“Don’t even try to understand Cuba,” advised our group leader, Liliana Rhoades, who was born in Cuba. “Changes are a response to what is happening. Right now.” Cuba is clearly always on the verge of something else that needs to be changed. That’s why you need to go. Just jump in.
Here are 5 reasons to go to Cuba as soon as possible. Like, NOW!
- Resourcefulness: Everywhere you turn, Cubans are creating. With limited supplies and availability, they manage to find ways to make money or improve their lives. One of the best reasons to go to Cuba is to see how people constantly reuse, recycle, and repurpose.
Watch the documentary “Embargo” to learn how incredibly clever and inventive they are. The 48-minute film will humble you, make you feel wasteful…and slightly embarrassed that the U.S. embargo is still in place after 60 years.
The Cuban government guarantees a monthly income to each adult, about $20-40 USD. With state-supported rent and basic food supplies from the “bodega,” or ration store, no one goes without food or shelter. It’s a cradle-to-grave society: Children get extra milk and food, newlyweds get a cake and beer, and funerals are free–including a plot for two years. The family only needs to supply flowers and snacks.
But…who doesn’t want some creature comforts? I’m not talking high-end items, just extra coffee, shampoo, or batteries from the “CUC Store,” where the national currency, Cuban pesos (CUP), is stretched to buy these luxuries. (1 CUC=25 CUP)
The store’s inventory is totally dependent on what’s available. On my visit, there were shelves and shelves of cooking oil, ketchup…and marmalade. Peach, to be exact. The cost? 1.70 CUC…or 42.50 CUP. You can understand the desire to find ways to earn more.
So, to supplement state income, a doctor drives a taxi in the afternoon. A psychologist does nails. An accomplished artist sells paintings on a street corner. An old woman displays an assortment of items at her doorway. Cubans are gritty, determined–and an inspiration.
2. Enthusiasm…and acceptance: Here’s the deal: Fidel Castro completely changed the government in 1959. Today’s Cubans know little else. They thrive, using what they have, with a sense of acceptance.
They do remember “The Special Period,” starting in 1989 and continuing into the 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed. Cuba’s imports and exports dropped 80%. People starved and there were severe shortages of everything. Now they are philosophical, because those hard times are over.
A visit to a Senior Recreation Center in Santa Clara was a quick lesson in enthusiasm for life. Nearly a quarter of Cubans are “seniors,” over age 60, thanks to universal health care and access to education and activities. These folks showed us how to dance; how to play Quimbumbia; explained dating restrictions when they were young; and demonstrated “The Language of the Fan.”
I’m not saying that people don’t wish they had access to things we consider indispensable: fresh produce, auto parts…heck, internet in their homes would be a dream come true. Because they would like all those things. Yet they celebrate festivals, help each other, and enjoy each day.
Cubans are friendly and hospitable. They invite you to have a cup of coffee. They ask where you’re from; say you are from the United States, and they are thrilled to talk baseball. (They’re also eager to share their opinions about American politics…)
3. Contrast: There’s no denying, Cuba’s proud Spanish architecture is literally disintegrating. The Colonial buildings are magnificent, but not maintained. Since the government is responsible for the exteriors, the residents don’t even try to improve them.
Then, there’s the issue of finding a place to live, especially in Havana. Walk around a plaza, and the building exteriors look solid. Not pristine, because time has taken its toll. Some paint and masonry would help. But certainly, they still seem quite impressive..and habitable.
Duck down a passage and look behind the buildings. There is a stark contrast. Behold “La Cuarteria,” a former mansion or hotel that has been subdivided into many rooms. One family lives in each room, adding electricity, toilets, and kitchens to make a home.
Even in tourist-heavy Old Havana, a fatigued building sits next to a refurbished one. Or the ground level holds a chic gallery while the upper stories beg for attention. It’s all fascinating to see a country with an adult literacy rate of 99.75% and female life expectancy of almost 82 years–both slightly higher than the United States–living in such unusual settings.
4. Art, art, art! Cubans are artistic, creative and determined. Despite restrictions, they can’t stop. Dance, sculpture, painting…you name it, and they prevail. An evening at La Fábrica de Arte Cubano is an instant reminder of the importance of art to the Cuban people. A hip multi-media gallery, restaurant, nightclub, FAC is far–both in miles and sophistication–from the churches and farms we drove past on our way from Remedios to Havana.
Art is everywhere, from state-owned galleries to sidewalk sales by promising painters. to dance companies, to the band in the entryway of La Floridita, where we went for the signature daiquiri. It seems to be a genetic trait, this talent and ability to move in rhythm…making the rest of us feel like clumsy oafs.
One of the best reasons to go to Cuba is the opportunity to visit Riera Studio, the home of Art Brut Project Cuba. The studio displays the works of 32 artists, many of them with mental illness, developmental delays, or physical disabilities. (Brut Art, also called Outsider Art, is done by people without formal training. They often create pieces based on their feelings.)
5. Ernest Hemingway: “Papa” definitely left his mark in Cuba. He wrote some chapters of For Whom the Bell Tolls at Hotel Ambos Mundos, where he stayed in a modest room on the 5th floor. He said that the hotel was “a good place to write.” Visitors can go to the fifth floor and see the room, as well as photos and artifacts.
We all know Hemingway was a famous drinker. Even if you’re not a fan, you can’t pass up having his favorite drinks at his favorite bars. La Bodeguita del Medio is called “The Cuban Mojito Temple.” Visitors–famous and common–sign the walls of the bar while they enjoy a refreshing mojito, the classic Cuban rum cocktail. Hemingway wrote in English: “My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita.” (Watch this video to get a feel for the lively bar.)
As his note says, his other favorite bar was La Floridita, where he downed many, many daiquiris. When he was in Havana, he came every day and sat in the corner where his statue now is. To give you an idea how busy the bar is, watch this video!
Unfortunately, Ernest Hemingway’s home, Finca La Vigía, can only be viewed through the windows. We were told it’s because of the humidity, to preserve the interior. (Although rumor has it you can tip docents to use your camera to take photos in the home/museum, and for a price, possibly get inside.) It’s here that Hemingway began to write Old Man and the Sea in 1951, which would earn him the 1953 Pulitzer Prize. In 1954, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea…”
Hemingway would abruptly leave Cuba in 1960, storing his papers and art in a bank vault. After the Bay of Pigs incident in 1961, Finca La Vigia was expropriated by the Cuban government, including his collection of 4,000 to 6,000 books. Nearly a year later, he would die by suicide in Idaho, leaving his richest legacy in Cuba.
Cuba has never considered itself just an island; rather, it’s a country that happens to be surrounded by water. Maybe one of the best reasons to go to Cuba is to experience the time-warp. And while you’re there, drink a mojito and daiquiri.
More Cuba and travel ideas? Sure! Remember: If I can do it, so can you!