First EmbrACE Column: What is ‘home’ for ordinary Cubans?

This is the article which was published through the International Faculty Magazine EmbrACE. It is the first column on Cuba, more will follow throughout this academic year.

It was hot, stuffy, and my sweaty clothes were sticking on my skin. But I made it, here I was: In Havana, Cuba. Finally my dream came true and I was backpacking around the island for the next four weeks. And here I was at my first destination. I was sitting in a taxi which brought me from the airport to my casa and I looked20141215_140433 around. It felt like a journey back in time as it seemed like the city fell into a sleeping beauty-like sleep in the 1950s. The cars were old-timers, the houses probably used to be beautiful back in the day but now their fate was in the hands of decay. Although I had known before what Havana looked like from pictures online, I had regarded them at home with a sense of nostalgia and romanticism. But now, as I could actually see the reality, I was kind of shocked. Even the worst “slums” in Europe were in a better state than those houses. And we were in Centro Habana, not in the suburbs. What kind of people lived there, I wondered. And what kind of life do those people live?

What you should know about Cuba is that it is not that easy for tourists to find out how ordinary people live. Tourists are not allowed to spend the night at private houses and instead they have to stay at official casas particulares which are private houses who rent out rooms. The landlords have to register you and let the authorities know immediately where and for how long yo20141215_095706u are staying. Another problem is that even though you are technically staying in a house of a local, there is a class system in Cuba despite its claim to be communist. Ever since the country opened up for tourism in the 90s, there are two currencies in Cuba. The tourist currency, the peso Cubano convertible (CUC) is 25 times more worth than the peso Cubano, or moneda nacional. So basically all Cubans who work in the tourist sector and have access to the peso convertible are automatically significantly richer than ordinary Cubans who are paid in moneda nacional. That is why all the casas I lived in were absolutely gorgeous inside and the families that hosted me were comparably well off. Which means that they had luxurious goods such as a TV, toilets with running water, and if they were extremely lucky even a car.

One day, I actually had the chance to catch a glimpse of what life for ordinary people looked like and what their homes appeared from the inside. A friend of mine had to come by to his family’s house in order to drop something off. He asked me if I wanted to join him, and I saw my chance of seeing the real picture of Cuban life. The apartment was in an ordinary neighbourhood in the centre of Havana, so basically as destroyed as all the other houses. My friend opened the door and I had to hold on my breath. The apartment was so tiny that it did not even deserve to be called an apartment. In fact, it was one room. And this room was everything. In one corner, the kitchen was located. The same room also consisted of the bedroom and the living room, although it has to be noted that the bed was the couch at the same time.  And of course, the din20141215_120453ing room was also squeezed in in this ‘apartment’. It was tiny, but also very cosy. The elderly couple, let’s call them Mercedes and Ricardo in order to protect their identities, were thrilled to welcome a German girl in their home. Especially Ricardo was happy as he was excited to analyse Germany’s performance at the previous world cup with me. Mercedes started to make coffee immediately and there was no question of me and my friend leaving again any time soon. They both asked if I had eaten or if I was hungry and I was amazed by this warm welcome. Then Ricardo told me a bit more about their lives. He, as a retired teacher gets $10 pension, and his wife Mercedes, a retired librarian receives $8. At once, my face started to freeze and I was in shock. I know that people in Cuba do not have to pay rent, that health insurance and education is for free and that people get food stamps. But regardless of this support, how can people live with $18 per month? The prices in Cuba in supermarkets are actually quite high, especially imported goods are very expensive. Everyone I met in Cuba was aware of this unfair system which means that taxi drivers make more than four times more money than ordinary Cubans per month.

Anyways, this encounter , and I was also quite emotional about it. I asked myself how I would cope if I were in their position. These two lovely people also deserve a lot of respect in my opinion. I was amazed to see that people who lived very simple lives were that generous and caring towards strangers. Even though they do not have a lot they immediately offered me coffee and even food. And what also struck me was that they seemed quite happy with their simple lives. Their home was very warm and cosy and it seems like they had made the best out of their situation.

The more time I spent in Cuba, the more I saw that we should not let ourselves be misled by outer-appearances. Although the houses in Havana, and Cuba in general are in an awful state from the outside, there can be real treasures in the inside. And yes, even those “ruins” for some are actual homes to many people. And of course the big question I asked myself was, what determines “home” for me personally? Do I need a TV, laptop, big apartment, and big variety of food, pretty house from the outside and inside to be happy and to feel at home? Luckily, my four weeks in Cuba helped me to answer these questions for myself.

 

Cuba article picture  image

 

First TEDx in Habana!

I do not know how I managed to miss this, but as soon as I stumbled across the news I immediately had to share it wit20141225_143336h you guys.
Two years after the application, on November 15th 2014 the very first TEDx event took place in Habana. TED, or TEDx talks are known all over the world for the inspiring talks on various issues. From political topics to societal issues as well as medicine and technological inventions which are shared with the audience and usually  through livestream people from all over the world can watch the event.
In the Netherlands, the country I am currently living in, TED talks occur quite regularly in university cities. But in Cuba, this is a new development. Especially the fact that US-American speakers, as well as Cuban speakers were invited to share their ideas.

Very often, people think that due to Cuba’s political and economic isolation, there is no vibrant art and culture scene in the country. This is simply wrong. Music and dance culture is a fundamental part of Cuba’s life, as well as art20141225_165855s. If people think that street art is something which only belongs to hip cosmopolitan cities, then they are wrong. I remember very well the amazing street art that I saw in Santa Clara. Having said that, the official TED blog describes
The theme: “inCUBAndo!,” or “InCUBAte.” The talks and performances all encouraged the audience to think outside of the box in some way and push their expectations of what Cuba can and will be. “I didn’t want every speaker to give a TED-style talk,” says Levin. “I wanted to give TED a Cuban flavor.” *

The lineup of speakers was very diverse. From a speaker on LGBTQ rights in Cuba, another speaker on organic farming in Cuba and the risks of farming with pestizides, and many more. The event also included dance performances and music, of course.

A very nice quote from the promo video was the statement of an elderly lady who was also giving a talk. She said “Obviously, I have love for my homeland Cuba. But I want to reach out to the whole world!”

Watch the promo video of the first TEDx Event here

You can also watch some of the talks on youtube or here

I wish I could have been there to see the talk myself, but unfortunately I missed it as I went to Cuba around 1 month after the event. Too bad, but let’s hope that there will be many more TED talks in Habana!

*TED Blog, “The first TEDx in Cuba: An event in Habana, two years in the making,” Dec 2014, retrieved from http://blog.ted.com/the-first-tedx-in-cuba/

Picture retrieved from www.cubadebate.cu

Day 2: Playas del Este, or: Vamos a la playa!

I am sitting at the beach with my feet in the sand. I’ve already taken a swim and I had a couple of Cuba Libres. Wonderful. Since my start in Havana was quite rough so far, I decided to actually do something fun. I took a bus at the parque central ($5CUC return ticket with Transtour) and I went to Playa Santa Maria del Mar.
It was a bit cloudy at the beginning and the beach is really empty. I am now enjoying my day-off at the beach among tourists who do not try to rip me off, who d20141216_152625o not follow me and try to hit on me. I had nice conversations with other tourists, but most of them are just…different. Of course, I am a tourist as well. But still, I feel different than those tourists who buy their holiday packages and who just end up spending 2 weeks at the beach at the same hotel. I had a really nice conversation with an elderly man from Canada. He regularly travels to Cuba and he always takes clothes, pens, notebooks, etc. with him for the locals. This time, his project is a homeless man who lives on a piece of cardboard in front of the hotel. When he tells me about this man, then I am confused.

I thought that the Cuban government takes care of people? Everybody assured me that people might be poor in Cuba, but the government makes sure that the basic needs of people are covered. So usually, they get housing, food stamps, health care and education provided. I started to be curious. After my Canadian friend (In Cuba, everyone you meet is your ”amigo”) got me some Cuba Libres from the hotel bar, he wanted to introduce me to his homeless friend. So, I followed him to the hotel and there he was.

He literally sat on a piece of cardboard. He was wearing a cap (my Canadian amigo brought him the cap from Canada) and he wore ripped clothes with stains everywhere. And he was insanely drunk. Apparently, tourists had quite some fun to provide this homeless Cuban guy with regular Cuba Libres or Mojitos. I tried to talk to him since I wanted to understand why he was living on a piece of cardboard in front of the hotel. But his drunk-Spanish was impossible for me to understand. The only thing which I got was when my Canadian amigo and a Polish man who joined our conversation, started talking about Socialism (The Polish man was a perfect conversation partner as he experienced socialism live back then). Then, all of a sudden, our drunk Cuban amigo started yelling ”Socialismo! Solidaridad!”. Was that sarcasm? He was pretty drunk, but still he was really enthusiastic. I did not get the picture at all. Anyways, this was the first and last homeless person that I would see during my four weeks in Cuba.

After this experience, I said goodbye to my Canadian amigo (Lunch at the hotel- Thank god I do not have this cliche tourist vacation).I returned to the beach where I am now sitting in the sun, digging my toes into the powdery-sand. Life is wonderful. I feel like walking to another spot when I hear the sound of guitars and some voices. I follow the music with bare feet in the sand and I end up at a little bar-thingy… Some chairs and tables in the sand with a little roof and a wooden shed next to it where I spotted some alcohol bottles. Hmm… I order a Pina Colada, listen to the music and the waves in the background. The waiter with my Pina Colada arrives, and he tells me to take a sip. He is holding a bottle of white Havana Club Rum and pours it into my glas until I say ”gracias.” He tells me that I can call him whenever I want more rum. My trip is starting to get better at this point 😉 I am sipping on my Pina Colada and I feel the sweet alcohol kicking in as I already had a couple of Cuba Libres before. The only thing I have eaten so far was a quick breakfast. Never mind, I am on holiday. Next to my table, there are two guys sitting. One of them gets up and asks me if I want to dance with him. I start laughing and I say that I am not good at dancing salsa. So, he tells me that he can teach me. And we start to dance, in the sand, next to the ocean. I am light-headed, the sun is warmly touching my skin, and I enjoy the dance. It turns out that the two of them are also tourists from Mexico and that they are also staying in Havana, just like me.After the dance, we continued talking a bit but then they had to leave. We decided to meet up in the evening for a drink. I was really excited. Two nice guys, also tourists, who wanted to hang out. Finally! I wasn’t alone anymore. The two of them left, and I continued drinking Pina Coladas. By the way, those were the best Pina Coladas I have ever had. With fresh coconut with little pieces in it, fresh pineapple juice, and of course. My best friend, the guy with the rum bottle.

At one point, it was time for me to go. I left my little paradise beach and went back to smelly,heavily polluted, Havana.
After a nice dinner at a nice restaurant (but expensive again! 😦 Although I asked my host Isabel for a cheap place!), I met up with my two Mexican amigos and we had a great time out. We went to Hemingway’s favourite bar and had Daquiris, then we walked a bit through Habana Vieja, and we went to some beers for drinks. The two of them were absolutely fantastic, gentlemen-like guys. Oseas, a political science student who was about to spend 4 months in Havana in order to do politica20141216_213744l research, and his friend Salvador who was visiting him here and who was a political consultant. The perfect guys for political discussions! They told me a lot about Mexico and that I should come and visit. We talked about corruption in their country, violence, the amazing food… And of course, about Cuba. Oseas agreed that many people in Cuba are poor and that the salaries are extremely low. But he also acknowledged that there is no extreme poverty such as in Mexico and that inequality in Cuba is not the same as in other countries. You will be hearing more about Oseas at the end of my trip, by the way.
Anyways, the two of them were amazing, they paid all my drinks and also brought me home. For the first time in Cuba, I felt really happy and I had a nice evening. I really enjoyed their company. If you guys are reading this by any chance: Thank you!

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I got home, and I happily went to bed. I couldn’t wait what else I would discover in this crazy country.

Day 1 Havana, Or: Bucanero o Cristal?

What else happened during my first actual day in Havana besides my struggle with the mean and annoying jinteros who tried to rip me off?
Well, since I did not change a lot of money at the airport, I still had to go to a bank. Luckily, I found one quite quickly. I tried to enter the bank and the first thing I saw was the security guy opening the door for me and asking me what I wanted. I told him that I just wanted to change some money: Euro into CUC. He nodded and let me in. The entire waiting area was completely filled with people. They were not standing in a line or anything but they just sat on chairs. But… how would I know when it was my turn? No clue. The security man probably saw my clueless face and he helped me. He pointed at an elderly man and said ”el ultimo.” (the last one) Ahh, now I remembered. Every time in Cuba when you want to enter a shop or bank or Etecsa (internet cafe), then you always have to ask ”Quien es el ultimo?” (Who is the last one?) And then you know that after that person it is your turn.
Anyways, at day 1 I still had no clue about this system. I observed the scenario in the bank and it was very interesting. Some people went to the counter with bags filled with paper money. I assumed that they probably changed their Moneda Nacional’s into CUC’c. What a strange system. People are getting paid in MN’s but most things are being paid in CUC’s. Strange.
So, my ”ultimo”-guy was done and it was my turn. I started walking towards the vacant counter, but then the security guy came and told me that I cannot go there since they are not responsible for changing foreign currencies. Ah. So, only two of the 15 counters could help me. Great. Couldn’t he have told me this earlier?
My whole bank adventure took about one hour.

After this bank adventure and with fresh new money, I changed at my casa (I was completely soaked in sweat due to the hot weather), and then I went on the streets again ready to discover Havana. As I was quite done with the random-walking-on-the-streets because of the heat and the annoying jinteros, I decided to do something for my education and go to the Museo de la Revolucion (Museum of Revolution).

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The Museum was quite nice and it covered the basics of the history of the Cuban Revolution (I summarized the most important points of Cuban history here).
I enjoyed the cool temperatures in the nice building 20141215_131015and it was just nice to be alone and to read a bit and look around without being disturbed by some annoying guys. Next to the museum, there was also a collection of military vehicles outside which was random. But well, Cuba. The museum was packed with propaganda and hardcore promotion of the government. And it showed quite well the revolutionary spirit which amazed people all over the world.

I already mentioned in one of my entries how much I ”love” (please note the sarcasm) The United States of America. This was without any doubt my favourite poster of the museum:
It says something like20141215_134214
”Collection of Idiots”
1) Fulgencio Batista. We thank you for triggering our revolution.
2) Ronald Reagan.  We thank you for keeping our revolution alive.
3) George Bush sr. We thank you for strengthening our revolution.
4) George Bush jn. We thank you for making our revolution eternal.

Since I could not stay my entire day in the museum, I decided that I should just try to forget about the heat and the pollution and that I would have to make the best out of my stay in Havana. So I thought that I could just go on with the revolutionary spirit and walk to the Plaza de la Revolucion.

The Plaza de la Revolucion was situated in Vedado, in the West of Havana, while the museum was situated in Centro Habana in the East. I had the idea to just walk along the Malecon (promenade next to the sea) in order to get to the direction of Vedado. A thing which I should mention at this point: My sense of orie20141215_135643ntation is more than lousy.
I walked along the Malecon and enjoyed the sun. And due to the sea the air was much better and I was breathing in the fantastic salty smell of the sea. Oh, and I took a selfie (I normally hate selfies) so that the world could see that I, myself, have really been to Havana.

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I started walking. And I walked. And walked. The atmosphere at the Malecon was just much relaxter than in the crowded, smelly city. And as you can see in the picture, it is also empty and there are not really many people. Every now and then I crossed some people who were playing music, but other than that I mostly saw tourists. And literally all of the tourists were couples holding hands and enjoying the romantic atmosphere of the Malecon. Duh. In such moments, travelling alone is hard as you are being reminded that you are, well, alone. A sense of melancholy passed my thoughts but instead I just tried to concentrate on the buildings on the other side of the street which one day probably must have been beautiful.

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I kept marching for ages. And at one point, I was exhausted, my feed hurt and I had no clue where I was. Of course. Then, I decided to get help. The good thing about Cuban cities is that whenever you are desperate and your 20141215_145058feet give up then there are always the Bici-Taxis. Bici, meaning bikes, and Taxi should be clear. Those Bici Taxis are bikes with three wheels with a large seat in the back where two people can sit. And the taxi driver has to sweat in order to bring you to your destination like a Tour-de-France athlete. For the first time, I sat in such a vehicle and it was so much fun. I had a nice conversation with the driver who like the taxi driver from the day before just wants to leave Cuba. After about 15 minutes we arrived at the plaza de la revolucion. The $4CUC were totally worth it. I also got more confident every hour regarding my Spanish! But still, some people were quite hard to understand. Simple questions like ”how old are you?” are just not understandable in this strange Cuban accent.

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20141215_150657After my trip to the Plaza de la Revolucion, I went back to the centre, also with a Bici. (The driver was a guy who of course, was hitting on me and wanted to take me out to teach me how to dance Salsa. I said that I didn’t have time (lie). He told me that whenever I changed my mind that I could come to his taxi and then he would take me out to dinner and to a club .haha)
It was not time for dinner yet, so I decided to just have a drink first in a bar, watch people on the streets and to write in my diary.
So, I ordered a Bucanero beer (”strong” Cuban beer). A live band was playing songs of the Buena Vista Social Clubs, on my right side I saw a building with a huge Cuban flag and on the left side I saw the bar with a poster saying ”La revoluction es invicible.”
In front of the bar on the streets I saw an old man with a wheelbarrow who was fishing in the garbage can for beer cans.
I took a sip of my cold beer and just enjoyed looking around. Maybe, Havana wasn’t that bad after all. A sip of beer can change your whole perception and turn a bad day into a nice day. Halleluja

Havana Day 1. Chapter 1:Hola jinteros!

I survived my first night in Havana after I spent the evening watching Cuban TV. I enjoyed the 4 channels I had with the bad quality and the only channel which was not about sports was a political documentary about Hugo Chavez. Such a cliche!
At 8.30 am I got up to have some breakfast. Nice tortilla (omelett) and fresh fruit.
I got dressed and then my tour through Havana started.

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Picture retreived from: whereig.com

I started walking towards Habana Vieja as I actually wanted to do some sightseeing to start with. But then again, all those guys. Uh. ”Hola!Linda!Hola!Hola!HOLA!?”
”Where are you from?” (In super broken English).
”Alemania!”
”Oh! I have a… brother who lives in Munich!” Of course. During my trip I would learn that EVERYONE has a brother living in Munich, a cousin studying in Toronto and so on. If you want them to remain quiet, tell them you are from Somaliland or Uzbekistan or whatever. But at my first day I did not posess this wisdom yet.
So, I played the game. I was honest, and I was hoping to maybe have nice conversations with nice people. Big mistake as it would turn out.
The third or fourth guy who talked to me in literally a short period of less than 10 minutes (!!) was especially persistent. He greeted me and told me that he was my neighbour and that he is a good friend of Isabel’s. Actually, he was nice and I thought that he might not be a bad guy. Then, he told me about a cigar festival that was apparently taking place now. I just answered ”Ah ok, well that’s nice.’ But I didn’t really show a lot of interest in it.He kept talking about it and explained that today is a special day where cigars can be sold at a much lower price than usual. It was really strange, I just kept going on the streets in order to explore the city and he just followed me. This is usually what I do at my first day when I travel- I just walk around without having an actual idea where I am going. But this is how you can find the nicest spots.
So, I wasn’t really happy to be followed by this guy. He was about 40 or 45 years old I assume and he was constantly flirting with me and telling me how beautiful and smart I was and how great my Spanish was. So he just followed me but then proposed to show me a bit around. I didn’t refuse, so he guided me through some streets and at one point- I don’t even know how that happened it all went so fast- he softly pushed me through the entrance of an apartment.
I was freaking out as I thought that he might kidnapp and kill me, but as we all know this did not happen.

But we just ended up in a living room with a table full with cigar boxes. And a nervous guy was sitting at the table and he started talking to me about the great offer he can make today. I immediately knew that all of this was just some stupid trick to rip off tourists. So, I just leaned back and relaxed and smiled. I would play this game, but I would be the one having fun. I put my business-face on and looked interested. I asked the guy to open one box…. Then the other one… And I took the cigars in my hands and smelled at them and asked him to show me how I can test if a cigar is good. So the guy had to explain and show that I first had to press the cigar with my thumb and index finger hard in order to see if the cigar then goes back to its original shape… and that you have to roll the cigar between your hands to make sure that no tobacco is falling out. This was actually fun and I even learned something. I faked some interest and occasionally said ”ahh”, or ”woooow?” and ”de verdad?”
Then, of course they wanted me to buy cigars. $300CUC for the big box Cohiba (I would buy the same box somewhere else later for $40CUC 😛 ) and $180CUC for the small one. I just started laughing out loud and asking them if they are crazy and why they would think that I would have that much money. ”Soy estudiante!” (I am a student!). The guy got even more nervous and started sweating. He said, that this was the only day of the year when they are allowed to sell cigars at such a low price as it is an extra offer from the government (BULLSHIT). He offered me that I could buy the big box for 100 Euros now. I refused and said that I wanted to leave. So, I did. They were not happy at all but I was not willing to support this dirty scam.

So, I was back on the streets again, somewhere in the centre of Havana. But yes, my stalker ”neighbour” did not leave my side again. He asked me if I wanted to go out with him tonight (WHY ON EARTH would I go out with a 45 year old guy who is even OLDER THAN MY MOTHER!?) because- of course (!) what a coincidence! It is also the salsa festival! He proposed to pick me up at 5 pm, take me to dinner and then go to the casa de la musica in order to teach me how to dance salsa. I refused, but I said that I might go to the casa de la musica as well tonight and then we might see each other. (Nope). He tried to convince me to accept his offer, but I was just so done. So, I asked him to leave me alone. And finally, I was alone! And for a short time, I could enjoy the streets of Centro Habana…

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El Capitolio, Centro Habana

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So again, without any idea where I was actually heading, I just continued walking through the centre of Havana.
And then at one point, two women started talking to me. They said ”Have a nice holiday!” and I smiled and thanked them. I felt actually happier since this was the first time that I heard something genuinely nice where no creepy old Cubans would hit on me.I continued walking, and the two women seemed to be walking in the same direction, towards ”El Barrio Chino- Chinatown”

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El Barrio Chino- Without Chinese people, though. They all left after the revolution

The two women were really nice and we chatted a bit. They asked me if I wanted to have a drink with them- and I agreed. It was nice to talk to women, somehow I felt more comfortable. We had mojitos in a cafe and we had nice conversations. Both of them were teachers and they asked a lot about Germany and Europe. Of course, they have never travelled and they don’t have the opportunity to do it. One of the women took a piece of paper and started writing a list with things down which I could do in Havana. Weirdly, the two women also started talking about the cigar festival. And I told them that I already heard about it but that I am not interested. They then tried to change my mind and said that I would really help them if I went with them to buy cigars- since they would get a commission then with which they could buy milk and other products. Aaahhh! So, this is a whole organised thing. I refused and I started to be disappointed. Those two women also tried to get money out of me. I just wanted to get out of the cafe and be alone again. I asked for the bill, and the two women did not even make any gestures to get their wallets. Well, I had to pay for the three of us which was alright, though. I just wanted to get out of there.
We were about to leave the cafe and then one of the women asked me if I could buy her a bottle of milk for her child. Apparently, milk is very expensive in Cuba. I thought, alright, I mean a bottle of milk is usually super cheap and does not cost more than 1 euro in a German or Dutch supermarket. We just left the cafe and there was this street shop (Basically just a table set up), and it seemed like the owner of the shop was already waiting for us! The women just said something quickly to her and she grabbed a bag which was already prepared. It contained three bags of milk powder. The shop owner looked at me and asked me to pay $30 CUC. And in this moment, I got very, very angry.

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Me: ”Are you kidding me?You cannot tell me that this costs $30CUC!”
Jintera: ”Well, everything is soooo expensive here in Cuba….”
Me:” In Europe, for me, $20CUC is a couple of days of grocery. I am a student!What makes you think that I have a lot of money?”
Jintera:”Well, ok, can you buy two packages then?”
Me:”How much?”
Shop lady:”$20CUC
Me:No way!
Shop lady: One? For $17CUC?
Me: ”Don’t you see that you don’t make any sense at all? What makes you think that I am stupid as well?”
Jintera: ”Please…give us something…”
I was soooo angry. Really. But I knew that they would never let me go without further argument. So, I just grabbed a couple of coins from my wallet and handed it over. But I said: ”I really hope that you have a child. And that I am actually helping you know with those coins. But if you lied to me, then you should really think about it.”
And then I turned around and left.
I was super angry. And just done. I think that I handled the situation quite well, I did not really pay them much, definitely not the $30CUC. But I can imagine that tourists that do not speak Spanish and that do not have the courage to say ”no” might have a hard time.

But this was sadly not my last jintero-story of the day (!!).
In the evening, I was just walking on the streets again, looking for a restaurant to eat. I only had had breakfast in the morning and since then I hadn’t eaten. (Does beer and Mojitos count?) I was waiting in order to cross the streets and one of the annoying guys which are omnipresent EVERYWHERE followed me. I said that I didn’t have time to talk now or go somewhere since I wanted to eat. (BIG MISTAKE TO SAY THAT).
He kept following me and told me that he was a salsa teacher at some hotel. He was younger than the average annoying jintero and he looked quite fancy with more than average clothes, so I thought that he might be a normal guy who is just hitting on me.
Then he told me that he knows a nice restaurant. I told him that I am a student and that I am travelling on a low budget. He assured me that it was a cheap but good restaurant. And (I have no clue why), I just believed him. Of course, he was hitting on me like crazy. Really. He constantly grabbed my hand and started dancing with me on the streets. And dancing in the Cuban sense- pulling me very tight to him. I told him that I did not feel comfortable doing that as this is not normal for Europeans. And I also added that I am taken anyways. He did not seem to care about this, though.
After a while, we arrived at the restaurant. It was completely empty.
I was immediately seated and like with some magic spell two Mojitos appeared. Then the menu: $15 CUC for the cheapest fish!! This is NOT budget travelling. I was super angry. Why was I so naive? Was it the travelling by myself?
I tried to relax and just ordered the cheapest fish. I was insanely hungry, it was getting dark, and leaving the restaurant immediately would mean endless explanations again. I was really annoyed. And then, to make it even worse, the guy turned out to be an absolute -excuse the expression- asshole.
While I was waiting for my food, he asked me if I was interested in sleeping with a Cuban. I laughed and told him that in Europe, being in a relationship means to most people not to sleep with other people. He did not seem to understand it.
Creepy guy: ”Why? You are travelling now, you should also try to sleep with Cubans just to see what they are like. And I can tell you, they are the best lovers!”
Me: ” I am not interested in finding out. And also I don’t believe that they are the best lovers.”
Creepy guy: ”Of course we are! We have a better sense of rhythm and also Cubans have bigger penises than Europeans.”

Was this really happening? I was waiting for my food and this absolute stranger talks to me about the churro in the Cubans pants?Why?What was wrong with him? And did he think that this would convince me to change my mind and to sleep with him?

The whole conversation was just absurd. He asked me how big the average European penis is, what ”big” means to me, made gestures with his hands,.. What the hell? Thankfully, my food arrived and he had the decency to get up. But of course, he didn’t do it without trying to kiss me. I was fast enough to turn my head and so he just managed to place a kiss on my cheek. Oh and of course he also left his number on the table. The guy went to the bar and chatted with the bar tender as if they were best friends. It seems like he is frequently bringing stupid tourists like me to the restaurants. And yes, I was so right.
While I was eating my fish, another Cuban man entered the restaurant together with an elderly tourist couple! He kept talking to them and they looked at him in a fascinated way.
At least I am not the only naive tourist.  After I paid the bill (they even charged 10% extra service costs 😦 )  I left the restaurant. I was angry. Disappointed. I could not believe that I got ripped off.But, I could only learn from this experience….

Day 0.5: La Habana,or: What the hell am I doing here?

And I was finally in Havana. I’ve been waiting for this moment for about one year. And here I was. Slowly, I left the airplane and walked towards the main hall to get my backpack.The first thing which I felt was the burning and stuffing heat on my skin. Immediately, I started to feel hot but not only because of the sun. I was excited. And scared. Somehow, those immigration checks always scare me a bit. Not that I am hiding anything. But still, it just makes me feel uncomfortable.
We entered the immigration hall and it was an insane scenario. Huge lines with people waiting. And the lines just did not move. For the very first time, I started to make a picture of Cuba. The first thing I noticed was that there were different lines- some for the ”normal” people, and then some for ”officials”. And I recognized quite some old men in military uniforms who just went to the extra line which, of course, was less crowded.
Were those men old, government employees? Maybe. One of them, a super old guy, with a green military uniform, a military hat and some honourings on his uniform who was sitting in a wheelchair got extra priority, of course.
Well, after more than 45 minute waiting time, it was finally my turn to present my visa and my passport at the airport staff. The lady looked as if she was having the worst day off her life. No smile, no nice word. Nothing. She spoke to me in a very broken English, whereas I just kept talking back to her in Spanish- I don’t like to be seen as the cliche tourist that doesn’t even make an effort to speak the language.
She asked me if this was my first trip to Cuba. And where I was staying. Then she looked at me with her angry face for a while, but finally she let me pass.

After the whole procedure, I was just exhausted. The stuffy, hot air in the immigration hall, the nervous atmosphere, loud people and the consequences of the long flight did not really help. I continued walking towards the exit, and at the baggage counter I could then see the actual building of the airport Jose Marti. The entire architecture of the airport is like from the 70’s, retro-style. There are screens for instance, but still I am automatically comparing it to Amsterdam Schiphol or Paris Charles de Gaulle.

And the airport is really small. Even Stuttgart is bigger. I am quite surprised about that. But I keep going, as all I want to do is finally get to my casa particular. I leave the main exit, and here I go. Welcome to Cuba!
I don’t even have the chance to look at the palm trees or the blue sky, because all I can see are masses of men standing in front of me and holding paper signs with names on them or signs with ”Taxi Company”, signs with pictures of apartments, etc. And all I can hear is ”TAXI!TAXI!TAXI!”. I am completely overwhelmed.

Since my friends were so scared and begging me to at least arrange an accomodation for the first night, I booked a room with a taxi pick-up service via the webpage casaparticularcuba.org (This page is also recommendet by Lonely Planet, and I made a really good experience with it as well). So, I blinked a couple of times with my eyes (I couldn’t take the bright sun), and I finally spotted a man with a paper sign in his hands which said ”Cindy Wilhelm”. This was Angel, my taxi driver.
After I changed some money, we started our walk to the taxi. He was very friendly and I did not have a problem to understand his Spanish. I don’t recall where I got the energy in that moment, but my Spanish worked absolutely fine! So, we had a great conversation which somehow turned out to be my first ”interview”:

After some normal points of conversation (Where are you from? Oh, you are travelling alone?Etc.), Angel naturally switched into a conversation about politics!

Me: ”So, how is it like to live in Havana?”

Angel: ”I do not like this country at all! If I could, I would immediately leave!”

Me: ”But don’t you think that Cuba is changing? Are the reforms improving the situation?”

Angel: ”Listen.They say that we are now allowed to travel. We are also allowed to buy houses and cars and we can open restaurants. But the salaries are that low that it is simply not possible. Do you see? All of this is just an illusion!”

Wow. I couldn’t believe it. That was easy! I thought it would be very hard to make Cubans speak critically about the political situation. But it wasn’t hard at all!
While we were driving on the highway towards Cuba, I looked around and tried to breathe in the wind and to catch some impressions. We were driving on the highway, but still people were walking there and you had bikes and many more things that do not usually belong on a highway.
And there I saw them: The beautiful old American cars. I felt like I was in the 50s. Angel did not give me much time to keep staring out of the window, we continued our conversation.

Me: ”Well, if the salaries are that low, how are the prices then? For food, apartments, etc.?

Angel:”Incredibly high! With our salaries it is hard to even survive. Several families and generations have to live together in order to make it.”

Me: ”Well, but there are also things which are good in your country, right? Education and health care is free for example.”

Angel: ”Again, it’s the same. An illusion. You can study for free, but those guys (points with his finger to the ceiling), the government decides what is good and what is bad. So, you cannot study what you want. I have two children. I want that they themselves can decide what they want to study and not the government! Look. With me it is the same. This taxi here is not even mine! It belongs to the government.”

After a moment he adds: ”And with the health care system it is the same. The government is not going to let you die, but it is still very bad.”

I had no idea that it would be that simple. I was amazed. Apparently, those Cubans seem to wait for the moment to share their anger and disappointment. After about 20 minutes, we seemed to be in a city. I assumed that we were in the suburbs of Havana still a bit away from our final destination. The houses were in a very, very poor state.
I cannot even properly describe it, you just have to see it for yourselves.
I saw an old church, and I asked Angel if people were religious in Cuba. He said, that some are Catholic but that many people don’t really go to church. Then, he mentioned that there are many people here who believe in sort of ”dark African religion”. And he started to talk in a very judging way about it. Angel does not like those kind of people, he says that it is scary and ”disgusting”. This should not be the last time that I would hear Cubans complain about ”those strange Africans with their weird religion”. Interesting.
I still believed that we were in the suburbs of Havana when I finally asked Angel what the name of this ”barrio” was. And he said ”Centro Habana, estamos muy cerca!” Oh wow, so we were in the centre of Havana, really close to my casa. And…it looked like…. THIS. Some houses were completely destroyed, others had collapsed roofs. The colour of the houses was gone, there were many dogs walking on the streets,and it was just very,very old. Pedestrians walked on the streets, even on big ones where cars were driving. And once I managed to get a closer look at those old cars I noticed that most of them were also in a pretty bad state. The stuffy, hot air was not the only thing which made it hard to breath. Those pretty old cars also contributed to an insane amount of pollution in the air.

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The view from my room

And we arrived at the street where my casa was supposedly located. I paid Angel his money (of course with a small tip), I paid $20CUC for the pick up service which was a decent price for a 40 minute drive. And poor Angel had to wait for me at the airport.
And so, I arrived at my Casa (Casa Isabelita Balcones,Consulado #152, entre Colon y Trocadero, Centro Habana). I rang the bell, and a key on a rope was thrown out of the window. I had to giggle, then I grabbed the key and opened the door. My casa was on the second floor, and Isabel already waited for me at the door.
She was a small, elderly lady with hair curlers in her hair. Although the house from the outside just looked as scary as all the other houses, the apartment itself was beautiful. Of course, it was pretty grandma-like with a decoration style from the 1950s. But still, I found it really charming.
She led me into my room, and I was amazed. I had my own double bed, with a TV and my own bathroom. Everything was clean and it looked nice. Isabel gave me the keys and asked me what time I wanted to have breakfast. We chatted a bit, but I figured that she was not a very talkative person. It was about 5 pm now, Cuban time. So, 11pm Central European time. I did not feel like sleeping yet, though. So, I grabbed my Lonely Planet, got ready and went on the streets in order to really ”feel” Havana.

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On the map, I noticed that I was actually pretty much in the centre. Very close to the Capitolio on one side, and a couple of minutes walking distance to the Malecon- the promenade next to the sea. I was surprised that it was already actually getting dark. So, I started walking. It wasn’t that hot anymore, so it was comfortable. But then, I was shocked. Every single man I crossed on my way to the Malecon tried to hit on me. Either, by making a strange ”TSSSSSSSSS TSSSSSSSS”-sound, or by sending kisses and making kiss-noises or simply by calling me things like ”Linda!” ”Beautiful!”. I have never experienced something like this in my life and I have to say that in this moment, I was just very scared.
I felt like I was in a very dangerous neighbourhood because of the poor-looking houses and because of those strange men. Plus, it was already getting dark. But I kept going, and I reached the Malecon. This was absolutely beautiful of course, and I sat down and started to write in my diary. Regardless of the sound of the waves which hit the rocks, which usually calms me down, I could not relax. Constantly, I had to turn around and see if I was ok and if nobody was following me or staring at me. But at the Malecon, there were mostly couples enjoying the romantic atmosphere.
Additional to my already clashing emotions which I was experiencing in this moment, I started to feel lonely and I especially missed my boyfriend and my friends. Therefore, I decided to try to send a text message to him and I crossed my fingers that he would receive it.

So here I was. Sitting at the beautiful Malecon in the centre of Havana. My dream finally came true. But I was not happy at all. This different city just hit me very hard in my very first day on Cuban soil. In this moment, I just went through the options in my head. I decided, that in case if my whole travel adventure is not going to work out, that I would change my flight and come back earlier. But I was also thinking, that this was probably just my first impression and that it would start to get better once I am getting used to the different lifestyle here.
And with those mixed feelings, I was breathing heavily in the salty air and I watched the waves clash against the rocks and the water wildly jumping off.

I was hoping for the best.

AMS-HAV: And the journey begins….

There it is, the day has come.
It is relatively cold in The Hague, my home. And it is way too early. I hate getting up in the morning. Thanks to my boyfriend, he manages to kick me out of bed and I am getting ready for my adventure. I decided to wear a casual hobo-style clothing for the trip in the plane: Hobo pants and my Australia Hoody it is. Yes, I look like a homeless person. Perfect for my start of no capitalist, materialist atmosphere for 4 weeks.
At least I made the effort to put some make-up on.
I kiss my boyfriend goodbye-it is going to be 4 weeks of barely any contact.
And I hug my room mates who are still sleeping (after a wild night out-they are probably still drunk). I do not get any reaction. Well. Oh, but there are two sticky notes at the door with nice little words of goodbye from them :

”I am probably still going to be drunk: in that case: I love you very much and have the best time ever!!!xoxoxo”

”I am sorry I’m not very sentimental; I love you still and see you in a month!xoxo”

And off I go- on my way to Amsterdam Schiphol.
Am I prepared for this trip? Hell no. What did my preparation look like?
Getting some sunscreen, buying a Lonely Planet and buying an adapter. That’s it.
Am I scared? Not really.
More like…excited. And nervous.

In my head, I try to collect all the data I have about Cuba. Of course, I know that I am more than average informed about the political system in Cuba since I am sort of a political science nerd. I am inspired by the whole revolution idea, I hate US politics and Western mainstream thinking. And I refuse to go with the whole capitalist materialist bullshit, such as buying presents, having fancy phones, etc.
What is my biggest fear? My lack of Spanish, probably. I’ve had Spanish in Highschool, and I am somehow, some people call it ”talented” when it comes to languages. As I always concentrated more on my French, though, my Spanish grammar and writing skills suffered a lot. But my understanding and speaking should be alright. Maybe?

Oh yes, and the whole travelling alone as a girl-thingy kind of freaks me out every now and then. Of course, I am used to travelling by myself in Europe. I started travelling by myself when I was 15 years old, I lived in another country (France) and got there by plane every couple of months.Alone. No biggie.
But this is Cuba.An other….continent. Another….language. Another…political system. And I was about to go there to do some investigations.In the political domain. And everyone knows that this is nuts.In a country where smoking a joint can mean life sentence. Prior to my travels, everyone of my friends was constantly joking that I would end up in prison and that they would have to bail me out. Haha.not funny.

After a short train ride and a phone call with my grandma (yes, the whole family is pretty concerned as well), I arrive at Schiphol International Airport. Due to my regular travel activities, I am kind of an expert now when it comes to airports, and everything is easily settled. I am flying with KLM, the plane is big, I do not have a window seat, but it is alright. Every seat has an own display with movies,music, games, etc. The guy sitting next to me is Cuban. He is wearing an outfit which is completely white. Literally, every item is white. His cap, trousers, shirt, shoes,everything. He kind of looks like a rapper. We start talking, and it turns out that he speaks German as well- he lives in Switzerland and he is now travelling back to Havana to visit his family. I tell him about my travel plans and he proposes to continue our conversation in Spanish- and I agree. And so, he starts. Omg, what was I thinking. He speaks insanely fast and really quietly. I have difficulties to understand him. So, I mostly just say ”si” or keep smiling. He does not look confused, therefore it must be alright.
The flight goes smoothly, the food is alright (I got my special vegetarian order), and every now and then, the Cuban rapper says something and starts his monologue. It turns out that his name is Coco, by the way. This does not sound like a rapper, though. In my head, I had already started to call him Snoop Dog. So, Snoop Dog is all enthusiastic and tells me about his family and how hard it is to keep in touch with them because of the distance. He also talks about his family that lives in the suburbs of Havana and how they have to struggle-and how he loves his life and job in Switzerland. Well, I can assume that he is financially better off than his Cuban family- he is wearing a big ass watch and golden cross around his neck and he bought some fluffy stuffed animals from those plane catalogues which are super expensive. I always wondered what kind of people, besides those fancy guys who are sitting in business class, bought those things. Mr. Dog is.
And then, the highlight of the flight happens. Seriously, I am not making this up. Like in some bad hollywood movie, the following cliche happens:
We are getting something to drink (again), and Snoop is so ”nice” to try to help the KLM lady. He grabs the glas of water, and then, I don’t know how that happened, the glas falls on top of me. And I am completely wet. 40 more minutes before our arrival at Havana, I am sitting in my seat, a Cuban rapper who I cannot understand sitting next to me, and I am completely wet. I have to add at this point, that I am one of the unluckiest persons on earth. Seriously. Karma hates me. And I believe in destiny, and signs, and all of this. So yes, in this very moment I felt like crying as I thought that the universe wants to give me a sign with it. ”You will fuck this trip up.”
And in this kind of mood, We arrive at Havana, Jose Marti International Airport.