Or, why Cuba is better than Italy…
All images are made by the author
Note: this story was written after a visit to Cuba in 2005.
Do you find the Italian climate a bit too temperate? Come to Cuba! Here you can experience the instant forming of two Rivers of Babylon from your armpits. Every day! From 8:00 AM until 9:00 PM. It also makes the use of sunscreen a challenge. It washes away within 15 minutes (resulting in burned flesh on your shoulders…)
You are bored with the eternal Italian blue skies. Well, Cuba presents a hurricane every now and then. With NO extra charge!
Italians are renowned for pointing a floodlight on every stone that is older than their republic. How refreshing Cuba will be. With a little luck you will discover on arrival (in Trinidad for instance) that there is no electricity at all, in the whole city. This way you are fully able to experience that precious 1700’s nocturnal atmosphere. When you are really hitting the jackpot, like we did, you will have the pleasure to discover that also the water supply is medieval, or in other words, non-existing.
Side effect: on average 3 tourists a night stumble into one of the many potholes of the Cuban infrastructure, breaking a leg. Or worse, loosing their flashlight.
Are you tired of eating pasta and pizza every day. Are you dazzled by the choices provided by the typical Italian trattoria? Or, do you suffer from an acute beans-addiction? In that case, you will be pleasantly surprised in Cuba! In Cuba, the menu will not have ANY surprises for you. It is also independent of the restaurant or city of your choice. The possible “choices” are: beans, rice (or rice and beans mixed into one dish. Mind you, this is regarded as extravagance) and chicken . When you are very lucky, pork is optional (my advise: don’t!). And yes, do you like to have a bite during lunch time? All restaurants are very proud to present you their lunch suggestion of … rice, beans and chicken.
Thumps up for: Daiquiri, Mojito and all other rum-based cocktails. Rum is ludicrously cheap in Cuba, and let’s not forget: it has an antiseptic effect! Cuba must be the only place on earth where a bottle of rum is cheaper than a bottle of water. Of course, one could also say that bottled water is quite expensive in Cuba.
Thumps down for: non-bottled drinking water (you will be better off not drink it, as it contains an interesting variety of samples from the local, Cuban fauna), coffee, tea (terrible!), milk (only fatty and warm).
During the day, in the absence of bottled water, one stays alive by drinking large quantities of local soda-drinks and mango-juice.
In Cuba you know very well when you are being swindled. It’s either a very suspicious individual (he or she will reveal himself when saying: “my friend…”), trying to sell fake-cigars, an overpriced taxi ride, or their sister. Or it is the omnipresent government, trying to extract the last Yankee-dollar from you, western capitalist swine. When using the services of a state bank, you will discover that the commission fee is a whopping 12,5%. Cuba is also the only country that I know of where you have to pay a tax of 25 dollars before you are allowed to leave (to flee…) the country.
We were even swindled when we received our money at the bank. The lady “erroneously” gave us 340, instead of 350 pesos. She was almost as good as the magician that we met in Santiago de Cuba. He was far nicer, though! And cheaper.
Attitute towards the USA:
You think that Italians (and with them, all intelligent euro-citizens) are critical towards the USA? Go to Cuba! All walls are covered in patriotic war-cries and anti-USA slogans. It’s quite typical that all North American tourists in Cuba are claiming to be Canadians by birth. I never knew that there were that many Canadians with a Texan accent!
The Cubans do love cheap American clothing (gangsta look). And, to make the story more confusing, the American dollar is also very well received. Talking about a double morale…
So, you like the warn-down look of the typical Italian houses? Then Cuba must be the absolute Valhalla for you. Paint your house? Building it with bricks? Nonsense, a couple of concrete slabs will suffice. Or, better still, build yourself a wooden shack! With the added bonus of a guaranteed new interior/exterior after each hurricane season.
You don’t like the pushy, intimidating and touchy Italian! Well, Cuba will be a relief for you. Apart from the swindlers (remember: “ my friend…”!), people in official functions are quite ignoring you, capitalist bastar…, umh tourist. Why provide service, anyway? All shops and restaurants are state-owned. All tips go to Fidel… You can sit in a restaurant and wait for 15 minutes, at a sticky and filthy table, before someone gives you a menu (chicken, rice and beans…). It is not uncommon that you will find out, when you placed your order (30 minutes later), that they are out of chicken that day.
Unlike Italy with it’s bears, foxes and mafiosi, Cuba contains no big, dangerous animals. It compensates with zillions of tiny animals, though. Bugs, mosquitoes, spiders. And as a bonus, they will not hesitate to bring you a visit, preferably during the night.
You are not thrilled by the exquisite quality mix of boobs, long legs and bottoms on the Italian state television? Cuban state television will be a relief for you. Nice bombastic propaganda programs, telling you about those heroic Cuban workers. A cooking program, with a cook making a nice dish with chickens, rice and beans. Fidel Castro speaking during prime time, for four hours on a row…
Interesting detail: we walked through the neighborhood during the Castro speech, and from every house his voice could be heard. But when we entered our guest house, the television was on, and on maximum volume, in an empty room,. While all inhabitants were doing their own thing and totally ignoring ‘el Comandante’.
You melancholically pine for the old times of the Deutschmark, the Franc and the Lire? When part of the fun of going on holiday was the possession of heaps of strange coins, with obscure values? Cuba does not have the Euro, but they do have two sorts of pesos. Within a day your wallet is a total chaos of banknotes. Why two sorts of pesos, you are asking yourself? Well, there is the peso nacionales, the money for the poor Cubans. The paper money is too dirty to even be used as toilet paper (what would otherwise be a good idea, as toilet paper is, per square centimeter, significantly more expensive than the peso nacionales paper money). With it you can buy chickens, or rice, or beans. Also, it enables you to go and eat in a peso-restaurant (restaurant for the locals). As the interiors of most of these restaurants are inhumanely dirty and depressing, most tourists will restrain from eating in those joints and go to the “Convertibiles” restaurants. During my one and only visit to a peso-restaurant, my hand was involuntarily glued to the table when I accidentally touched it. I had to struggle to free myself.
In the state-owned “Convertibiles” restaurants you will need the peso convertibiles to pay. As the exchange rate is 24 peso nacionales for one peso convertibile, it is absolutely clear to everyone that the convertibiles restaurants are quite more expensive. In spite of this fact, and disregarding the occasional masochistic pervert, most tourists are only too eager to spend their money in the convertibiles restaurants. The menu is exactly the same, of course. No need to repeat it here. But they will wash the tablecloths for you once in a while, and you won’t find samples of the menu of yesterday on your cutlery.
Everything else the tourist wants, or desperately needs during his stay (rum, digestion medicine, women, toilet paper, etc.) is (over)priced in the convertibiles money.
Nonexistent in Cuba!! Useless exercise.
Trains and buses in Cuba are supposed to be available for tourists (albeit very overpriced). But the following situation always looms in the background: on entering the bus/train station, a depressed official will inform you that “there is no bus today, and there will be no bus for the next X days”, indifferently shrugging his or her shoulders. Always referring to the fact that “there was a hurricane last week/month/year”. By far, the easiest way to move around in Cuba is to find yourself an illegal cabdriver, who is willing to bring you anywhere in his pre-war Lada. Strangely enough this option is not that much more expensive than the train or bus. You must have a strong faith in Russian technology and engineering (and duct tape and thin tie-wraps), though. Most local cars are totally worn-out and look like they can collapse at any minute. Some of them actually do! Be prepared for sudden stops, during which the driver has to perform an emergency operation to keep the car functioning (meanwhile asking you for a financial donation to do it!).
The socialist society
Where Italy offers you a fine example of a democratic society, where all decisions are made by a powerful elite of old men, under suspicious circumstances, Cuba offers you a fine one-party socialist climate, where all decisions are made by a powerful elite of old men, under suspicious circumstances.
For some of us tourists, Cuba offers an intriguing possibility to experience life in a socialist society. For (most?) others, Cuba is just another far away destiny, with nice beaches, good booze, and cheap women.
Look for a private accommodation when traveling the island. Lots of locals are offering a room in their houses. But be warned, living as the Cubans live can be a sobering experience, in respect to the absence of luxury. But it is probably also the only opportunity to openly talk with the locals. Cubans, who happen to be genuinely friendly ánd hospitable.