When you think about Cuba, images of the Buena Vista Social Club and their music, singing, salsa dancing and old vintage cars all come into your mind!
Yes, you can find all these things in Cuba but there is so much more. It’s an exciting country where the Revolution of Fidel Castro and Che Guavera are still alive in the memories of the people and where Raoul is well-respected.
This was my 4th trip to Cuba and ever since my first visit I have witnessed many changes to this unique island archipelago.
The first time I visited Cuba was in 2007 when I was on a reconnaissance mission scoping out where a Bunnik Tour of Cuba should go, what should be included and how our small groups would experience Cuba. In 2007, Cuba was at the tail end of their most difficult years.
The collapse of communist Russia led to a withdrawal of support from Russia and suddenly the full impact of the embargo was felt. Things were really difficult for all people.
There was a shortage of everything – all the things that we expect and would see as life’s essentials were suddenly in short supply. Basic food items grown on the islands were available but most other goods were rationed and, if they were available, were an expensive luxury and only available in foreign shops.
The local people had food vouchers for rations which supplied the minimum and the local shops had barely anything on the shelves. The need for things like shampoo and conditioner, soap and clothing was big and bringing these items to give to the people was a great help.
The vouchers for food and other essentials were given according to the needs of the family, meaning when you would have small kids you would get more milk and so on.
Cuba has a 2 currency system: CUP which is the currency the Cuban people receive their payment in for working for the Government; and, the CUC which is the currency for foreigners, best exchanged with Euros.
In Cuba there are no advertising billboards to promote various products, just billboards promoting and advertising the Revolution, some with photos of Che, Fidel and Raoul.
Since the Revolution, the Cuban people have free healthcare, free education and, going by the knowledge and English comprehension of our tour guide, the education seems to be of good standard.
During their studies, students also have to work for the good of all people. This includes things like community work and working on the land. At the end of their studies they will need to give up to 2 years to the country before going into a paid job.
There is no discrimination on race and colour that I have experienced. In Cuba, there is a high percentage of African slave descendants who have mixed with the white people. The mix of people and their cultures gives a lovely feeling and makes the culture, encapsulated in their music, dance and street art, so unique.
My 2nd visit to Cuba was in 2008, 6 months after my initial inspection visit and this time I had a group of eager Bunnik Tours travellers with me. I could already see the changes which had occurred just in the 6 months between my visits.
There were a greater number of western cars visible in the streets sitting side-by-side with the old timers for which Cuba is so famous.
Local shopPeople were opening restaurants within their houses. This was officially not legal but was a way for locals to supplement their income and earn CUCs – the currency for foreigners. CUCs are very much desired by locals to buy the products not available in CUPs, the currency used to purchase goods in the Government ration shops. CUCs give the local Cuban people the opportunity to buy goods otherwise not available.
In Baracoa, our group ate in one of these home restaurants and fully enjoyed the kind hospitality of the people in their lounge room. When I came back with another Bunnik Tours group in 2010 we saw more Casa Privada – rooms that people would rent out in their houses to the tourists. The government issues licences for the Casa Privada and they are subject to quality and suitability inspections.
On my 4th visit in November 2012 our flight from Havana was no longer operated in a Russian Yak 42, but in an Airbus 319. Needless to say the comfort had improved immensely.
Little shops are emerging everywhere, people are now able to start their own businesses, and the atmosphere has a real buzz. We walked through the streets of Santiago de Cuba and it was great to see the local houses turned into shops.
All the other places we visited now saw us finding the small shops in the various houses. People still ask you for soap and shampoo as they have done this for the last 12 years but this may be more out of habit than out of sheer necessity.
In some places, like Baracoa and Santiago, there is still more need than in other places but this is due to their remoteness and the effects from Hurricane Sandy.
What really went through my mind was that this is a country that has been subjected to the embargo of Big Brother, the US, since 1960 and has survived. Since the Revolution the Cuban people have had free education, free healthcare, free medication and a certain standard of living.
It has shown that they can survive without the trade links with the US and even when the aid from Russia stopped they made it work and survived. This is all such an achievement when compared to other Caribbean islands where there has been no embargo, where the people suffer poverty, high illiteracy, low education, low economic prospects and little-to-no healthcare.
Cuba has a policy of prevention. This meant we had to wash our hands in Santiago de Cuba at all places of interest that we visited. This was to prevent the spread of any disease. The destruction that Hurricane Sandy left in its wake also brought the threat of water-borne diseases such as cholera.
The policy of prevention is such a very sensible approach, however it not always appreciated. The chlorine smelling fluid we had to wash our hands with combined with a scarcity of water to rinse it off meant that we got used to carrying a rather large supply of wet-ones with us to get the smell off quickly.
Music and dance are part of daily life. In restaurants in the Casa de Trova, and in the streets outside you find musicians playing and people dancing with one another. Many a time our group danced during lunch and dinner to the beat of the local tunes.
People love their music and dance and it makes the colourful surroundings even more vibrant and memorable. One client had his harmonica with him and played with the local bands at different locations, it was great as the people loved it and he got his own microphone.
My sincere recommendation to anyone interested in visiting Cuba is to go yesterday as Cuba will change faster than we think! Seeing how people work together to make their country a better place to live and to experience it how it is now is such a buzz.
The first question people ask me is about safety in Cuba, there is no real safety concern. Of course, in the large cities like Havana you need to be a bit more careful, like in any big city in any country around the world, but at no time in all of my visits have I felt unsafe.
The friendliness, the music, the dance and the sheer zest for life that the people have is what makes this country so very special.
By Marion Bunnik, September 3, 2014