular piece will focus on the latter, as those stand-out moments are the ones that form the imagery of the place in mention.
My travel partner on the trip was my girlfriend Jillian, and many of the people listed below struck me in the ways they did because of the ways they struck her in the moment. Traveling with a partner is fun in a way that you don’t think of until you see a moment of inspiration light up their face.
Luis the Tour Guide
Our third city on the itinerary was Cienfuegos. Originally, the area was a settlement of the indigenous populations, met by the Spanish conquistadors. Some time later, French settlers began the settlement that would become Cienfuegos today. Their first settlement was named in a French manner, and in honor of the Spanish king of the time. Story on the island tells of a hurricane devastating the settlement. The French settlers believed their influence had brought bad luck on them, and chose to rename the settlement Cienfuegos after the leader of the island of the time.
Bordering Cienfuegos, and shared with Trinidad to the east, the Sierra del Escambray mountain range hides inside it El Nicho. There will be a separate post in dedication to this beautiful waterfall niche in the mountain range, but just so you can see why we were inspired to use Luis’ services…
Luis was our guide to this magical oasis in the middle of these Cuban mountains. His sole job is to meet, guide and sew together a mishap group of foreigners and show them the home he is so very proud of. Regrettably, I don’t have any photos of or with him.
Our first impression of Luis was of a round, silly man. Which, many impressions later I’d still support that description, but as we got to know him, he broke the stereotypical “silly foreign man who guides tourists.” His story reflects many of the same problems those in our country face.
Luis was born and raised in the capital, but family and work moved him around the island. By the time we found him in Cienfuegos, he had been unemployed for four years and his wife was forced to support the family. Now, one of his first tour jobs was to take us to El Nicho. We met him on the street, and the first words he said to us was a request to correct his English whenever possible – he insisted he wanted to get better and did not appreciate being humored. He informed us that the past four years had been spent in public libraries learning English and learning different histories of the world, so that he can better interact with those he meets and in the end, be qualified to work for Cubanacan (travel agency that essentially controls tourism on the island) and earn some of the spending power that comes with handling tourists on the island.
The things that really made Luis stick out were his work ethic and his concise, almost inadvertent nuggets of analysis of the world.
“You [Americans] have the best and the worst of everything”
I had been pressing Luis on his thoughts of America, and his summation of the differences between Cuba and America was the above quote. It was an interesting phrasing, because he seriously meant that we have the best of everything. Our systems, our materialism, our education – everything we have is or was a sterling example to the world. However, those same things are our biggest faults. The hours we spend on social media the Cubans are using to interact with their friends, family and colleagues. When is the last time you spent a full family dinner without checking your notifications? Jill and I found that we had a lot more time on our hands without the distraction filling them.
The funniest misunderstanding was when Facebook came up. Luis had mentioned his son was a part of the youth that was bootlegging music and other things off the limited Internet, so I asked if he had a Facebook. A blank look and an awkward description of our cat-video/life-venting tool later, we decided that that was just too foreign for us to relate together with. It’s funny how stupid social media sounds when you try to describe it to a culture that places no importance on it…
“We [Cubans] don’t have ‘sensational’ news… We are informed of the world, like in Paris with the attacks or the environmental progress with your Obama, but it is not a form of entertainment.”
One of the biggest myths surrounding Cuba is the fact that they’re super controlled due to their government. Which, in a quick sense, isn’t necessarily a myth. State censorship is evident, as well as the occasional hesitation about weighing in on a political topic by the Cubans. However, they’re informed and extremely educated (by world standards).
Every country teaches history with a bias of their own, and America is no exception. Take a single university level history course and you’ll learn a piece of dark trivia you never knew from high school. But, the Cubans have just as much access, albeit through old school library means, to the information of the world as we do. Additionally, the news they are given is legitimate – it just doesn’t include the Kardashians.
“We’ve always been taught that you’re our friends, Americans and Cubans are neighbors who are sharing this space of the world. It has always been that your government is at fault for the treatment of our people.”
This statement was actually super sweet in context. I essentially asked how the people of Cuba felt about the United States, and us visiting as Americans. Luis took it as I was nervous of revealing myself, and quickly sought to reassure us of our safety.
It later became extremely interesting as signs of propaganda portraying Cuba defeating the United States’ embargo, as well as the heavy promotion of “socialism.” It definitely felt like a challenge to the United States way of life, but it also highlighted the stark difference in our culture. Our government does teach us that those different than us are bad. The Cuban government apparently doesn’t, as the people never gave us reason to doubt Luis’ statement. More often than not, they built upon it and expressed their excitement (or complete indifference) to the changes in the relationship between the United States and Cuba.
The main tourist shopping road, El Bulevar, is definitely worth checking out. It shapes down a formal storefront avenue, and then branches off in a cross-shape with open-aired market stands from there. Our casa particular was right on the corner of this street, so we frequented it a lot. Not exactly the shopping Jillian is used to, but it seemed to do the trick while it was there!
At the very end of one of the arms of the cross is a pier that extends out over the Bay of Cienfuegos. It’s an interesting spot, as many tourists take the opportunity to enjoy the breeze off the water and the outdoor bar that always has upbeat music playing. Right beside these foreigners were the small fishermen – such as the boy photographed above.
Not many of them wanted to talk, as they were consistently throwing nets into the water, sorting out fish and casting small lines in and out.. However, the boy photographed sat on a set of steps on the side of the pier, directly across from me, which is how I was able to take the photo. I very briefly spoke to him, only asking the type of fish that he was after, but his entire imagery and quick responses painted a picture of these hardworking people.
By hand, he’d drop a fishing line into the bay, and pull off any small fish that he obtained. He had a bucket, not photographed, that he was keeping the fish in to take home and distribute in whichever way was going to earn his family the most money.
The activity seemed to act as just a job. He and the other fishermen were at the pier most of the day. At night, however, this young boy and a group of his friends were still at the pier – but jumping, swimming and laughing as a group of teenagers should be doing after a day of work. It was definitely a transition that was nice to see, and curious to experience.
Jillian and I were sitting in the middle of Plaza Jose Marti, a park-plaza-square at the top of El Bulevar, Cienfuegos. We were approached by all manner of beggars, salespeople and strangers. Those alone provide some fun stories (the bon bon lady!), but the strangers that stuck out most to me were the two music partners.
The European man in the photo was shamelessly taking pictures of the Cuban guitarist. He had a tripod set up, he was clearly taking dozens of different portraits, and the good-natured Cuban man continued playing his guitar and singing his song. At first, I thought this was going to be a story of an obnoxious foreigner treating the locals like animals in a zoo. However, after a few minutes of this behavior, the man sat down right beside the guitarist.
I kept watching, and a few moments later, the foreigner was playing the guitar and the Cuban man was singing! It was such a pure moment of people from different places joining together to make something magical. They were pretty talented between the two of them.
It really is a testament to the good-natured attitudes of all Cubans, but it also shows how much that attitude encourages interactions with the locals. If you see a man in the park in a major Western city, you might drop some change in his guitar case, but chances are you keep moving and avoid him completely. The Cubans, much like their island, draw you right into the relationship.
Taxi Driver With a Dream
I never leave the back-end of a trip open. I’m all for winging it on the ground, adjusting as you go – but if its the last leg and the way home, I have it planned and laid in concrete. From La Boca, Trinidad, we had booked a private taxi to take us the 6 hours back to Havana. We went straight to one of the tourist hotels (one of the only times on the entire trip, but a note on tourism and Cuba in a different article) and booked another taxi to the airport for later that night.
The taxi driver from the hotel to the airport was by far the perfect summation of the trip. His name was Rodolfo. He was a quirky fellow, much in the likeness of Luis, but much more lanky. His English was also self-taught, as we found that most Cubans were. They are all literate in Spanish, but English seemed to be a skill of the wealthy, the ambitious and those exposed to the tourism industry.
“It’s 1 am, and I’m working. All of Cuba is asleep, and I’m working. My wife and I dream of moving to the United States – but it is extremely hard; hundreds are denied a day and those that are accepted are given a fee so high that they cannot possibly pay it.”
Rodolfo was actually extremely open about his ambitions and dreams, so I didn’t really have to push much at all. He was telling us how the embassies that handle the applications to the United States are impossibly stressful, with impossible standards. He tried to put it into context on how expensive it really was, but it was most telling when I tried to put a price tag on items we were familiar with – especially cars. I pressed to see how long it would take a Cuban to save for a car –
“What?! Impossible! It is not possible for a Cuban to have that much money without help from family in the United States or something… Between low wages, living expenses – no, no, that’s just not possible!”
I had learned from our host in Havana that Cubans make somewhere around 2,500 pesos a year. (Side note: there are two currencies in Cuba, one for tourists (CUC) and one for locals (CUP). To put it into perspective, the tourist dollar that we use (CUC) is an exchange of 1 to 25 peso. 1 CUC is equal to 1 US Dollar. Do that math out – every 100 CUC/USD spent by a tourist is equal to a years salary for a Cuban.
Now, they’re not deprived or starving. We still saw plenty of locals in restaurants, bars and ice cream shops. That’s the whole point of communism. Their schooling, health care, basic home needs, and more are all taken care of by the government. That 2,5000 pesos a year still leaves flexibility for daily life on the island. However, things that are extra – also known as all consumer items – are just that… extra. Cars included.
“I’m 37 years old, and I’ve never left the island. I dream of seeing Canada and the United States. I’d love to come to New York [after we told him where we were from] to see the snow. I’ve never seen snow. What is it like? These dreams I have are so far, and I’m working so hard to get to them.”
This was our final moment of humanity in Cuba; in the back seat of a cab bound for the airport, to board a plane back to our luxurious consumer lives. The same life that allows us to step off the plane, buy ten dollar coffees, and drive our car that Cubans can’t even imagine, to homes with amenities and consumer items in wasteful quantities. Our hearts collectively broke as he expressed his dreams of coming to the United States – he even used the phrase ‘American Dream’ and meant it.
I truly hope Rodolfo and his wife are able to achieve their dreams for their family.
Life is the Same
No matter where you are in the world, some basic things will always be the same. Babies are born, adults get married, and grandparents pass on. The basic humanity encountered on the road is always what provides the most memorable moments. All the best wishes to those who made our trip special, and for those who will be remembered dearly.
But for all the Cubans, those who treated us extremely well and those that only noticed us as a passing phantom in their life, thank you and good luck. I agree with Luis; our governments may not always agree, and may continue to see problems. But, we are residents of the same corner of the world, and we are indeed friends and neighbors.