A Diary of the Revolution – 8 Days in Cuba
I said “Hola” to the Black woman at the information desk when I exited customs. She replied “Hola mi amor,” and she showed me to a money changing ATM-looking machine, where I got 52.50 CUC for my $60. My taxi to Vedado was 25 plus tip so basically I paid over $30 for a taxi ride.
The first smell that hit me on exiting the airport was the smell of fuel. More burnt smelling than American fuel and Nigerian fuel.
The place she had directed me to for SIMs said they didn’t have SIM cards and I’d have to get one “al centro” /downtown
It was only when I saw a random antique car here and there that I knew I was in Cuba. Otherwise I could’ve been in any tropical country of the Global South.
- On the drive to Vedado, I see lots of ppl working the land (campesinos?)
- I see dirt/trash piles in random grasslands like in Lagos/Naija
- I see houses right near train tracks, like 20 feet to the front door.
- I did not fear being taken advantage of. Prices are usually standard, people appear to be disciplined.
- I see many room for rent and restaurant signs in English in Vedado. Are they trying to cater to foreigners?
- Exchange rate was 87CUC to 100 USD at airport and 95CUC to 100USD in Vedado thru my host’s “plug”
- Spent hours in the park using WiFi (great job opportunity for young men who stand around selling the 1-hr WiFi cards) and felt completely safe. With no police around, Cuban youth did not seem to be looking for whom to take advantage of. Everything was perfectly peaceful as people scrolled through their social media and uploaded pics and video called family and friends. I left after 10pm and some street lights, especially in the park were still on. Though many were turning off.
- Observing Black women has been interesting. The Black women I’ve come across so far have not gone out of their way to acknowledge me, as I expect in the US and in other countries with tiny Black populations. There is a subdued nature to their Blackness, which to me felt like they were just trying to be Cuban, not Black per se.
- My elementary Spanish (after 7 years of studies in high school and college—I minored in Spanish) was put to decent use in helping navigate directions and find food and WiFi. I would have a very difficult time navigating without Spanish as even the Cubans I’ve met who speak English seem to struggle very much with it.
- Water has a sewage smell when tap is first opened and locals have to boil it for 10 minutes minimum before consuming. They strongly recommend that Americans don’t drink the tap water but buy bottled. I made the mistake of using tap water when I brushed my teeth. Hopefully I’ll survive to post this. (Even my hands seem to smell of the [sulfur?] water just used to wash them. Strongly recommend you let the water run for a bit before using…for anything. If yours smells like this.
- When I mention that I’m from the Yorùbá culture in Nigeria, I become a celebrity in Cuba.
- Last night I didn’t see my passport in my wallet and I started to panic. Just what I need is to lose my passport and not be able to leave the country and get back to my urgent US responsibilities.
- After a few minutes of retracing my steps I realized that I must’ve left it on the money changing ATM-looking machine (you have to scan your passport to use the machine). My host called the airport and I have to go back to the o
- Cubans appear to me to be a very disciplined people. Very calm. In observing a crime scene at which up to 100 people were gathered, they were at least 100 meters from the police tape/line and all seemed to be watching calmly moreso than interrogating the incident. Even the single camera I observed was hoisted on a tripod many meters away from the crime scene.
- It’s what Lagos would be like if people were calm and respected themselves. Of course for that to happen, they’d have to have a respectable government at all levels.
- The natural hair movement hasn’t taken hold here, as straight hair appears to be the norm.
- People smoke everywhere in Cuba. I haven’t noticed any non-smoking designated areas. It seems you’re just to accept that you may inhale nicotine at any time.
- Family is muy importante a los Cubanos. If my host family is any indication, staying with your parents until marriage may be a thing of joy rather than reproach. Families are very tight-knit and depend on each other not just for support, but for laughter.
- You know how you typically close your door when staying in a host’s place whom you don’t know very well? Maybe it’s just me. But I feel comfortable working in my room with the door open. Partially because I feel like I know these people. The beauty of Airbnb. You can find like-minded individuals in almost any part of the world. But you have to read their postings, and reviews, very carefully. Read between the lines.
- Saw my first homeless Cubana today on my 3rd day in the country. In New York or Lagos, it takes 3 minutes from leaving the airport. Exaggerating, but you get the point.
- First of all, Cuba is fkn COLD in the winter time. I just clocked 56 degrees at 8:30 am. It couldn’t have been more than 70 degrees yesterday
- Just saw about 15-20 elders doing what looked like instructor-led gentle yoga in the park
- 10:41 – Almost just got cheated for the first time. Cuba is a place where you can trust that the person checking you out will give you the correct change, even if they perceive you as a clueless tourist. Which is why I’m certain the woman who just gave me back 1 CUC instead of 4 didn’t do it on purpose. Because I was allowed the time to acclimate and understand the different currencies, I was able to politely ask her to fix it with my broken Espanol.
- Cubanos stay fresh. Even for the grocery store staff, the women’s uniform includes a miniskirt, I kid you not. I really wanted to take a picture for you but I didn’t want to get slapped.
- Cubans don’t have baby hair. They have the fullest hairlines of anyone I’ve ever seen.
- I see a lot of happy people. I don’t see a lot of stressed out or miserable people. Maybe it’s because I’m in Vedado. I see a lot of young love, affection displayed so respectfully, so [gently]
- 7:27pm — The woman selling me my internet cards like illegal drugs just told me not to brandish money as I was counting how much to pay her. She warned that people would rob me if I did that, which I found surprising because I’ve felt safer in Cuba than I have in any other country thus far. Also Costa Rica May have been as decent, I didn’t do enough with the locals to know for sure.
- Download Google translate’s offline Spanish translator before leaving the US. The App Store—of course—doesn’t work in Cuba.
- 10/11am—I saw my first Che poster today, after 4 days in Cuba. I start asking myself why this is and if all this talk about the revolution being dead is really true. I shake it off and enjoy my run along (Calle) 21. Lots of jagged sidewalk. Lots of gorgeous houses.
- 1:30–Went to the park for WiFi. No connection. The network doesn’t even show up as an option. I conclude that this must happen from time to time since the other park-goers seem ok with waiting for the WiFi to return. I headed to Havana Vieja.
- Waited on 23 and 12 for a taxi to Havana for eeeeeveer. Apparently it’s hard to get one this time of day because fewer people are going and drivers want to charge you out the ass. I got lucky with a local who sweet talked a driver to take both of us for 2CUC each. Maybe I got jipped and she only told him I’d pay 2CUC. Again Cubanos have appeared honest to me thus far—fear of being caught by the government?
- The first “tout” who tried to get me to buy my WiFi ration card from his people, whom I declined, saw me with the second tout, a married man who tried to convince me he was a student and separated from his daughter’s mother. LOL. He wasn’t much of a liar. If you’re going to take your wedding ring off to pick up “tourists” at least change the picture on your home screen.
- But the second tout definitely opened my eyes to the suffering of the Cuban people. For the first time ever I might actually agree with Drumpf. In truth the government seems to be making a lot of money but the people are repressed and don’t feel like they’re seeing enough of that money. He says the free education means you have to work for the government for three years, for free, and that’s it’s nearly impossible to get your diploma to leave the country. So if you choose to go to another country for advanced studies, you’ll often have to start from scratch without a degree to show the new school.
- He also says the free medical care we activists celebrate in the West translates into dirty facilities and doctors who take naps on hospital beds during the day as they’re paid next to nothing. He said that the government hires out Cuban doctors to other countries but pockets an [exorbitant] proportion of the money.
- The Black Cuban at the Mercado pequeno donde se venden las frutas y vegetales (where I buy my fruits and veggies every morning) is quite a dick. He’s always made comments about my appearance. I’m sure it was tacky street talk, but his Spanish is too fast for me so I barely understood. Anyway, when he saw I was struggling to figure out the difference between what I owed him with the mixture of CUC and Cuban pesos, he tried the take my 10 CUC (for less than 3 CUC worth of food) and not give me change. I asked, “Es todo?” He said “Si,” but with his eyes averted. So I knew he was lying and I knew I hadn’t bought 10 CUC worth of papaya, coconut and sweet potato. When he saw I was going to stand there until I understood the math, he magically remembered and produced my change.
- He did ask me though if I’d live in Cuba, and I said hell naw. In a nice way. Maybe one day, I said, but right now I’m not about this life. Take me anywhere that’s tropical and clean with nice people and freedom of expression and I can make it work. But Lord, give me WiFi!!! Seriously tho the degree of suppression and suffering here is more than I expected, and though I sometimes agree with the values of the government here, no way I could stomach the suppression. I’d just as well live in Lagos where it’s easy to fly under the radar. Anyway, this has gotten lengthy.
- The way your mosquitos are coming for me Cuba, I’m not feeling it. The way they are chopping my legs and ankles bi ounje eran, mi o like i rara.
- Homeless person #4. Picking up a discarded cigarette near the park where I get my WiFi. I saw two homeless people yesterday but forgot to record. Both in Vedado I believe. I may have seen one in Havana, but I know I saw someone asleep in the middle of the sidewalk in Vedado.
- It dawned on me just now that it would be wise to get CUC and Cuban pesos when changing money. Just so it’s easier to deal with locals selling fruits etc. You have your stash of Cuban pesos from which to pay for that stuff, and your stash of CUC to pay for everything else.
- I noticed that anything geared towards locals sells in Cuban pesos, and anything geared towards foreigners is in CUC. I found a gorgeous Cuban owned restaurant in Vedado that touted its vegetarian fare, and had sweet potatoes, eggs, vegetable dishes, fish, fresh squeezed juice etc. I got breakfast for 10cuc but with fish for lunch (and an incredibly huge appetite after working out and starving for hours) I spent 20cuc.
- Buying WiFi in Cuba is like buying drugs. Either you get it from a government-sanctioned organization where it’s legal to buy and sell (after standing in line for 1-2 hours) or you get it from a street hustler who’s part of a larger network of hustlers trying to keep the government off their backs and expand their territories. Just like in The Wire—I have to reference television because I’ve never actually purchased street drugs ?—the WiFi card sellers don’t carry the card on their person. You tell someone you need a card and they tell someone else, who then brings you the card. It might be stashed in a cigarette carton on the ground or hidden some other place, but it’s almost never on the person of he who is selling it to you. I suppose the government knows about these operations. I would hope that they allow some enterprising so that people can find a way to maintain, since WiFi doesn’t exactly have the same affect on you as crack does. Similar, yes, but not the exact same.
- I noticed late last night at the local pizzeria a lady whose roots were showing, and they weren’t black. It appeared she’d dyed her hair the jet black most Black Cubans appear to have “naturally” as her roots were dark brown. This was how I learned that not all Black Cubans have jet black hair. Insult me if you want.
- 8am – When you really want to beg people to share their WiFi with you, but you realize that that’s not who your parents raised you to be. So instead you follow around anyone who looks like they might be a WiFi seller.
- I guess the average Cuban stocks up and has enough WiFi cards to last them until the next top up, kind of like groceries.
- 8:39am — Yay!!! Got my tarjeta! Just as I was about to leave the park and leave for Habana, a man with a birdcage shows up. When you haven’t had a tarjeta in a while, the feeling of scratching off that password is what I imagine the first hit of crack after a long while feels like. A tarjeta is a card, in this case, a WiFi card.
- So today I switched Airbnb’s after I couldn’t find detergent for my clothes nor soap for my cuerpo in any stores within walking distance in Vedado. In the US, early closing time on Sunday generally means 6pm. In Cuba it means anywhere from 2pm to 4. My host was utterly confused when I told her I’d need a taxi to Havana for two days. I didn’t even think it’d be as big of a deal. She didn’t seem concerned with my comfort prior to this, though she was extremely helpful with the passport thing and has generally been very warm, there were tons of little touches I just couldn’t keep with like the infinite number of spiders and mosquitos in my room. I just believe there was something that could be done about it. I got the sense she was more concerned about whether she’d have to give any money back to Airbnb than anything else. But since I know how the sufferation can be real in Cuba (can’t as well assume it is for her) I can’t possibly in good conscience take anything from her since it was my decision to chuck the deuce at the last minute. My new host—though I’m dancing bc he has WiFi—seems to think this chocolate girl is supposed to be ok with taking cold showers wtf?
- Day 7 I was too annoyed to write.
- I leave Cuba today, and I can’t at all say I wish I could stay longer
- OK so now I’m pissed. I just paid 10 Cuban pesos for a taxi ride which would’ve cost one CUC definitely which means you can generally pay less in Cuban pesos than you will in CUC
- Information isn’t fluid in Cuba the way it is in the rest of the connected world. So maybe people (like Airbnb hosts) don’t know things I think they should because the kind of information someone like me is looking for is neither priority nor easily accessible to them.
- I used more Spanish in Cuba than I have in 14 years since finishing my degree program and minoring in the ish. As bad as my speaking was, it was far better than my comprehension. Cubans speak very quickly.
- I saw a little ETECSA booth when leaving Habana Vieja. This would’ve been good to know about when I arrived in Cuba.
- In Cuba, when something is out, it’s just out. Making something out of nothing and managing little is one skill Cubans have way mastered. When I ordered French fries in order to not die (bread and ham are not what my body considers food) and then asked for more ketchup, there simply wasn’t anymore. No advisement on when there would be more. Just simply “no hay”
- Then in a country like this you see someone throw away two full plates of French fries and you just want to bite them on the face.
- In many ways I felt at home in Cuba. I did not feel othered or less than. I felt embraced, except for when Old Havana “touts” tried to take my money. But much of this is due to the “class privilege” afforded me for appearing to many to be from the states. A lot of people thought I was Cuban or South American. We can maybe thank the Ali Baba hair for that.
My overall impression… I’m a huge Che Guevara fan. His quote, “The true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love,” is my entire testimony. Nothing will take away the incredible power of his story and his sacrifice for greater good. I rocked with Fidel for a long time too. But the Cuba experiment doesn’t seem to be working. People are repressed and unhappy, and this is so unfortunate. The American way, might not be the ideal, but for the first time in my travels abroad, I’ve never been so ready to get back here.
Generally people repeatedly told me that they felt that the government wasn’t doing right by them. The money made from tourism doesn’t seem to trickle down to the people, and so many doctors that Cuba has licensed to other governments have been paid just 10% of what the Cuban government is paid for their services. Imagine you go to work and your boss is making 5000 for every 500 you make… I’m not down with one government dictating to another how it should operate, or Americans generally chastising other countries. My own homeland is a mess so I don’t get to judge anyone else’s, but I really wish the Cuban people could begin to feel again like all that was sacrificed back in ’59 and the ideal that was created really is to serve them, before anyone else.
A few other things to note about Cuba. There is Habana Vieja and Habana Centro. Habana Vieja is tourist central and also where many administrative buildings are situated. Here you will find Calle Obispo, a pedestrian-only street where there are many tourist shops, libraries, bookstores and university buildings. Many of the monuments for which Cuba is known are situated at or near Calle Obispo. Also because of the strained relationship with the US, your US ATM cards, debit cards and credit cards will have no life in Cuba. Like you can’t even get a dollar out. Even if you have a million in the bank. It’ll be like trying to squeeze a rock’s pimple. Nothing will happen, except you’ll get a big TRANSACTION DENIED message. I tried just for the fun of it. I thought at least at the airport I’d be able to use my card to pay Jet Blue’s ridiculous luggage fees, since that might technically be considered neutral ground. No dice. It’s still Cuba. Only when my plane took off and we were out of Cuba’s airspace could I use my card to pay for their overpriced organic snacks. Shoutout to JetBlue for waiving my luggage fee since I was out of Cuban–and American–cash. At the airport they will take USD for luggage though.
The photos above were taken on Day 7 when I walked the streets of Havana with a renowned Photojournalist who taught me to just smile and don’t fear. This was the best part of my trip.
If you’ve been or want to go, or have thoughts to share, please comment below.