As a woman you might have a hard time getting used to Cuba – and as a blonde woman traveling alone like me, much harder. For three weeks, I received comments and hisses in my head from just about every man on the street, not to mention the kissing noises I heard around me all day. In my naiveté, I approached old men – who were probably past their flirting age – still friendly, but it soon became apparent that they were no less than their younger colleagues in picking up techniques. Nor in raunchy comments.
My consolation was that Cuban women also suffer greatly from the not always desired attention from men. The downside for me was that I wasn’t used to it the way Cuban women are. Additionally, I got three times the attention due to my height and blonde hair. A female Australian tourist with an Asian appearance finally had a relaxing evening when she went into town with me; for the first time the Cubans ignored “la Chinita” and only bothered the blond Dutch.
Some of the compliments: “You remind me of an Australian singer, and if you had been her, I would have asked for your autograph”; “You are so beautiful, do you have that beauty from your father or from your mother?”; “If I didn’t live that far away I would have taken you to my house instead of taking you to your casa” (the taxi driver); “Love has no age, we are both calm and taciturn, so we are a good match” (my 20-year-old guide in Viñales, who clearly did not know me well yet); “So Holland has no mountains? But are there just as beautiful women as you? ” (the guide in the Sierra Maestra).
Unfortunately, it was only in the last few days that I realized that responding enthusiastically with a silly comment works best against my own irritation and further advances. In any case, after three weeks, I not only came back from vacation very relaxed, but also with an unrealistically large ego and bubbling with self-confidence!
Public transport in Cuba is well organized. If you are a foreigner and have cash, then you don’t have to book 15 days in advance for a seat on the Astro bus, you don’t have to take the dilapidated train, and you certainly don’t have to spend half days under a viaduct waiting for a lift. No, with hard currency you buy a ticket one hour in advance for the Víazul bus, a comfortable coach that departs more punctually than the average Dutch train.
However, after two bus trips with Víazul, I was ready for a more Cuban experience than five hours in the air-con, with two seats at my disposal, surrounded by fellow backpackers, sleeping with their i-pods on. Nothing more boring than that, so on to an alternative that could at least provide a good travelogue. The train met that condition quite well, so I decided in Camagüey that I could venture the distance to Bayamo (five bus hours away) by train. I set my alarm for 5.15 am and cheerfully walked towards the station. Fifteen minutes later I was standing in front of the counter, where I obtained a ticket without waiting in line. So far, so good.
Before I settled in the waiting room for the remaining hour until departure, I asked to be sure whether the train would indeed leave according to plan at 7 a.m. The lady behind the counter told me that the train to Bayamo was slightly delayed. Ehm… How much exactly? Half an hour? No, two hours. Ai… It had gone remarkably smooth until now, this was to be expected. Trying to get rid of the frustration, I sat down on one of the metal benches. Waiting for three hours was okay with a good book, and hadn’t I been so eager to have the Cuban experience? In the meantime, I read in my travel guide that 80% of Cuban trains are late and 20% not at all. I started to feel a bit uncomfortable and had to make an effort not to think about the Camagüey bus station, from which the Víazul left.
At 9.30 am there still was no train to be seen, and I became curious about the state of affairs. However, Cubans are quite reluctant to approach foreigners in public and I couldn’t leave my luggage, so it took me a while to get any information. No one could tell me exactly what the expectations were and I did not get a really lively conversation going. At eleven, the train finally arrived and everyone rushed to the platform. I found my compartment and sat contentedly between the old ladies and a young couple. I noticed that there were many more black Cubans on the train than you see on average on the street, even worsley dressed. Racial and social equality does not apply to all Cubans. The train had also had its day; dented floors, battered upholstery, of course no air conditioning and a toilet where I did not even dare to look, judging by the smell.
After a while I noticed that we were still standing still at Camagüey station. A look out the window made it clear why we couldn’t leave yet: a number of technicians were busy under the train. I had been overly optimistic again and returned to my seat, my book, and a mental state of ultimate tolerance. If we arrived in Bayamo before midnight I would be satisfied. We finally left at 12.45, which was a relief because of the breeze that was now coming in and the great view from the aisle. Fate played with my nerves for a moment when black smoke came out of one of the front wagons, but miraculously that did not affect the progress of the journey, and after six hours – the scheduled journey time – we entered Bayamo station.
Fortunately, what remains is not the memory of the warmth and the waiting, but especially the view of the green fields, the villages with fairs and school children you pass, the branches of the trees that you can touch from the window and the feeling for being the first to have a look at the Cuban part of the parallel world that is Cuba. For anyone with time, patience and curiosity, the train is a (cheap) recommendation on not too long journeys. Stock up on food and water, bring a good book and enjoy!
Contact with the Cubans
The nice thing about traveling is the contact with the people you meet. Spontaneous encounters on the street, interesting conversations with someone at a bus stop – these are the things that can make a trip memorable. However, things are different in Havana, Cuba. I was warned in advance that contact between Cubans and foreigners is officially prohibited by the government, but to actually experience this was very strange. On my first day in Cuba, I entered Havana by myself. I am not someone who finds traveling alone a big problem, especially because as a tourist you usually quickly get to know a local resident, although this is less the case in big cities. However, I soon noticed that the Cubans in Havana are not very open towards foreigners. The longer I walked in the city, the more I felt like I was being completely ignored. In line for a peso pizza, people looked straight through me, no one greeted me on the street, and no one made eye contact with anyone. The only exceptions were a few men – see the section on machismo above – but even that was not too bad in Havana. In Africa I once yearned for anonymity, but the first day in Cuba I felt non-existent, as if I were a ghost.
Fortunately, this became a lot less in other cities and especially in Eastern Cuba. Conversations with other tourists explained the Cubans’ silence, especially in big cities: the police are never far away to keep an eye on the Cubans. Information from outside, and therefore contact with foreigners, is highly undesirable and that is why Cubans who dare to chat with a tourist are regularly taken away from the tourist. The fear of the police runs deep in most Cubans and therefore they often avoid contact with foreigners. Despite this knowledge, it still felt unpleasant to be regularly ignored. For example, at the Havana bus station, I asked a woman if she knew of a nearby bakery, and without saying a word she pointed to the guard standing nearby. He explained where I could have breakfast and although I understood that I had asked the wrong person, I did not feel welcome among the waiting Cubans.
The contrast with the conversations in the casas particulares couldn’t be greater. Owners of casas usually talk about all kinds of things, and certainly also about “The Situation”. This ranges from complaining about how difficult life is to explaining what illegal activities are being committed to make this life and its costs a bit more bearable (renting out extra rooms, serving shrimp for dinner, and having an Internet connection). It is also sometimes openly stated that El Jefe is not good for the country, although his name is rarely mentioned (for clarification: the gesture of stroking a fictional beard with the hand refers to Fidel). All this, of course, indoors, because the undercover civilian police can be anywhere. Strangely enough, tourists are 100 percent trusted, given the information that is often entrusted to you within a day.
The system in Cuba is interesting for an outsider – unfortunately a little less interesting for the people who have lived in it for 48 years. It is not real communism, rather socialism. I have even heard that Cubans are specifically concerned with Fidel Castro’s ideas and that his supporters call themselves “Fidelistas”.
Like any political system, Cuba’s has its pros and cons. I think the drawbacks are well known – no freedom of speech, economic crisis and no freedom of movement, but I was amazed at the positive aspects of the Cuban system. A total lack of advertising or commerce was a relief in a world where everything seems to revolve around money these days. No photoshopped ladies in shop windows – almost nothing in shop windows actually – and a Coke at the airport costs just as much as a Coke in Eastern Cuba. Get over that at Schiphol! The Cubans also see the benefits of Fidelism and praise the accessibility of health care and education. The quality of hospitals is high and there is a health center in every district where you can go. The life expectancy of the Cuban is not the same as that of a European for nothing. Studying is encouraged by the state and universities are free; in principle, every Cuban is therefore as highly educated as possible. This seems contradictory: billboards along the roads on which Fidel proclaims that reading is important and (approved) books that are heavily subsidized, and at the same time you wonder whether people who are not properly educated pose a risk to the state by possibly forming an opposition. .
Because tourism revenues are apparently more important than stopping foreign influences, a strange kind of schizophrenic society has emerged in Cuba, where two parallel worlds co-exist. For the tourist, almost everything is accessible and available with hard currency, the peso convertible. Comfortable bus rides, soft drinks, clothes, cookies, stereo towers, soap, hotel rooms, irons and western books. For the Cuban who usually receives his salary in pesos Cubanos, all this is not payable, not only because he owns the wrong currency, but also because the peso Cubano is worth next to nothing. Conversely, the average Cuban earns $ 15 per month, which is not much else to buy than food when you realize that prices of goods are just as expensive as in Europe. The fact that many Cubans can buy clothes and electronic equipment is often due to refugee relatives who send money, or of course a job in tourism that yields hard currency in tips.
Conversely, not everything is available even for tourists. In Eastern Cuba I came across the fact that some means of transportation are prohibited for foreigners. It never became completely clear to me why, but off the beaten track I almost got stuck because some collective taxi drivers would not take the risk of a heavy fine and let me be. Bicitaxis were more inventive and just cycled me through the back streets to avoid police checks. Coaches were actually banned, but a single driver took the risk, or a Cuban traveled with me and paid for my ticket, somehow making me a legal passenger. One taxi driver was willing to take the risk for a considerably higher fare, under the guise “without risks, life is nothing to do”.
It is very worthwhile to try to alternate the two different worlds. Of course it is very easy to have access to supermarkets, comfortable buses and relatively cheap dinners in the casas particulares, but also try a truck or bicitaxi as a means of transport, a peso pizza with fruit juice on the street or a sober meal in a Cuban restaurant . Only then do you get a little idea of how different the world of the Cubans is.