I’m back in Mexico, taking advantage of the abundant wifi and unrestrained capitalism after my sixteen days in Cuba. It took me a while to settle in to the country and relax but it was constantly fascinating. So before cracking on with the world heritage sites, I thought I’d indulge in some general musings and observations from my trip.
Cuba is not a rich country. It is subject to an economic blockade by the United States and lost a huge amount of economic support with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most of the population work for the government and earn very little. It is currently, as government propaganda often points out, in the 53rd year of the revolution.
My biggest problem was that I found the constant approach of people hoping you’ll give them money (or soap) far harder to deal with than the pressure of people trying to sell you something that you get in other countries, primarily because it is almost always began with the questions “where are you from?” or “what’s your name?” rather than cutting to the chase. After falling into my usual chatty friendliness a few times to begin with, I soon learned that if I wanted any peace when sitting reading or contemplating in town squares I had to be unfriendly, which I didn’t like and made me grumpy.
This isn’t say that I didn’t meet and talk to some lovely, friendly, interesting people though, particularly my hosts. I stayed in people’s homes, in government registered bed and breakfasts called Casas Particulares. They all cost about £17 a night plus meals if you want them and the ones I stayed varied from simple and plain, through frilly to smart. I had only advanced booked with someone for my first two nights in Havana, and he kindly arranged accommodation for my next four towns. There was clearly a telephone chain tracking my movements and I would be met off the bus when I arrived either by my host, a family friend or a taxi driver holding up a sign with my name on (as were many other travellers, most of whom seemed to be German). The only alternative places to stay are government run hotels, which I gather are rather pricey.
Cuba has two currencies: convertible pesos, at a 1:1 rate with the US dollar and introduced to stop people using that currency; and Cuban pesos, as earned (mostly) and used by regular Cubans. However, electrical goods, clothes, toiletries, hardware and packaged food in the shops all seems to be in the former at prices not dissimilar to those you find in Europe or America, certainly for electrical items. So whilst microwaves, computers and popcorn makers are on sale, they are out of reach to most of the population. Which explains why so many people ask you for “one dollar” and why running a taxi or a B&B is a popular way to make a living, for those who can afford the initial outlay, since all tourist services are paid for in convertible pesos.
I spent quite a bit of time mooching around the shops, all state owned as I understand it. Each town I visited seemed to have one shopping street but not much in the way of smaller local stores, so when I needed to buy more water, I had to find the main shops and then look for one that had water. Some shops specialised – in clothes say – but many carried an eclectic mix of products, taking in toys, food, clothes and toiletries. These would be displayed spread out in the shop window rather in the manner of one of those little shops you occasionally find in rural English towns that haven’t changed in decades and still have yellow cellophane stuck up inside the front window. Well, maybe they weren’t all that old fashioned, but some certainly were.
In most shops, goods are behind the counter and you have to ask an assistant for them. Where you can help yourself you have to check your bag in at the door and show your receipt and goods to the security staff on the way back out. In Santiago I had a bit of a panic one afternoon when I went to buy water; all the food shops (and some others as well) were closed for fumigation and were full of dense white clouds. I was saved by a small tourist shop by the cathedral which stocked a few useful goods besides the rum and cigars.
Before arriving I’d noted that a lot of travel websites mentioned that the food in Cuba was bland and not great quality. I actually did alright, probably because I mostly ate in the B&Bs where, once I’d explained I was vegetarian, they would stuff me full of salads, rice with beans, fresh fruit, vegetables, cheese and eggs. No additional flavourings, but it was all tasty, fresh and healthy. And when I had dinner there was usually a hearty soup (no doubt with a meat based stock – I didn’t ask) and Cuban soup is pretty fabulous. Although not available in the abundance you see in Mexico, there is also street food to buy, both from little carts and people’s front windows. This is priced in the national currency and appallingly cheap for a tourist; an individual doughy cheese pizza folded in a bit of cardboard is filling and only about 15 pence.
This is a country without advertising but there are political signs and billboards along with slogans painted on the walls of offices, factories and bus stations. Che Guevara features heavily – you see face a lot but not much of Fidel Castro’s. The latter is quoted quite often though (sometimes at length) and always referred to just as Fidel. The entrances to towns usually seem to have a large sign extolling the revolutionary fervour and socialist credentials of the inhabitants.
And there are of course those old American cars on the roads. All long and finned and belching dark clouds of choking exhaust fumes. There aren’t as many as I imagined and most are held together by rust and optimism but a few have been beautifully restored. It didn’t get to travel in any but did take a few tatty Ladas on taxi journeys.
Alongside the cars are a lot of bikes (usually with a second person sitting on the rack above the back wheel) plus cycle and motorbike rickshaws and in smaller towns horse-drawn carts – all but the first used as taxis. There are plenty of local buses too, all of them bursting at the seams with passengers. Many of them are actually trucks with a frame and tarpaulin roof and a set of steps added at the back.
More than anything else while I was in Cuba, I missed ready access to the internet, which is probably not a healthy thing to be admitting. It did however mean that I read more books in two weeks than in the previous month and half. Thank Amazon for Kindle.