I spent nine days in Cuba on a photography tour. We were in Havana, Vinales, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad.
Reflections: Cuba is a country in transition. It is not a third-world country, rather more a first-world country which has been neglected for 30 or 40 years. Once elegant buildings and first-world infrastructure are decaying. The infamous old automobiles are ubiquitous.
But newer buses – especially for tourists abound. Wherever we went, people had electricity and running water. They have a good education system. Everyone goes to school. They have a strong health care system. There is a safety net, though the guaranteed food everyone gets is not sufficient to last for a month. People with families in the US or elsewhere and those who work in the growing tourist industry are doing better. More private businesses are allowed including restaurants, the Casa Particulares where we stayed (think Bed and Breakfast), and stores for tourists. Undoubtedly more that I don’t know about. Many people have multiple jobs. The owner of our first Casa Particulare was also a medical doctor. There are shortages. Sometimes we saw lines. It was also clear that a family that makes $35 CUC (the transferrable currency which is about equivalent to a US dollar) per month, cannot afford goods that are intended for tourists. So sometimes, the problem is affordability, not shortage. Finally, I learned that people can sell their homes now – but only to Cubans. Before, you could only swap homes.
Cuba is still not a free country. There are police officers everywhere. One of our buses was stopped for blocking the road when picking us up. We saw cars being pulled over on the road often. To get Internet, you have to buy a card for an hour and then go into a city square to log on.
There is also wifi at hotels but none of the private homes has it. My observation is that this is a good way to know who is using the Internet – everyone has to be outside in public when they log on.
Where we stayed: We stayed in Casas everywhere.
The one in Havana was larger so almost all of us could be in one place, but it was not walking distance to anything. In other towns, we had to split into groups of two or three per house. Breakfast was included, all of ours had private baths, some had lovely courtyards, one had a rooftop terrace. But rooms are small and sparsely furnished. Breakfasts were fine. Apparently, you can also ask your hosts to cook dinner. We did have lunch on the last day at our casa and it was a lovely. I enjoyed meeting the families and learning about their lives, though many could not speak English. The casas were definitely a family affair. In Trinidad, my casa had a husband and wife, a grandmother, two grown children with their spouses and three grandchildren – plus two rooms to rent out to tourists.
Food, Music, and Art: We were a large group and most of our lunches and dinners were pre-ordered. Meals were very similar. From looking at menus, we would have had a bit more variety but not a lot if we had ordered a la carte. Lunch and dinner began with various appetizers including fried plaintains, “Taro tots” – like tater tots but made out of taro, sometimes canapes with salsa-like toppings, salads with cabbage, tomato, and cucumber. At lunch, they always served soup. Sometimes they served several main courses family style. Other times, we chose our main course. They always included at least one kind of pork (pulled, roasted), chicken, fish, and shrimp. Side dishes included rice, rice and beans, tarot, sweet potato. Dessert was often flan. We did get lobster a couple times. Usually the meat and lobster were overcooked. It took us awhile, but we even found Cubanas – Cuban sandwiches that we can get in the states.
Both lunch and dinner would start with a drink – Mojito, Cuban Libre, beer, caipirinha. We also had Canchancharas. You could get pretty good wine – mostly from Argentina and Chile – as well.
Many restaurants have music and the music was fun and lively. We also went out some nights to hear music. One of our guides was a great dancer. We were told that everyone knows how to dance – you learn as a child – it is just part of growing up.
I loved the art – bright, bold colorful! On El Prado in Havana, artists were selling paintings. We saw stores with art in Trinidad as well as in markets. Subjects included those old cars, musicians, people with cigars, and more.
Sites and People: We visited many sites. We went to a tobacco farm in Vinales as well as a cigar factory in Trinidad.
We also visited two crafts places that created hand-made pottery.
We drove around in the old convertibles one afternoon and climbed many towers to get a view.
Highlights included watching boxers and a dance company practice.
The Havana Campas Dance company combines Flamenco from the Spanish tradition with drumming and other African influences.
There was no one building or one place that was memorable. More it was the feeling of the place – old abandoned buildings next to ones being restored. Old cars and bicycles. Horse-drawn carts and wagons. Well-worn tractors.
The Cuban people were welcoming to us and I felt that a lot of optimism. I most enjoyed the people – looking out windows, sitting on the sidewalk, going to work, standing in the shade under overpasses hitchhiking. Ready with a smile. Musicians played on the streets with passersby joining in or dancing. The music is energetic. I think so are the people.