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.