I had just closed the bedroom door when I saw el dueño de la casa staring down at me with suspicion, “¿Ya pagaste?”. Did you pay already? He knew what sneaking out looked like.
“!Sí, sí! Es sobre la mesa, justo dentro.” It’s on top of the table, just inside.
Our eyes locked as he made a move towards the bedroom door.
“¡No, no, por favor espera! Estoy tratando de salir sin él.” No, no, please wait! I am trying to leave without him.
There was a pause. “Ahhh,” he nodded his head downward, then his chin swept slightly upwards, pointing in the direction of the main door. I took this as my sign and darted out of the house and onto the cobblestone steps. It was five in the morning, barely dawn. The lack of light made it difficult to see and harder to navigate, but I was free.
I made my way towards the bus station that would take me far away from this place, dropping me off at the southeast side of the island, in Santiago de Cuba. For a moment during my time with Mike (Matt?), I thought he would accompany me. I thought I might be safer going there with a partner, less lonely. Yet his attempts to make our relationship romantic irked me. I confronted him the night before, after his third failed attempt to kiss me, and told him to stop. His response? What if I don’t want to? That made my decision easier, and strolling down Cuba’s street reminded me that I didn’t need to be afraid to be alone. I knew how to take care of myself. I did not need a man to help me do that. My belief in my own capacities remains true, regardless of what happened next.
By the time I reached the bus station, the sun had risen, heat radiating off the mud-colored stone streets. In front of me stood the luxury tour buses, a sharp contrast to the fading yellow paint on the station’s walls and the 1950s computer screen behind which sat the ticketing man. All tourist accommodations stood out in Cuba, and truth be told, I wish I could have taken the buses that the locals took instead. But the Cuban buses were not an option for me, nor were these buses an option for them—strictly speaking, and provided everyone followed the rules. It appeared to me, however, that rules were loose around here, and with enough money, a Cuban could bend them. With an innocent smile and a little Spanish, I could do the same, but I remained cautious of which rules I broke and which ones I followed. The Cuban currency I carried in my pocket was, technically, illegal. I thought it best not to push my luck in other domains.
In any case, the local buses were not ideal for long-distance traveling. While the tourist buses were on-time, modern, and air-conditioned (too much so), Cuban buses were unreliable, old, and stuffy. Some looked as though the frames were disintegrating with each passing hour, the rust clinging to the exterior as the bus rolled down the streets. The Cuban buses would be shocking to see if everything else on the island was not in a similar condition. It was another example of the deteriorating state and the large safety risk that the antiquated buses posed was par-for-the-course in this country. Safety, I was learning, was a luxury good. It was worth the extra money to get to locations reliably when the option was presented. Still, I lamented my company.
Waiting with me were men in Bahama-style palm tree shirts and women with Tori Birch tote bags, all lining up to continue their resort tour of the Caribbean. To them, Cuba was another carbon-copy luxury stop in a grander tour. This bus would take them to the next station where a prearranged car would pick them up and take them to a pre-booked hotel, where they would stay in virtual isolation before returning home to talk about how incredible Cuba was. I mean, Carol, you simply must try the mojitos down there.
Your Narrator’s Bias
Truth be told, that’s really not my style. I carried with me only a purple daypack where I fit my camera, a journal, a yoga mat, a bar of soap, a toothbrush, and an easy-dry towel. I had one change of clothes that consisted of a pair of pants, an extra pair of shoes, and a shirt. I didn’t wear underwear to save space, wearing the remainder of my wardrobe on my body: a white shift dress to withstand the summer heat, a yellow bikini top with black swim bottoms, a colorful bandana wrapped around my hair, and a pair of hiking boots on my feet. This was the lightest I had ever traveled, and my larger backpack was stashed in a hostel in Colombia. I couldn’t imagine going back to that weight.
Feelings in Cuba
I was 8 weeks into my backpacking trip through Latin America, having already spent 4 months living in Ecuador for my study abroad. It was around this time during a trip that I started to spin my wheels and miss home. But Cuba was stirring a feeling inside of me—something I had never felt before. More accurately, it was bending my mind. The convoluted history, archaic state of technology, absurdities in the censorship and propaganda, and evident dilapidation of the infrastructure were positioned against the radiance of the people. All this created a depth of the culture and pervasiveness of natural beauty that presented itself both a vibrancy of life and a sentiment of death. This reality bounced around in my head as an impossible paradox and a well of questions.
All this curiosity was making it difficult for me to miss home and harder to leave. I lamented each departure from one town to the next, already missing the island while traveling within it. But I had to keep moving, I had to go all the way east, I had to see the extremities so I could understand just a little of the realities of Cuba. The southeast city of Santiago de Cuba fascinated me more than any other city because of its ambiguity. The Cubanos in Havana couldn’t tell me about it; the Cubanos in Cienfuegos tampoco. I found a few pages in a travel book about the city’s grand festival, which would be taking place the next day. No one could tell me what it was about or if it was even happening. It was a total mystery—my favorite. The hitch? It was a 12 -hour bus ride to get there, giving me an even greater reason to take the tourist-filled bus over the rusty counter-part.
The Easy Route?
What I find funny about luxury travel, and luxury in general, is that when someone has it, they are quick to abuse it. Take this bus ride; it had nice, big chairs, working windows, and a functioning heating and cooling system. It even had seatbelts, a rare find in Latin America. It was the nicest bus I had been on south of the U.S. border and I was excited to be comfortable for the road ahead. That was until I noticed that the goosebumps on my skin would not go away. I started to rub my body, generating heat through the friction. It didn’t work. I asked the conductor to change the air, but there was no improvement. My solution was to take my easy-dry towel and wrap it around my body as I tucked my legs into my chest to make myself into a tight ball, hoping to capture what little heat I could. I sat this way for 11 hours, and all because this fancy-ass bus had air conditioning that worked a little too well.
By the end, I honestly think I would have preferred a Cuban bus that stuffed people in like sardines. That kind of discomfort at least came with the promise of a good conversation and some funny detours. This bus had none of that, and the few conversations I overhead from the Bahama-shirt crowd did not interest me. No one ran into the bus to sell me candies or play music on an out-of-tune guitar for tips. The bus driver did not stop in front of a house to drop off a passenger (usually the result of a friendly favor or a small bribe). No, no, the bus driver stuck to the road and barred solicitors from entering. In short, it was boring, it was sterile, and, worst of all, it was engineered. No Cuban would have had this experience–except for this one wealthy Cuban sitting a few aisles down from me with a Hermes Birkin bag in her lap. I wonder what her dad did for that.
Thoughts on Company
It embittered me that these people would leave Cuba thinking that this was the totality of the experience. Worse yet, these people were observing the poverty of Cuba from a distance, through peaks out of a bus window or during day trips to the city. They developed opinions on the problems without developing a connection with the people experiencing said problems, and they would likely leave the island with the self-satisfied realization that they had it sooo good in [x developed country].
Anytime I hear this, I want to scream, “Maybe they know something you don’t. Maybe they have something you lack. Have you ever thought that could be possible?”. Had the tote bag ladies ever tried to learn from someone living in poverty? Had my mojito-hungry companions ever granted a poor person the same status of personhood that they granted to their neighbor? Or the personhood they granted to me, the innocuous stranger dressed-down as an off-beat hippie who could not scrub off her layers of wealth, privilege, and whiteness even if she tried. I was merely a rebellious young adult, nothing too foreign and therefore never too offensive to present company. And in a certain sense, they were right, as I said none of my true feelings and kept my bitterness to myself, resolving, once again, to avoid these tourist traps (though knowing full well that you never truly can).
Arrived in Santiago
Twelve hours later, I exited the bus stiff, cold, and exhausted, but still glad I was not with Matt (Mike?). I decided to avoid the crowd of Cuban homeowners that waited outside of the bus. They gathered around the bus station’s exit as though they were staging a protest—with the same vigor as well, trying to persuade a wealthy Westerner to stay at their casa particulares by raising up picket signs with prices and pictures of sus casas. Marketing has a long way to go in this country, I thought as I walked past them and repeated, “Estoy bien, estoy bien.”
A Place with a View
I was fine because this time I had a plan. I had read about a charming casa particular near the water, where la dueña served homemade dishes with fresh beans, rice, and vegetables on a terrace with a view that reached out to the Caribbean. During most of my time on the island, I ate mangos and avocados from the local markets and some rendition of ham, carbs, and cheese from the small food shops. The options at these shops never changed, it was a sandwich, a pizza, or a plate of pasta. My options for toppings were cheese or cheese and ham. The options shrunk the further I was from Havana. At first, the pasta disappeared, then the pizza, and then the cheese. In the last sandwich I bought, the ham was unceremoniously replaced with spam. And after almost two weeks like this, I needed a real meal.
Economies in Cuba
My food choices came at the cost of my desire to be ‘authentic’ in my travels. Eating at a restaurant like what you or I conceive of is not common practice in Cuba. These establishments are relatively new to the island’s economy (all goods must be publicly owned, remember?). The government started to allow small-scale, privately-owned restaurants as the country reopened to travelers, but most Cubans cannot afford to eat at such establishments as a meal costs anywhere between $20-$30 U.S. dollars, or CUC.
Let’s back up, because that pricing probably sounded sensible rather than wildly inaccessible. The pricing in Cuba has a funky system, in fact, three economies exist on the island: one for locals, one for the elites, and one for tourists. The economy for elites was evidenced by that girl on the bus with a Birkin bag (and the blacked-out Mercedes Benz I spotted in Havana), but I can’t say much about this world because I didn’t get to operate within it. Anyway, the newest economy is the tourist economy, which the Cuban government invented when it reopened its doors to tourism in the mid-1990s by printing a specific currency that they tacked to the US dollar. This currency is called the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). Local Cubans do not have access to this currency. In fact, it is illegal for them to possess it. Instead, they use the Cuban Peso (CUP), or known on the island as moneda nacional (MN).
How It Works
The exchange rate from the local currency of CUP to the tourist currency of CUC is, on average, 25 to 1; therefore, a single CUC tourist dollar is worth 25 times a CUP dollar. Cuban workers make around 5,000 to 20,000 CUP a month, which converts to about $200 to $800 CUC a month. In other words, one meal at a restaurant equates to about 1/8 to 1/6 of an average Cuban’s monthly wage. This makes most of the dining in Cuba, and tourism, financially inaccessible to the locals.
Beyond being financially inaccessible, it was illegal for Cubans to take part in Cuba’s tourism industry up until recently– and the sentiment on the island still reflected the old norm, regardless of whatever the legal status may be. From the 1990s reopening up until 2008, tourism operated under a system that has been coined “tourism apartheid”. This system raised several complaints by visitors and tourists demanded that the Cuban government overhaul its restrictions on visitors’ liberties that, conspicuously, did little to address the barriers placed upon Cubans. To this day, few Cubans have access to these establishments, despite legal segregation measures being lifted. For these reasons, tourism quite literally operates within a different sphere, as it was designed to be this way, which is why I tried to avoid its traps as much as possible.
Instead, my travel life involved eating at the small tiendas that local Cubans could afford, snacking on those mangos and avocados, and spending most of my time trying to find water—the water-hunting taking up most of the day, truth be told. I also encountered some hiccups with the two-currency system, once paying $10 CUC for 3 mangos that cost $10 CUP, which meant I paid the man $250 CUP. For. Three. Mangos. (yes, I am still mad). However, after the initial learning curve, I was getting by on less than $1 tourist dollar (CUC) a day, minus accommodations.
Accommodations could not be compromised on, partially a result of the tourism apartheid and partially the result of no internet. I had to deal with a housing-system exclusively designed for tourists, a system, like restaurants, that would not exist without tourist and which ran solely on the tourist dollars of CUC (again, Cubans could not be tourists in their own country). This meant that I haggled on slim margins, as I was competing only with other tourists and within a small pool of options. I had the choice of staying at a casa particular, a hotel, or bust. Casas particulares meant staying at a Cuban’s home– the one’s that were wealthy enough to own a functioning home (rare). You found a casa by word of mouth, guide books, or bus stations and it cost anywhere from $20-50 tourist dollars (CUC). There was one hostel in Havana that cost $8 tourist dollars (CUC) which I booked before arriving on the island, but pickings for hostels were slim in Havana and nonexistent outside the city. Add in the challenges of the internet – which was expensive, difficult to locate, and obnoxious to deal with (rendering it, practically speaking, nonexistent)—and it became virtually impossible to find somewhere else to stay for less money.
I had considered sleeping somewhere like the beach or a park bench to cut costs, as it was never too cold at night to do so, but I was nervous. Not to be robbed or harmed, that was a minority concern here, as most locals are too afraid of the government to mess with a tourist. My biggest concern, like Cubans, was the government. You see, I started to notice that each time I found a place to stay, my first exchange with los dueños was to give them my passport– it was required. Most often, they would take my travel documents and slip away, calling out from a distance, “¿Cuándo llegaste aquí? ¿Y de dónde vienes?”, to which I would reply, “El último viernes” and provide the name of the last city I was in and the appropriate dates. Once, however, the owner took my passport and remained in front of me as he opened up a large leather-bound book. Here he wrote down my information, asking me the standard questions of my dates in the country, where I last stayed, etcetera, and recording my passport number into the book. Then, he pulled out his flip phone and sent a text message. Finally, he handed be back my passport. “Quién recibieron el texto?” Who received the text? I asked him. “El gobierno,” he replied. The government.
…. Or Not
I began to wonder what would happen if I did not check-in to an accomdation one night. Would I get questioned when trying to leave the island? Would a home owner report me? How much does the government watch the tourists? How much do they watch the Cubans? What can they hear? Are they listening right now? Crucially, I wondered how much the government cared, a question to which no one would give me a direct answer. To be honest, I did not want to find out. Even I, rebellious as I am, knew better than to provoke this system. So, I stayed to the script, giving up my passport and my $20 CUC each night to maintain a nice paper trail and to fly under the radar. With this guiding my next steps, I tugged at the straps of my backpack to position it squarely between my shoulders and began my walk through the cobblestone streets of Santiago de Cuba to find that casa by the sea.