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Homeland or Death - Cuba

The statue of "the first tourist of Cuba" - Columbus, did not greet us in Cuba, honestly, I am not even sure if there is one there at all. To my kids, the country smelled like cigars and communism.

Grand Hotel Manzana Kempinski. La Havana

The funniest part? Even when there was always someone puffing smoke around, I could not smell the cigars at all. They just do not stink like cigarettes to me. But as for the ghost of communism, I felt like I was catching whiffs of it everywhere. I didn't even need Botox – forty years disappeared unnoticed somewhere :)

The only change was the trio of musketeers: instead of Marx-Engels-Lenin, our whole trip was accompanied by Jose Marti-Che Guevara-Fidel Castro. Though ideologically, Marti does not exactly fit into the bunch, there were mostly monuments and photos of him all over Cuba (they are everywhere, even in other countries like Spain, Mexico, etc.). Jose Marti is hailed as the "apostle of independence from Spain," plus he is a poet, writer, and one of the most renowned intellectuals of late 19th-century Latin America. Marti is revered by everyone in Cuba: revolutionaries and their opponents alike.

Jose Marti. Havana Vieja

His verses became part of the famous Cuban song "Guantanamera." It seems Castro even leveraged Marti's ideology to his advantage (even though Marti criticized US imperialistic policies, he also portrayed them as a model of societal structure, singling out democracy and a multi-party system). Interestingly, they're both buried in the same Santa Ifigenia Cemetery in Santiago de Cuba, in the opposite part of Cuba from the capital.

Before doing my homework on the trip, I was warned that you can't criticize Fidel Castro in Cuba. And although no Cuban we met directly said anything bad about him, we encountered plenty of folks wanting to leave the country. Since we visited during a festive period (New Year celebration), people were sad, sharing stories of families being torn apart while also sharing tales of those leaving, taking advantage of US perks for Cuban emigrants, while others talked about the struggles of trying to immigrate illegally to the US (Cubans only have one route through Nicaragua, which doesn't require visas, but they need to pay hefty sums (min. US 20,000) to smugglers, called "coyotes"; some Americans sponsor a few people. Spanish descendants have the opportunity to get Spanish citizenship and thus move to Europe.

It seems like, in another country, socialism paradise is mostly confined to posters. Maybe that's why even representatives from leftist organizations in the US come here to Cuba to learn something. I had a short ride with some young women from the US capital, one of whom told me her acquaintance had been on such a political trip, and on their way back, immigration officers had a lot of questions for her. But when the girl mentioned the US government doesn't like Cuba's system, it got me wondering why such trips are even possible in the first place.

And what is the US trying to achieve with its embargo? Is it a desire to stoke such hatred among the people for the system that they would spark another revolution? After all, 634 attempts to get rid of Fidel failed... The woman couldn't answer my questions; she said she hadn't connected all the information in her head. Neither have I. I came back with more questions than I left with: about politics, the economy, people's habits, values, and their desire/ability to live better...

"Listen to everyone, trust no one, and draw your own conclusions" – that was the best advice from our fantastic guide in Trinidad. Though I definitely will not be concluding after just eight days in Cuba. I'll have to go back and spend much more time there. After my first impressions, I think I would want to spend another 5-7 days just in Havana alone, and getting to know other parts of the country would require at least 2-3 weeks. And if I wanted to dive or just soak up the sun, well, that would be another story... Cuba is huge; just traveling from east to west can take half a day (over 1000 km). Getting around is not that simple. "Viazul" buses are comfy but quite slow, car rentals are expensive and sometimes tricky, and I still couldn't figure out the real deal with gas. Looking at gas stations, you'd either see no cars or a line stretching through several streets.

According to one taxi driver, tourists book cars in their countries without knowing there might not be gas in Cuba. But another explained that gas restrictions are for locals (10 liters), yet if you are a taxi driver, you can get more, and there is always some reserve for tourists. So, the most convenient way to travel is probably by "collectivos" or microbuses – they are cheaper than regular taxis, follow set routes, and are quite speedy. The key thing is they leave on time. But in Cuba, time often depends more on divine intervention; an hour can easily stretch into several, and sometimes the transport you have booked just does not show up at all, as it happened to us. I could not verify, as usually, our Airbnb hosts arranged them upon my request, but that morning, we were informed there was no gas. Street vendors tried to convince us the car would come. But being skeptical, we opted for the bus, a little longer ride, but cheaper (a "collectivo" from Vinales to Havana costs US 20-25 per person, a taxi – US 100, bus – US 13 per person). As one Italian (by the way, we met quite a few Italians, as well as Brazilians, Germans, and Russians) rightly noted, there is certainly a lot to learn about entrepreneurship from Cubans. Though it was somewhat ironic, there is truth to it. Tourism is one of the main sources of income, especially in the private sector, and earnings in this field are considerably higher even compared to a professor or a doctor (average US 26 per month). Those who can not earn legally from tourists find creative ways to get their share. Out of curiosity, we got caught up in a scam too: we went to buy cigars at a factory worker's clearance sale, which only lasted two days :)

Cigar outlet for the "workers" :)

The country is definitely worth attention, but it is not without its contrasts and inconveniences. It is eternal summer, although in December-January, it's winter in Cuba, and it is cold for the locals, though we could not have asked for better weather (around 23C during the day), maybe we were not quite prepared for it ourselves :) Cuba has fantastic beaches, I know; I read about them, saw them in pictures, and talked to people, but I did not visit – our priorities were elsewhere. Our beach time was short: we snorkeled for a few hours in Trinidad.

For now, everything in Cuba is still very unique: no identical hotels, and suddenly waking up on the bus, you will not see Home or Office Depot, McDonald's, and the like signs (in Mexico, sometimes you wonder where you are).

The capital is shocking with its contrasting views: one place resembles Western Europe, and within a few minutes, you find yourself in Rio's favelas. If all the old buildings were ever restored, Havana could vie for the title of one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Cuba - the homeland of salsa, son, mambo. 'The most dance-oriented society on earth,' as Nobel Prize laureate Gabriel García Márquez put it, whose novel 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' is the second most popular book in Spanish after Cervantes' 'Don Quixote.'

Music is everywhere, at any time of the day. Of course, in the evening, it is hard to pass a block without hearing live music, but you can even have breakfast with it.

Since US citizens can not travel to Cuba as tourists, most, I think, out of the fourteen possible options, choose to 'help the Cuban people.' You have to fill out a form even when booking Airbnb accommodations, tours, and so on. Since hotels are under state control, US residents can not stay in them, and it is also tricky for payment: no US cards work there. I was hoping I could use British Revolut, but for some reason, they did not allow card usage in Cuba either. Guides told us that Americans book hotels through intermediaries (tourism agencies) in other countries, like Canada, the UK, etc. You have to keep the receipts for five years in case you would be audited. I do not know how often it happens in reality: when we returned to the US, we were not asked any questions. Then I felt sorry that we did not dare to bring back rum ( 'Havana Club' isn't sold in the US, and its owners didn't succeed like Bacardi, who managed to escape and relocate their business from the country) :) The US government prohibits bringing to the USA not only rum but also cigars (Cuban farmers can keep only ten percent of cigars for their own needs, everything else must be handed over to the government).

Havana. Bacardi rum
The former Bacardi company office building

"You have to watch not only where you live but also where you eat :) To be honest, adhering to these requirements isn't difficult; on the contrary, government establishments are usually inaccessible because they only accept card payments. And since none of our cards work, the problem solves itself :) However, another concern arises - you need to have enough cash. How much? Online it says from US 50, the average is US 100 per person per day, especially if accommodation and some tours are paid through Airbnb or with a travel company. Of course, it's very easy to spend a lot more :)

So, about various other details, I'll have to tell you another time because to tell briefly and simply is impossible - the life of Cubans, according to them, is not simple.







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