I want to tell you that we had a great time traveling in Cuba. I really do.
I'd like nothing more than to write a glowing summary about how much fun we had exploring the museums and forts of Havana, eating at the city's numerous restaurants, and exploring the tobacco fields during our day trip to Vinales.
And, in a way, we did enjoy the trip because of all of these things.
But I hesitate to elaborate on this further because of one very simple reason. There are two different Cubas, and only looking at the one for tourists would paint the country in the wrong lens.
If you're going to visit, you have to understand the bigger picture.
A Second Side to Cuba
No matter how we look at it, it was painfully obvious while we were in Cuba that there are two different sides to the country. One that is setup for tourists (and the affluent) and one that is setup for the locals (or everyone else).
It starts with the currency, where the tourist convertible peso (CUC) is pegged at the dollar at 1:1. The local peso (CUP), on the other hand, is listed at 25:1.
This is set up in part to be able to provide locals with goods and services for a different rate than visitors who have far more money to spend. Visitors can spend money at the shops that accept CUP, in most cases at least, but there is a huge trade-off to that too.
A good example to illustrate this is the difference between the local restaurants and the paladars, or private restaurants.
A private restaurant is like you'd expect anywhere in the world. Sandwiches run a few dollars, alcoholic beverages are the same, and the finest of meal won't run much more than $10 a head with a wide array of sides that could serve a small army, let alone two people.
Local restaurants have fixed menus with very limited options. An egg sandwich is literally two fried eggs on bread, with no toppings, and costs about 20 cents. A tiny cup of coffee costs about 3 or 4 cents. Even a pizza, which is about the only thing we ever saw with a condiment on it, runs well under a dollar for a 6″ personal size. And yes, we're being very generous in calling it a pizza in the traditional sense.
So while we can easily go afford that $9.95 lobster at a popular tourist restaurant in old Havana and think nothing of it, we then leave and see a line of over a dozen Cubans waiting for a cheap pizza. And knowing Cuba, that line is going to take a very, very long time as well.
This kind of dual setup occurs just about everywhere, and there are lines and waits, and waits and lines. Tourists deal with almost none of that which only further separates visitors from what Cubans experience every day.
Other Unusual Circumstances
Now, it could be very easy to take all of the above, shrug it off, and move on. But there are some other unusual things that we experienced in Cuba that just made us feel a bit unsettled.
We had a hard time finding toilet paper, and were thankful we had to bring it with us. Bottled water at non-obscene rates was also hard to come by. And there was also having to deal without using a credit card, phone, internet, or any other modern convenience that we've come to be used to.
Sure, that's exactly like how it was to travel 50 years ago, but that doesn't make it any easier in the long run.
Perhaps the most unsettling part was that we even had a museum attendant corner us and ask for food. Not money, food. This was not at some middle of nowhere museum either, but rather one of the largest in central Havana that I will keep nameless for the sake of privacy.
That still bothers me.
In many cases when we travel to less wealthy countries it is easy to overlook the fact that the people have a lower quality of life than we do- if only because our tourist dollars are directly going into the pockets of a local (not to mention we, as visitors, are frequenting the same businesses and shops as the locals in many cases).
It won't make anyone rich, but you'd like to think that your money is making something of a difference in someone's life as small as it may be. Tourism does a lot of things to help the world, and the money certainly is one of the most important.
In Cuba, where so much of the country is state owned, I'm really not so sure that happens.
Those that have access to the tourist scene and can charge money or receive tips in CUC likely have an advantage. There is no doubting that. But those that do not and work elsewhere, even if they do interact with visitors in a sales capacity or at a government run business, do not seem as lucky.
Seeing it all come together is a bit hard to really put into words, which is why it is all so troubling. We as visitors are only witness to it, and have a very limited capacity to be a part of everyday life, let alone do anything at all to help.
Yes, we had a good time in Cuba. But I really can't talk about that in this case.
Too much else is going on that needs to be said.
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