Cuba in the Eyes of Some US Tourists

By Yusimi Rodriguez

US tourists arriving to Cuba. Foto: cubadebate.cu

HAVANA TIMES — While Cubans and US citizens await the fast approaching US president-elect, Donald Trump’s inauguration day with uncertainty, US citizens are in a hurry to get to know Cuba before the normalizing relations process is reversed, according to what the soon-to-be tenant of the White House has announced.

I have recently met an interesting group of US citizens who are visiting our country. At a first glance, they are a micro representation of the US’ multiethnic and multirracial society: Caucasian, Afro-descendents; citizens from other Latin American countries, Polish people, Bulgarian, Russian and an Italian descendent. What did they have in common? The passion for or, at least, an interest in dance. They have come to go to dance classes for a week, not just salsa classes but also African rhythm classes. They haven’t stayed in a hotel, but in casas particulares.

David, a young 28 year old man, descendant of Italians, is not only going to dance classes, he is also making a documentary about Cuba, what US people think back home and the reality of Cuban life. He’s the one that talks to me the most, not only to answer my questions but to satisfy his own curiosity too.

This is David’s second trip to Cuba, as part of a group who are interested in Cuban dance. He doesn’t feel like a tourist, although he knows that’s its almost inevitable that Cubans see him in that light, and he really doesn’t like to stay hotels. “I don’t like the extremely fake idyllic world that they build around you, all of this comfort which prevents you from seeing what the country’s reality is, how people really live, streets which are broken. Here, I can eat what Cubans eat.”

Tourists in Havana.  Foto: Mirna Rogers

According to what I could make out when this group of US citizens kindly invited me to join them and have dinner at the home they were staying, we Cubans eat white rice, black beans, salad, fried plantain and… lobster or meat, depending on what you fancy; some delicious fried rice with parsley, onion, garlic, soy sauce and a layer of cheese on top, invented by a young Cuban cook for the vegetarians present, as well as cake with ice cream for dessert with coffee, which even though I didn’t try it, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the kind we get on our ration cards.

How many times do we Cubans eat a meal like this in a year? Personally, nearly always, as I’m a vegetarian, although I don’t normally have these amazing fried rice wonders (which I’m sure I could make at home), or dessert with ice cream and there isn’t always oil to fry plantains. However, lobster for the majority of my fellow countrymen is a great luxury. I know young people who have never even tried it and not because they are vegetarian.

Isn’t the life which tourists enjoy staying in casa particulares also idyllic in a fake manner?  To a great extent, and they should be. Tourists don’t save money for months or pay an airplane ticket, as well as staying in an all-inclusive place and go to dance lessons (which they could put into practice at night, in tourist hotspots where people dance salsa), to find that there isn’t any water in the tank and they need to fill it up, or that the water is cold and they need to heat it up first on the stove and try not to do so for too long either because we need to save on the gas; or that toilet paper has finished and can’t be found anywhere in stores.

Visitors don’t travel all the way here to eat chicken instead of fish, or mince soya, or catfish or fish full of bones or other river fish which can be bought at the fish shop for a more or less decent price. Cubans whose businesses involve renting out rooms in hard cash, know that customers have to be respected and given a quality service.

Tourists on Obispo St. Foto: Juan Suarez

David is aware that casas particulares don’t reflect the real lives of the Cuban people, but at least he feels a little nearer and can talk to the home owners, neighbors, and friends who visit these homes. If these tourists enjoy anything (although David doesn’t like the word “enjoy”, it’s being able to sit down and talk to a Cuban person. When you ask them what they think about Cuba so far (for many of them it’s their first trip), their answer is unanimous: “We love it, the people are great, so friendly, so open… The landscape is beautiful.

However, not everything has been rosy and something has tarnished the landscape. “There is trash everywhere; they don’t look after the environment,” David complains. His travel buddies agree with him, and they asked me why garbage isn’t recycled. They are aware that more garbage is produced in their country, but they have more of a recycling culture. Silvia, a 35 year old Bulgarian woman, who has lived in 17 years in the United States, tells me that when they were swimming in the ocean there was garbage in the water, and she asked a Cuban woman afterwards why they don’t clean the beaches. The answer was that the government is only concerned about cleaning the beaches where a lot of tourism goes; nobody cares about these. The beach is in Cojimar.

From what I could see, at least at two of the casas particulares which I visited in Cojimar, the owners provided a personalized service of an extremely high quality. However, tourist demand could be affected if beaches continue trashed or get even dirtier. And in the long term, the Cuban Government’s revenue, which relies heavily upon tourism could drop. Will our authorities rush to clean these beaches and especially to keep them clean, if not for the local people’s wellbeing then at least for tourists? Let’s hope so.

The other thing that David didn’t like at all, during his first trip to Cuba, was the tour he had of the Museum of the Revolution. “I didn’t believe most of what they were saying. And the airoplane they had on display, as a CIA plane which was knocked down from the sky by Cubans was too new and well cared for me to believe it. On that tour, somebody asked whether there was racism in Cuba and the museum guide told there wasn’t; but when the same person asked about black leaders, the guide couldn’t even mention one.”

Tourists in Havana. Photo: Juan Suarez

David noted that, in spite of the racism which runs rampant in the US, it’s easier to find Afro-descendents in positions of power when compared to other Latin American countries. However, he isn’t oblivious to the fact that there are many Afro-Americans in the poorest social class. But luckily for him, this second visit to Cuba didn’t include a visit to that same Museum.

He also noticed just how slow the Internet works and he seemed concerned by this. “Cuba should invest more in the Internet and developing its infrastructure rather than in imports. The Internet will give the Cuban people the tools they need to access knowledge and jobs. Currently in the US, there is a lot of interest in Cuban rum and tobacco, but that’s only because the embargo has made them more exotic. When the embargo is lifted, this interest will fall, like it has for other things. In fact, very good rum is produced in the US. Look, there are studies which prove that, although it might seem incredible, that more rum was consumed in the US during Prohibition than when the ban was lifted.”

In spite of his unhappiness about the garbage and the little care the Cuban authorities have for the environment, these US tourists have enjoyed their experience a great deal and some of them are even talking about returning. They take away a good impression of the Cuban people with them and they know that the only distance that exists lies between governments but not between people.

  • Mark Williams

    Let’s just hope Cuba’s US tourists understand the cultural and historic background of what they see, or there will be a number disappointed. My own experience of tourists in general and American tourists in particular is that they expect the same vacation experience that they get in the States.
    It’s a generalisation, but many tourists just don’t enjoy experiences outside of the bubble in which they live. They expect high-speed wifi and the food they eat at home.

    • jhardin

      I think Americans heading to Cuba are more adventurous than those generalized…there are still open minded (liberals) in the USA.

      • Lynch Noel

        not some of those interviewed in the article.

  • Fred Fimbres

    Good, day, we are a medical equipment company based in South Carolina, how would we go about trying to open a market with Cuba re: medical equipment in general?? Looking for some direction. Thx. Fred

    • Moses Patterson

      Get in line. There are thousands of businesses chomping at the bit ready to sell something to Cuba. Quite naturally, if you sell next generation medical equipment and you see Cuban hospitals using 40 year old stuff, you can’t help but think that the market is ripe for new stuff. But here’s the problem: Cuba is broke. They have no hard currency to buy your equipment and even if you would be willing to extend credit, to do so is probably illegal. Even if you can deliver your medical equipment to State buyers on credit, good luck trying to get paid. The Castros are notorious deadbeats. Finally, the Cuban ministry which facilitates imports is the most corrupt in Cuba. Cuba has jailed it’s largest and most successful foreign businessmen for bribery which these businessmen were forced to pay. You would be better off trying to sell to Cleveland, Ohio. I wish you luck.

      • Bill Plummer

        Moses your so correct, what is it going to take.

    • Lynch Noel

      Donate it, dont always look for the fast buck from the less well off.

  • Fred Fimbres

    Medical Equipment in Cuba, how can we get to that market??

  • Nick

    I have had the fortune to meet many people from the USA in Cuba.
    Some tourists and indeed also students, people working there and people on ‘cultural exchanges’.
    People from all backgrounds and walks of life.
    I remember one real nice fella who wore a kind of cowboy hat.
    He got on a regular non tourist bus and was leaning out of the window as the bus pulled off to take a picture and his hat fell off. A Cuban guy picked his hat up, ran after the bus and got the driver to stop so he could get the hat back to the U.S. tourist.
    He didn’t accept a single cent for the favour.
    This American guy told me this story over a beer and he said he loved the place.
    He was a proper character this guy.

  • emagicmtman

    Interesting article. I wouldn’t stereotype tourists, though (and I don’t think Yusimi has, either). They run the gamut from clueless to perceptive. The value of their experiences often depend on how much effort they put into informing themselves before visiting (e.g. reading books about Cuba–and not just any books, either, but those written by knowledgeable folks who really know about the island, learning as much of the language as possible beforehand, so that they can actually talk with Cubans in their own language, being willing to get off the tourist track by traveling to cities, towns and villages where there are few, if any, tourists. (Actually, in Habana this can be done if you travel to neighborhoods where most Cubans live, or out to the ‘burbs.)
    Having stayed at regular Cuban homes, as well as casa particulates, and a number of hotels, ranging from ** (and even *!) as well as *** and **** hotels!, I can say that by talking with the staff, in Spanish, even staying in hotels can be a valuable experience. Of course living in an unauthorized, non-casa particular, especially the home of a working-class Cuban, closely approximates the daily struggles, trials and tribulations, of most Cubans. Of course that is a different story of “vacation” than most tourists sign up for!
    I’ll leave with one final image from my last visit. My friend and I had to report to the lobby of the ***** Parque Central to catch a Cuba Conectando bus to our destination. There, a dozen tourists from a group organized through the New York Times was waiting to catch their bus to Pinar de Rio. These dozen had enough luggage to sink the Titanic! Besides their mini-bus, there was a whole truck following with their trunks and giant-sized suitcases–and they were just going on a ten-day trip! Of course they didn’t know a lick of Spanish, and were regaling their patient, English-speaking Cuban guides with long-winded observations and stories. These guides should be awarded some sort of “Hero of Socialist Labor” prize at the least (although a suitable gratuity from their charges would be better!) That group’s experience of Cuba is far different than that of a twenty-something bicyclist who pedals from campismo to campismo (or even camps out at unauthorized spots) and only eats street food, or at peso restaurants, or has a Cuban cook up some freshly caught fish on his grill. As decrepit as I am (well launched into my seventh decade), I still managed to approach more closely to the Cuban experience, especially, for example, trying to sleep on the hard terrazzo floor of the Santiago-de-Cuba train station while I waited for the “tren frances,” whose departure was delayed from 7:00 p.m. ’til 3:30 a.m.! Yet I wouldn’t trade that experience for all the all-inclusive super-delux, ten-day tours run by the Nation magazine or the New York Times!

    • sky

      I find this kind of quest for authenticity kind of selfish and a bit baffling I’m afraid. Next time you choose to stay in a unofficial Cuban home please consider how this could actually result in them being fined, locked up or at worse having their home taken away from them. You can leave the island. They cannot. This is surely part of the informing yourself to be a responsible tourist you talk about. The official casa particulares have hefty taxes to pay and need people to stay there in order to pay them. If you want to really experience how draining and pared back life can be in Cuba, perhaps stay for a few months, stay in a part of town that is not where tourists usually stay and use transport options that are only open to Cubans (not tourist buses).

      • emagicmtman

        I’ve already done all that you recommend. The home where I stayed was that of a friend. Since a Party responsable (who fought in the mountains with Fidel) lived next door and was his friend, he didn’t have to worry about being fined or having his home seized. Otherwise, I stay in official cases. Also, I have stayed for several months at a time (which required me take the bus before dawn in order to “re-up” at the immigration office before my visa expired. Also, I cut cane in the fields from Nov ’69 through Feb. ’70, so guess that counts as an extended stay. Finally, within the greater Habana metro area my usual form of transport are the Metro-Buses (P-14, P-7, etc.), although when these portable saunas become too much I do take an “almendro,” which is an occasional affordable luxury for most Cubans). Also, out in the provinces I have taken many local buses, ridden in the back of three-wheeled passenger motorcycles, horse-cart jitneys, “almendrones” and, in addition to the “tren frances” (of which I took a second-class ticket), I’ve also ridden the less luxurious “milk run” trains.
        Finally, I have experienced how draining life can be in Cuba; for example, when I accidentally clogged up the toilet of my host, and the old plunger from the 1950’s had calcified into a useless club, we went on a odyssey, in 38 deg. C. weather, from one end of Habana to the other, looking for a new toilet plunger. After trying numerous “dollar stores,” and even the “Diplomatico” we finally found one at a lowly peso store–two blocks from his house!

  • Barzune

    Very good.
    1st, you (properly) identify the visitors as “U.S.Citizens”. That is much more defined than, as they might refer to themselves, as “American” which includes everyone from Tierra del Fuego to Baffin Island.

    “…they are a micro representation of the US’ multiethnic and multirracial society…”???
    The U.S. is (proudly, or arrogantly) the “World’s Melting Pot”, where immigrants are not only encouraged,
    but are compelled, to become “AMERICAN” ( please refer to point 1st).

    2nd, your visitors were interested in learning to dance…oh???
    You sound as if this was a pleasant surprise. They are portrayed by your essay as wealthy inebriated party-seekers, willing to pay you a lot of money to see how a monetarily-poor society is willing to put on a show for the Hollywood people, in hope of better times.

    David and Sylvia obviously live in the world where everything is possible: the government pays people to collect garbage, to clean up beaches and the waters around, etc. People don’t ( and shouldn’t ) do this work for free, as long as they have to spend their time and labour to support a family. Even in the U.S. this is known, and only where the wealthy have staked out their territory are parks, alleys, and beaches kept clean.

    • editorht

      One thing on the learning to dance. I just had a hard working friend visit me in Havana and she took dance classes because she wanted to improve several steps. She is neither wealthy nor was she party seeking or drinking. Learning different dances is not a bad thing and implies nothing class wise.

      • Barzune

        There are good, and kind, and humble people all over the world.
        I apologize for a judgement that was unfair; it was a poor and impolite reaction.
        Thank you for reminding me that there are more decent people in the world.

    • therealsnowman

      When you say Baffin Island your a little outside of American Territory. Where we come from it’s called Canada and in Canada we know our geography just a little better than that. Although it is called North AMERICA…up here we still like to be referred to as Canadians. However I do know that many AMERICANS like to impersonate us when they travel.