In a country where they turn back time

8 07 2010

Finally reunited with my Newfie I was able to complete my tour of communist countries. After Laos, Vietnam, China and DPR Korea all that was left was Cuba. We arrived in Habana with little or no idea what to expect and two weeks to see what it would offer. My guide book informed me that the often unbearable heat of Cuba can result in many conditions including apathy. We started feeling that apathy about three days into the trip.

By the end of the two weeks both of us couldn’t leave the country fast enough. The food had been the worst of anywhere I had ever visited, the prices outrageous and the people among the most uninterested in foreigners I had ever come across.  Every day we were treated to canned green beans and rice for dinner and charged a hefty fee for the privilege. Lacking in adequate foodstuffs we felt we had to stock up in vitamin filled fruit and leafy green plants. And indeed the lime and mint packed mojitos in Cuba were among the scrummiest cocktails I’ve ever had. In fact every day we saw Cubans beginning to drink their beloved rum far before midday and continuing on later than we stayed up. In one town we witnessed the beer tank rolling into town as large queues of men gathered to fill up their empty plastic bottles of the cheap potent liquid. Within an hour the town was full of merry men swaggering about the place. Unless you are into spending hours on the beach there isn’t a whole lot to do in Cuba…

The double currency also irritated me greatly. We got some local pesos and found it close to impossible to spend them. In fact the only thing we managed to buy with them were slices of Cuban pizza sold on the streets or from hole in the walls. These pizzas had more in common with a pancake than anything remotely Italian but as we were constantly hungry in Cuba they were hugely welcome. Everything else was bought with the CUC (Convertible Cuban Pesos) which is almost on a par with the US dollar.

Despite the fact that everything in Cuba is crumbling, decaying and of outrageously inferior quality they charge tourists European prices for it all. I spent as much in Cuba in two weeks as I did in Nepal in six weeks and Nepal is far more enjoyable on just about every level.

Almost every Cuban we actually got to speak with wanted to leave and I can’t say I blamed them. We were considering hijacking a fishing boat and sailing to Florida ourselves at one point. What I couldn’t understand is what the government is doing with the fortunes it is making from the tourists. It is certainly not going back into the country that’s for sure. One man we spoke to is on a monthly wage of 6 CUC from the government institution he works for. The rent for his tiny apartment however is 50 CUC! Therefore he has to do lots of odd jobs just to make ends meet and there is certainly never any money left for anything approaching a luxury. Upon hearing these kinds of stories which are, I believe, the norm I was almost tempted to begin a new revolution for the people. After all Ché was part Irish himself.

And he is everywhere in Cuba. His image is used as revolution propaganda and a socialist inspiration as well as  in government-produced money making merchandise. In fact as often as I saw Kim Il Sung in North Korea I saw Ché in Cuba. Although he is a figure that doesn’t interest me in the slightest and therefore know very little about the man I am fairly sure he would be horrified at what Cuba is like today and how poorly the people are treated by their government. What does it say about the leaders of a country where practically the entire population wants to leave? 

In fact North Korea and Cuba had far more in common than I ever would have expected. Both populations live under the cult of one figure whose successful branding is one that makes people believe that their every move is made for the good of the people. Both are hugely questionable. Shops in both countries are also very similar. They stock a ridiculously narrow range of goods, mostly canned food and charge an arm and a leg for them. It is also remarkable that normal citizens of both countries don’t have anywhere near enough money to buy any of these goods.

But it wasn’t all bad. I thoroughly enjoyed wandering the picturesque streets taking hundreds of photos. It is very safe to walk about with your camera and it is one of the only things you can do in Cuba that won’t break the bank. Every street corner was worthy of a picture and the fact that Cubans live outside in the streets because of the heat made it all the more atmospheric. Both my Newfie and myself went crazy snapping all around us but it wasn’t only because of the gorgeous 1950’s cars, super attractive people and elegant colonial buildings. It was also one of the more effective ways of taking our mind off the constant hunger until we could forgot about it again soothed by more liquid vitamins and leafy greens.

You can see all my Cuba photos here.

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16 responses

8 07 2010
hidh

Snigger @ the comment above. Quick weight loss? Go to Cuba!

8 07 2010
savannah

it’s all so sad and unnecessary.

8 07 2010
travelling, but not in love

hey where are you? I want to come meet up with you in august …..

btw, I hated the food in Cuba too – but the rum was excellent, in all its forms….

8 07 2010
conortje

hidh – hehe you got to love it – I had to spam it though

savannah – let’s hope things change when Castro goes

tbil – We’re in Ecuador – I’ll send you an e mail :-)

8 07 2010
teadevotee

Hey Conor – The best place I went to in Cuba was Baracoa – away from people trying to fleece you out of your money, to a town where people were just getting on with their lives – it was great. And there was a random ‘goth’ festival the weekend I was there, which was fun! But I totally get what you mean. I think it was even worse travelling as two girls – we were constantly harrassed, more so than any place I’ve ever been. Such a shame.

8 07 2010
conortje

teadevotee – my favourite place was Trinidad – really pretty town. Food was still awful though hehehe

9 07 2010
laurie

did you stay in havana the whole time? i was there in 1993 and it wasn’t quite as bad as you describe. we went out in the countryside, to vinales, which is a beautiful little fishing village on the western coast, and also to pinar del rio. people kept chickens and grew veggies in their yards and one day i polled everyone i saw, asking them what they’d had for dinner the night before. to a person, it was chicken and rice.

in havana there’s a little place–horrid fluorescent lighting, not terribly clean–where you can get a grilled cheese sandwich for 50 cents. or at least you could in 1993. man, that was a long time ago.

9 07 2010
laurie

if you’re interested, here’s a blog posting i wrote about the trip:

http://lifewiththreedogs.blogspot.com/2008/02/hack-goes-to-cuba.html

9 07 2010
laurie

just came from your photos on flickr–you were in vinales, too!

9 07 2010
laurie

SO fascinating. we have almost the exact same pictures, conor! 15 years apart! i went to church services in that church you photographed, on Easter Sunday.

9 07 2010
wisewebwoman

My memories of Cuba – 1990 are so different, Conor, like another country. I guess it was falling apart underneath and now you’re seeing the rot exposed to the air.
I remember the food being great too and the Havana nightclubs were amazing. I think there was a lot of Russian aid coming in then. I remember a deputatation from Bolivia staying in the next hotel, all swarthy men with guns who ignored everybody.
We did hop local buses and chatted to locals in our fractured Spanish and ALL wanted to leave to have unlimited access to Levi jeans and Chiclets.
XO
WWW

10 07 2010
Baino

Really happy that you’ve reunited with the Newfie. Looks like South America’s on the next leg? Shame about Cuba but at least it’s another ‘experience’. Where the hell is Castro anyway . . I’m sure he’s dead, stuffed or something.

11 07 2010
Renan Proença

First of all, I’d like to say that the first time I entered on your blog was on 2006. I’m a brazilian guy, I live in São Paulo and by that time I was planning to go to Ireland (but I didn’t). So I looked for some irish blogs and I found yours. Since then, once in a while I come to visit your “space”. I’m so happy to see that you still update it with always great content. The photos you took in Cuba are amazing and I’m very angry with myself for not knowing more than I should about my continent. But seeing those pictures just made me interested on studying more about it. By the way, thanks for giving us this piece of culture and presenting Cuba to me. lol :)

12 07 2010
conortje

laurie – things don´t change much in Cuba hehe although for sure someone is getting very very rich there. You can stay in private homes for about 30 dollars a night but these people have to pay the government 300 dollars every month regardless of how many tourists stay with them a month – if any at all. It really sounds like a very unfair and corrupt government to me – I really hope things get better for them soon.

www – hehe that´s the first positive things I´ve ever heard about Cuban food :-)

baino – currently in Ecuador!!

renan – you should go to Cuba – it´s an interesting place for sure. But you should also go to Ireland :-) We will get to Brazil in a few months. Can´t wait!!

13 07 2010
Jennifer S

Interesting. You often refer to how you are potentially being ripped off or are being ripped off in these developing countries. As a westerner and in the top 2% of the world’s wealthiest people (as we are), do you not think you’re being a bit, well, Scottish? (No offence to Scots!)

13 07 2010
conortje

jennifer – not sure what you mean. My post was not about Cubans ripping off the tourists but about how I believe their government is doing it. As I said in my post the government is doing it to their own people too!

But maybe you are referring to other posts? In which case I would say that my country of origin has nothing to do with wanting to be treated fairly. Or do you think that becuase I come from the west people in developing countries can charge me whatever they like no matter how ridiculous it is??? Yes I am travelling which is an incredible luxurey but at the same time I do not have an income and thus it is essential that I can make what I do have stretch as far as possible. Surely there´s nothing wrong with that.

It is my experience that the people ripping tourists off in these countries are generally not doing particularly badly. They are usually very wealthy in fact. People working in the tourist industry are often the same the world over be it Dublin, Delhi or Dundee or Dubai.

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