These are MY observations and MY opinions of what I saw and experienced in Cuba. It’s not law. I’m sure somebody else can come to Cuba and take away something totally different. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy reading what I have to say and hopefully you’re encouraged to go visit the island for yourself.
- Cuba’s everything you think and not what you think. I think some travelers, bloggers, podcasts and travel guides have painted a romanticized view of Cuba. Historical buildings, unique architecture, vintage cars, beaches, rum, salsa and the best cigars in the world. I think even I had a romanticized view of the place. Here’s the thing – Cuba has all of that and it’s worth telling the world about those things and having people come and partake in what the country has to offer, but for me and my traveling companion – we saw a part of Cuba that made us wonder: Why exactly am I in Cuba again? Are these dilapidated buildings really the quaint charming structures we see and read about in guides? Is this what 50+years of Castro’s rule and a U.S. embargo have done to the country? Did I sign up for one of those poverty tourism trips? As a result, we had our own view of Cuba and our bubble was quickly burst once we got there and saw the broken-down buildings and jacked up streets. It was also burst when we started talking to the Cuban people about their lives on the island. What really makes Cuba are its people. They are genuinely happy, friendly, lively people, but according to the folks we talked to—it was complicated. The Cubans we spoke to love their country, but feel some type of way about how the country is run and their lives on the island. While they won’t openly criticize the government, sit one-on-one and people will begin to comment on the system of government, leadership, economics, lack of basic human rights. Not to mention everybody wants to get to the U.S…. We are not free. Our system is terrible; it doesn’t benefit the people. We have nothing. We want change. Just a few things I heard in our discussions. I was going to dive a little deeper into Castro’s legacy but decided against it. The best thing to do is if you’re able come to the island, see for yourself and talk to the people, then decide for your self. To say it’s complicated is an understatement.
- Cuba is Blackety Black. There is no “Black Cuba.” Why? Because Cuba IS Black. Being Black in Cuba is not an anomaly or an outlier. If Havana is an indicator of the population, then Cuba is majority (overwhelmingly majority) Black. While I knew there were Black Cubans and that African culture was influential here, I didn’t know the extent. The extent is that if Little Havana is representative of Cuba in the US, then an appropriate nickname for Cuba is “Little Africa.” Just saying you’d be hard pressed to search for the Black Cuban experience as it’s all up in your face. My bet is that even the lighter looking Cubans have African blood in them. We discussed racism on the island and how they deal with similar issues with regards to police brutality against Blacks. However, it felt like given the amount of Blackness among the people (even among the lighter cultural elite) it was absurd that it even existed at all.
- Cuba has love for the U.S. Cuba has love for African Americans. Cuba has love for its Blackness and Africaness. Everyone one we spoke to had family in the U.S. and were looking to get to the U.S. themselves. America represents freedom and opportunity despite the history between the two countries. Cubans were happy to meet African Americans and we bonded with each other over our shared identity as Black people. There was a sense of brotherhood and unity with the people we met. Cuban people are proud to be Black and are proud of their African heritage. It’s very present in the religious and cultural practices. In connection with being Blackety Black, Cuba revers Black Women. Just about every female representation whether street art, souvenir shops or fine art galleries is of a Black woman. I was surprised when I saw a piece of art that DIDNT have a Black woman in it. The images to me seemed celebratory and one of reverence versus stereotypical and derogatory.
- There ARE nice places in Cuba. Old Habana has the quaint historical elements with its cobblestone streets and preserved architecture and historical sights. There are nice upper class hotels all over the city. (We frequented Hotel Inglaterra which was right between the “hood” part of Habana and Old Habana.) There’s also Mirimar which has some upscale housing for the wealthy. As we traveled to the part of town where Castro lived – we saw magnificent homes and several foreign embassies. There are also the universities. There’s also beach and resort areas within a short distance of the city. We also went up to Fort Morro on the hills where there were nice houses of mostly military personnel.
- Cuba speaks. Finally, while our initial arrival in Cuba was startling and disturbing, we decided to relax, go with the flow and let the island speak to us and let it be heard the way it wanted to be heard. So yes, we enjoyed looking at the classic cars (even rode in one), listened to salsa and reggaeton, danced in the streets, checked Wi-Fi in the park, took in the street art, drank mojitos and Cuba libres, gazed out at the ocean at the Melecon, hit up some tourist and off the beaten path sites, but most importantly we interacted with and heard from the people. It was important to them that we enjoyed Cuba and the Cuban people. It was important to them that they got a chance to share about their lives in Cuba. Even if we were being hustled (more on that later) – we learned a lot and probably got closer to the “real Cuba” than most. I’d go back to hit up all the places I didn’t get a chance to see, do some more salsa dancing, practice my Spanish, visit other parts of the island, learn more about Santeria and other African influences and talk to even more people.
Bottom Line: Visit the island and experience it for yourself and make your own assessment. Talk to the people. Go off the beaten path. Come with an open mind.
Quick traveling tips:
- Bring enough cash!!! The ATMs do not accept U.S. debit or credit cards. There’s no way for you to charge anything or extract additional cash once you are on the island. Bring enough and even if you bring what you think is more than enough – be sure not to overspend. There’s no need to ball out in Cuba unless you’re spending money on a pricey hotel. Another tip is make sure you know how much cash you can take from your ATM here in the states. Many of us have daily limits. It’s best to go directly into your bank and withdraw the money that way.
- Knowing some basic phrases in Spanish is VERY helpful. Also, many Cubans know English and are anxious to speak with you in the language. Make sure if you’re interacting with someone in English, speak slowly and they have a better chance to perhaps understand what you’re saying.
- Cuba is pretty safe and we walked around in many different neighborhoods in the day and night. I’d still advise you to use common sense and street smarts.
- Random: Bring insect repellent. Bring an extra washcloth and towel. Wear comfortable shoes.
- So after I wrote this blog, I ran across the following travel guide: CubaConga: Underground Cuba Travel Guide. After being in Cuba, I’d say the guide captures the complexities and quirks which is Cuba. Habana in particular.
That’s it. I’d like your feedback. I’d especially like hear from other people who’ve been to Cuba and their experience.