Friday, November 11, 2011

Viva Cuba!

I arrived in Cuba to a group of about 20 guards, standing fully armed all around the exit of the aircraft. I immediately felt like a POW and was sure not to make eye contact with any of them – just in case they thought I looked suspicious!

The guards lead us into the airport terminal and directed us to the booths ahead (customs and immigration). There another guard would question every individual as to reasons for entering Cuba, prior visits, etc. The word “interrogation” came to mind on more than one occasion.

Once outside of the terminal our large group was told to exchange our money at the money bureau and we were guided (amid more guards) to shuttle busses, which were waiting to take us to our respective hotels.  One feels an adrenalin rush and excitement at all the security, the huge rifles and the massive cigars hanging from their very ample lips – the thought of being ushered to a waiting police van by a guard with a rifle pressed into your back is very real, and I must admit, part of the excitement for me.

What fascinated me was that Cuba has two currencies; the Cuban Peso (which is the currency that the locals are paid with) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (a currency specifically used for and by tourists).

Tourists cannot use the local currency and the Cubans are not able to use the convertible pesos unless they take the money to the bank to have it exchanged (at which point they will be investigated on how they received the convertible currency). One Cuban Convertible Peso is equivalent to 25 regular Cuban Pesos. $1.20 CND will buy you 1 convertible Cuban Peso, yes that’s right, the Convertible Cuban Peso is a stronger currency than the Canadian dollar!

As you can well understand this split currency causes much bribery and corruption, particularly in the tourism industry, where tourist guides and hotel staff, including waiting staff are able to get tipped in Convertible Pesos and when they bank their money, there are no questions asked (by the government). The average monthly wage in Cuba is 18 Cuban Pesos a month - per person - regardless of age, or profession. People in more senior positions within a business unit are liable for a better income, i.e 2 or 3 Cuban Pesos more than the average worker, however any one person can earn a maximum of only 25 Cuban Pesos per month.

The Government provides housing. Residents who are able to live in their houses for 10 years or more are eligible to own it with no money being exchanged. Sadly if one moves around quite a bit the prospect of owning your own home becomes harder to grasp.  Each home is occupied by between 12 and 20 family members!

I spent some time in Havana – the capital city of Cuba. It was an incredibly hot and humid day, but a great day to be exploring. My port of call was Revolution Square, for a day of shopping... Girls, don’t get all excited here... there’s absolutely no fun in shopping since they have no shops to speak of. Certainly no Burburry, Prada or La Coste!

Havana is a beautiful mix of colonial architecture and distant memories of a once extremely opulent and highly wealthy country.  When visiting Cuba one gets the feeling that the entire country is still trapped in the fifties. 

Sadly after the revolution, the country was not kept to the same standard that it was previously in and it began to decline. The buildings still stand, however they are very dilapidated and grubby.  The streets are narrow and cobble stoned and there is evidence that the pavements were once tiled with high gloss ceramic tiles.

Dwellings are among businesses and because there is absolutely NO advertising it is hard to know which doors one can enter and which one should stay out of.  The difference, I noted was that if it was a shop of sorts, the doorway would be easily accessible, by contrast, the entrance to a dwelling would have a person sitting there obscuring your entry.

The main mode of transportation is bicycle. There are a considerable number of bicycles on the roads and an even larger quantity of bicycle taxi’s.  Incidentally, I saw very few obese people around!  There is also a high percentage of horses with carts, ancient cars and people operating wheel chairs.  The Medico (hospital) is in the center of Revolution Square, among shops, houses and dead street rats.

The average age of the Cubans is 35, with a 97 % literacy rate. There are only two pathways for any individual living in Cuba: the schooling pathway or rehab.  Most Cubans are very highly educated but due to the scarcity of jobs, there’s a strong probability that you could be served by your waiter who is actually a qualified doctor or lawyer.

The Government allows a certain number of positions a year for qualified students. They will announce that they have enough positions for 20 doctors, if there are 60 qualified doctors then the other 40 qualified doctors can either go on to study something else, or they can enter into the working environment in an entirely different position which is more sought after, i.e a gardener or cleaner.

Toilet paper is a rare commodity! Every trip out of the hotel we were advised to take our own toilet paper with us. The situation was so severe that when going to a washroom in the city (any city in Cuba) there is no toilet paper at all and if one goes into a hotel, one has to ask for paper – if you’ve forgotten to take your own... and in that event you are given three single ply blocks.

My favorite activity during the entire trip was getting a ride in a hang-glider, which had a rubber duck attached to the bottom of it. The hang-glider took off from the seashore and landed back on the seashore.  The driver (or pilot) took me for a 15-minute flight around the countryside, which gave me a great perspective of where I was staying.  I was also able to take my camera with me, so the photographs were great.

I spent time snorkeling in a marine breeding ground at the inlet from the sea into the estuary. The currents were wild and one had to hang onto ropes to be able to swim against the tide.

I went boating, twice. The first time was in the mangrove swamps. A beautiful area filled with air plants and orchids clinging to the mangroves. I also saw a humming bird perched on its nest about 20 cm above the water.  I saw an interesting animal called a Hutia, which is part of the rodent family but is much larger than a rat.  The Hutia is endemic to Cuba and ranges in size from 8 to 24 inches.  Some of the people who were on tour with me fed the Hutia Vodka and Orange!  I imagine it’s not the first time because these little critters were very partial to the poison.

The second boat ride was riding in convoy (two people per boat) and swapping drivers half way for the return ride. We did an obstacle course, which was awesome.

Bicycle taxi’s are prevalent throughout Cuba, so it was something I felt I should experience.   The taxi ride was spectacular, my destination:  Cigar Factory!  My taxi driver had his radio playing full ball with the latest Cuban music blaring, as it announced our approach.  The making of cigars is interesting to watch.  There are rows and rows of workers sitting at long desks rolling the cigars.  They look happy to receive visitors and one or two are keen to hand one a cigar when the supervisor is not watching!   I was surprised at how many underage workers they had, although my guide assured me that the kids were all of a healthy legal working age.

 My group took a steam train ride and went to a sugarcane mill, where the locals put on a show for the tourists, depicting the old days when slavery was very much en vogue.  We took a bus ride to the capital city of the province we were staying in – Ciego De Avila – about two hours drive from were we were at.  We were able to walk around the city, go into some of the shops and visit a local museum, displaying some wonderful pieces of antiques and displays of the way the people lived many years ago.

We went into a pub, which is actually an outdoor pub where the locals played music for us while we sipped rum punches.  The Cubans have amazing rhythm and cannot sit still when the music plays, they immediately jump up and dance a sultry number for all to enjoy.

One of the highlights of my trip was hiring a motorcycle for a day.  I rode all over the island, and was able to cover much more ground than I could by foot. I went to a city called Moron – pronounced “Morong” - the locals are highly offended if you call them Morons!

Spices are not readily available in Cuba, so understandably the food is rather bland.  If you’re holidaying at a resort, there will be a number of restaurants available for you to frequent.  It is important to book well in advance (or pay a top bribery fee) to get in at short notice.

The Cuban people are very friendly, with a quick sense of humor. Despite their history of communism and the reign of Fidel and Raul Castro, they are an extremely happy and proud nation.

They praise Fidel and continually tell of how fortunate they are to have him and Raul as their leader. They all say they are happy with communism and that they have absolutely no complaints.  One can however notice the corruption on the streets and in the resorts. The locals sell cigars on the black market, in fact they sell anything on the black market and they will do anything for a tip!

The countryside is very tropical with many palm trees, beautiful white beaches and aquamarine waters.  There’s an abundance of water sports available and if you’re an adrenalin junkie, then this is the place for you!

Facts on Cuba:

  • Ruled by Fidel Castro since 1959 for 49 years, Cuba finally handed over the reigns to his younger brother Raul Castro in 2008.
  • Cuba is the most populated country in the whole of the Caribbean.
  • Cuba is home to hurricanes and destructive storms since it lies on the path of violent weather.
  • The island of Cuba is the seventeenth largest island in the world by land area.
  • The total land area of Cuba is 110,860 kilometers square.
  • Cuba attracts around two million visitors per year.
  • It has a number of beaches, colonial architecture, favorable climate and a rich cultural history to invite tourists from all over the world.

~  Vanessa