It is my third week in Cuba now and I can’t believe time flies so fast! Seems like I had just arrived and don’t know where to go and how to behave in the streets. Now I know my way around havana very well and have already met quite few locals, too. But every morning as I open my eyes it still takes me a second to figure out where I am. I kind of like that feeling while traveling a lot in a short period, though.
So, let me share some more observations about Cuba here. To begin with, most of the things that I am writing here are applying to Havana only, as Santiago de Cuba or Trinidad, for example, are totally different. But several facts are common for the whole country, too. If you just go to Varadero, which most of the tourists do, you won’t find any Cuban authentic sights, so I highly recommend spending at lest couple days in the capital city, and better stay in la Habana Vieja. Some things that caught my eye:
- it is very dark in the streets. Maybe not in the newest hotel areas in Vedado, but in the old city for sure. It doesn’t feel dangerous, though. As I already mentioned in the previous post, people want foreigners’ attention, they would whistle and yell something very often, but don’t get scared. I had never been touched or anything. Just keep on walking.
- you have to make yourself very clear when speaking with the locals. They can ask you to buy them food; making up stories about babies, faking pregnancy, being extremely sweet and friendly with you and taking pictures to later have you buy them something is very common here, especially if you go to some market areas and shops for locals. Just be smart and don’t let them trick you. It is absolutely fine to say no in a harsh way. Another usual way to trick tourists is when you go out dancing: some guy will come up to you and start teaching you salsa, you have fun and dance with him for like an hour and then he requires 25CUC for a lesson. If you are invited to dance, just make it clear that you just want to dance and don’t want a lesson!
- in general, salsa, ron, rumba, bachata and all kinds of latin american dances are a big thing here. Cubans are the best dancers in the world. At the same time, they have their own way of dancing most of the internationally popular dances. Mixtures with African culture and isolation from the continental latin America have had their strong impact on evolution of dancing culture here. Most of people who come here are salsa dancers back home. Almost any club is going to be a salsa place at some point during the night. So if you have no idea at all how to dance, you might want to learn some basics at least not to be left out. I am taking salsa classes at a place called Casa del Son and the instructors there are very nice and professional. Don’t think, though, that this much body contact means that the locals are trying to hook you up when you dance with them. It can be the case, of course, but a lot of flirting, touching and contact is a big part of their culture here, so just accept it and don’t freak out.
- I like it here, like it a lot. And the people are part of an amazing experience, too. But I would recommend not to trust them. Especially the guys who are flirting with you (and they do that even being 80 years old). They may whisper as many sweet things as you had never heard before in your ear and they are professional at looking reliable, but always keep in mind that the culture here is very different from any western culture; people are being brought up with it being a social norm to be sneaky. They do lie a lot here, show off and just in general have a very different point of view on what’s good and what’s bad. You can become friends with the Cubans, definitely, they are very nice and extremely interesting people. But never forget that they all see foreigners as the key to escape from the country. And most of them desperately want that, even though they will never tell you as it is not accepted to express your point of view here. All Cubans say they are extremely happy here and they love their country. You will never know what they truly think, never. Enjoy it here, but don’t try to understand.
- absolute majority of population and their parents and grandparents have never been abroad. Even though it became legal for them to travel couple years ago, no regular local can afford it. They are not allowed to even get close to boats, on top of that. When there was a sailing excursion, the Cuban guide wasn’t allowed on board. They would be constantly asked for their documents in the streets if they walk with tourists, too. Happens to us every single day. And the foreigners would be asked questions concerning their reasons of walking next to a Cuban, too. I learnt a lot of crazy stories of how somebody started dating a Cuban and would be chased by police, but I don’t think it would be correct to share the details on the web. Just be aware that the locals live a completely different lifestyle that any foreigner would have here.
- they love Russians. Even adore them, I would say. So feel free to say «soy rusa/ruso» anywhere! If you speak good English, you might be mistaken for an American, which is sometimes not very pleasant here, as the tensions are still strong. So if you want good service and friendly attitude, make sure they don’t take you for a «gringo»
- all of the above strongly depends on a person, of course. The locals are very interested in foreign cultures, they ask a lot of questions and really want to know as much as possible about you. Some would greet the Americans I was hanging out with very friendly, too. But we did have some unpleasant incidents with attitude to the Americans, too.
- what I find very impressive is how people learn English on the streets. They are not taught at the universities or in some other way common for us. They indeed do learn languages from each other. And a lot of people in Havana speak more than decent English! Sometimes German and Italian, too. Older people can speak Russian sometimes, too, as they used to travel to the Soviet Union back in the days. No idea what the problem of Russia with learning English is, if even isolated people with no way to learn it speak so well.
- you probably know that the Internet is not a common thing. It exists in certain areas and you can buy cards to get online, but it’s mostly accessible only for foreigners. The locals aren’t admitted to the hotels (I think government tries to do as much as possible to prevent Cubans mixing with other nationalities and leaving the country, so no locals are allowed in the areas where tourists stay) and it’s also not affordable for the most of them. If a teacher makes $22 a month, he is not gonna go spend $3 on an hour of using the Wi-Fi. But you still see a lot of young people gathering around hotspots. Since just few years they are allowed to purchase cellphones here, but satellite data isn’t possible, they are just for calling. Which is surprisingly not even that much needed I would say! People just somehow get to meet each other without texting as we would do to organize whatever! Everyone knows where to find whoever he needs; certain people go to the same places to hang out, so somehow it all works out. Like it used to 20 years ago for us, I guess. I run into the people I got to know here almost every day, for example.
- even though it is very easy to meet people here, I wouldn’t recommend staying just by yourself, It is simply less fun. Even if you are traveling with friends, you won’t experience as much as if you cross paths with other foreigners living here as well as with the locals. I am staying in the hostel, but only with the members of the program that I am doing in Cuba. And it is just so much fun! We are a little family here; there is always a lot to do and someone making plans. This hostel is the best experience ever, I love having met every single person who stayed here! It is called Hostal Leonel, I highly recommend it if you need an affordable and cozy place to stay in Habana Vieja! Btw, the program I came to Cuba with is called Jakera, and the guys indeed are doing a good job! I am enjoying it here every single day.
I think this is it for now as another trip is already ahead of me – tomorrow I am flying to Mexico! But next week I will be back to Havana and will share a lot of things to see/do/experience/avoid on this astonishing island. Have an amazing weekend, everyone! Happy autumn!