My introduction to Cuba starts on the plane. A guy is sitting in the window seat on the opposite side of the aisle, a Styrofoam container of food in a plastic bag is on the seat next to him. About halfway through the flight he picks it up, points at it and then to me, as if to ask if I want some. I say “no, gracias”, and he shrugs and puts it back down. A while later Kasia wants some water and we start looking toward the back of the plane to see if we can catch the eye of one of the air hosts. He notices this and starts gesturing toward the service call button above him, and then points to our side, indicating that this is how you get their attention. Toward the end of the flight we exchange a few words, but he doesn’t speak English, and I am wholly unfamiliar with the unique sound of Cuban Spanish. Interactions like this will become so familiar to me that it is hard to believe life isn’t like this everywhere.
We are flying from Mexico City to Santa Clara, crossing over nearly half of the island country by air. All along the island are neat rows of small fluffy white clouds, and their size and orderliness makes it seem like viewing a child’s diorama made in an exceptionally large shoe box. The ground seem so much closer than it actually is, and only when I see a bus or large truck going along one of the few highways do I remember that we are still far, far above land.
The process of getting through customs is truly bizarre. Santa Clara’s airport is quite small, so we disembark the plane onto the runway and walk to the building. Once inside we are each handed a health form to fill out while we are in line; there are no tables and no pens with which to fill out the form. We wait for the customs official. With each person, she takes their passport, and then a photograph of them. When it’s my turn, she asks me where I’m coming from and if I’ve been to Brazil recently, I assume because of Zika virus. She stamps the passport and the tourist card, and then hands them back, completely ignoring the health sheet, then points to the door and pushes a buzzer on her side to unlock the exit.
On the other side of the door, there are baggage x-rays and metal detectors. All carry-on baggage and passengers have to be rescreened. For some reason checked bags are exempt from this process. At the end of the x-ray’s conveyer belt, a woman is handing out customs forms, but not to everybody. I ask her if I need one, and she shakes her head and says “no”. Kasia and I collect our checked bags and head for the exit, and a woman stops us and asks for our customs form. Kasia has also not been given one, so the woman hands us a form and says we can use it for both of us. We fill in all the information and give it to her. She looks at it, then hands it back and says “go ahead”. We throw the customs form and both of our health forms, neither even inspected, into the trash and leave the airport.
Welcome to Cuba.
To get from the airport to the center of Santa Clara is supposed to cost $50. We travel on a very tight budget, so such extravagances like this are out of the question. Instead, we walked for a kilometer and a half on a nearly treeless road in mid-day heat hoping to find something more affordable when we reached a main road. Our determination paid off when, while taking a break in the shade of a bus stop, a taxi driver pulled over and offered us a ride for a fraction of the price. It was still considerably more than he would have charged a fellow Cuban, but especially with taxis this is nearly impossible to avoid. Along the way he picked up and dropped off two other Cubans without charging them, generously passing some of his gain on to those around him.
The driver dropped us off at the casa we had booked. Americans aren’t allowed to stay in hotels in Cuba because they are owned and operated by the government. Instead we have to stay in “casa particulares”, which translate literally as “private home”, but here in Cuba means more specifically a privately owned home that rent rooms. This is actually far from a problem as the state hotels are often expensive and usually located in the cores of the tourist centers. The casas tend to be much more affordable, and they are spread out all over the city, so there are a considerable number of options. In most cases the hosts also live there, and staying in the casas is a great way to get to observe Cuban life up close and to get the inside scoop on why things here are the way they are.
Cubans are incredible hosts and they love to tell people about their city and their country. With little to no prompting you can find yourself sitting through an entire history lesson. They are usually very knowledgeable about how things work in their city and are a wonderful resource for information about cultural events. They take a very personal interest in their guests enjoying themselves and are eager to help. The only time when this was really a problem was when it came to transportation. Cubans are used to tourists with money, and our hosts often seemed mortified when we told them we would be taking local transportation. It isn’t exactly luxury travel, and I think they just assume that no one would take it unless they had no other option.
Our hosts, Juan Carlos, his wife, and their son, in his late 30s, where happy to chat with us. Kasia, who is fluent in Spanish, did most of the talking. Cuban Spanish, or Cubano as some Cubans refer to it, is hard to understand even for someone who speaks Spanish. For someone like myself who is in the process of learning Spanish, it often sounds like nothing more than an uninterrupted string of vowels. They told us about some monuments that we could walk to, where we could get coffee, and where the vegetable markets were. They also asked about the political situations in the US, and in Poland.
Cubans tend to be well educated. Higher education in Cuba is free, and having a higher degree often brings a small increase in monthly pay. They also, I think as a result of being unable to travel easily, have a strong interest in the rest of the world. Juan Carlos, for example, had read a fair bit about Polish history, and Kasia was impressed with his knowledge of her home country, being able to remember dates and specific events that she had only a vague recollection of.
But despite having so many tourists from different parts of the world, and despite reading so much about other countries, what they don’t know is sometimes just as surprising as what they do know. For example, his wife told us we needed to throw our toilet paper in the trash and not flush it down the toilet. She commented that Cuba was the only country in the world where that is the case, when in actuality this is true in many parts of the world. Later in Havana, we would meet a guy who thought that no on in the US ate pork. I almost laughed out loud thinking about just how much of a dietary staple pork is for many Americans.
Santa Clara is a great city, and a much softer place to land than Havana. It gives you a chance to warm up to life here rather than being tossed in head-first. It’s a quiet city with a simple charm, and is easy to navigate. Most people who visit come as part of an organized day trip from either Trinidad or Cienfuegos. These groups only visit a handful of places, so most of the city is unaccustomed to tourism. Consequently, even the hasslers trying to sell you stuff seem to treat it like a bit of a joke, almost as if they aren’t quite sure if they’re doing it right. It was also easy to have relaxed conversations with locals, something that isn’t always the case in the more tourist-frequented parts of the country.
What really puts Santa Clara on the map is Che Guevara. Santa Clara is Che town. Che is a national hero in Cuba, and his image is everywhere. But Santa Clara celebrates Che more than other places in the country. This is where Che and the forces he was commanding won a major battle that secured the victory of the revolution. There is a monument to him here, as well as the mausoleum that contains his remains. It is on the far side of town, and we walked there one afternoon passing through some of the neighborhoods that are not on any itinerary. The concrete stops suddenly, most of the houses are only half built, many with no doors, no windows, sometimes no roofs, and it can be difficult to discern if this is a street in the process of development or that of decay. It is interesting to be walking to the memorial of one of the figures who fought to create a system he believed would result in the betterment of the people, and in the process walk by so many still waiting, decades later, for that betterment to come.
We spent six days in Santa Clara. Our next stop was to be Havana, and we decided to take the train. Being from Europe, Kasia had ridden trains often, but this was my first train ride. It was definitely an experience. It started with our visit to the train station a couple days before we left. We talked to one of the attendants and asked him when trains left for Havana. He told us that there were three, at 8, 9, and 10:30 in the morning every day, and then a night train twice a week. We thanked him and left, believing we had the information we needed.
We showed up in the morning on Saturday at just after 8. The train is very inexpensive for Cubans, and the ticket office only begins selling tickets one hour before departure, so there is often a long queue. We decided to try for the 9:00 AM train, and figured if we didn’t get that one, we would be first in line for the one leaving at 10:30. It turned out that there were no trains. The same attendant we had previously talked to now told us that there was only one train, and it would come at 11:30 at night. We decided to leave our bags at the train station and walked back into town for the afternoon.
We returned early in the evening to give ourselves plenty of time. Now knowing that there was only one train, we didn’t want to take any chances. We got ourselves on the “list” and waited. Everything seemed to be going well until it was time to buy the tickets. The first problem was that there was a different list, a priority list, one that people had been on well in advance, either because they paid a bribe, or because they were friends or family of someone who worked at the station. An argument ensued. Finally the line got sorted out. Then a second problem arose: there was a separate line for foreigners, and they buy tickets first. Kasia had been the one standing in line to buy the tickets. Now the Cubans were mad that she got to go first, and the ticket seller was irritated that she didn’t already know about the separate line for foreigners. After more arguments and a lot of paperwork, we had our tickets.
Finally the train arrived. An attendant checked our tickets, and we boarded a train with no lights on at all, the only illumination coming from the train station. Using the light on my phone, we secured our packs onto very narrow baggage racks over our seats and the ones next to ours. We then sat in darkness waiting for the train to begin its journey. About fifteen minutes into the ride, suddenly all of the lights in the train came on at once, and they stayed on for the whole eight hour ride to Havana.
The ride was fairly uncomfortable. The seats had only a thin layer of padding and were very narrow. Kasia was able to sleep for a bit, but I was awake for the entire ride. We stopped at each town and city along the way, at each stop picking up a few more passengers who would file back from the front of the train toward the rear to find their seats. One guy, with broad shoulders, a Hawaiian shirt, and a stern expression on his face, spent the entire trip pacing from one end of the train to the other, smoking a huge cigar. We finally arrived in Havana at 8:30 in the morning, right on time. Cuba’s aging trains have a reputation for breaking down, and they can be delayed sometimes for days, so a trouble-free ride is never a given. Our punctuality was greeted with elation and surprise by many of the Cubans. They knew how unusual this was.
They knew that in Cuba, you never know.