Cuba Failed Me in 5 Ways
I never plan entire itineraries when I travel abroad. But honestly, I was afraid. I was afraid of losing control of my mission of exploring black communities in Havana and surrounds. So, two weeks before my departure to Cuba I hashed one out. I sat on my couch for hours culling through a few Facebook groups focused on travel to the island, AirBnB, and various blogs written by folks that had visited previously. I was afraid that I'd be stuck in the middle of a place that I didn't know, one that is crumbling, at that. I was afraid that I would run out of money, or that things would go badly somehow. My antidote to that was to create a very structured plan for each day. I'd gotten this idea of the fragility of travel in Cuba from the very same blogs and Facebook groups that piqued my interest and excitement. On top of that, the US government's official perspective on relations with Cuba, and its travel policies for US citizens seeking to get there, were intimidating at first glance. Overall, Cuba failed to meet my expectations of being the scary place that I'd heard about.
Fail 1: I Wasn't Stumped By Managing the Local Currencies
It's not complicated. There are two currencies used on the island: the convertible peso, and the national peso. Visitors use the convertible peso. But they aren't available for purchase in the US, and one would lose money converting directly from dollars. So, I bought Euros, and exchanged them for the convertible peso once I arrived in Cuba. I didn't use the national peso much. Cuban citizens use this currency in their everyday lives to purchase food and goods. The relationship between the convertible and national peso is 1:25. Thats big, right? When I wanted to buy something only sold in the national peso, I simply asked what the equivalent would be in the convertible currency. It was that easy.
Fail 2: I Did Not Encounter Any Threats to My Personal Safety
I never felt safer abroad than I did in Cuba. Though a walk thru Havana looked scary: crumbling infrastructure, poorly lit streets, folks out at all hours of the night; it was nothing to be afraid of. After venturing out a few times with a concealed camera, I became comfortable walking around with it in the open. No one flinched or eyed me like a peice of North American meat to be robbed or assaulted. Not one.
Fail 3: Habaneros Were Not Timid or Intimidated by Foreigners
I've traveled to other countries where the general public displayed a mental and emotional shield against foreigners. This is often the result of oppressive and corrupt governments, and the suspicion that outsiders are seeking to take advantage and exploit domestic resources (I've been asked if I was the CIA a few times in South America).
Not only did I see Havana, but I created an authentic rapport with the people. They invited me into their homes, businesses, and places of worship because I was curious, but respectful. And they were just as curious about me (and wanted talk American politics) as I was about them and their daily lives as black people in a Socialist society.
Fail 4: Afro-Cubans Were Not Hard to Find
Sometimes I have to seriously search out black communities. As in most of the non-continental African world, black communities are pushed to the margin of society, both physically and economically. Not to say that there was no colorism, racism or proxy-classism in Cuba, but Afro-Cubans were very visible at every turn. This made me happy and green lit my growing affinity for the island nation.
Fail 5: Housing Would Not Be Difficult and Uncomfortable
At some point after the Cold War, Fidel and his regime allowed folks to start earning income outside of their very small government pension. Many folks began renting rooms in their homes to travelers. This is called a casa particular. There are hotels, but they are expensive state-run, and I was seeking to spend conservatively on housing---plus be closer to the people that I was seeking to meet. Since the gradual opening under the Obama administration, some casa particulares have become available on AirBnB (new users get $35 free travel credit). I just didn't see myself staying in someone's home while having a personal adventure (did that in Peace Corps---over it!). Fortunately, there were options on the site to rent out entire apartments. I did that, and I was very satisfied. I got my privacy in nicely remodeled apartments at very reasonable prices. It was comfortable knowing that I had secure, clean, independent accommodations from which to launch my daily activities.
Cuba failed to deliver itself as a scary, unapproachable, intimidating place. While it is a short 90 minute flight from Florida, it is an entirely different world from that which we live in. A world that is different, yet accessible. The Cuban people that I met were welcoming, and were open to my curiosity. Once my expectations were shattered, I made sure to reciprocate the joy and goodwill that they offered me.