Cuba is like licorice or reggaetón: you love it or hate it. Sound extreme? Maybe, but not to those who know the island—a place fueled by melodrama and gossip (what I call the national sport), plus burning hot passions from baseball and tattoos to illicit trysts and ice cream. For such a lively, colorful country, the Cuban palette skews heavily towards black and white when it comes to outlook and opinions. Descended from globetrotting Spaniards, swashbuckling pirates, and strong, brave African slaves, with some Chinese, Haitians, and French thrown in for good measure, Cubans are among the most resilient, rhythmic, humorous, and yes, extreme people I’ve met in my travels. This “in-your-face, take-it-or-leave-it” attitude is refreshing in our passive/aggressive, PC world—invigorating even—but can be frustrating to the point of tears as well, believe me. Sometimes I’m loving and hating this place at the same time.
My Spanish was pretty shoddy when I arrived in Havana on a hotter-than-Hades afternoon in 1993 to volunteer alongside Cubans in the countryside, and I didn’t speak a word of Cuban—a Spanish vernacular unto itself. Slowly, like a five-year old learning the alphabet and butchering basic rules of grammar, I started to drop the final letters of words and incorporate the Spanglish peculiar to this island, which has been occupied militarily, culturally, and politically to some degree by the USA for centuries. Take language, for instance. Here, laundry detergent is called “Fa,” for Fab, the brand favored by Cuban housewives before the Revolution; a double in baseball is a “two base” (pronounced “tu bay”); and a beer is universally called a “lager.” Facebook, meanwhile, which is taking the island by storm, is known as “Feisbu.” Another peculiarity of the Cuban idiom is the liberal use of terms and phrases that traveled with the 1.3 million slaves forced to these shores from Nigeria, Angola, Benin, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and elsewhere; by 1841, almost 45 percent of the island’s population were enslaved blacks, complemented by another 10 percent of free blacks. A day won’t pass without you hearing “Asere! Qué bolá?!” in the streets, a phrase with African roots. The equivalent of “Hey man! What’s up?,” Cubans went wild when President Obama threw it out during his historic visit to the island in March 2016.
It’s not only the local lingo that can drive you loco. The two currency system is maddening at first but becomes second nature after a little practice—and is a great way to jump into daily life here; when you see a pineapple costs $10, that’s moneda nacional, also known as MN, pesos cubanos, and CUP (four interchangeable names for one currency; talk about confusing!). The other money, the so-called hard currency, is the Convertible Cuban Peso and has even more monikers: CUC, “kooks,” divisa, fula, caña. Many people, yours truly included, still refer to CUCs as dollars—a holdover from when USD was the hard currency used here. Plans to unify the CUC and CUP, announced more than six years ago, have yet to be realized and seem a long way off given Cuba’s perennial economic crisis. Until the ship can be righted and the currencies united, that 10 CUP pineapple costs about 35 cents CUC at the official exchange rate.
Transportation is another realm fraught with frustration since schedules for local bus departures and routes are non-existent, long-distance bus tickets must be bought in person and often sell out, train travel is only for hardy folk with time to burn, and planes on domestic routes are often grounded or re-routed due to mechanical problems. Nevertheless, when you approach a Cuba trip with good will and humor, remain open to serendipity— a very real and useful travel tool here—and embrace the classic axiom, “It’s the journey, not the destination,” you’re sure to have transformative, perhaps even transcendental experiences.
Two recent encounters drove this home and to the heart. On a brilliant sunny Havana day, a young woman walked up to me and two Cuban friends outside the arrivals area of José Martí International Airport. Traveling solo and carrying one small knapsack and a body full of tattoos, Olivia asked if we’d be willing to share a taxi into the city center. Traveling alone, light, and on a budget, willing to approach strangers with a question and offer: Olivia was my kind of traveler. We said we would take her ourselves, but had arrived by motorcycle with sidecar and were full up. Sin problema, we told the young woman from New Orleans who had only a single hour of Cuba experience under her belt, no map or Spanish, and nowhere to stay: we’d help her figure it out. While my friend Ana got on her cell and rang up her casa particular contacts, José approached a fellow in a mint sky blue 1956 Chevrolet, asking if he was looking for a fare. Within 15 minutes, Olivia had a cheap, cool ride directly to an affordable, centrally located home where the English-speaking hosts awaited her with a frosty lager. We ran into her later that week and she told us she was having the trip of a lifetime; her story may have turned out differently were it not for her moxie. Shortly thereafter I met Jim, Blake, Kevin, and Jeff, four bros from New York who came to Havana on a quick whim of a trip. On Day 2, Kevin tumbled into the sea after slipping on the moss-slickened rocks at the Morro-Cabaña. He surfaced quickly, holding his iPhone above the water as his friends fished him out. They made their way back to their casa and began hunting for raw rice in which to plunge the phone overnight in an effort to salvage it—a trick that works, I’ve found. Night had fallen by this time; they didn’t know where to buy rice and no stores (let alone bodegas, where most Cubans get their rice) were open. The quartet popped into a restaurant and in broken Spanish asked one of the waiters if he would sell them some rice. A diner overheard their conversation, rose from the table where he was sharing dinner with his family, took the guys to his home, gave them some rice (refusing payment, of course), and invited them back the next day for some coffee and conversation. They were thrilled and so was I: here were four dudes whose Cuba trip could have been filled with a classic car tour, mojitos, jineteras looking for tricks on the Malecón, and getting sick on Cohibas. Instead, they embraced serendipity, solidarity, and the spirit of experiential travel. I don’t know if they ever got the iPhone working, but I know they made indelible travel memories.
For female travelers, Cuba can be a jumble of contradictions vacillating between machismo and chivalry, honesty and grift, hordes of admirers and moments of loneliness. Solo travelers, especially, can have a hard time meeting other like-minded foreigners since connection opportunities are few and far between: the hostel concept is virtually unknown and there are no “expat” bars or hangouts like you find elsewhere. While there are Wi-Fi parks across the island where you can befriend other foreigners, many visitors prefer to embrace the off-line culture still prevalent in Cuba—especially since Donald Trump became US President. Then there’s what Rebecca Solnit calls “Manistan” in her book Men Explain Things to Me and I call “Macholandia”—a republic unto itself where men are all-knowing and too sexy for their own bad selves. As one expat friend recently observed: “There’s entirely too much testosterone on this island.” This machismo often manifests itself in sexual innuendo, regardless of age difference, race, size, origin or sexual orientation: he’s 80 and you’re 25? He’ll make a stab at it. You say you’re gay? He’ll say you’ve never had the right man. Old travel tricks are likewise ineffective: wearing a wedding ring—or even traveling with your actual husband!—won’t deter Cuban men from open propositions, brazen come-ons, and practicing the local custom of piropos. Loosely translated as “flirty compliments,” these run the gamut from creative to gross, fall-on-the-floor hilarious to seriously disrespectful. One of my all-time favorites was when a man pedaled by on a Flying Pigeon (1 million of these Chinese bikes were imported during the economic crash of the 1990s known as the Special Period) saying: “Your name must be Alice because looking at you sends me to Wonderland.” On the flipside, I was walking Toby in the park last week when a guy said to me: “Ay mami, put that leash and collar around my neck, let me be your dog!” Less endearing and not at all appealing. If you don’t speak Spanish, piropos are easier to pay no mind, but many times it’s just a sexually charged hissing sound—much harder to ignore. If your hackles jump at every piropo thrown your way, it can get oppressive.
Given this scenario, it can come as a surprise at how empowered Cuban women and girls are. In some ways, the history of Cuba reads like a feminist tract, partly explaining this seeming contradiction. Machete-wielding women known as mambisas galloped into battle during the Second (and definitive) War of Independence, gaining fame for their valor and determination. Women played a definitive role throughout the Revolution as well, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the image of bearded guerrillas descending victoriously from the mountains projected by the international media. As Julia Sweig states in Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, “Behind the macho bravado that captured Cuba and the world’s attention were a host of extraordinarily brave and talented women who made survival and success possible.” Indeed, there were history-makers like Melba Hernández and Haydeé Santamaría, the only women who fought in the attack on the Moncada Barracks, the seminal event in the nascent revolution; Celia Sánchez, who took to the Sierra Maestra, rifle in hand, alongside Fidel, Che, Raúl, and the rest; and Vilma Espín, who organized forces in the city—she would go on to marry Raúl Castro and lead the charge on policy changes related to gender parity and rights until her death in 2007. Nevertheless, the binary gender paradigm is still deeply rooted here—cooking, cleaning, and child rearing are mostly the purview of women, while men play sports, fix cars, and take out the garbage. Never mind that women make up 69 percent of the professional workforce, more than 60 percent of scientists with advanced degrees are women, and the emerging private sector is full of entrepreneurial females: restaurateurs, designers, and yes, even bike mechanics and metal workers. Like most things in Cuba, or anywhere for that matter, you take the good with the bad and this island, the biggest in the Caribbean, has much more of the former than the latter. Importantly: from the cities to the countryside, Cuba is a very safe travel destination overall, no matter your gender.
This island, too often falsely characterized as “stuck in time” or “preserved in amber,” is in constant evolution and these days, changing fast. There are many reasons for this rapid transformation, some more evident than others, such as the arrival of (for Cubans) new technologies including cell phones, internet and Wi-Fi, and digital television. Another major factor is the ongoing economic reform package known as the Lineamientos. Set in motion in 2010, these far-reaching reforms permit Cubans to buy and sell their homes and cars legally for the first time since 1959; relaxed travel restrictions for Cubans including doing away with the exit permit previously required and allowing residents to remain off-island for two years; and made it possible to open private businesses. This has injected new energy into daily life and spurred creativity and productivity in a land where blinking Christmas lights used to be the height of marketing and it was impossible to find food after 11 p.m. Today, there are 24-hour restaurants, Cubans of means bar hop until daybreak, private galleries host frequent openings, public transport options are varied, and you can have your iPhone repaired while copying the latest Netflix and FX series onto your hard drive. This is a breath of fresh air for Cubans with the resources to launch and patronize these businesses but a nasty taunt for the two out of three people who work for the state, the majority of whom earn the average monthly salary of $29CUC—and can only dream of owning a smart phone or cutting into a steak.
The other dramatic change affecting lives across the island is tourism. In 2017, international arrivals broke records, with more than 4 million visitors choosing Cuba for their foreign vacation. This has deposited over 3 billion dollars in government coffers, with revenues going to national programs including the universal health and education systems, infrastructure upkeep, and massive development projects like the new port and industrial zone at Mariel. Nevertheless, the country has been caught unprepared, with the sudden influx of visitors causing shortages of hotel rooms and transport; onerous lines at immigration, baggage claim, and money changers at airports (Havana is particularly bad); and a distortion of the local economy. Known as the “inverted pyramid,” where a taxi driver, guide, casa owner, or anyone working in tourism makes more than a neuro-surgeon, lawyer, or engineer, it’s something talked about all the time—from the street to the highest levels of government. Throughout my 1,800-plus mile road trip exploring the 100 places in this book, Cubans were incredibly vocal about the problems created by tourism and how it’s affecting their daily lives. In Trinidad, where every other house rents to foreigners and makes sure they have a bountiful breakfast, Rogelio told me: “A pineapple costs 25 pesos here—when you can find them. Before I got three for that price.” He went on to lament how the vegetable market was stripped bare last time he went to buy produce to feed his family. On the other side of the island, Alicia from seaside Yumurí explained what’s happening in her hometown: “We’ve always lived off whatever we could catch—octopus, lobster, and fish. But tourists can pay more and fresh fish now costs 35 pesos a pound; on my fixed income, I can’t afford it.”
The upshot? The tourism boom is creating a 1 percent in Cuba, a layer of the (relatively) super rich, while triggering a brain drain from the state to the private sector. In whatever context, this is unsustainable. Then there’s the environmental impact of 4 million visitors drinking bottled water, using air conditioning with abandon (most Cubans don’t have AC in their homes), and arriving on cruise ships or staying in allinclusive resorts—two modes of travel with debatable benefits for the host country and proven disadvantages for the environment. Obviously, this is a two-way street and for the most part, Cubans are not environmentally conscious (you will see beer cans tossed from car windows during your visit), all of which argues for meaningful exchange and mutual learning between visitors and locals to help sustain the beauty of this unique country. All these issues form part of the national dialogue in today’s Cuba. According to Cuban journalist and historian Graziella Pogolotti, “For a country like ours, lacking in great mining wealth, tourism is a source of income of indisputable importance. The challenge is to devise strategies that enhance the possibilities of development in favor of the nation, culturally and humanly, because in the virtues of our people lies the soul of the nation.” Maintaining the health of that soul tops the agenda moving forward. For now, Alicia’s resigned smile while she explains astronomic fish prices, Rogelio tickling his two-year old granddaughter as he dreams of an affordable pineapple, Olivia walking Havana on a shoestring budget, eyes and heart wide open, and Kevin and company sharing stories in the home of a Cuban gentleman, are helping buoy the “soul of the nation.” Every tourism-dependent economy faces similarly complex challenges and I certainly don’t have any facile solutions for how to resolve them (especially given the internal, very Cuban contradictions exacerbating them), but I do know that raising awareness is a first step. By picking up this book, you’re embarking on a journey of discovery, of places to go in Cuba, of course, but also an exploration of what makes this place tick, the currents flowing beneath the surface, and the vulnerabilities faced by a nation emerging into a new era.
The election of US President Trump also ushered Cuba into a new era—or thrust it back into an older one predating the Obama thaw between the United States and its island neighbor to the south. For travelers holding US residency or citizenship reading this, it’s important to note that there have been no “substantive changes to the legal categories of travel,” according to expert embargo lawyer Lindsay Frank during a Havana press conference in January 2018. And what’s more, during the 2017 Madrid Travel Show, Cuba was elected as the safest country in the world to travel.
Neither licorice nor reggaetón excites my senses, but Cuba does—every day. I hope it does the same for you, whether you’re reading this from your favorite armchair or Varadero lounge chair, on a porch in Viñales or riding the bus to Baracoa.
Havana Good Time
1. El Prado
Since 1772, this breezy boulevard lined with marble benches and antique iron streetlamps has been a destination for habaneros looking to escape overcrowded conditions in Habana Vieja and Centro Habana—the two neighborhoods bifurcated by the Prado—for an evening stroll, a lunchtime tryst or to conduct a bit of informal business. It’s reminiscent of a European boulevard with good reason—Madrid’s Prado and Barcelona’s Ramblas were used as blueprints for Havana’s famous promenade. Over the years, various additions and renovations beautified this popular public space but it wasn’t until renowned landscape architect Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier lent his vision to the Prado, adding the bronze lions guarding its entrance near Parque Central and the sorely needed shade trees, that it achieved the elegance it exudes today. Forestier had a heavy hand in shaping modern Havana, having designed parts of the University of Havana, Parque Almendares and other iconic spots around town. Along with the Malecón (where the boulevard leads), there is no better place to watch the pulse and swirl of the city and its inhabitants than the Prado.
The pastime provides free and ripe opportunity to meet and greet—until it’s closed to the public, something which occurred when Karl Lagerfeld and the House of Chanel presented their cruisewear collection along the Prado in 2016. After centuries of being a place of respite and recreation for habaneros, suddenly it was off limits. While it provided work for some Cubans, and those living right on the boulevard rented space on their balconies for $10CUC a head, not everyone was on board (pun intended!) with the program. This came right on the heels of the Fast and Furious 8 filming in Havana where people were kept from walking their streets and accessing their homes during the shoot. In his 2017 book Cuba-US Relations: Obama and Beyond, Cubanologist Arnold August categorizes these two events (and many more) as “hipster imperialism,” a phenomenon that brings the global entertainment economy in conflict with Cuban values—in this case, access to public places. Rubbing salt into the wound is the fact that Cubans are huge movie buffs and fashionistas; they wanted to see all the wonderful clothing and perhaps snap a selfie with Vin Diesel. Still, the Hollywood/Parisian road show came and went and the Prado quickly returned to its normal rhythm.
On weekends, the entire promenade is flanked with artists selling their work, creating new ones and giving classes to local kids in painting, drawing, ceramics, and photography. On Saturdays, a semblance of Cuba’s system of trading houses is in full swing. Before buying and selling of homes was legalized in 2011, the only way for an individual to acquire a different home was to trade theirs with someone else. Known as the “permuta,” it was a long, laborious process (two years looking and finagling was not uncommon) with much jumping through hoops to find an available, appropriate house, pay some money under the table to cover the difference (“legitimate but not legal” as my professor friend says) and process the transfer of title and other paperwork.
Se Permuta, a full-length comedy by notable
Cuban director Juan Carlos Tabío, is full of
social commentary and insight.
Things have changed mightily since then—Havana is now peppered with real estate agencies sporting banks of computers and agents ready to pull up multiple listings across all neighborhoods with detailed descriptions and full-color photos. But the permuta system still works; you can see the old school action on the stretch of the Prado near Hotel Sevilla.