Having added Cuba into our plan a month ago, we had done no research, had no guidebooks etc. so turned up fairly ignorant of what it'd be like. Reviews online tend to be focused on 2 week holidays where people don't stray far from the all-inc mega-hotels so we arrived in Havana with our first two nights booked and a rough plan of the circuit we wanted to do.
We of course knew Cuba is a communist country but didn't know how this would manifest itself in 21st Century living/travelling. On arrival it felt fairly typical for Central America but after a few weeks here the differences are apparent. Normal route blogs to follow shortly but here's some of the things we found in every town/city that give reason to feel love and frustration at Cuba. Often at the same same time.
There is no internet. What fresh hell is this?
There is one telephony system (state owned), and while some affluent houses have access to restricted internet access (state controlled and monitored) the vast majority don't. And there is no such thing as wifi outside of 5* hotels where it costs around $8 an hour and goes at the speed of old-world dial up.
Aside from keeping in touch with people, the biggest challenge this presents is how to find accommodation, travel info etc. To balance out the need for digital intel however is the fact that things don't really change in Cuba so the bus timetable has been the same for 10 yrs - you just have to ask someone.
The downside to this is if you ask the wrong person they'll lie to you in order to try and make money (''there's only one bus a day and it's gone but my friend has a very cheap taxi'') and the red tape in Cuba is bonkers so what's true for a local might not apply for a tourist- type of bus, time of departure, ability to buy a ticket in advance and the currency you pay in are different if you're not a national so the best of advice is often wrong.
Outside of the beach resorts there are either state run hotels (expensive, soulless) or Casa Particulars - peoples spare rooms. Once your children have left home (you're only allowed a house to meet your needs so no-one gets spare room until this point), enterprising Cubans can apply for a license to offer B&B. They get a sign to hang on the wall and you can knock on the door and ask for a bed on pretty much any street in any town.
The casa's we stayed in ranged from 1 spare room in a pensioners apartment where we were clucked over, to a colonial mansion with 5 rooms to rent and steady flow of other tourists to talk to.
All are cheap and are of a high standard- Cuba is a land of 'make do and mend'- they're very house-proud and entrepreneurial so keeping guests happy with clean bathrooms, big breakfasts and a fridge full of beer is good business sense.
For us it gave a good insight into how people really live - while they don't talk too openly about their lives as they don't know who's listening, it showed us a side of Cuba we couldn't have accessed otherwise. It also gave us some great home cooked meals as respite from foraging in the streets.
Communism means everyone gets the same education up until the age of national service. After that you can become a worker, or continue education and chose a qualification deemed useful to the country. As a result (if the stats are to be believed), Cuba has a 98% literacy achievement and a very low ratio of patients to doctors/dentists/teachers. Education and healthcare are deemed as big success stories. A doctor earns the same as a shop worker or a road cleaner- around $20 CUCs a month after tax (although housing and basic food allowance don't come out of this).
After the revolution (1960) Castro passed one of many new laws that said if you rented a house today, tomorrow you owned it. Great for tenants, bad for landlords. Since then everyone has had their own property but can't buy or sell -they can only trade them.
Food and fuel rations are equal for all and people queue in the government shops to get their basics weighed out each week. Trading between neighbours is common and as a result people are always wandering in and out of each other's houses borrowing and lending making it very hard to tell who actually lives where.
Private commerce exists but is heavily controlled by the state - if you grow your own veg, you can only sell at a higher price than rations are valued at and are limited to the amount of land you can farm. It's very usual to hear people each morning wheeling a barrow up the streets shouting their wares for sale.
Restaurants are either state owned - cheap, bland, strip lighting, very soviet- or private paladors. Like the casa's they're people's houses who will set the table in their hall/front room and tell you what they've got in. To run a Palador you need a license ($150 a month) and have to give 10% of all revenue to the state. You can only have a max of 12 seats and your advertised prices must be higher than the state restaurants.
Like the Casa's, Paladors are a great source of income provided you can cover your costs (license fees are fixed regardless of trade throughput) so when tourist volumes are low, competition verges on desperate.
The upshot of all of this is that Casa's are as likely to be run by Drs who are only needed 2 days a week as they don't have that many patients, as pensioners, as 40-something aspiring hoteliers who's first born has just left home. Taxi drivers are often degree educated but can make more money driving (fares that don't go on the meter are profit) than teaching. Everyone turns their hand to everything to earn an extra few dollars as disposable income is the only thing that buys any differences to life. Especially if those extra notes are in CUCs (tourist money) and not national pesos which are worth 1/25 of a CUC.
That said, the shops have nothing much to buy once you get your extra income. Import rules mean there's very little thats not Cuban produced to buy. Shops have most of their stock in the window display and when you walk in, it's a till on an old wooden counter and not much else. A plain shirt costs the same as a months wage, a twin tub costs a years income.
Contrary to the Disney version of Cuba the resorts showcase, people don't drive old American muscle cars unless they're taxiing tourists around. Instead the majority of cars are Ladas with very little other than an engine and a wheel in them. We got taxis that broke down every 15 miles (but were promptly fixed by the driver), that had no seat padding, no door or window handles, and had been painted with emulsion to hold it all together. In the land of the blind and all that though - to own a car is in itself a big investment and people drive whatever they can with pride.
When Castro and his gang overthrew the despot Batiste (always referred to as 'the despot' Just as any American is referred to as the 'Imperialist Yankee'!), all good citizens became a member of the CDR. This group made everyone the eyes and ears of the Leader, informing on neighbours failing to comply with the new regime, grassing on people having suspicious activity around them etc. This group still exists today and while most Cubans wouldn't dream of keeping tabs on their neighbours, people who don't join find it difficult to get their ration card or to access their bank accounts. As such while Cubans are very friendly, they are still guarded about what they say to who. Particularly foreigners as association with non-nationals caused a lot of disappearances over the years. We would love to have asked people a thousand questions about life here but our language inability, and awareness of the problems that could cause meant we didn't. Nor could we google any info, or read any books about society because while we're here, we can only access what the government wants us to access.
Viva la revolucion
55 years have passed since the rebels won their war but the amount of pro-Revolution material makes it feel like it was a year ago. Every rock face has a painting of one of the erstwhile commanders, hoardings that would advertise diet coke back home, shout a message of victory from a uniformed Fidel, houses have paintings of the flag on their walls, of Che, of 'the Cuban 5' (3 are still currently held by the USA) - it's everywhere you look.
Instead of the scouts/guides kids here go to Youth Communist groups and learn marching and why the west is wrong.
The museums are of course partisan in their views but we were still surprised to learn that the CIA were responsible for Dengue Fever, swine flu, and a hurricane in the 80s. They also broadcast over 100 channels of anti-Cuban radio but no-one hears them because Cuban intelligence, always one step ahead of the Imperialist Yankees, block them all.
Despite all of what would feel like an Orwellian regime of oppression to us, people here are largely very upbeat. Music is a massive part of society and no-one wastes any time in busting a few moves wherever, whenever. Rum is drunk in huge quantities and being a nationally brewed drink is in abundance for very little cost. Cigars likewise are smoked liberally by all. In each city we've visited there have been numerous bars that host live music and dance every night til the early hours. Maybe communism is much more bearable when you live in the Caribbean?
Freedom from the trappings of consumerism means all people are equal, no-one goes hungry, and the state looks after young and old alike.
The inability to access books, music, films that haven't been state approved and to talk and travel freely means a lot of people are increasingly unhappy. Raul Castro is making some big changes in his final few years as leader, undoubtedly to pacify the demand for an overhaul, but Cuba in the next 5 years will be fascinating to watch.
Overall a challenge to back pack around, a challenge to our political sensibilities but such an enjoyable hospitable country it was made a lot lot easier. We left very glad we've seen in now, but also very glad to be part of the democratic, consumerist, imperialist West.
GET ME SOME WIFI NOW!!!