I recently visited Cuba. Over the past year this place has been extremely popular, most likely since President Obama’s visit. I have always known about Cuba, but when the opportunity presented itself for me to go I realized perhaps I didn’t know as much as I should. Plus the Cubans I knew were those who left the island. My knowledge was mostly the food, the music and politics. Now I would get to witness the daily lives of people and actually be there in the historic city of Havana!
My stay was four days in the old Havana area. Although this is a very touristic area, I had the privilege of becoming friends with some local artists. I must be a magnet to the artist type… last year in Haiti I partnered with two Brazilian artists helping out some orphanages. You can read all about that here at “Art Attack in Haiti”. I guess it’s true what they say, you attract people that are like you.
These artists were meeting at a conference at a nearby hotel. Everyone I met had an amazing story and talent. Check out a short montage of at my YouTube channel.
There were so many tourists. I hadn’t expected that. Mostly Europeans, but I saw Americans and Brazilians as well. Hostels and Airbnb type places are very popular and widespread throughout the city. You’re actually staying in peoples’ homes who rent out their rooms and serve breakfast in the mornings.
Safety was another issue. Being someone who travels often to Haiti and Brazil (and being from Brazil), I have a heightened sense of my surroundings when I travel. When I arrived in Cuba all I had was the address of my “casa”. After exchanging money I got a cab. I saw all the yellow official cabs lined up in the front outside. I was approached several times for a taxi but I refused. Usually I prefer to look around for a few minutes to see the process of things. Well, I was kind of tired so the next guy that approached me I accepted the offer. He called someone on his cell. I asked “you’re not the cab driver?” and he said no. He pointed to another gentleman and said “He is.” My instincts were telling me that if were in Brazil I better be careful. Anyway, the guy was working as a cab driver from his own car. No big deal, but just in case, I started a good conversation with him, becoming interested in his life, family, and the city. He actually told me that Cuba is safe for the most part. The penalty for harassing tourists is 8 years in prison. That was confirmed. I was able to walk the streets late at night no problem and I saw quite a few other tourists doing the same.
What about the 1950’s cars??? Yes. There are many. It’s like being in weird time warp. After the initial shock, you begin getting used to it.
As I retreated from the tourist sites and spent more time with the local people, I began to realize that everyday life is based on hustle. This is common in many developing countries. In Brazil we call it “o jeitinho brasileiro” or “the Brazilian way”. This is found in Haiti as well… In Cuba, it seems everyone has a network for their hustle. This keeps them prepared for any opportunity or situation. Everyone knows a cab driver, everyone knows a guy who sells cigars, everyone knows a “a guy” who has the “hook up” on something. That’s just life in Havana.
On my last evening there, I was preparing to venture out for the last time. I walked out of my room and the host was chatting with another gentleman who apparently just arrived and needed a room. The host asked where I planned on going and if I wouldn’t mind if the gentleman came along so I could show him to a place to eat. Of course I didn’t refuse, so I invited him to come along. Apparently, he is a world traveler, originally from Spain, in his mid-fifties. This was an interesting fellow who had enough good material to not allow any silence in the conversation. The highlight of our conversation had to be about Pablo Escobar and the Spaniard’s curious encounter with a few characters from that era while traveling through Colombia.
The Cuban Experience
Overall, my experience was great. Definitely I would recommend anyone to visit there, especially families because of the security. The people are very warm hearted and if you have a chance to break away from the touristic places you will get a great sense of the real Cuba. If you depend on the internet, as most of us probably do, be ready for a challenge. You'll have to purchase internet cards which are good for one hour of use. I used the hotel lobbies to connect to the public wi-fi. If you do this, be prepared to purchase something from the bar/restaurant. Just as with anything else, you need the good and the bad to make up the entire experience. Of course the good always outweighs the bad…at least it did for me in Havana. I do wish I had taken a little more money as it ran out completely on the last day. Good thing I didn’t buy a box of cigars, otherwise I’d have to sell them to the tourists to get to the airport, you know, the “Brazilian way”!
Have you been to Cuba? I'd love to hear about your experiences and recommendations in the comment section below!