Have been sitting in a local cafe in Belgrade Serbia, sipping lemonade when they started to play one of the songs from the Buena Vista Social Club! My memories from Cuba immediately emerged! And let me tell you, this is not the country only to be described in data and facts (even though there will be plenty of those, of course), this is the island to be referred to with genuine emotions.
I don’t think that anyone who visited can say that “the weather was nice”. I mean, it’s Cuba – with sunshine and palm trees, white sands, mojitos and rum, crazy rumba rhythm and bongos, people chilling outside, smiling, chatting! They are poor, yes, but here you will find the real proof of that saying that “money isn’t everything”. Such proud, positive, well educated, friendly people! Actually, I felt like being on a holiday to visit my distant relatives, Cubans make you feel like being among family!
The best time to go
I see that more and more people are visiting from all over the world lately. Great news for the country that is mostly relying on tourism since 1990’s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. US is starting to lift embargo against Cuba that lasted for more then 50 years… If you still haven’t been and you were planning to for many years, this is the time to go!
The country will change in time, which is great news for people there, they will have more options, better opportunities. But – the country will change! Who knows what will happen with all the Cadillacs on the streets and old Havana facades. I believe that Cubans will find the way to keep their tradition, but still, go now if you can.
What to bring to Cuba
In this first Glimpse we will deal with the essentials, few tips and “facts”, and there is one thing that I have been reminding my self not to forget to put down on the paper. The thing that nobody told me about when I went there and I was so sorry about afterwards. Don’t really know if the situation has changed much since I have visited years ago, but here it goes.
Due to poor economy situation, Cubans do not have a lot on their shelves. Of course you are not going to look for designers’ clothes here, but there is also a lack of “trifles” like pencils, cheap plastic jewelry, make up, social games and toys, and sweets, chewing gums, bonbons.
Every time I was asked for bonbons by smiling children on the street (they prefer those in colorful wrappings), and after I gave them all the chewing gums I had (which I bought at the airport in Frankfurt, only one package…), and after I have seen their sad faces when I took out money to give them instead, I was so sorry that nobody has told me to bring on – one full suitcase of sweets in all the glittering colors!
Was fortunate enough to meet a girl from Canada who was going home and had a lot more of those with her. It was her second time in Cuba and she knew what to expect. So I took over her sweets to share in Havana. Those smiling faces were such a reward!
A song for a – pencil
Also, I was approached by couple of ladies who wanted to trade their necklaces. Mine was just a cheap thing I brought with me because it went well with couple of my outfits. It was mostly plastic. So I turned over to them not really being able to believe that they wanted “that” necklace. In return, they were offering a necklace of lined up seeds, made of totally natural materials. Couldn’t believe it! Of course I have traded that plastic little thing from around my neck.
There was another occasion when two charming elderly gentlemen came to me, seeing me writing something in my little notebook. (That was the habit I had being a journalist, always carrying around a small notebook and few pencils in my bag.) One of them pointed to his shirt pocket (he had a pencil there) and then to my hand. It took a while for me to understand that they were actually interested in my pencil. Again – plastic little thing. We don’t know what to do with those back at the office and here are two lovely Cuban gentlemen for whom this was a small perk.
So, I took out all those pencils out of my bag (being so happy that I have so many of them, unlike bonbons). Even had few I got as advertising material with inscriptions like “Press Office of the Republic of Serbia government” (in Serbian, of course), that they thought were so “stylish” (they were just bigger and a bit heavier). Gave them all!
And you know what they did? They took out two guitars that were put against the small wall, and sang me a song! Couple of cute elderly gentlemen, sang away in the typical Cuban manner, smiling like having the time of their lives! They were not “paying” for the pencils, of course, but rewarding me, returning the favor. I was so touched! Felt so proud for being in such charming company!
Just waved to each other after the song was finished (and five or six pencils were now sticking out of their pockets) and I knew that I am not going to forget this scene, not ever.
What to know about pesos
When ever you go strolling around the city, Havana or any other town on the island, try to have few coins at hand. If you don’t have bonbons, pencils, lipsticks on you, you can always offer a pesos or two. Keep in mind that only Cubans who work in tourism and at hotels (as waiters, bartenders even though they have degrees in history, politics, languages etc) can get their hands on convertible pesos (one convertible pesos equals one US dollar).
“Regular” pesos, the official currency in Cuba, was almost worthless, people got payed in those and they only got to buy vegetables on the market or rice and flour. Everything else was expensive and required the convertible pesos. So, this pesos was not that easy to reach. And around 10 to 15 of those coins – there’s a monthly salary for many! (At least that’s how it was few years ago.)
Also, even though you might be in all inclusive resorts, which are frequent in Cuba, and you don’t have to carry money around the hotel, still, try to bring some and tip people who serve you lunch or bring you that cocktail at the beach. They are proud, but will accept tip for the service.
So, be prepared, and be aware that you are heading for a unique experience. Trip to Cuba is something you will speak about all your life, memories will stick with you always.
If you have already been, let’s remember this magical island and its people together. If not, well let me tell you a story or two. It all began in Havana…
The full Cuba SERIES