35 things about Cuba

1. There are two currencies — one for locals (CUP) and one for tourists (CUC). This is a fact that makes me feel like there’s a whole layer to the country’s (economic) story that I can’t access. My favorite bill is the 5 CUC one. It has a picture of soldiers having some sort of meeting. Amidst the seriousness, a couple of the soldiers are in hammocks.

2. People would randomly walk up to you and ask for soap (or your shirt, your towel, gum, or straight-up money). Sometimes they say it’s for their kids, sometimes the kids themselves ask. When I asked someone about it, he said that rations are not always enough, particularly for soap.

3. We stood in line at a famous ice cream store for an hour (and didn’t get any ice cream because they ran out). In front of us was a group of 15-20 kids singing and dancing to religious songs.

4. We took a cocotaxi (which is like a Guatemalan/Thai tuktuk or a Filipino tricycle) to the beach. A few hours later, when we were heading back to the city, we saw our cocotaxi driver chilling at the beach; we took his same taxi back. I wonder if this is a manifestation of the theory that communism removes incentives for productivity. This is plausible if the driver gets paid by the hour, and if there are no performance measurements of any kind.

5. Apart from the ration booklets, people do get cash salaries (and not in equal amounts). Somebody said that Cubans can and do get rich, but economic position is not used to gain political power, and rich people often still live simply so you barely notice them.

6. We saw a group of people at the parque central in Havana, holding sheets of paper. They were swapping houses. This is how you move to a new place in Cuba. Mortgages and that kind of stuff are uncommon.

7. I withdrew Cuban cash from my Canadian visa. My visa was charged in USD, which is worth more than the CAD in Canada, but less than it in Cuba. So I lost some amount in the USD-CAD exchange. Plus, there is a 10% surcharge for USD-CUC exchanges, so I lost some more. The clincher is that they refused to charge my visa in either CAD or CUC.

8. I devoured lobsters every time I got the chance. A lobster meal with rice, vegetables and fruits costs about $10. And I loved the cheap local pizzas. A personal-size one costs $0.50. The food, overall, is not so good, though, especially for vegetarians. Omelets and much else are quite greasy. And I imagine it’s worse for vegans.

9. People still use horse-drawn carriages for people and cargo, but not in Havana. Horse-drawn carriages are mostly a tourist thing there.

10. Homes are still colonial-style everywhere, some less well-maintained than others. Most houses reminded me of the word derelict. We stayed in people’s houses, called casa particulares, as we hopped from city to city because it’s a cheaper option than hotels. I loved how every house had rocking chairs (yes, plural).

11. Road quality ranges from paved and well-maintained, to cobblestones, to unkempt dirt roads. You would usually find the last kind several blocks from touristy areas. In Trinidad, houses and streets all look alike — colonial and cobblestone. We got lost in that small city a few times. Curiously, when we asked a police officer for directions, he didn’t know where our place was. It turned out to be just a few streets away.

12. Showing off abs is in. Guys roll up their shirts. Girls wear tube tops or just sports bras. The average Cuban is hot.

13. People often gather on the streets, playing dominoes or eating or drinking or talking, or some combination of these.

14. Some of the people are really nice. For example, one lady went out of her way to explain to us how the payphone worked (you had to have a card), and she let us use her card for free.

15. We saw a letter written by Che in a museum. He ended it with te abrazo con el fervor revolucionario (I hug you with revolutionary fervor). Apparently, this was how he ended many of his letters. We also saw a picture of Fidel in Russia, frolicking in the snow and wearing a gigantic coat. He looked like he was too cold.

16. Cubans usually drop the s in words, saying mucha gracia instead of muchas gracias. They also talk very fast, and frequently drop half the word, saying ta bie instead of esta bien.

17. Not all kids in schools were in uniforms. I like this. Kids shouldn’t be hampered from going to school by something like not having uniforms.

18. We met a guy who knew about the Philippines, how it has 7000 islands, how it was occupied by the Spaniards and the Japs, how Corazon Aquino succeeded Ferdinand Marcos, and how Noynoy Aquino is planning to run for president. I was impressed.

19. People thought I was Chinese-Cuban, especially after I’d gotten sunburned. I quite enjoy being mistaken for a local, though not so much for a Chinese person. Maybe it would be different if I remembered more of basic Mandarin class from three years ago.

20. A guy asked us to mail letters out of Guatemala (on our return) to some Cuban athletes in Canada and Holland. It is apparently difficult to mail something from Cuba.

21. People do the bait and switch, and half the time you don’t know what’s going on, but it’s good to just roll with the punches. Like, somebody would tell us that something will cost $15, but then it will cost $30. Sometimes you get good deals, though, so it all evens out.

22. Internet is all prepaid dial-up, and quite scarce. Skype is illegal because it competes with the government’s own telephone line.

23. There are many artists and art galleries, and there are many musicians. Sometimes you would walk by a house and there would be an amazing jam session going on.

24. Some cars were really old, with windows that would gradually inch open as the car vibrated. Sometimes the drivers had to insert rocks in the engines to make them work, I have no idea how.

25. We once had an energetic little woman driver.  In a completely sky blue ensemble and heels, no less. She sought help from one of my (guy) friends for getting a couple of female tourists as additional passengers. Then she teased that he was a jinetero, a pimp. Haha.

26. Guys often hiss or call you beautiful while you’re walking on the streets. It is impossible for a female tourist to leave Cuba without getting hit on. Our guide for the horseback ride through the valleys in Viñales wanted me to live with him. Haha.

27. I haven’t recovered from the itchiness of my bites from our trip to the coffee farm (in Guatemala), and now I have additional bites from the valleys (in Cuba). Oh.

28. A number of farms in Viñales had solar panels built 1-2 months ago, with help from China or Venezuela or such. The farmers with solar panels don’t need to pay for any electricity bills. The solar energy is stored in batteries for the nighttime. Other farms have power lines built by the government 3-4 months ago, and they pay for electricity every month. Previously, everyone in the countryside would just use gas lanterns at night.

29. Farmers give 90% of their crops to the government and keep 10% for themselves. We talked to a tobacco farmer. He explained that tobacco leaves are strongest at the top of the plant, and weakest at the bottom. The bottom leaves are used for cigarettes. If you put some honey at the end of the cigar which goes into your mouth, it’s really good. Tobacco plus honey is really good.

30. There are no commercial billboards, only those with messages from the government about the revolution or socialism. Stuff like patria o muerte (homeland or death).

31. I’ve started reading a book called In Conversation with Fidel [Castro]. In it, he says something like: “Short of violence, we must do everything to counter globalization.” But Cuba relied on the USSR so much that Cuban trade dropped 65% when the Soviet Union fell, and Castro said that this was a major blow to the Cuban economy, like the US embargo against Cuba. Well, sir. If you need international trade, then stop cursing globalization. I understand that there are disadvantages to globalization, but people who know better should be careful about the distinction between these disadvantages and globalization itself. Because people who don’t know better could just cause useless stirs, fighting globalization and everything that comes with it, even the good things. We don’t need such stirs in the world.

32. Barber shops are huge. They would have, like, 20 seats. And they’re always pretty busy.

33. Baseball is bigger than football (soccer). My friend had a Blue Jays cap, and everyone recognized the logo of his team from Toronto.

34. Cuban coffee is really strong. Cubans drink coffee in small amounts, in tiny cups.

35. Restrooms usually do not have toilet paper, toilet seats, or soap.


3 thoughts on “35 things about Cuba

  1. that we did! the farmer made one fat cigar for each of us. he rolled the tobacco leaves while we were drinking mojitos (which he prepared as well).

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