"Above all, we are capable of deeply feeling any injustice committed against anyone in any part of the world. That is the most beautiful quality of a revolutionary."
-Ernesto Che Guevara
My Cuba trip included an invitation for me to go to and stay at the Film School where my friend was teaching. Apparently this school has some serious clout. The driver for the school met us at the actual gate and whisked us through immigration and customs like we were celebrities. That was a huge relief for me as I know entrance into Cuba for gringos can be delicate.
Cuba is absolutely beautiful and so are the people. Perhaps some of the most beautiful people on the planet. The Peace Corp once had a slogan that came close and I've dubbed this trip, "Cuba: The toughest trip you'll ever love".
The biggest heartache for me was the food. There's just not enough. The locals don't eat in restaurants, only the tourists do. Even in popular restaurants, there are times when menu items are scarce. Even something as simple as chicken on a pizza. Pizza is popular in Cuba because it's only tomatoes, cheese, and bread. For breakfast in the morning, the college only serves a one simple roll. Some days it comes with butter, other days it comes with mayonnaise. Once it came with a small slice of ham. The students and teachers sat around drinking coffee and eating their rolls with smiles on their faces, enjoying each other. At first I was sad to see people living with rationed food but I began to look forward to my roll every morning.
More on the scarcity of food... I'm not sure that I saw a real supermarket the entire time I was there. Provisions and food items require waiting in really long lines at small stores that have a very limited supply of anything. On my way home from Havana one afternoon, I asked my driver, Gustavo, if we could stop at a store because I needed a bottle of water. He looked at me as if I was crazy and told me he didn't know where we could stop for something like that.
Traveling in different parts of the world, people are most proud of their cuisine. Gastronomy sells tourism. I don't know if I can tell you what the local favorites are in Cuba. There was plenty of chicken in some of the restaurants that I ate in as well as at the school. Restaurants, as a whole, are scarce. You don't find them on every corner, more in the tourist areas or in the nicer hotels around the Capitol.
I'm not sure if it is a grid issue, but I noticed that lights seem to be a luxury. There were several times I had to use the light on my telephone in public bathrooms. Because restaurants are not plentiful, I went back to the same restaurant a few days later and the bathroom did have light. On my last night in Cuba, even the school suffered an outage for about an hour.
Exchanging money is not easy. It was hard for me to stay without being able to use a credit card or have access to decent Internet. I consider it something like camping in the 1980s. At times I wonder if the Cuban people know what they are missing or if it just doesn't matter to them.
Transportation is as difficult as everything else in the country. Even out in the rural areas, you will find people standing on the side of the road in large groups waving at passing cars. They will generally offer 100 or 200 Cuban pesos for a ride. You will find cars with as many as 8 to 10 people in them going down the highway. Seatbelts? I'm not sure if they have seatbelts there. In Havana you will find 3-4 people riding on motor scooters together. Sometimes it's a family. You would see toddlers with little helmets sandwiched between mom and dad.
Learning about the lives and cultures of other is fascinating to me. I met two Cuban teachers one afternoon. My new friends took me an artistic zone called Callejón De Hamel. We spent several hours drinking El Negrons and talking about life, our cultures, and art. They explained that only the tourists drink Mojitos. An El Negron would be a local drink and while similar to a Mojito, it was truly better. Especially with them.
The layout of Cuba is different than what I expected. It's much more rural than I had pictured. Somehow, I assumed it would be like Havana all throughout the country. There are a lot of dirt farms in Cuba and it's definitely more rural than urban.
For some reason I pictured the old buildings and the old cars being pristine. They are not. They use whatever parts will work to keep the cars going. For example, I rode in a 1950s Jeep Willy. It had a Hyundai steering wheel. As for the buildings, in most countries, they would likely be condemned. Most are dangerous and I can't imagine that they are healthy. You can definitely tell when America gave up on Cuba based on their cars. You won't find American cars newer than about 1958. From then on the cars are Russian and German. I have to give it to the Russians. Apparently they build a pretty good diesel engine. There are a lot of them on the road and running strong.
I think living without the Internet was the toughest thing in the world. Cuban phone carriers are happy to sell you Sim cards but you have to have a Visa or MasterCard that is not attached to the United States. Your US data service will not work in Cuba and phone calls are $2.00 per minute. Gringos have to rely on Wi-Fi cards. Throughout the streets of Havana you would find Americans outside on the corners of hotels trying to capture enough Wi-Fi to check their messages. The Wi-Fi cards come in one hour time blocks. The street vendors know that the gringos are desperate. Some are kind and will sell five or six hours for 10 bucks while others will charge 20 for the same amount of time. I've never had to ration food, let alone access to the internet.
As for being a gringo in Cuba, most people didn't have a problem with me. Some were shocked as Europeans seems to be the most popular tourist demographic. I speak pretty good Spanish and would be considered bilingual. I would hear shitty remarks occasionally but that was definitely not the norm. I seem to get an initially cold reaction from people occasionally throughout Latin America. Most warm up when they realize that I speak Spanish. Others have expressed that they have had dealings with Americans that were not exactly friendly.
At no point was I concerned about my safety. I would say that I felt welcome more than anything.
Life is very different in Cuba from that in Colombia. I was concerned initially when I left the US that Colombia would prove difficult. It's really not. There are stores on every corner, restaurants everywhere, even big box stores like Walmart. While I am sure that I could adjust to living in Cuba, I definitely prefer Colombia. However, if given the choice of Cuba and its difficulties or the United States, I would choose Cuba all day long. That has more to do with the people than anything. I don't align myself in many ways with Americans. Capitalism, imperialism, a very substandard educational system, and brainwashing has destroyed what could have been a great nation. They have so much in the way of "things" but seem to lack one of life's most essential elements; happiness. The Cuban people don't give a fuck who was performing at the billion dollar Super Bowl, who sang what song, or about things like M&Ms. I'm not sure you can even get M&Ms in Cuba. And they certainly aren't going to get into fights over it.
The Cuban people are incredibly kind and stronger than any American I've ever met. They do without basic items but yet manage to get by. Basic items like toilet paper, napkins or dependable electricity. Things that the rest of the world simply takes for granted. What I love is that they help take care of each other. "Community" is important and that community is the closest word you will find to communism in Cuba. Cuba is a dictatorship, not communist or socialist.
Learn and know the truth and history of Cuba before passing judgment on Cuba or its people. Netflix has an amazing and extensive documentary called Cuba Libre, as well as a more personal journey through Cuba called Cuba and the Cameraman that spans over 40 years of travels to Cuba.
My takeaways from Cuba... I was pretty radical before I left the United States. I think the cruelty that the United States has inflicted on Cuba has made me more radical. And where is the rest of the world? The food issues had such an impact on me that I'll never take another photograph of food again.