By Elizabeth Pace (Chemistry, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA)
“Fun but maddeningly frustrating” is the line used to describe Cuba on the back of the Lonely Planet Guide and by the end of our second day in the country, it had pretty much become our mantra for the trip.
If you’d asked me a year ago where I thought I’d be spending my spring break while on exchange in the USA I’d probably have said Mexico, or Florida, or some other typical location known for its beaches and partying. Then one day someone mentioned off-hand, “Guys, wouldn’t it be hilarious if we went to Cuba for spring break?”.
I’ll admit there was something enticing about the idea of, while on our American exchange, spending our break somewhere that Americans can’t actually go (at least not just for tourism reasons) and after triple checking with the international office at Illinois and various embassies that, yes, we would be allowed back into the country after having gone to Cuba, our spring break plans really started to take off.
For obvious reasons the option of flying straight to Cuba from the USA ranges from pretty-much-impossible to eye-wateringly-expensive so we had to start off the week with a quick detour via Montreal in Canada.
I’d sum up our 24 hours in Montreal by saying it was very cheap (thank you exchange rate), very French and VERY cold. But we still managed to make the most of the layover despite none of us having prepared particularly well for temperatures that refused to get above freezing. I would recommend the poutine (essentially chips, cheese and gravy but Canadian so a bit classier than the Manchester equivalent) and the Notre-Dame Basilica (honestly the most stunning cathedral I’ve ever seen and only 5CAD entry which is basically about £2.50).
Our student budgets meant that, instead of staying in a hotel in Cuba, we decided to stay in a typical Cuban homestay, or Casa Particulare, which basically meant that we had our own apartment just across the hall from our hosts. I would recommend this kind of accommodation to anyone thinking about going to Cuba. It worked perfectly for us in the sense that, as a group of eight twenty-odd-year-olds we had our own space and freedom but with the added bonus of knowledge from our local Cuban hosts, Daniel and Fina. They were ready to help us with everything from fresh breakfast every morning (I can’t remember the last time I managed to get all of my five-a-day by 9am), endless supplies of water, taxis to and from the beach and the airport, and restaurant recommendations. Their help was invaluable and staying in a homestay was a much more personal and cultural experience than staying in a tourist-centric hotel would have been.
Another bonus of staying in a homestay was the location. We weren’t in the tourist centre of the city, “Old Havana”, (which ironically is the one part of the city that looks like its actually been renovated and cared for since the 60s) but were only a 20-minute walk away and we never felt unsafe walking back, even late at night. However, we were far enough away from Old Havana to be able to get a feel for the “real Havana”. Walking out into the city early in the morning on our first day and seeing the crumbling, yet magnificent facades of the buildings, the genuine sixties cars driving by and all the local people going about their daily lives with that classic Caribbean calmness was truly amazing.
By the magic of timing we managed to be in Cuba for what all the newspapers are calling a “historic week” for the country. Our trip coinciding with Barack Obama’s visit (the first US president to visit Cuba while in office in 88 years) and the Rolling Stones (who ended the Latin America leg of their world tour with a free concert in Cuba, but more on that later…).
This is where the “maddeningly frustrating” part of the trip came in. After managing to fit so much into our first day there, from cocktails at the Hotel Nationale de Cuba, the Museum of the Revolution (which was 80% only in Spanish but the other 20% was interesting nonetheless), lunch at Ernest Hemingway’s favourite Mojito bar, La Bodeguita del Medio, to having our first taste of the infamous Cuban coffee. However, we didn’t end up being so lucky on our second day as everywhere we tried to go and everything we tried to do seemed to be closed; the main roads, the Tobacco Museum, the art museum, the castle, the roof top bars, the jazz cafes. The only explanation given by the Spanish-speaking locals being an apologetic, “Barack!” and a shrug of the shoulders and despite our best efforts (standing at a closed-off intersection for an hour and a half in a decently-sized crowd of locals, most of whom just seemed to be trying to cross the road in peace) we never actually got to see the man himself.
Another thing I found interesting about Cuba is the fact that they operate on a two-currency system and is one of the only countries in the world to do so. The locals use Moneda Nacional ($MN) while the tourists get their currency exchanged to convertible pesos ($CUC). For the most part, every attraction, restaurant, accommodation and even taxis will work in the tourist currency so it was something we never really had to think about until we went, on the recommendation of our hosts, to Coppelia ice cream parlour. This was one of the only places we went to that was populated almost entirely by locals, with a waitress who couldn’t speak any English and whose prices were in $MN. Due to the language barrier and being unfamiliar with the local currency we thought we were being charged 24CUC for the 24 scoops of ice cream we had (it was delicious), and considered this a pretty reasonable price. However, we were shocked to discover that due to the conversion rate between the two currencies (0.25MN to 1CUC) we actually only ended up being charged 1CUC for the whole meal. What was even more shocking, was when we later learned that the average monthly salary for a Cuban is around 21CUC. We had just presented a waitress with more than her average monthly salary for ice cream which to us seemed like no money at all. It really put things in perspective for us and really highlighted how lucrative the tourism industry in this country must be for ordinary Cubans.
It wouldn’t have been a real spring break without a trip to the beach, and it wouldn’t have been a trip to the beach in Cuba without driving there in genuine 50’s car with a Spanish version of “Young, Wild and Free” blasting. Having spent our whole week in the city, it was easy to forget that we were in fact on an island in the middle of the Caribbean, so catching that first glimpse of the crystal blue waters through the palm trees when we arrived at the beach in Varadero was a pretty nice reminder. It was a perfect day with perfect weather (maybe a bit too perfect…I don’t think there was a single one of us who managed to avoid sunburn, hashtag British problems).
And so it came to our last night in Cuba, which also happened to coincide with the Rolling Stones hosting a free concert at the Ciudad Deportiva (Sports City) stadium just outside the city. I think that none of us really wanted to get too excited about the concert in the run up, like obviously we all wanted to go, but realistically we weren’t going to queue up for it all day and it was free and would probably be full by the time we showed up. So it wasn’t until we were inside the field in which the concert was being played, having passed through the extremely lax to almost non-existent security (classic Cuba) and braved the horror of their equivalent of a Portaloo (basically a metal box over a drain) that we actually realised that we were about to watch a pretty cool show. And pretty cool it was, despite only really knowing a couple of their songs, and being the only eight people in our section of the crowd to cheer at Mick’s mention of “Gran Bretaña” and “fish and chips”, no one can deny that the Rolling Stones are an iconic band and the fact that we got to see them (the first Western rock band to play in Cuba since the 60s) for free was a great way to end the holiday.
On that note, it was back to campus to finish off the last eight weeks of the semester (*wipes away tears*). Cuba truly was one of the best countries I’ve ever visited and would recommend it to anyone, especially with relations seemingly thawing between them and the US it probably won’t have the same, time-warped magic for much longer. However, I’ll admit, that while it was nice to get away from modern life for a week, and living without Wi-Fi or internet access was actually pretty relaxing, it was nice to get back to America and be able to do things like drink water from the tap or flush toilet roll down the toilet (no joke, you can’t do this in Cuba).
Cuba, I love you and I will be back.