“I feel like I’m in a movie.” I said after I cleared the staunch immigration and customs that charged me a 100% tariff on my bags. It was warm and humid outside. The salty night air was wetting my face and I could see the palm trees illuminated by the light of the moon. I looked around in astonishment because I couldn’t believe that I was actually experiencing the real Cuba.
Although I was in Cuba legally, I was there without the knowledge of the American government. According to www.travel.state.gov “Tourist travel to Cuba remains prohibited. You must obtain a license from the Department of Treasury or your travel must fall into one of 12 categories of authorized travel.” My travel did NOT fall into one of the 12 categories of approved travel and I did not obtain a license. So I was subject to a fine or even imprisonment if my government found out.
How Would You Like to Visit Cuba?
A few months prior to this moment I had a casual conversation with my friend Alex in the break room at work. His family was planning a trip back to Cuba to visit relatives and he asked if I’d like to come.
Alex and his immediate family arrived as refugees to the United States about ten years prior and he was able to smuggle his wife into the United States through Mexico and across the U.S. border a short time after that. Those are the steps you have to take when your own government won’t let you leave.
Anyway, as I look back on our break room conversation I’m pretty sure that he wasn’t completely serious about his invitation so he was pretty surprised when I took him up on his offer. He offered me a chance to visit Cuba with a Cuban family and that doesn’t come around too often. I was going to get to see the “real” Cuba and not just the one that they show in the media from tourist hotels in Havana. How could I say no?
“How do I get a visa?” I asked.
“Well, getting a visa for Cuba shouldn’t be too hard — you can just get one when we land. However, we can’t fly out of the U.S. because they won’t let us.” He replied with a grimace.
So, a few months later I packed my bags for Cuba and we drove through the night to catch our flight out of Toronto, Canada. When we got to the Canadian border the border patrol asked us where we were going. We told him that we were on our way to the airport to catch a flight to Havana.
“Yeah what is it with that in the U.S.? You guys aren’t allowed to fly to Cuba?” He asked quizzically.
Apparently he had never heard of the U.S. embargo against Cuba that had been in place for almost 50 years.
Salsa and Euphoria
Upon arrival we hopped in some 1950’s cars and started the 5 hour journey to Manacas — Alex’s hometown.
On the way we stopping at a roadside cafe? convenient store? bar? auto repair shop? — something like that. The salsa music filled the night air and it still felt overwhelmingly surreal. We stretched our legs, grabbed a snack and a beer, and used the bathroom (a.k.a. the back of the little roadside stand).
Immigration and Robbing the Revolución
Even though I went through immigration at the airport, I still needed to visit the immigration office in Santa Clara to get my visa approved. We spent about 8 hours waiting at the one room immigration office so that I could have a 3 minute interview with an immigration officer. The problem I presented was that I wasn’t going to be staying in a hotel. I was staying at a home instead. The Cuban government doesn’t like this because, like everything else, they own the hotels. Luckily I got my visa approved but with a stern warning to “never try this again.”
Hung out at the La Plaza de La Revolución
…and water skied on some friendly dolphins.
These were cool things to do but the real value of the trip was witnessing how Cubans actually live. Did you know that Cubans survive on food rations? Although you have to pay for the rationed food, you can only buy what your libreta, ration book, allows. The household where I stayed had rations similar to these per person:
- 1 bun
- Every 10 days
- 2kg meat (whatever meat is available)
- 10kg rice
- 6kg white sugar
- 2kg brown sugar
- 250 millilitres cooking oil
- 5 eggs
- 1 packet of coffee
- Every 3 months
- 1 bag of salt
Keep in mind that even if you have food rations left and even if you have enough money to buy these things, there is no guarantee that the local supply store will have any of it in stock. In fact, the local supply store in Manacas is called “La Sorpresa” which translates to “The Surprise.” The running joke in Manacas is that the supply store is appropriately name because “Surprise, they don’t have any rice today!”
I found it was fairly common for Cubans to make jokes about their dire situation instead of getting depressed or angry. Sure they get frustrated that even when they can buy rice they have to shell it themselves (seriously there was a man in Manacas that handmade a machine to shell it for the whole town) or that they can’t easily travel between towns to visit friends and relatives because of the lack of personal transportation. However, none of that affects the positivity of the Cubans I spent time with.
Needless to say each town has a vibrant black market. Cubans are not allowed to grow or produce their own food in any way because anything they produce “Belongs to the Revolution” meaning the government. However, in Manacas it is common for people with wheelbarrows full of produce to roam the dirt streets of the neighborhood selling tomatoes, potatoes, and other produce. This is accepted as long as you don’t put a sign on the front of your house advertising “Daimi’s Fresh Produce Here.” One evening we were even able to purchase a pig and had a pig roast for pretty much the whole barrio.
Eight Beers Please
There is a second store in Manacas, other than La Sorpresa, where you can purchase items that are not rationed. This store has everything from frozen chicken to bike tires and shampoo. It’s a one-stop shopping center the size of my living room. This is where I purchased things like alcohol.
“Cuantas cervezas tienes?” I asked the attendant so that I could gauge how many beers they had that day. I wanted to buy some beers for Alex and his cousins. There was no reason to ask about the kind of beer the store carried because I knew there would only be one brand available.
“Tenemos ocho.” He replied after counting up the frosty bottles in the little fridge.
“Todos, por favor.” I said, as I motioned for him to grab them all out of the cooler.
And just like that the entire town of Manacas was out of beer because of some greedy American. Not that many people could afford beer on their government wages anyway though.
Since I was living like a real Cuban, I had to travel like a real Cuban. That meant renting a car for a day with a driver.
This type of tourist behavior is frowned upon because it takes money away from the government and gives it directly to the people. It wasn’t that I could get in trouble but the driver could lose his driver’s license and in turn, his lively hood as punishment for transporting me. A couple times we had a hard time finding a driver because we couldn’t find any brave souls willing to take the risk. And when we did find a driver, I sat in the back seat hunched down so that my American face didn’t draw attention to us.
It’s been almost 10 years since I had the privilege of visiting Cuba and experiencing the hospitality of it’s people. It’s something that I will never forget and it taught me how incredibly lucky I am. It sounds so cliche to say but it is so true.
We have it so good in the U.S. and we take it for granted!
Imagine a world where even if you did have enough money to buy food, you couldn’t. Think about how different your life would be without personal transportation like your car. I literally never met a single Cuban that had their own personal transportation. Anybody who owned a car, like the ones I’ve pictured in this post, used it as a means to generate income.
I had one of the most memorable experiences of my life in Cuba. Whether it was dancing to reggaeton and sharing the same glass of rum (because we only had one glass) or roasting a pig over a homemade charcoal pit, I’ll never forget it. I learned that you don’t have to be a victim of your circumstances and that happiness is a choice.
By the way, since the embargo began, no one has been jailed or prosecuted for traveling to Cuba. Although I was detained at the U.S./Canadian border when I reentered the United States, they simply asked me some questions and let me go.
I could share so much more about Cuba and what I learned there but I’ll close this post out here. Let me know if you would like The Real Cuban Experience Part I.