Cuba was delightful, and so very Cuban. All those stereotypes you hear when folks talk about Cuba turned out to be true. Loads of classic cars and cigar shops just like you would expect. Sprinkle in some Che Guevara and Castro imagery and you pretty much have it. There was definitely satisfaction to be had in visiting a country that fulfilled all my assumptions, but there were also some things I hadn’t quite predicted.
One can’t help but turn into a junior political science nerd while in Cuba. I’ll skip the analysis on the pros and cons of their particular flavour of socialism. However, it was interesting to see the various ways it impacted or complicated my Cuban week. I’m not entirely certain that I ever understood how things work in Cuba, or how much of what I was told was accurate. All I really knew for certain was that Cuba was not quite like other places, but it was still great.
Throughout Cuba there is an evident police and military presence. From the extensive customs process at the airport to the young national service police hanging out in Havana parks you were always within a stones throw of some authority or another. Consequently, it felt like the safest place I’ve ever been. Which was great as long as I was obeying the law. Even driving through the remote country side there were frequent roadside police checkpoints. A local told me that 60% of Cubans were either police, military, or informants, but I don’t know how accurate that statement is. I even learned that hospitality industry workers can’t be too friendly with visitors or they’ll invariably be reported for having suspicious relations with foreigners. It’s all a bit weird and clandestine, but it shouldn’t really be a factor for most visitors.
There was a distinct similarity in most Cuban menus. Unless you were somewhere terribly fancy you would have the same dining choices everywhere you went. It was quickly clear that the average menu was made up of variations on a base set of ingredients. Ham sandwich, egg sandwich, cheese sandwich, ham and cheese sandwich, egg and cheese sandwich, and so on. You get the idea.
Everywhere was clean, orderly, and pleasant. Part of my impression here might be because I was living in Haiti when I took my trip to Cuba, and nearly nothing in Haiti is clean, orderly or pleasant. Havana especially was a beautiful city with plenty of parks, great architecture and lots of public spaces. The entire country was really pretty though. I also noticed that everywhere in Cuba there were always people out and about. Much more than any place I’ve ever seen, there were hordes of pedestrians and bicyclists around. Maybe some positive cultural side effect from not having good TV channels?
The only complaint I can think of about Cuba is the absurd currency system. Cuba has two currencies, which is obviously one too many. I won’t even try to explain the system here because I don’t think any human understands all the specifics of which money can be spent on what and by whom. Unless you’re a masochist, just buy the tourist currency and forget that anything else exists. It’s only once you try and game the system that you realize how weird it is. Which I of course did right away and consequently got to spend the rest of my time trying to figure out exactly how it all worked.
Cuba was definitely a fascinating and beautiful place to check out. The people are super nice, and it was easily one of the most unique experiences I’ve had in the Caribbean or Central America. Here’s more pictures than you really want to see from my trip. Don’t say that I didn’t warn you.