So why start with a summary? Well, for a start, Cuba’s tinternet rules mean that I couldn’t uploads anything whilst there. This means at the end of the trip I have a collection of what on reflection, seem rather negative blogs........coz Cuba is just a bit shit. For some reason it feels easier, and a little more fun to write about shit places, perhaps because I am an English synic at heart, but I thought it sensible to set the scene right at the very beginning.
If I had to use one word to describe Cuba, it would be ‘empty’. Shops empty of stuff, streets empty of shops, restaurants empty of food, countryside empty of life, people empty of joy. On the upside, there are beaches empty of people, sea empty of rubbish and roads empty of traffic.
The FTs don’t need much to keep us happy; some stuff to do, a bit of booze and some nice people experiences. The last are the most important as it is through people that you really get to know a place, and this is were Cuba. I think that the ‘Cuban people are lovely’ thing is a myth. Most people, in most places in the world people are decent, friendly, honest etc, and I am sure that Cubans are no different. The thing is, I can be friendly, and I can also be a grumpy twat. When things are not going right for me, that’s when I am a grumpy twat. If things were not going well for, say, 60 years, I would be a very, very grumpy twat…… and I think this is what has happened to Cuba. So ‘lovely’ deep down or not, mostly they are grumpy.
We have been told by a number of people that this year the shortages are worse than they have been for some time. It’s a combination of President Cunt re-imposing the embargo and that their best economic partners are the car crash that is Venezuela and the now rampantly anti-socialist, fascists in Brazil. They are a robust bunch though and it has been much worse for them. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union they were literally starving. Pets went into the cooking pot along with other wildlife. There is a very cute big mouse thing here called the ……….. For a while it was the go-to snack of choice but it was pretty much scoffed to extinction. It is now protected but still a rare sight.
We have a tremendous sympathy for people having to not only deal with these shortages but also the fact that 95% of jobs are in the government sector and none pay a living wage (a very highly qualified and experienced Dr is unlikely to be paid more than $100 a month, which is why some Drs are doing menial jobs in tourism and no one wants to go to University). Unfortunately, I do not have the ability to be sympathetic all the time and by about midday each day after the fifth encounter with someone in the service industry who really does not want to serve, smile or be courteous, or been in to a café that has no milk, a shop with no water or queued for 30 mins to get a wifi card, I get a little pissed off. The really disappointing bit is that it seems that many in the government service sector seem to delight in being grumpy and difficult. We then hit the rum, that you can buy anywhere and everywhere (in the ‘shop’ of the flamingo lagoon we visited, all you could buy is full bottles of rum). I now have a better understanding of why people on sink estates in big cities resort to booze and drugs to get them through the day.
The eating experience is a great example of how government employees behave. Any reasonable government restaurant has a queue outside or a wait. These restaurants have two ways to make them seem welcoming. The first is to have a miserable person standing at the door, starring at people and informing them of the wait time. The second is to have curtains drawn over all the windows and the doors locked. In this version, one repeatedly knocks until someone reluctantly answers the door, informs you of the wait time then, if you are lucky, points you to seat inside the restaurant to sit and wait at, or just closes the door and locks it behind you so that you wait your turn in the street.
In both versions you are waiting you turn to eat mediocre food in a soulless room that is half empty. That’s right, they are often not full, they just don’t like to be rushed.
So, not all traveling will be fun. Some is just about learning about different cultures and experiencing different ways of living. Some of it is a little bit shit. Cuba isn’t as bad as discovering that a month sharing gaol cell with Mr Big is a way of life you wouldn’t choose, but as a place to discover the joy of Latin America, its pretty low down the list.
Everyone’s a bit different though, so below are some positive and some negative thoughts on Cuba.
8 reasons why Cuba is a great place to visit:
1. It is a unique place and an opportunity to see a very different way of life. This way of life is reasonably quiet, ordered and safe, set a largely sunny and green environment.
2. If you have an eye for a good renovation project, this is paradise and you can spend every day imagining what you can turn beautiful bones into.
3. If you like live music and dancing, there are good opportunities. Most towns have at least one place to go to and talented locals will be your partner to help you improve your style.
4. If you like old American and Russian cars, you will be delighted here. Some are really well preserved and they fit into their environment well.
5. If you like small, interesting places to stay, where you meet and talk to the locals rather than big international hotels, there is so much choice here. The Casa Peculiars are really good VFM and some of the drank old houses they are in are lovely.
6. Some of the beaches are, to my criteria, perfect. White sand, crystal clear water, quiet and with good beer and cocktails.
7. You will meet some lovely people who are well educated, interesting and interested. Almost without exception, the people in the Casa Peculiars were charming and helpful. We had some great guides and interesting taxi drivers. These bits of human interaction are great.
8. Some of the countryside is stunning. Lush jungle, rolling hills, few people, unspoilt little towns.
The other side of the 8 things....
8 things that are not so good.
1. The unique way of life is not through choice, rather a combination of poor government and spiteful sanctions. It involves queues, shortages pay too low to survive off.
2. If you have an eye for a good renovation project, the country may make you feel sad. About 1% of the buildings are living up to their potential, the rest are decaying, crumbling sadness.
3. There are plenty of local men to practice your dancing with but rarely local women. More than 3 dances with a local man can interpreted as a relationship and offers of marriage may follow rapidly. If you are lucky, you may have someone rubbing himself against you as you wait at the bar for a drink.
4. Cars have changed a lot over the years. They have seatbelts, airbags, brakes and do not cough out huge amounts of smog. Cuban roads are pretty empty but very polluted and safety is a 1 – zero equation. You either make it without an accident or you end up in a very bad way, in a hospital with no medicine.
5. I know that they are called Casa Particulars, but most are in someway, peculiar. I long for good sheets, a decent sized bed and pillows with feathers. Often you Casa Peculiar will feature a semi naked man (shirts are not an essential item in Cuba) and a very, very, very elderly relative, propped up somewhere.
6. If you want beaches with parties, great restaurants and lots of activities, this is probably not the place for you.
7. You will met a lot of grumpy people here and every time you interact with a surely, disinterested, bordering on rude government employee, your happiness levels may take a hit. It’s not their fault; They don’t get paid enough to live on and need to queue for too much of their lives. I would be grumpy too. This is why Drs, architects, professors and accountants are running Casa Peculiars, driving taxis and working as guides. They get in a day what they would get in a month if they did their proper jobs.
8. The emptiness of the countryside is rather sad. It is hugely under developed and under utilised. Most people rely on horse drawn taxis, scooters and bikes to get around. It is a bit like a Handmaiden’s Tale, and that no fun for anyone. A website for Bayamo says that the town should make more of its Eco credentials as a UN report showed that only 15% of people use a car as transport and 39% use horse drawn taxi/bus things. This is a little like suggesting that a war-torn, drought stricken African country should make more of its healthy living credentials coz no-one is fat….. It really isn’t a choice thing and going to work each day, sitting on an uncomfortable wooden bench behind a slow moving farting horse would lose its novelty value reasonably rapidly. I think the proportions would be similar in most Cuban towns as motorised transport really is a very rare luxury.
Cuba Top Tips
1. If you haven’t been to Colombia, Mexico or Argentina yet, go there first. You get all the great bits of Latin America with a little more joy.
2. If you stay Havana, stay in Vedado; it’s clean, safe and has places to eat and drink. Old Havana and in particular, Barrio Chino is a dirty shithole.
3. Don’t stay long in Havana. Head to Vinales and take a horse ride. You will see Cuba at it’s best and start with a positive frame of mind.
4. When visiting towns, spend about a day in the town and then explore. Most towns are reasonably similar and will get dull soon. Some of our best days have been spent exploring the countryside.
5. Our exposure to the government tours was good. Great guide, good bus and VFM.
6. Hit the beaches in the Cayos, even if that means enduring a few nights in an all-inclusive hotel. They are special.
7. Learn a bit of Spanish. The more you learn the, the better the experience. If you can’t be arsed to learn please, thank you, hello, goodbye and can I have a beer please, you probably need to have a word with yourself.
8. Take stuff to give people; makeup, pens, pencils, etc. Life really is very, very tough her, and it will be appreciated. If when you leave you think that any of your cloths only have a few months in them, leave them behind. Someone will get more life out of them than you think possible.
9. Expect people in hotels, restaurants and shops to be rude and unhelpful. If that is your default setting, you will be delighted when they are charming and helpful.
10. Take treats for yourself; chocolate, marmite etc. There really is fuck all here. We started to think Pringle crisps were a treat.