For over 50 years, Cuba was a forbidden mistress for Americans. You got a whiff of her scent as she passed by but then she would fade into the night.
This has changed. With President Obama’s announcement that Americans could travel to Cuba for one of 12 reasons (tourism not being one of them), we’ve finally been given permission to speak with our enigmatic neighbor to the south—at least temporarily.
I came to Cuba in January on a Journalism visa, fully intent on interviewing the locals about the same things I do wherever I travel—their hopes, their passions, their fears. Alas, this was not to be.
From afar, I’d been led to believe that daily life in Cuba had changed under Raul Castro; that free speech was once again the rule of the land. This is not yet the case.
Until recently, the very act of speaking with a tourist was illegal for Cubans not directly involved in the travel industry. A friend of mine witnessed this on a trip 7 years ago. She simply asked a man on the street where the bus station was, only to have undercover police offers arrest him as he gave her a response—this despite her pleas to his innocence.
Furthermore, almost every block has a government representative dedicated to reporting the thoughts and actions of their neighbors, so Cubans understandably tread lightly—most especially among themselves.
And yet almost all the Cubans I met were incredibly friendly, and many were willing to speak directly with me for some time. But our conversations rarely went beyond “safe topics”, such as music, sports, or food. And once I better understood the current political situation, I decided not to press them any further. The wounds of many years of suppression will take time to heal, and I it was not my place to pick at them.
Fortunately, there are multiple ways of communicating. If I couldn’t engage the Cubans with words, I would do with sight, with smell, with touch.
For the remainder of the trip I used my other senses to understand what I could about daily life in Cuba. I abandoned my guidebooks and instead ventured into the neighborhoods where cobblestone turns to mud and the only accepted currency is the peso.
This isn't the Cuba the government wants you to see. They have, by design, tried to curate a travel experience within which you travel from tourist-safe enclave to tourist-safe enclave (see: Varadero).
What I found in Cuba was a proverbial land of contradictions. On the one hand, Cuba has very little. The people are mostly poor, the store shelves are often barren, and individual freedom is severely limited. On the other hand, Cuba has a lot. The crime rates are low, there are fantastic dancers and musicians performing for locals in concert venues each night, and there’s a sense of community that’s often lost in the Western world.
While these dichotomies make grand proclamations about life in Cuba difficult, the overall message I took away was one of resiliency. The Cuban people have not allowed economic hardship and political turmoil destroy their spirit. Rather, they have come together as one people determined to make the most of their lives.
But enough of my words; as any semi-competent writer knows it is always better to show than tell. Here is my photographic journey into daily life in Cuba. Enjoy.
I love it. The photos are fantastic and I enjoyed your honest, heart felt writing of “daily life”. That’s what is it all about anywhere in the world.
Did you learn to Salsa? We’re learning that form a of dance from a co-worker at Suttle-Straus who is from the Dominican Republic. It’s a good work out.
Thank you for sharing. Lana
Thanks for the kind comments, Lana! I “learned” a bit of salsa while there, but it was hard to keep my eyes off of the incredibly-talented dancers I was sharing the floor with. I’m hoping to take some classes in the future though! And yes, it is quite the workout!
We’re researching a trip to Havana from the Chicago area. We have passports and are thinking of traveling under the Support of the Cuban People category. We were wondering do we need to order both the Visa and Tourist card in advance? Are they one in the same thing? And after preparing itinerary, do we just need to have it on hand in case someone asks for it or does it need to be submitted to an agency beforehand?
And you mentioned getting Euros instead of US Dollars due to a better exchange rate. Can you expand on that a little? Thanks so much. Sorry for the torrent of questions! Very insightful and timely article.
Glad you enjoyed the article. When converting into CUC from USD, the Cuban Government will charge the usual 3% change fee and tack on an additional 10% fee for using USD, which isn’t present on any other currency. Since the CUC is tied directly to the USD at a 1-1 ratio, $100 instantly becomes 87 CUC (100-13 in fees), whereas $100 converted to Euros becomes 97 CUC (100-3 in fees). I don’t know what your exchange rate is for taking out Euros (or if you have some already lying around at home), but assuming it’s lower than 10% (I looked and BMO Harris Bank in Chicago has no exchange fee), it will be less expensive to bring Euros.
Sorry for the confusion about Visas vs. Tourist Cards! They’re actually two different things (I’ve corrected the text to illustrate this if you want to check it out). US citizens only need a Tourist Card, and yes, you need to have it before arriving in Cuba. Most airlines allow you to purchase one when you buy your ticket, which you’ll collect when you arrive at the gate for the flight to Havana (I assume in Miami if you’re coming from Chicago). Otherwise, some people have purchased the cards directly at the gate, but there is always the risk that you get stuck in a long line during a short layover.
You do not have to prepare any documentation prior to your trip to travel to Cuba legally. The itinerary is for the U.S. Government, once you return from Cuba. You do not have to submit it anywhere, unless the U.S. Government were to request a copy from you, something they can do for up to 5 years after your visit.
I hope that helps, Cheryl!