Jan 7, 2013

Trip To Cuba

It's been a while since I haven't posted every day, and it felt strange not to do it - I mean, not posting every day - but I survived it! Wow! That was something! But now I'm back, vacations are over, and even my personal mail is up to a lot, which is unsettling for me, as I like to see all of my mailboxes empty... except of my real life mailbox, where my letters arrive. But anyway, shall we get this show on the road?

As you know, my boyfriend and I spent a few days in Cuba, a place where none of us had gone before. Cuba was a destination interesting for him, as he wanted to see what did it look like, being one of the last remaining Socialist countries in the world. I must admit that Cuba wasn't really a destination that would attract me much, though I do have read some about it and their economical system does intrigue me a lot. Now, I won't get on much details about the travel as I'm really not good at it. You should as my friend Trish, Aileen or Arjen to give you a fabulous recount of a trip. Instead I'll tell you about what I noticed, the things you should be aware of, what you are told and what really goes on. But just for formalities, this was our trip: we arrived to Cuba on Thursday afternoon, got picked up by the transfer we requested, got to the hotel, next day paid a tour at the touristic places of Havana, including a stop at the Cigar Factory, Romeo y Julieta. Then on Saturday we got a trip to Varadero, a fabulous beach 2 or 3 hours away from Havana, then on Sunday woke up freaking early (like 0:45, yes) and caught our flight back to Costa Rica.

Any thing else... we stayed at a Meliá hotel, and used the transfer and touring services in Cuba of a company called Solways.

Now, can I tell you what I meant to tell you? Good.

First of all, if you go there you should know that there's a very, very high chance that your credit and debit cards won't work there, even if you have checked previously. That's because they can't process any type of card which issuing bank or financial entity has any type of connection with the United States. Why? What the hell do you care? It doesn't work. Period. So, if you plan on going - and you should - take cash, though never any amount over US$5000 or you'll have to declare it. Also, don't take American Dollars. They can take them, but the conversion rate is very low, and allegedly - I've no actual data about this - you must pay some extra fee, so you'll end up getting much, much less. Take Euros, those are accepted just fine.

I'm not very good at making reservations for travels, as I basically leave it all in the capable hands of my favorite airlines and Booking.com, however with Cuba you won't find much on this last site. I remembered that I had a membership card for the Meliá hotel's, so I went on it's website and found myself our hotel, and it worked fine. Note of advise: the site took my credit card when I reserved the hotel, since that was managed globally, BUT at the hotel in Cuba they couldn't process it, so just because ut works on the site, it doesn't mean it will work on the hotel. So please, take cash! Listen to me! A good way to know how much you might need is to take the amount of what you're paying for the hotel, multiply it by two and round it up. That's the amount of cash you should take.

Now, one thing we almost always hear about Cuba is how poor it is, how people live in dire conditions, and you may have also heard how they would pest you on the streets begging, asking even for your toothbrush and whatever remaining soap, handcream or old flip flops you can give them. Well, I don't know what sort of Cuba others have gone, but I experienced none of this. We had three cases of people begging, but none of them were really insistent, and actually were quite discreet. This was very, very different than Dominican Republic, where beggers followed you up to two block and wouldn't get a no for an answer. Part of the reason for this - one of our tourist guides later explained to us - is that beggers are forbiden in Cuba. For instance, if a child is caught begging, they will arrest the parents and take away their child. Streets are also full of cops, so there's nothing to be worried about. It is a good idea, though, not to go out after dark, basically because the city is very poorly iluminated, but your chances of being mugged are small.

There's a sort of culture of not giving recipes, which is very unsettling, so whatever you order, you must always make sure you know the prices (and all prices have taxes included, or at least I haven't seen a single menu which would indicate that taxes are not included), and add them up. Why? Because it might happen - specially at the bars of the hotels - that the waiters may try to charge you more. These "overcharges" go around one and two CUC (convertible peso. One Euro buys 1,27 CUC, so you do the maths from here on). So you might say that that's less than an Euro, or not even two, but if you multiply it for every time you go out to eat or have a drink, it becomes a lot, and when you don't have your card at your disposition, you have limited cash AND you remember that you need to pay 25 CUC per person to leave Cuba, then yes, it might add up and become quite an amount.

Now, not all of them are like that, and actually, even though they really need the tips to make ends meet, they can give you amazing examples of honesty. Some of them even go as far as to correct the coworker who's trying to charge you more. On the street they are quite honest with you, and wouldn't even try to either charge you more or keep the change. In any case, if you want to make sure not to be charged more - and thus feel well by choosing to tip them according to your liking - then write down what you consume, and what you ask for the bill you say something in the line of "I'd like the bill, it's #CUC, right?". If they say another number, ask for the written bill.

In some hotels - like the one were we stayed - the lobby becomes full of "high end whores". Some are very evident, and others couldn't be more obvious even if they had a t-shirt on that said "sex for money". It gets even more disturbing when they have a sort of agreement with, say, a bartender or a waiter, who makes sure to keep their sopts free, and place all of their orders before you, even if you have ordered a simple beer or a mojito  30 minutes ago.

To understand a little bit more this behavior, you must understand Cuba and its circumstances better, however if I explain it to you this post would strech eternally, and we won't want that, so I'll do my best to summarize as much as I can, but if you are interested, you'll have to investigate on your own.

Cuba has had a very particular history, much of which has been often greatly distorted by some, or at least told leaving out the parts that don't agree with the point of view of one or another part. Most Cubans, however, who live in the Island, are okay with the current regime, and you can hear them refer to the change of regime, and Fidel Castro's coming to power as "the triumph of the Revolution". You may agree or you may not, but what you have to understand is that this is their view, this is how they live and you must respect that at all times. I say this because it doesn't matter how evident it is, you can still find idiots - like two Spanish women we met - who go as far as call everything Cubans do and strive for to be bad or even "shit", and claim that the current president of the country, Mr. Raul Castro, or his brother, Mr. Fidel Castro isn't the "real president of Cuba, but Batista", the president that was deposed with the triumph of the Revolution.

Cuba is beautiful and there are many squares and parks and buildings of astonishing beauty. There are also other architectural structures that are amazing, which were build before the triumph of the Revolution. Cuba was then a land of dreams for foreigners with money, but many Cubans lived in dire conditions. After the triumph of the Revolution (out of respect, I prefer to used the same term Cubans use, which I heard them use), foreigners and the most powerful Cuban families left the country and their properties (you can't just pack a house, now can you), and the new Government took posession of those buildings turning them into Administrative buildings, for the smaller ones, or making hospitals, schools or houses for the people. Many buildings in the city have deteriorated, but others are being restored.

Wages in Cuba are low, with the salary of a physician being the highest, and which goes around 35 CUC. After the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the subsequent withdrawl of the support it gave to Cuba, the country started having a lot of issues, specially due to the embargo it has, which keeps them from having commercial relationships with the United States and many countries who are political or economical partners of it. When you consider that nearly all of the American countries depend on their commercial relationship with the United States, you certainly can see the bleak perspective Cuba had to make money out of trade. So they did what they could.

When the support disappeared, they decided to open to International Tourism. At this time they came up with a currency that foreigners would use - the CUC. Slowly all prices were given in CUC, and these matched European prices. Shoes, for instance, can go up to 60 CUC, so even a doctor would have to save for a while to buy them. Sounds harsh, right? Then, there's an ice cream parlor in Havana, were people stand in long lines because it's the only place where they can buy icecream with local money. The Cuban Peso worths less than the CUC. One CUC costs them about 20 local pesos.

At the same time, the majority of the houses are provided by the Government. There aren't all that many - you can't really see new housing projects being built - so the housing units are passed throught the families. They pay no rent, no tax, and nobody takes it away from them. All they pay are the amenities, which are basically electrical power and water. Houses don't have Internet, only hotels and a few companies. Even there, Internet has a speed of 15 kbps... sort of.

The Government also makes available for all Cubans a Basic Basket of Staples, which costs them nearly nothing, and both healthcare and education are completely free. They have the best medical service, and even the medications are all for free for them. Regarding education, they must study up until they are 14, but they can continue studying and go to the University. University is also for free, however only those who pass the admission tests. This way only those who would really study, who really have the passion for a given career get into it.

So, at the end of the day, we have a nation with people who have needs, who can't pay for luxuries, and can't afford things many of us consider basic parts of our lives, but they have all they need so that no one lives in misery.

They've got me thinking. You see, yes, there's these people who's strugling and are even willing to do things that aren't exactly right or moral to get what they want, but there's also other people who struggle with what they have, even in the most dire conditions, with the world against them, and they remain honest and make things work. Some are able to see the greater good, some don't want to take from others because their life is hard, and assume that others have it easy and must pay for them. Some acknowledge their limitations, but know also how to count their blessings. These are the people I admire.

Do we really need to buy shoes every week, and have the latest mobile phone? As a matter of fact, no. What would happen if we were to concentrate only on what we really need? If we were able to say "enough" and not fall prey of marketing? Maybe we would be able to appreciate the actual, real world that surround us. Maybe we would be able to stop our prejudices and be better people. There are many chances, and I'd like to see if I can try some of those out.

Another 2013 Resolution: I want to become more sensible, more rational about my expenses, and find my basics, what I really need, and cut off all the unnecesary excesses of my life.

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