A place I documented my marvelous misadventures in Cuba from January to March, 2017…on the sketchiest of WiFi.
It is honestly unreal to me how eight weeks in Havana just magically flew by. I wish there were proper words for me to express how grateful I am for the experience, what I’ve learned from it, and how much it meant to me, but everything I write or say about Cuba seems to fall short. In this post, I’ll do my best to sum up the highlights of my time there, and perhaps through these specifics, my feelings towards this country will become clearer.
Sights and Experiences
The Malecón. Stretching eight kilometers along the northern coast of la Habana, the Malecón is a just a sidewalk lined by a sturdy concrete wall, decorated with squat triangular pillars (sometimes) every thirty yards or so. But it’s so much more; it’s shown in every Cuban movie and its name is heard in every reggaeton song. Runners jog down it every morning as the sun rises, while lovers meander along it every evening as the sun sets. On windy days, waves – massive, imposing, tall waves – crash over its walls and flood the adjacent highway, often shutting it down for hours. And yet, the walls stand strong and proud. The Malecón might arguably be the most iconic location in Cuba, at least for me.
I’ve entitled this post “Culture Shock” because I’m just going to dump a bunch of information on some of the remaining aspects of Cuban culture, which could easily each have separate posts. Here goes.
Everyone told me that I had to buy Cuban cigars while I’m here. Everyone. As if I hadn’t heard all of the hype surrounding them – of course I was going to buy cigars. The question was: where to start? How do I know what’s fake versus real? I still don’t really have an answer. Here’s what I do know:
After my more serious last post, I’d like to move to a lighter note: Cuban style. Cubans certainly walk the walk and talk the talk in just about everything they do. Their confidence is refreshing; they wear what they want, when they want, regardless of what anyone else might think. Just being around them has made me feel more comfortable in my own skin, actually.
Women’s style is definitely the most entertaining. The women here wear absurdly tight clothing – dresses, shirts, and leggings – no matter their body type nor the sheerness of the fabric. They strut down the street with utter poker faces, never missing a beat in their high heels. In fact, the high heels might be the most impressive part of their outfits, when you consider how many sidewalks are cracked, uneven, and downright dangerous. To accentuate their outfits, many also don shiny, bold jewelry, with the usual range of hairstyles. Older women dress more conservatively, usually with simple blouses and Bermuda shorts or long, floor-length dresses.
Before coming to Cuba, I had a very limited understanding of the country’s political structure; I simply knew that it was a communist society that rejected United States capitalism. Little did I know that this fundamental piece of knowledge affects every aspect of life in Cuba. Enduring faith in the Revolution of 1959, coupled with a vehement clinging to “socialism,” makes for a country with as strong nationalistic tendencies as that of the US and an utter denial of any problems that the people encounter daily.
As we were fortunate enough to have four and a half days off of school between classes, a few classmates and I took a long weekend in Viñales, located in the province of Pinar del Río. While Viñales was not always what we expected, we discovered places there like no other. It’s not unlikely that we’ll return some weekend before we leave to do it all again.
Viñales is known as an outdoorsy town. It is home to a national park full of rivers and caves to explore, and there are countless excursion options to try, including horseback riding, visits to tobacco and coffee plantations, bike rentals, eco-tours – you name it. When we arrived, I was mildly disappointed by how touristy it was; the town consists of essentially two streets full of bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops. Outside of these two streets lie hundreds of casas particulares, or hostels, offering rooms to rent. And of course, tourists from all over the world abound. But what lay outside of town was something to behold.
Spanish, just like English, is spoken differently depending on where you are in the world. Cuban Spanish is a very difficult breed, though it gets easier to understand day by day. Many Cubans speak very quickly, and pronunciation is sometimes non-existent. Just another desafío to deal with.
My brother, who’s working at a university in Colombia, South America, warned me that Cuban Spanish would be difficult. He’s spoken with a Cuban professor there and despite being fluent in Spanish, still has difficulty understanding the man. After meeting my host father, Silvino, for the first time, I could easily see what my brother was saying. Silvino, like many Cubans, slurs his words and speaks in a mumble-y way, constantly requiring us to ask him to repeat himself. He, like many Cubans, drops the letters s, d, and r. For instance, the word for back, “espalda,” will sound like “eh-palda,” the word for “door,” “puerta,” will turn to “pue-tta,” and adjectives like “pasado” will become “pah-sao.” In addition to this looseness in pronunciation, there are also just some generally weird changes. Often, r is replaced with l, so “mi amor, my love” becomes “mi amol.” Also, words ending in d will sometimes change to t, inexplicably. It’s “verdad,” or true, that verdad can be pronounced “verdat” here.
Naturally, there are also slang terms, expressions, and words that we’ve only recently come across here in Cuba. For example, Silvino will often ask how we are by saying “¿Cómo andas?” or literally, “How do you walk?” (Sometimes, it sounds more like “ondas,” which means “waves,” so perhaps he and other Cubans are just dropping the “e” in verb form of “to walk/flutter,” “ondear.”) On windy days, his wife Angelita will say “Hay mucho aire,” or “there’s a lot of air,” when we’d be inclined to use the word “viento,” for “wind.” As mentioned in my fun facts post, “papaya” is a slang term for female genitalia, so the fruit is actually called “fruta bomba.” “Congrí,” a term for rice and beans, is specific to Cuba, and a bus here is not called an “autobús,” but rather a “güagüa.” Some terms are specifically handy for tourists to know, such as “yuma,” the word for foreigner (rather than “extranjero”) and “jineterismo.” Jineterismo refers to tourists being targeted by hustlers who convince them to pay ridiculous prices for things and lead them into traps. Jineteros are men who hustle, while jineteras are either female hustlers or prostitutes.
Last but not least, there are certain verbs that Cubans use more frequently here due to the nature of their lifestyle. As mentioned, “resolver,” the idea of fixing or finding the solution to something, is very prevalent. Things are not easy in Cuba, but there is constant faith in resolver. Much of needing resolver stems from the lack of resources here. For this reason, the verb “conseguir,” meaning “to get/obtain,” is used frequently. You never hear people saying they’re going to buy, or “comprar,” food, but instead hear they’re going to search, “buscar,” for food. Our host mother Angelita also uses a couple food-related words that I hadn’t heard much previously. The first is “quitar,” which means “to take away.” Before dinner, she always asks, “¿Tienes hambre? Tenemos que quitar el hambre” – literally “Are you hungry? We have to take away that hunger.” Much to our chagrin, she also uses the word “engordar” frequently, meaning “to get fat.” In a single day, she’ll tell us “No van a engordar porque corren y caminan tanto” and “Mira, ¡están engordando!” “You guys (my roommate Evyn and I) aren’t going to get fat because you run and walk so much” and “Look, you guys are getting fat!” We don’t love it. (Meanwhile, every time we’ve finished eating dinner, Silvino, somewhat incredulous, asks me “¿Ya acabaste?”) “You’re already finished?” Finally, true to his and Angelita’s grandparent-like nature, every time we leave the house at night, they command, “Abrígate!” “Put a jacket on!” Grandparents are the same wherever you go, I suppose – there to fatten you up and worry about you, but in the most loving, sweet way.
While Cuban Spanish is difficult, I’d rather struggle with a tougher form of Spanish now than have a rude awakening in some other Spanish-speaking country. Angelita and Silvino are a good example of how variable the speech can be; while both show patterns that I’ve mentioned, Angelita is probably ten times easier to understand. The same is true of Cubans we encounter day-to-day. Some enunciate well and speak at a reasonable pace, while others speak so fast and slurred that you wonder if they’re even speaking Spanish. However, listening and comprehending the Spanish is only half the concern; the other half is responding. We get better at both daily, but I believe speaking Spanish will always be a work in progress given its variability not just worldwide, but within one country itself.
Cuba has a dual currency system, something that I had never encountered before nor known existed. The two currencies definitely hurt the economy more than help it, but it’s accepted as yet another daily challenge (desafío) and is manageable, just annoying. It certainly alienates us more as foreigners, however.
The two currencies are the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and Cuban Peso (CUP). The convertible peso was introduced in 2004 as essentially a tourist currency. One CUC is almost the equivalent of $1 ($0.94), but the exchange rate is awful (13% fee), so nearly all of us converted US dollars to either Canadian dollars or euros before arriving. To receive Cuban pesos, called moneda nacional, we have to convert first to CUC, then to CUP. 24 moneda nacional is the equivalent of one CUC (we refer to CUC phonetically, “KOOK”). Unless you’re a rich tourist in Cuba for a week or so, having moneda nacional is essential; it allows you to pay for máquinas, cheap foods, and at times, small gifts. You will undoubtedly lose money if you stick to CUC. In a máquina, for example, if you only have CUC, you’ll pay 50 cents, which is slightly more than the standard 10 MN. On menus that list the price of items in both currencies, you also will definitely save by paying in MN, too.
At this point in my posts, I feel like it’s necessary to explain the hurdles I must go through to even maintain this blog. Like everything in Cuba, it involves a few small desafíos, but nothing we can’t handle.
US cell phones generally do not work here. My roommate, Evyn, has had some success with T-Mobile, of all providers. Texting someone in the US costs her something like 50 cents, yet receiving texts costs her nothing, so it’s helpful to have that connection in a pinch. However, since most of our phones get no service at all, our program provided us with Cuban phones.
Cuban food is great. It’s not very healthy, but it definitely satisfies, especially considering all the walking that we do here. I’ll try to encompass all aspects of it in this post, but I know that in future posts I’ll probably be raving about some new place we’ve discovered to eat.
Cubans normally don’t eat breakfast; since we’re American, our host families accommodate us by serving us food in the morning. My roommate and I eat the same thing every day, and it sounds like everyone else in the group gets similar things. First, fresh mango or guava juice and coffee with milk to drink. We share a big plate of fruit, which usually is a mix of bananas, watermelon, pineapple, guava, and sometimes fruta bomba, all very fresh and delicious. Being a vegetarian, I don’t eat ham at breakfast, but my roommate does, and we’re both given a fried egg. Last but not least, there’s bread and butter, which we occasionally partake in, as well as incredible breakfast sugar cookies that are perfect for dunking in coffee. Addictive.
I feel like I could talk about the driving and the cars here endlessly, but that would get old and boring. However, I’d like to go more into detail on what it’s like for the average person walking the streets of our neighborhood, Vedado, which does include a bit more on the automobiles.
My roommate and I have a 20 minute walk to school every morning. At that time, Vedado is in full hustle-and-bustle. We’re in the business district, so we see workers left and right rushing to work, trying to pick up máquinas. Nurses wearing their scrubs walk leisurely to their clinics, while moms in heels click quickly down the uneven sidewalks, dragging their kids behind them to get to school on time.
Instead of posting a bunch of small, unsubstantial posts, here’s a list of interesting tidbits I’ve picked up while in Cuba.
Throughout Havana, there are many monuments of war heroes and revolutionaries. Most are statues of the soldier on horseback, and the position of the horse says something about how and where the soldier died. If the horse is facing towards the ocean, he died outside of Cuba, thus across the ocean. If the horse is facing towards the Capitol, the soldier died on Cuban soil. The position of the horse’s front two feet also matter; if they are both planted, the hero died of natural causes, if one foot is off the ground, the hero’s cause of death is unknown, and if both of the horse’s feet are off the ground, the hero died valiantly in battle.
Máquinas are like the Uber Pool of Cuba; they’re shared taxis that travel between neighborhoods in Havana. Máquinas travel only along main streets, and among these main streets, only ones that run horizontally, not vertically. We’ve only really been taking them to get from our neighborhood, Vedado, to Centro Habana, a bit west of us, and Habana Vieja, even further west.
Hailing a máquina is a comical experience. You stand on the street corner and watch as 50s cars in every color imaginable zoom past you puffing out smoke. Almost all of them are máquinas and have a taxi sticker on them. To get the drivers’ attention, you have to stick out your arm and point repeatedly at the ground. Apparently, the more aggressively you point, the further you wish to be taken. The drivers will pull up, and you give them your desired destination. Many will straight up say no and drive away. Because the máquinas are shared, the taxi might already have people in it, heading in a different direction. But other times, the taxi is empty and the driver simply doesn’t want to take you to where you want to go. This could be really frustrating, but we’ve already come to learn that so many things in Cuba function this way, so it’s best just to have good humor about it.
Last night, we experienced a festival unlike anything we’ve ever seen before – all in celebration of José Martí. A revolutionary, acclaimed poet, and powerful writer during the mid to late 19th century, Martí became recognized as a sort of Cuban equivalent of Abraham Lincoln, as a champion for abolition and a journalist who worked tirelessly to keep all of Latin America informed of world news. It’s impossible to miss monuments, pictures, references and buildings dedicated to Martí here in Cuba; the magnitude of this celebration (of his birthday) should not have been a surprise to us, yet we were still unprepared.
Cuba has been an incredible whirlwind since we arrived. I am amazed by the beauty of this country and its people, and I can safely say that studying abroad here for the next two months will be enlightening and exciting throughout. Since there is simply too much to talk about from just these few days alone, I’ll just give some of my initial first impressions of Cubans and Cuba in general.
Despite living under a restrictive government, Cubans are quite vivacious. On the streets, women wear absurdly bright and colorful outfits; houses are painted every shade of pastel color imaginable. You constantly hear salsa music or some form of Latin American music as you walk around or use transport. There is a tangible energy to everything here.