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 looked 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 you 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 dining 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.