7 Lessons from a Yuma in Cuba

I was squeezed in between my husband and the taxi driver, bouncing against the seat springs while we followed the bumpy road through hilly countryside. As I tried to keep my leg from slamming into the ancient gear shaft of our bright orange 1940’s sedan, I looked up words like “unfair” and “liar” in my Spanish dictionary. In my head, I prepared the diatribe I’d unleash on our driver should he try to screw us over and leave our family stranded in the wrong city. Esto es muy injusto! Vamos a Veradero, no a Habana! Usted es un mentiroso!

The previous day, I’d used my so-so Spanish skills to arrange a collectivo taxi that would take our family over to the coast. We’d drive from Viñales, a region of rolling hills and tobacco farms, to a town called Boca de Camarioca, a small fishing village near the touristy beach peninsula of Varadero. Unfortunately, just as we were driving out of Viñales, I learned the other passengers in our car were all going to Havana, not Varadero. A rather aggravating conversation with the driver ensued, made more frustrating by my limited Spanish vocabulary.

Me:  My family go to Varadero. We no go to Havana.
Driver:  Another driver will take you to Varadero.
Me:  But we pay you go Varadero, not Havana.
Driver: (shrug)  Another driver will take you to Varadero.
Me:  But we pay YOU. You say you take us to Varadero.
Driver: (shrug)  No. Another driver will take you to Varadero.

We were speeding through rural Cuba in a decrepit car headed for the wrong city, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. I fumed and practiced my angry confrontation while our taxi zipped passed horse-drawn carts and small, roadside villages. Two and a half hours later, on the outskirts of Havana, our taxi driver turned into a rest stop packed with cars and buses. He pulled into a parking spot next to an old blue Oldsmobile, and then quietly explained that this other driver would take our family on to Varadero…as promised.
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This was just one of many confusing Cuban experiences which would totally stress me out, but then work out just fine in the end. Over the course of our time in this enigmatic country, I eventually learned to trust its bizarre underground, capitalist system and the repetitive pattern of angst it often created. Cuba can definitely feel like a total roller coaster ride at times, but it’s one that I’m really glad I had the chance to experience.

The pretty pictures and fun travel stories from our Cuban adventure with Emily on her “13 Year Trip” will come in later posts. I’m going use this one to give you the low-down on this island nation. It will definitely come in handy if you ever plan to visit Cuba, and if you don’t, it’s still pretty interesting to learn how this unusual country has evolved over the years. Cuba certainly has beauty, lively culture, and yes, lots of classic cars….
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…but the country can also be heartbreaking, aggravating, and downright bizarre at times.

The first thing we learned about Cuba is that everything bad in the country is blamed on the American embargo, known as el bloqueo. Your electricity won’t stay on? Blame el bloqueo. You hate your job? El bloqueo. Stood in line for hours to get bread and then they ran out of it? Once again…el bloqueo.

The twisted irony of the United States’ embargo against Cuba is that our country’s decision to block trade has probably propped up a communist system that might have failed otherwise. The government can always point to the “Yankee imperialists” as the cause of Cuba’s troubles, leading the Cuban people to believe that nothing is really their government’s fault. It’s always the Americans. And admittedly, there’s a bit of truth to that. Many opponents of the embargo argue that it only hurts the Cuban people, not the government officials, and, as a result, the embargo can have no influence on creating a more democratic system. If the embargo were removed completely, the government would have to make some significant changes to address the country’s poverty and infrastructure issues. As it is now, Cuban officials can just sit back and blame those problems on the United States. Many Cubans live in deep poverty. Roads and bridges are in dire need of repair, and few citizens have access to internet or modern technology. Yet, you won’t hear anyone outwardly complaining about the government. The embargo is the perfect political scapegoat.

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All of this creates an interesting relationship between Cubans and yumas, which is the word used for Americans and other non-Spanish-speaking foreigners. On the one hand, gringo tourism is a huge boon to the Cuban economy, so locals working in the tourism trade are very friendly to us yumas. On the other hand, sucking as much money out of us as possible seems to be viewed as a highly-acclaimed art form. A patriotic obligation, even. If a Cuban arranges something for you, whether it be a casa or a tour or a taxi, you can be sure a network of contacts will be making a little money off of it. This intricate commission system, where each person gets their little cut of the action, can jack up the prices on yumas very quickly. It’s just part of the game.

The important thing to remember in Cuba is to take your ego out of it. Don’t take it personally when the commission system adds  another 5 CUC to your taxi fare. Or when someone shorts you on your change. Or upcharges you 500% for one of the scratch-off internet cards you’ll have to buy to access the wifi hot spots. Don’t take any of it personally. It’s just a part of the culture. If you grew up in the same environment, with the same information and education, you’d think the same way. It’s all about “seeing the water” and accepting people for who they are. Once you let go of the opportunistic swindling, Cuba becomes a beautiful and fascinating place. So, here are a few tips to help you be prepared, open up your mind and experience Cuba with a smile on your face.

1. Understand the currencies and be sure to take enough cash

As of April 2017, there is no way for an American to transfer money into Cuba. You can’t use credit or debit cards. If you run out of cash, you can’t have more wired to you without some sort of serious diplomatic intervention. So, take an emergency stash of money and keep it somewhere safe. When you’re budgeting for your trip, keep in mind Cuba is not a cheap destination for travelers. Taxis to get around the country are expensive, and the cheap buses (called Viazul) are not always easy to book since we Americans can’t buy tickets online with a credit card. Also, be aware that exchanging U.S. dollars comes with a 10% fee to the Cuban government, so you’ll only be getting 90 cents to the dollar. Depending on your travel budget, it might be worth it to exchange your U.S. dollars for Canadian dollars or Euros before you leave so you won’t have to take that 10% hit.

The Cuban monetary system is quite unique. There are two official Cuban currencies – the CUC and CUP. The CUC is the international convertible currency, and it’s pegged to the U.S. dollar. This is the currency travelers typically use. Old Town in Havana and other major touristy areas around the country operate exclusively in CUC. Prices are only slightly less than those found in the United States, so don’t think of Cuba as a budget vacation.

You can also exchange some of your CUC into CUP, which is the national, non-convertible currency. About 25 CUP equals 1 CUC. In small towns you get a lot more bang for your buck by paying in CUP, so it can be very helpful to have some of this local currency in your pocket. Many places will use CUP and CUC interchangeably, but sometimes paying with CUC means you wind up overpaying because the CUC coins simply don’t go small enough. Often, if you pay a CUC for something that costs just a few CUP, you won’t see any change, so you’ll have essentially paid 5 times too much.

2. Use Airbnb.com for housing as much as you can

casa symbolThe best way to really experience Cuba is to stay in casas de particulares. These are rooms rented out in the homes of locals, and they give you a much more personalized and inexpensive experience than the standard hotels. A small sign posted on the front of the house tells you the owner is authorized to rent out rooms. You can walk into one advertising a vacancy (“disponible”)and easily get a cheap place to stay at any time.

In the last couple years, many Cubans have begun renting their rooms out through the Airbnb website. There are two reasons why using Airbnb to reserve a casa de particular can improve your experience in Cuba. One is that you can pay for it with an American credit card, which means less cash you’ll have to carry around with you during your trip. Just be sure the Airbnb rooms you reserve have a lot 5 star reviews. You don’t ever want to be the first person to stay in a casa, no matter how cheap it might be.

The second reason to use Airbnb is the review process. Airbnb hosts care about your experience because you will review them on the site for all the world to see. This greatly  increases the odds that they will be vigilant in keeping your personal items safe during your stay. When the owner of the casa  knows you’re a guest who came through the Airbnb system, they are much less likely to steal from you or be nonchalant with the security of your room. That’s not to say that every casa in Cuba will steal from you, but we heard several unfortunate stories from people who suspect their hosts of stealing money and valuables while they were off touring the area. Without that review process, hosts don’t have to worry about a repercussion if you don’t have a great experience in their home.

3. Plan to go off the grid

Do not expect any reasonable speed or consistency for internet in Cuba. As of 2017, getting internet access was a tiring, frustrating process that involved buying little scratch-off internet cards, finding a wifi hot spot somewhere, and then typing in lots of numbers and codes to try to get online for a few minutes at at time. If you’re motivated and vigilant, you’ll be able to check email pretty regularly, but you’ll eat up a lot of time doing it and the slow speeds make a lot of data practically inaccessible. If there’s ANY important information you need from the web – reservation details, directions to casas, travel documents, health records, whatever – be sure to print it out and bring with you. Pretend like it’s 1995 again and the world wide web is in its infancy.

4. Don’t freak out over long waits

You will make yourself miserable if you count the minutes you have to wait for stuff in Cuba. There will be long lines at the Cadecas where you exchange money. There will be long lines at the Etecsa where you buy your little internet scratch-off cards. There will be long lines everywhere. Just accept it. It is what it is. You’ll find ways to avoid those lines once in a while (like buying your internet cards from people hocking them on the street), but sometimes the lines are simply unavoidable.

These lines actually bring up a fascinating aspect of Cuban culture. It’s a rather ingenious system called the Bolsa Negra. This capitalistic workaround evolved within the communist system, and it allows many Cubans to lead more entrepreneurial, lucrative lives. Bolsa Negra works something like this:

Being a communist country, Cuba provides basic needs for its citizens. Every family gets a ration of food, electricity, housing stipends, etc. In exchange, the citizens have to show up for their government jobs, which pay them very little since their basic needs are supposedly being met. Let’s say Raul’s government job is to work in baggage claim at the airport. He’s supposed to show up and be a baggage handler 5 days a week. But Raul decides to fix up his house and starts renting a couple rooms out to tourists for $20 a night on Airbnb. In one night he can make 10 times more money than his government job pays him in a entire month. So, understandably, Raul wants to focus on his casa de particular business and stop going to his government job. He goes to his supervisor in the baggage handling department and agrees to pay the supervisor 1 CUC a day if he’ll say Raul is at his baggage handler job even though he’s not. But the baggage supervisor has his own supervisor, so Raul has to pay that guy 1 CUC a day, too. And then there’s also a lady who schedules the periodic government inspections which make sure everyone’s working their jobs, so that lady has to get paid 1 CUC a day as well. When an inspection is scheduled, Raul gets a call from her telling him which day he has to go to work for the inspection. So, Raul is happy because he’s getting 12 CUC a day (after his supervisory payoffs) and only has to show up for his government job a few times a year. The supervisors are all happy because they each get 1 CUC a day just for keeping their mouths shut. The only people that aren’t happy are the travelers who are now standing and waiting for over an hour to get their luggage because only two people are actually showing up for their government jobs as baggage handlers. And that, my friends, is the magic of the Bolsa Negra.

5. Bring snacks

Okay, this may sound a little ridiculous, but if you don’t want to go looking for a restaurant, food stand or fully-equipped kitchen every time you need a little something to eat, then you need to bring snacks with you. You will not find American-style supermarkets in Cuba. Little mercantiles with products displayed under glass counters sell a small variety of meats, basic toiletry items, rum, and processed grocery products. Fruits and vegetables carts can be found on the streets, but they usually require a knife and some prep time. Finding a granola bar or a bag of chips in Cuba is no easy task. Bring nonperishable snacks with you if you like to eat when you want to eat.

6. Sometimes it pays to get mad

The Cuban culture is very different from the U.S. They don’t put a lot of value on politeness and keeping the peace. They’re a very authentic people, and unless they’re trying hustle you, you won’t see a lot of gushing smiles and polite small talk. Being genuine and speaking your mind seems to earn respect, which is why getting mad at a frustrating situation can sometimes be very helpful. You just have to know how to read the situation. For instance, as we were leaving Cuba, my husband flagged down a taxi to take us to the airport. We knew the standard rate should be no more than 25 CUC, but when the driver pulled over, he sized us up and told us it would be 35  CUC to get to the airport. Brian quickly let the driver know how he felt about the price.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Brian said angrily, waving the driver away. “That’s ridiculous! Get outta here! I’m not paying that.”

The driver shrugged apologetically and backed down. “Okay, okay, 25 CUC,” he said with a smile.

Brian waved him away again. “I said no. Forget it, we don’t want to ride with you. Go!”

The taxi driver pulled away, but a few minutes later he pulled back up again. “Okay, okay, airport for 15 CUC,” he said. “Is good. You come.”

Brian looked at me and shrugged. “Okay, fine. 15 CUC.” And we loaded into the car and had a lovely drive to the airport with our very friendly taxi driver. Sometimes you just have to be yourself and push back with whatever the Cubans try to throw at you. They seem to respect you for it.

7. Know your airport terminal in Havana

If you fly into Havana,  ask someone which airport terminal you flew into. There are five different terminals that make up the Havana airport, and they’re spread across a 15-kilometer area. If you take a taxi to the main Havana terminal, there’s a good chance that’s not the terminal your airline flies out of. You’ll wind up scrambling back outside and taking an insanely expensive van to the correct terminal. We learned this the hard way, and trust me, it wasn’t a fun way to end our vacation. Know your terminal and arrive at the right one the first time.

So, that’s the nitty gritty on Cuba. Or at least the major stuff that comes to mind right now. It is a fascinating place. I was completely intrigued by the sociological effects of Cuba’s history and international relations, but I’m kind of a big nerd that way. Now, I’ll start working on the fun, pretty posts featuring Brian’s gorgeous photography. It really is a beautiful country, in its own rough-around-the-edges way. We had a great time, learned a lot, and experienced a couple bizarre coincidences during our trip. So, more to come….

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3 Comments

  1. What a lively and colorful post. I can almost hear your voice narrating. So glad you got to have this experience with Emily – what a gift!

  2. Great post! I’m planning a trip to Cuba and a friend sent me this. It’s the best information I’ve found. Very helpful! I might have some specific questions for you, if you don’t mind.

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