“¡Hola guapa! Hola leche. ¡Mi vida! I love you. Taxi. Taxi. ¡Flaca! Tss. Tss. You are so beautiful. Taxi or boyfriend?!” This is just a collection of the addresses you hear when you are two women travelling through Cuba. Besides the more unisex questions like: “Do you need casa? Gran Ma. Gran Ma. Is this your first time in Cuba?” – beware the latter, or risk a case of 80$ fake ‘Cohibas’ (for those few not in the know: Cuban cigars).
In this short series on Cuba, called #AloCubano, the Cuban way, I’d like to share my thoughts about authenticity, tourism and my off-the-beaten-path experiences as I travelled through this ‘pearl of the Caribbean’ with my sister.
When my sister and I just arrived in Havana, after a 13-hour flight, our first day felt a little overwhelming. I didn’t know how to deal with all the attention and compliments. Hearing the continued chants – flaquita, guapa – I sometimes felt frustrated. Argh *grrr* I’m trying to have a real conversation with you. Learn more about the Cuban way of life. And all you want to do is sell me a freakin’ CIGAR?
I did not want to be just a TOURIST.
People, just as an FYI: I love Latin America to the point of being super passionate and at times even obsessed with it. Brazil is my no. 1, but Cuba sure came in a close 2nd. But who’s keeping score?
Why didn’t I find what I was looking for in Cuba? Why was it so difficult for me to make a connection? I speak Spanish. I have an open attitude.
What am I missing here?
Real connections vs the tourist bubble
The thing is, when you only have two weeks, it seems like you *almost* don’t have any other choice but to stay in the tourist bubble – those places planned and managed for tourists.
Your relationships and contact moments with people seem to only be about arranging the next leg of your trip, which means they stay on a practical and business level.
Your view of Cuba gets twisted a little bit – ripped out of context.
When you blindly follow the trail of tourists going from Havana to Viñales to Cienfuegos and Trinidad, looking to collect experiences and trophies (pictures, local souvenirs, and the likes) to bring back home, it might seem that these tourist bubbles are all there is to Cuba. Annoyances. Frustration. Too many tourists.
The truth is, however, that although it can sometimes be difficult to avoid the tourist bubble altogether – because tourism is just so ingrained in these cities’ economies – you actually can find small off-the-beaten-path experiences.
You just have to be open to them.
All the sights between Havana and Trinidad are full of competent small business owners – taxi drivers, casa particular (private home) owners, paladar (small family-restaurant) owners, farmers selling cigars, rum, coffee, or whatever, on the side – who’ve become experts at taking your money. And I mean that in the most respectful way.
Annoying and frustrating at times, but this tourist bubble is just as real, a part of life, as any off-the-beaten-path experience.
The Cuban entrepreneurial spirit is something to be admired.
What I admire about all those Cuban entrepreneurs is that they aren’t victims of their circumstances – the boycott and the revolution. Ever since tourism became an option for them to earn an income, they’ve tried to do everything they can to rake in those tourism dollars. To change their lives for the better. What’s not to admire about that?!
The most important thing to do when travelling is to let go of your expectations
As the days went by, and I let go of my stress from home, I likewise let go of my expectations and relaxed enough to enjoy myself.
Travelling so far from your comfort zone, it’s an adventure after all. I didn’t need to make the experience perfect. I chose to enjoy being in the tourist bubble.
As a researcher, I observed its dynamics without (too much) judgement – as I would any other experience. After all, the only thing you can control is your own reaction to a situation, and I wasn’t about to let pesky and unrealistic expectations ruin my holiday.
Sometimes you just have to accept what is.
Letting go allowed me to see Cuba for what it is – a beautiful country with so much to offer.
Cuba, like all places, has multiple faces. The beautified, UNESCO-fied, super colourful buildings and the derelict, pre-revolution palaces with cultural gems hidden behind run-down facades. The pristine, white, pearly, deserted, sand beaches and the highly touristic, dive-central, resort beaches. An alluringly blue, but overcrowded, waterfall and lushly green, highly secluded nature reserves. The vibrant, musical street life, the sometimes annoying taxi drivers, and not to forget, the queues for almost EVERYTHING (exchanging money, the grocery store, buying internet cards, etc.). Trust me, the Cubans can make waiting in line for an internet card, without really knowing what exactly you are waiting for, be a fun and cultural emergence.
Travel should never be about adding life-changing experiences, tailored to your expectations, to your “travel portfolio”.
At least I try to not make it about that.
If you want to meet people and hear from them what life is like, you don’t always have to get out of the tourist bubble. Insisting that you have to go off the beaten path is starting to be the same cliché, as the tourist bubble seems to have become. A way for tourists to collect experiences, to turn their surroundings into commodities to bring home with them.
As I found out, when I let go of my unrealistic – seen as a tourist – expectations, you can talk to people anywhere. For me, it happened on a local bus from Matanzas City to Rio Canimar, when walking around in a garden of prehistoric fossils, drinking a coffee from heaven, and when I was dancing under the stars. To name but a few occasions.
Making connections, it’s a state of mind. You make them when you let go all of your expectations and are just open to your surroundings. From my time in Cuba, I learned that it’s better to take the time getting to know a few people, instead of collecting a string of destinations for your Facebook wall and photobook -that you’ll rarely look at again (unless Facebook forces them in your face).
Memories last forever
Spend more time in one place, get to know the people. Learn from them. I know in my heart that it will be worth it.
P.s. Like with any trip I had some special encounters, which I will detail as small stories in some blogs to follow. The first one up will be about the 80$ fake cigars I told you about – Stay tuned.