Cuba Off the Grid
*This is an updated version of an article I wrote for Reel Urban News in June 2016
A little over four months ago I had the opportunity to visit the island country of Cuba and my reaction is: Wow. As the plane began its descent the crystal clear waters of the Atlantic and the island’s lush tracts of land came into view. Along with the other excited passengers I hurried to pass through Aduanas (Customs). I was eager to exchange the Euros I’d brought over from Panama for CUCs – Cuban Convertible Pesos – and hop into a 1950s-model taxi.
After a 10-minute wait at the airport’s Casa de Cambios, or Currency Exchange, we learned that extranjeros – foreigners – are required to exchange their money at an office just outside the airport.
A bit disappointed, I joined a few other Estado Unidences (Americans) and walked to the other exchange, where we waited … and waited … and waited … for almost 45 minutes until we had our CUCsin hand and were ready to roll. I realized then that Cuba is many things but convenient is not among them.
While Cuba and the U.S. recently restored diplomatic ties, the thawing relationship has not yet brought the 21st century to the island. The high-tech infrastructure that we are used to in America is virtually nonexistent in Cuba. There are no ATMs and U.S.-based debit and credit cards are not accepted. Easily accessible, non-state-controlled Wi-Fi, dial-up, Internet and wireless phone service are either limited in supply or not available at all. But the lack of access to these conveniences forces you to budget wisely, engage your neighbors and friends in non-virtual conversation and appreciate being off the grid.
Havana, or as the locals say, Habana, is a bucolic city that seems to have been lifted from a ’50s movie or theGodfather films. The Cuban population seems to be majority Afrodescentes – African descendants – judging by so many faces that look similar to mine and my family’s.
A smooth taxi ride into the city brings you to Old Habana, still reminiscent of the Cuban Revolution and its orchestrators Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Fidel Castro. Old men play dominoes at sidewalk tables and school children dressed in government-approved uniforms run and play, signs that Habana is full of life despite state restrictions always on display.
Habana is also full of history; its architecture is evidence of a country frozen in time. Walking past the old Riviera Hotel and the buildings of Old Habana, one can imagine its days in the ’50s as a gambling mecca and playground for American elites.
A close look reveals that Habana has virtually no homelessness. There’s a reason for that: the government provides housing but it comes at a steep cost. The income tax rate can reach more than 90 percent. A cigar maker in Vinales boasted to me and my tour group that the Cuban Government let him keep 10 percent of his tobacco yield; yes, a whopping 10 percent!
Of course, the government needs revenue to fund universal health care, free medical school and other entitlements. I learned that the average Cuban makes about 20-30 dollars a month due to this system. Does this affect customer service? I’d say yes, especially in some government-run businesses. A good example is the Cuban communications store, which sells phone cards and Internet time. Let’s just say paying 40 dollars for 10 dollars of phone credit left this tourist feeling a bit estafado– cheated.
But who comes to Cuba to talk on a phone or stare at a computer? Cuban nightlife is as rich and vibrant as a plate of ropa vieja – shredded beef and vegetables over rice – made in a paladare, one of the new wave of private restaurants. Clubs that feature salsa, bachata or pop music– some play all three – provide an endless variety of places to dance at night. There are even a few underground reggae clubs that must frequently change locations due to the music’s political spin.
If clubbing is not your idea of fun, you can strike up a conversation with locals on the Malecon, the street that runs along the coast. Young and old folks get together for discussions that last well into the night. As you stroll down the sidewalk you pick up snippets of animated debates, as locals good-naturedly argue and broadly gesture with their hands to make their point.
But Cuba is a lot more than nightlife and great food. Visit the cigar factories and rum distilleries to see how two of the country’s most popular products are made. On a day trip to Vinales, the adventurous can explore the waterfalls and tunnels of Cuba’s caves.
For those with a spiritual bent, Cuba is home to the tradition of Santeria, a West African (Yoruba) religion that incorporates elements of Catholicism and is practiced among many Afro-Cubans.
All in all, Cuba is a warm and wonderful place to visit. The people I met were friendly and kind. There was the stranger who gave me his last plastic bag when the grocery store ran out; the sweet senora who made me dinner when I was hungry; and the taxi driver who invited me to meet his family and lent me a cell phone to use while in Habana.
The lack of access to quality Internet connections and the inability to use American credit cards pale beside the country’s attributes: pristine beaches, historic landmarks, antique architecture, flavorful food and most importantly, its heartfelt people.