I arrived in Cuba with a suitcase of ignorance. I knew about the embargo, the socialist dictatorship of the Castro family and I knew that Europeans like me had an easier time getting around. That was it.
The two weeks I spent in Cuba taught me more than any book could, such is the power of traveling. Here are 5 lessons I took back with me.
“Una parte del pueblo lo siente, una está obligada a sentirlo.”
“A part of the population is sorry, the other is forced to feel sorry,” the taxi driver Ruben told me.
That’s how Cubans feel. Perhaps it was the frustration for the mandatory nine days of mourning after Fidel’s death, perhaps his words reflected the discomfort of 50 years of stillness.
However, it is too easy to say every Cuban is angry or a secret capitalist. The parents of the driver who took us around Bahia de Cochinos were truly mourning the loss of the leader of their revolution. Meanwhile, the younger generations shrugged in indifference since the Castro dynasty isn’t over.
“They would put the son of Fidel, or the son of the son, the cousin of the brother. A Castro anyway,” the owner of a casa in Giron said.
Cuba is a safe country
I traveled to Cuba with my family and I was the only one who spoke Spanish -give up on English as soon as you land. We didn’t have a guide or a map -good luck finding maps of Cuba in Cuba! But this didn’t stop us from walking around La Habana or from chatting with empanadas sellers on the outskirts of Trinidad.
No one ever harassed us or lounged for our wallets. We got into cars with strangers for hours and they faked an engine breakdown to rob us -the one time our car broke down, we waited on the side of the highway undisturbed. We rode bikes on the deserted streets of the Caribbean Sea and the biggest response we got was Cubans honking at us because they thought we were funny, riding the bike in the heat.
The only annoyance of the trip came from a snake who crossed our path while we were walking in the forest -I hold onto our guide’s hand and closed my eyes to find the courage to step over it.
Eggs are good -once a week
The Cuban cuisine isn’t varied, which is why they indulge in cookies any time they can -cookies are the only food you find in the scarce stores.
It was normal to see people walking down the street with trays of eggs, the main course for dinner, rarely scrambled. When they offered us eggs for breakfast for the third in a row, we learned to say no and we chose fruit instead.
The Cuban diet includes rice with beans (arroz moro), fried plantains, few slices of tomato and the meat of your choice. To break the routine, you might be tempted to order shrimp or lobster soup. Avoid it: a Cuban cook told us that they serve it in soup when the meat isn’t fresh. Wait until you get to the sea to eat fish, where you will have it fresh -and in no soup!
In Cuba, everyone knows everyone
We had planned on renting a car and drive through Cuba, but there weren’t enough cars in the island. We didn’t panic because the owner of La Casa Burton in Havana, Señora Dignora, told us we would solve the problem.
When we still thought we had a car, we planned an itinerary all the way to Santiago de Cuba. Without the car, Santiago was too far. So we had to change itinerary with no reservations. Dignora recommended us her friends in Trinidad, Giron and Viñales and we were never disappointed. Same with taxi drivers, since for four people, a private taxi is the best option instead of a colectivo.
Let Cubans help you because they are not trying to cheat on you. They want tourists to have the best experience ever and to spread the word.
You can survive Internet free
In Cuba, there is no cellular connection nor Internet service, hence no wi-fi. The only option for travelers is to buy the Etecsa card -the government owned communications service provider. The offices of Etecsa are everywhere in the country, so accessibility isn’t an issue. The issue is the line outside the doors, with Cubans and tourists waiting for the doorman to open and let one person in.
Considering that the public offices in Cuba open, go on break and close when their employees feel like, sometimes the line never moved. I wanted to call home, but my desire of knowing Cuba was stronger. I wasn’t about to waste my whole day trying to buy the card, so I gave up.
For two whole weeks I didn’t have cellular service and I didn’t miss it. I asked the hosts of the casas to borrow their email to warn my family and that was it. Few emails and everyone was more relaxed and no embassies were alerted.
Ditch the guide books and start talking to Cubans: they will always answer back with a smile.