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

 

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Happy new year

Dear readers,
It might look like it has been a bit quiet for missioncuba lately, but this is certainly not the case! I am very proud to announce that the first issue of EmbrACE has been published, which is the faculty magazine where I am writing a column on my experience in Cuba. Of course, I need to share the article I wrote with you, my lovely readers. The topic of the first issue of EmbrACE was “home”, and therefore I wrote on what ‘home’ means for ordinary Cubans.
We are now currently working on the next issue where I am of course also writing on Cuba. I will keep you up to date about it. Also, I gave my first lecture as a Cuba “expert” at The Hague University of Applied Sciences where I discussed with International Public Management and International Law students whether Cuba is a socialist dream or failed project. We also talked about the mistakes which have been made and how they could have been avoided. I will also try to get the slides online for you with some explanations.

I cannot believe that it has been one year since I ended my travels. The year has passed way too fast, and Cuba is still in my heart. I still follow it closely, and I have also come across some new interesting articles and documentaries which I will share with you.
And of course, I did not finish telling you about my personal travel story! Slow is smooth and smooth is fast (Phil Dunphey, Modern Family). We will get there!

I hope that you will still bear with me, and I am excited to start my second year as a blogger!

Forever yours,

Cins

Cuba’s connections-culture

It is hot. and stuffy. SO hot. The air condition is not working. I am at the Viazul bus station in Baracoa, waiting for my bus to Santiago. Just as the girl told me, I came earlier and talked to her. Because apparently, there is no more seat available in the connection from Santiago to Havana. But, she told me not to worry. She wrote on a little piece of paper, folded it and wrote a name on it and closed it with tape. She told me to give this message to the person in Santiago and then I would get a seat. So now I am here in Baracoa, waiting in the heat and bored. What could be in the message? Maybe (it was a male name on the message) he was her lover or ex-lover or something and still owed her a favour? Or she had walked into him and saw him committing a crime or even a murder or him cheating… and now she is constantly threatening him and asking him to do stuff for her…. who knows, who knows. Heat and boredom make one creative, I know. As always, my day had started quite early again as I wanted to be early at the Viazul station. I spent my morning trying to look for coffee everywhere. But -surprise- the supermarkets were even more empty than usual. There was literally nothing. Even the guy who usually sells fruit didn’t have anything this time. He told me that due to New Years people were not working and thus there were no products available.  People sent me from one shop to an other. “Oh, try and ask Jose, he might have some…. tell him I said hi…. He lives at street xyz around this and that corner”. Ah, Cuba. Nothing without connections and family relations or something. But still, I gave up in the end. My host Ana laughed hard and said “La gente no quiere trabajar!” (People don’t like working) and I added “No se como los cubanos pueden vivir si no hay nada en las tiendas!” (I don’t know how Cubans can live/survive if there is nothing in the shops). She laughed again and added “Tu no lo puedes imaginar!” (You cannot imagine what it’s like). Even if you have money, doing groceries is always an adventure.

Anyways, I said goodbye to my lovely hosts which was quite emotional. I really felt so comfortable at their place and I had a great time. I had to promise Ana and Ricardo to come back with my boyfriend and they said that we should come to Cuba on our honeymoon if we get married on day. I laughed pretty hard. (As a 21-year old people think it is a normal age to get married in Cuba). Then I took the Bici taxi and got to the station where I am now sitting on the floor in the shadow. A couple is playing cards next to me on the floor, another couple is sharing some food. I am getting quite emotional. Why is it, that Cuba is mainly a destination for couples, and not so much for individual travellers or groups? My journey could have been so different otherwise.

Finally, the bus driver arrives and asks us to step in. And my 15.5 hour journey to Havana begins….

Picture: Las batallas solo se ganan dentro de una sociedad collectivista.
Battles can only be won within a collective society.
I think that this quote fits the content of this blog entry pretty well as I am explaining how people rely on each other and connections in order to survive in Cuba. luckily, as Cuba is a collective society this works out pretty well. In capitalist societies however people rely more on themselves and don’t help each other out that much.

The end of Cuba’s ration book?

One of the great achievements of the Cuban revolution was the introduction of the ration book. This policy was common in Europe during the wars or times when food security was threatened. It lists necessary food items that people will get paid by the state. The amount per person is also set by the government. These products include vegetables, oil, beans,milk, and of course, very important for Cubans: coffee. During my travels in Cuba, I met a lot of people that lived from less than $10 pension a month. Of course, rent, health insurance, education and necessary services are paid for by the government. However, $10 per month would not be possible to cover the costs for groceries. For this reason, the ration book system is still absolutely necessary in order to ensure people’s decent living.

There are rumors now on the streets in Havana that the days of the ration book might come to an end, however as it does cost the state a lot. With the economy becoming more open, this system might come under threat.

Knowing Cuba quite well, I can say that change is happening in Cuba on a very slow pace. I doubt therefore that the ration book, as well as other socialist policies will be cancelled any time soon. I do not understand the whole hassle that is being made and I believe that the spread of such rumors can also be done intentionally in order to fasten the pace of change. I do not believe that it is the interest of the government to spread such statements and I can imagine that upper class Cubans (especially those who are employed in the tourist sector and therefore have access to the tourist currency CUC) benefits from introducing these discussions in order to confront ordinary Cubans with their possible future.

The vast majority of people I met in Cuba is in favor of the social achievements of the revolution, such as universal health care, free education, and of course- the ration books. We should not forget that for Cubans these socialist values are already entrenched in their culture and way of life and therefore I believe that it is impossible to abandon these practices in the next 10, or 20 years to come.

This video by BBC made me write my response to these rumors and I definitely recommend you to watch it. It is an interview with a couple that relies on the ration book and it also takes you to the “shop” where you can get your monthly rations.

Buena Vista Social Club @ White House !?

Today, on October 15th 2015 the Buena Vista Social Club will be performing at the White House in Washington on the occasion of the Hispanic Heritage Month. The Cuban ambassador, as well as President Obama will be present among many other important guests.

Flashback: In 1998, Compay Segundo, the craggy country singer who emerged as the front man of the band, traveled to Miami with other Cuban musicians to perform at a Latin edition of the MIDEM music conference. The artists were received by Cuban exile protestors, and during the concert the hall had to be evacuated because of a bomb threat.*

It is not new that music can connect people. I do remember how every time when there is an event on the fall of the Berlin Wall the Scorpions song “Wind of Change” i20150105_123434s being played. And there is no more powerful symbol of Cuban resistance and the Cuban lifestyle than the songs played by the Buena Vista Social Club. Everywhere you go in Cuba, especially in the touristy spots, you can hear the sounds of the songs, singing about revolution,victory, and resistance. These songs are surrounded by the touch of nostalgia that you can find everywhere in Cuba, but also the sign of resistance- We are still here! No matter what happens, we will survive! Hasta la victoria siempre!
And this is also a message of the band- they are all pretty old already and doing their farewell tour. But now, playing in Washington for the US President is probably a huge achievement for the group.
Who would have imagined 20 years ago that this would be possible one day?
Music is a way to connect people- and I believe that it is great that Cuban music is now being brought to Washington. It will help to get an understanding of the two cultures and through culture (music, language, etc.) the two countries can get closer to each other. As long as tolerance and acceptance are the basis for it. No one should feel as superior.

I am curious how Obama is going to react, but I am certain that he will love the music of the Buena Vista Social Club. I mean, who doesn’t love it?


* Extract Retrieved from Judy Cantor-Navaz, “Buena Vista Social Club to perform at White House,” billboard, October 13, 2015, read here

Further Reading:
Jim Acosta, “First on CNN:White House to host legendary Cuban Musical Art,” CubaSi, October 12,2015, read here

The pasta struggle

I was at the end of my third week in Cuba. And yes, although I love rice with beans and fresh fish, I began to miss Pasta. I am one of these people who could eat an entire bucket of pasta every day, therefore I felt like a drug addict in rehab. I had given pasta a try in Santa Clara and Santiago already, but it had been awful both times. Watery pasta, no salt, no taste. Disgusting.
While I took a nap on the balcony in Baracoa, I dreamt of eating a bowl of pasta aglio olio, al dente, and delicious. I couldn’t help it anymore, I had to try again.
So there I was, sitting in a Cuban pizzeria, so a veeeeery cheap restaurants where Cubans, not tourists eat, and I looked at the menu. About 1/4 of the menu which contained pizza and pasta had a black mark next to them, meaning that they ran out of it. I ordered pasta con pescado, pasta with fish. Yeah well, that was also not available. So I ordered espaguetti with tomato sauce. Yes, I was desperate.  The restaurant was really interesting. It was very simple, the doors and windows were open but AC was on, there were about one billion flies inside, the TV was on, still some cheesy christmas decoration… and Cuban families enjoyed their pasta.
After a while, I had my pasta with a nice beer. And my dreams were crushed by reality again. Note that Cuban cheese (queso criollo) is horrible. And the watery pasta and sauce without any herbs or spices, salt or pepper just tasted like nothing. There was also no salt or pepper on the table.
Anyways, I ate it, but I decided to let it be and to continue eating typical Cuban food, which is perfectly fine. Good news: The whole menu cost $30 MN ($24MN=1 Euro). And my beer alone was $18MN. So basically $12MN for the pasta, approximately 26 cent.

20141217_141218  my $7MN Pizza in Cienfuegos…. No comment.

You could technically survive in Cuba for almost no money in terms of food. If you are however a gourmande like me, then eating in the casa is probably the cheapest option.
But you can probably guess what the first food I had back in Europe was….. 😉

hiking in Cuba more popular than ever

Nature lovers, grab your hiking equipment and start exploring the beauty of the island.
The German online newspaper Der Spiegel has published an article on hiking in the Caribbean and it also took Cuba into consideration. During my travels in the country I also took some smaller hiking trips myself. But I met some people, really brave ones, that actually even went further even went hiking on the El Yunque in Baracoa and of course, the Topes de Collantes region between Cienfuegos and Trinidad.

The article is in German, you can find it here.

It recommends the following hiking areas:
> Sierra del Escambray (this is the mountainous region where the first revolutionary revolts started. It was the main area where the revolutionaries lived: in the woods and the mountains.)

>Lake La Habanilla and the national park Topes de Collantes (I wrote a blog entry on it:Topes de Collantes, or: I love Cuba )

Picture: Retrieved from Der Spiegel article, taken by Martin Cyris

News, news, news

Dear friends,
It’s been a while but well, I’ve been drowning in work (I am helping to organize a conference on ”how to improve peace”, if you would like to participate and come to The Hague (free accomodation, free food, and your work might get published in a book! Then check this website. We would also meet up then 😉 ) and of course- I also have a private life 😉 To get a little impression of what I have been up to:
IMG-20150503-WA0199  IMG-20150428-WA0001

A nice and strange first of May celebration in Germany & King’s day, one of the craziest parties ever in Amsterdam.
As you can imagine, this consumed lots of my energy 😉

But don’t be mad: I have lots of nice posts coming up soon and SURPRISE: I updated the layout in order to make the blog look nicer. Let me know what you think about it! 🙂
Cheers,
Cins

Little words of admiration for my readers

I am amazed. I am new to this whole wordpress blogger-world, but I just checked the statistics of my beloved blog.
In February, I had 243 views from 134 different visitors. And I made a list of the countries my visitors come from:
Germany,USA,NL,Switzerland,Australia,Austria,Mexico,Iraq,Romania,Canada,
Argentina, Spain,Slovenia,Curacao,Latvia,UK,… !!

What an amazing feeling to know that some people that I don’t even know like my writing and keep following it! Thanks everyone! You guys are amazing!!! xx

And although I am sometimes super busy and I don’t have time to post every day, I still promise to write as much, and as often as I can. Promise!

Cheers on all of you! (see picture)

Cins xx

Thank you!
Danke!
Merci!
Gracias!
Spasibo!
Dankje!