9 Intriguing Things About Cuba
Cuba is filled with curiosity and intrigue. I think we overlooked its complex history and political situation, instead being more interested in the tantalizing romantic idea of Cuba! People dressed head to toe in white, wearing fedora hats, smoking cigars whilst driving their 1950’s Red Chevrolets through rolling farmlands to a night of seductive salsa and drinking Havana rum against a backdrop of the sun setting over the stunning Caribbean Sea! This idyllic place stuck in a time warp seemed too tempting to miss. During a month of travelling Cuba there were some interesting things we found out….
1. Cuban’s wear white: So many tourists come to Cuba and imagine dressing in white….well not all Cuban’s wear white and those you do see in full white clothing? There is a high possibility they are actually in their initiation year of the religion Santeria (a blend of Catholic and African folk beliefs)! Cuba is the birth place of this 17th century religion. For one whole year amongst other things they have to wear white and stay indoors at night.
2. Cigars We thought that one of the major exports and incomes for the Cuban people were Cuban cigars meaning the producers would be wealthy. After visiting a tobacco plantation we were both shocked and surprised to learn that the tobacco farmers have to buy the seeds from the government to plant tobacco. 90% of the crop then has to be sold back to the state at a nonnegotiable price leaving the farmer only 10% to use or sell for their own profit, but…these cigars cannot be branded or labelled in any way and are definitely not the ones that reach the UK!
(hand rolled cigars unbranded and unlabelled)
This is the same for farming in general we learnt from one tobacco farmer. He gave an example that if one of his cows dies he cannot eat or sell it and he has to call the state vet who has to come and register it dead!
3. Coffee So its not really a big revelation to say Cuban's love coffee and everywhere we went families had thermoses keeping coffee hot, strong and black. However we were some what amused at the variety we discovered....
4. The cars: Ok so the cars are incredible! And it is impossible to not get a little trigger happy when it comes to photographing them and even after a month I still couldn’t take enough, but these cars represent so much more. New laws after the millienium meant people could finally buy and sell their cars….but they are vastly expensive and hard to obtain and well, rare to see! Seeing a “new” car on the roads is uncommon and chances are it’s a tourist rental car. Parts are hard to come by, they break down all the time making them expensive to run. Over a quick weekend in Havana you would probably only ride in a prestine expensively well kept Cadillac (and pay through the nose for it) but further out of the city riding in a creaking rusty soviet Lada with springs digging in your private areas the reality is somewhat different. For alot of people driving a taxi is their livelihood as a job in tourism is the best option but driving these cars is not. Suddenly our romanticised idea was a shade more realistic.
5. Beatles Mania: Every town has a Beatles inspired bar, restaurant or club. The Beatles music was banned in Cuba till 2000 as it was deemed unwholesome for the Cuban youth! President Fidel Castro then announced John Lennon was a revolutionary hero and the Beatles Mania hit Cuba beginning with an entire park and statue of John Lennon being unveiled in Havana!
6.Ration Reality: Cuba relies heavily on tourism and due to its extremely high volume of curious visitors it would be expected the country would be developing and improving at a rapid speed however reality is slightly different. Political circumstances has affected Cuba’s ability to develop and move forward. You can feel the shortages even as a tourist. There is a limited choice and availability on pretty much everything which was a shock to the system after travelling through the United States. What is available is also expensive. Cubans are all under a food rationing system, shop window sometimes only had a display of brown envelopes, queues outside stores with five people minimum and shelves were either empty or filled with the same limited products (which we were told not to photography!)
(Rows of the same oil, row after row of the same adult pads)
People have ration books including rationing on the sale of chicken, eggs, rice, beans, soap and other essential items. We helped a homeless man out on the streets, when we asked what he wanted he said “to be clean”. We bought him some basic toiletries and it cost us $15 which was expensive even by English standards. However when you realise the average wage in $17-30 a month the difficulties of life in Cuba become more apparent. Cuban's are creative, good problem solvers and don't seem to stay down for long, we loved seeing people wearing cycling helmets whilst riding their motorbikes.
We also found out that 60-70% of the food consumed by Cuba is imported making it expensive and difficult to come by. Our host
family in La Boca laughed when we told her we were more of less vegan and said it was very difficult to get vegetables. During our month travelling it became normal to be served tinned vegetables with every meal even elegant rooftop restaurants.
6. Culturally Rich Cuba: With all of the rationing and shortages present in Cuba you would think that going to the theatre or attending an art gallery would be a luxury and therefore inaccessible. However this is not the case. Though it is still pretty pricey for a tourist to visit the latest Cuban ballet the government has deemed “culture” to be a necessity not a luxury and has seriously subsidised the cost for the Cuban people. Though most Cubans may be poor of pocket they could be certainly rich in culture. We were also so impressed to learn, amongst the hardships in Cuba, in the 1970’s a Cuban historian set up a holding company that takes the money from tourism and re-invested it into the restoration of Havana’s incredible buildings. However more impressively 55% of the apparent $160million it receives is ploughed back into social projects in the city! This benefits the much needed Cuban people. It made seeing the city even more special for us knowing change was happening.
8. A tour guide is a better than a vet I am not sure if it was coincidental but the people we met in Cuba were vastly talented. We stayed in houses that people had built and met musicians and artists with extreme talent. We met countless people with degrees who could speak three to four languages who were dreaming and aspiring to be waiters, and vets who had become tour guides as this was where they could get a better income and a better future-in the tourist industry. What a perspective maker that was when I used to dream of being anything but a waitress!
9. Cuban Cheer The Cuban people we met have to be some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met and a reason to go to Cuba. Though many of them unexpectedly opened up about the complexities and difficulties of living in Cuba (we were warned they would choose to avoid these conversations) they are people quick to smile and even quicker to offer you a strong coffee , share a rum or invite you to dance! Creativity, a positive outlook and an ease of making light of life and each other made them, for me, some of the most inspiring people to be around. We saw the limitations they were living in and although we heard a lot of their frustrations somehow no queue seemed too long or no task seemed too time consuming.
These were just some of the discoveries that impacted us whilst we were in Cuba. If you are thinking of travelling Cuba what discoveries will you make? You might want to check out our 10 Tips to Know before Travelling Cuba which might save you time and help you be better equipped! Also our post on a month in Cuba outlines where we went and what we did if you want some ideas for planning your trip! Lastly we have lots of photos and some videos of these areas to give you a better picture
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