There’s No Crackheads in Cuba, and Other Things that Strike the American Traveler as Strange

Havana Mural

Hands down, beyond a doubt, Cuba is the most different place I’ve ever traveled to.

Sure, I’ve been to non-Western countries; I’ve trekked through remote jungles studded with indigenous villages and spent a night in a water-world town-on-stilts where the night sky erupted with spontaneous flashes of thunderless lightning. But I’ve never been to another place where capitalism wasn’t a presence, and where the ensuing materialism and infiltration of American culture was so miniscule.

It’s impossible to talk about Cuba without getting into some kind of political discussion. Like everyone else, I’ve got my personal views—seeing as I was raised in a house that had 38 volumes of Lenin on the shelf, I’ll just let you guess what side of the spectrum I fall on.

But I’m not here to talk about that. Not really. What I want to talk about, and what’s of importance to the traveler to Cuba, are the ways in which Cuba is unlike any other country I’ve experienced. These reasons are inextricably linked to the country’s politics, to the revolution and the island’s legacy of struggle.

Yes, I realize I’m walking into a shitstorm. But we either dance delicately around these things, saying the same, tired, noncommittal niceties (Dante had a hell for that), or we get real—sit down, look it in the eye and say what we mean. (I’ll let you guess which option I think has more value.) Besides, I’m back home; I’ve got the toilet paper and functional plumbing to handle barrages of shit.

Oddity #1: Safety

One of the first things I read about Cuba was how safe it was. Touted in guidebooks to be paradise for solo female travelers, where any dark backalley can be delved into any time of day or night, I was willing to accept that Cuba was probably safer than Oakland. Most places are. I was still uneasy about rolling into the country with over a thousand dollars in cash on me, and neither my travel companion nor I could easily shed our well-grained habits of stone-facing strangers and checking our backs like motherfucks. But after a couple days, we loosened up. It was true: Cuba was mellow.

Break between innings

I suppose what strikes one as odd about the lack of violent crime in Cuba is that the country is so terribly poor. In the US, and most other countries in the world, poverty equals danger. From Rio’s famed favelas to Cairo’s ghettos of Sudanese refugees, to deep East Oakland, the relative safety of a neighborhood is most often directly proportionate to the level of wealth, or lack thereof. One look at the crumbling building facades and boys playing baseball with scrap pieces of plywood, and you start to understand just how poor Cuba is. And while, yes, there’s hustlers and pick-pockets, and yes, some laughing 12-year-olds tried to snatch my bag one night, the gravity of the threat of real violence isn’t there. (It would have sucked to have my bag stolen, but it sucks a lot worse to get a gun put under your chin.)

You can chalk Cuba’s safety up to a number of factors, depending on your politics and worldview: The police force is strong and no one wants to risk a lengthy stay in a Cuban prison. Protecting tourists is in the best interest of the island as a whole. Or you can think it’s got something to do with the fact that base needs like housing, education, medical care and some amount of food are all guaranteed by the Communist government, taking the edge of desperation out of the poverty equation.

Whatever the reason, walking around at night and realizing that you have no need to be weary is a strange feeling for an Oakland kid like me. Good thing we didn’t get used to it; less than 48 hours after getting home, my travel buddy was robbed at gunpoint. Welcome home.

Oddity #2: Lack of Homeless People and Drug Addicts

Cienfuegos

Beggars and bleary-eyed glue sniffers are par for the course in the cities of most poor countries. Even in one the wealthiest countries on earth (guess which one), pan-handlers, under-the-freeway encampments, and twitchy characters of all narcotic varieties are everyday fixtures on the streets, even in posh tourist attractions (San Francisco). After a couple of days wandering around Havana, I realized I hadn’t seen any cardboard alley homes and not a single crackhead. Weird.

During my time in Cuba, I got pan-handled maybe half a dozen times, and saw one toothless, staggering old lady that looked like the resident town wino. But when it came to hard-core addicts and homeless people, I didn’t see any.

The lack of homelessness is fairly obvious—the government provides housing. But Cuba is also really strict about the import of drugs. Not wanting to give the US any reason to invade, and perhaps still smarting from its soul-sucking era as a mafia paradise, the Cuban government put the ixnay on drugs, and today they’re really not a presence in Cuba. (Makes you wonder what would happen if the US made such a bold decision—oh wait, wasn’t that what the whole War on Drugs thing was about?)

The night we got home from Cuba, we went to see Neurosis play at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. The venue is smack in the middle of the Tenderloin, one of the highest concentrations of human misery on the West Coast. We walked through urine-soaked sidewalks, crunching windshield glass and dodging screaming, contorted derelicts, in a kind of dazed state of shock. After two weeks in Cuba, it seemed inhumane that suffering like that could be tolerated, allowed to exist in such a rich, rich nation. It was the worst culture shock I’ve ever experienced.

Oddity #3: Lack of Advertising and Lots of Government Propaganda

Okay, you’re gonna see a lot of government propaganda. Pro-revolutionary billboards, Vive Fidel banners, smiling pictures of Hugo Chavez: it’s all a little unnerving, I’m not gonna lie. But then you realize why it seems like there’s so damn much of it in Cuba (aside from the fact that there is): there’s no other advertising out there.

You forget how much energy you spend blocking out flashing signs, automated voices, beautifully anorexic, air-brushed girls selling perfume and cell phones and chewing gum. Until you don’t have to do it. I’ve heard really high-end resorts make you feel the same way, like you can let your mental filters down and just relax. Well, until I get a rich sponsor, Cuba’s gonna be the closest I come.

If it’s true that you can learn a lot about a culture through its advertising, then it’s also true you can learn a lot about a culture about its lack of advertising. Cubans are insanely open and friendly, and while there’s plenty of cultural factors contributing, couldn’t one of the reasons be that they’re not constantly fending off the barrage of catchy slogans and glossy images of psychologically invasive advertising? At the same time, the government is an inescapable presence on the island; one is constantly given visual reminders of the pro-government stance everyone’s supposed to take.

It’s a stretch, but maybe. All I know for sure is that my brain got a real vacation in Cuba.

Oddity #4: Havana Has a Chinatown (With Three Chinese People in It)

And it’s actually the oldest Chinatown in the Western Hemisphere.

A then-vegan, I had a mean hankering for some tofu when I was in Havana. I thought my best bet was Chinatown, the touristy relic of Cuba’s once-robust Chinese population, originally brought over in the mid 19th century to work in the sugar fields. I elbowed amid the throngs on foreigners and grabbed a seat under the red awning of a restaurant whose menu listed something I assumed was bean cakes. Ten minutes later, a steaming plate of bean sprouts, and nothing but bean sprouts, was placed before me. My then-boyfriend laughed.

Havana’s Chinatown stands as a reminder that the country has plenty of pre-Castro history, often overshadowed. Most of the Chinese laborers brought over intermarried, infusing the Cuban cocktail with Asian genes; thus, there aren’t a whole lot of fully Chinese looking people left in Chinatown. I saw a couple dudes smoking in the traditional squat, but it was honestly the most un-Chinese Chinatown I’ve ever been to. And the most devoid of tofu.


Oddity #5: The Resilience of Cuban People

It’s kind of a Cuban cliche: some cigar-smoking, deeply wrinkled dude fixing a 30-year-old bicycle with a piece of dental floss and an old Coke can (or something to that extent). Cuban people are renowned as the global experts in reusing everything, wasting nothing, helping each other out and not complaining (partially because of political repression, but still). Cubans are like the one friend you have that can fix anything, who relishes in helping you figure out why your car is making that funny noise and who repairs the holes in their sneakers instead of tossing them to hang over the telephone wires. Yes, part of it is a result of years of rationing and making do, but I think it gets down to a deeper cultural characteristic, one born of imperialism.

Another gem from the Havana mural

The best explanation I read of why Cubans are so resilient and continue to come together and make do is that, by and large, they want the Revolution to succeed. (I’m not talking Miami Cubans now. And this isn’t necessarily my perspective, but a well-informed argument that made a lot of sense.) However deeply flawed and difficult the Revolution is, it’s still the first time in 500 years that the island’s been run by Cubans. From Spanish colonialism to puppet governments to foreign-owned sugar plantations, outsiders had the ultimate power in pre-Castro Cuba. The country was endemically violent and deeply divided down lines of race, class and ethnic origin—divisions that don’t disappear in 50 years, but have improved. Castro’s Revolution is the longest enduring era of Cuban control since the Spanish arrived on the island. That’s a really powerful statement, one that can help you understand why Cubans endure so much and continue to struggle.

Of course, one could easily argue that all this is at risk. The impending end to the US embargo will mean an immediate influx of American culture and goods. And however much outsiders may want Cuba to remain a junkie-free, billboard-less Eden of free health care and high literacy, the end of the embargo will be a damn good thing for Cubans. But I’m glad I got to go pre-post-embargo, and experience some of the strangest things an Oakland girl can.

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10 Responses to “There’s No Crackheads in Cuba, and Other Things that Strike the American Traveler as Strange”


  1. 1 Shawn January 7, 2010 at 7:37 pm

    I swear there is a conspiracy to make me go to Cuba. Cheap flight ads galore, I keep coming across little mentions and photos of it, and now adding to the pressure is your article 🙂 It’s really interesting to combine what I read about Cuba on traditional travel sites with your insights. It really does sound pretty damn cool there.

  2. 2 Renata January 8, 2010 at 8:17 am

    I’m flying to Cuba in a week and I get all sorts of looks from people when I tell them about my trip. People just can’t put political views apart and see the historic moment we are going through. This year might be the last chance we’ve got of going to pre-post-embargo Cuba (I loved the way you put it). I think I’ll print cards with the link to your blog and hand it out to people who give me those weird looks when say I’m going to Cuba.

  3. 3 Ben Hair January 9, 2010 at 9:32 am

    Wow. Thank you for opening my eyes to all that is Cuba (no naivety or sarcasm intended). Not only was I ignorant of the local culture, but I knew absolutely nothing about the history of the country, be it pre- or post- Castro. You’ve done a great job (in this post; I look forward to reading the others in the days to come) of describing what seems to me to be both the glaring cultural differences and the more nuanced day-to-day stuff that comes gradually: the absence of ads and the realization that there are no ads. I couldn’t put my finger on what made Morocco feel so different from the West, but that takes care of a big chunk of my confusion! Lucky you to have lived in pre-post-embargo Cuba! What you have experienced there will be unlike anything else people see in the years to come. Yes, that is jealousy speaking. 😀 Again, looking forward to reading your past posts and thanks in advance! Your writing is a lot of fun to read.

  4. 4 spunkygirlmonologues January 9, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    Fantastic! Reading your post made me want to return to Cuba and explore it a little more before it changes too much.

  5. 5 9mos January 11, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    Love it- great post. There are actually about 10,000 Chinese Cubans living in Cuba today, the majority in Havana. You can find a lot of the older ones at the Casino Chino, a social club right outside the gate to Barrio Chino. Here’s a little piece I did about them:

    http://www.youtube.com/user/collazoprojects#p/u/30/ZyMLgxBJMN0

    My dream is to stay in Havana long enough to collect oral histories of the people I met at Casino Chino.

    • 6 laurenquinn January 11, 2010 at 1:37 pm

      Dude, super interesting! Nicely done. Really, I love this. (Though I still maintain that’s it’s the weirdest Chinatown I’ve been to. Which I guess your piece confirms.)

  6. 7 tam January 19, 2010 at 11:22 am

    Love it, spent time in Havana,
    probably my favourite country on the planet.

  7. 8 neha January 26, 2010 at 2:51 am

    Have I mentioned before how much I love your writing? Flawless, and precise as ever! Also, I am aching to go to Cuba. It has been building for years now. It seems like a far away dream, but it’s one of the main reasons I want to visit the United States, its proximity to Cuba (Ha, bet no one saw that coming). Till then I’ll keep reading your posts.

  8. 9 ivis March 27, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    my parents are both cubans we live in miami, like every miami cuban american its a right of passage to go to cuba. ive been 7 times from the age of 5-19 spending 10 days to a month at a time over in my family town of santa clara and then heading back to other providences.. and one thing ill tell you is that you dont understand how easy going, relaxing, free you fell there. yes its wrong how fidel and the government has cuba but me being of cuban decent loves going there.. at the age of 7 my mom would let me and my siblings ride bike and horse all over the town.. but at 7 i couldn’t go to the corner park in my street… its a different life style

  9. 10 Delia Harrington August 26, 2010 at 9:16 am

    I have a friend down there who’s American-born, but his parents moved the family down there when he was 10 or so. He’s now a teenager and the whole family is very happy with the change–he can be out all day and night and no one worries. it’s amazing how safe and comforting it is to live in Havana. And you can see the stars! did you notice that?

    There’s also a pretty big homeless/undocumented problem just outside of Havana, and other major cities like Santiago. “Palestinoes” or people from the West (yes, they call them Palestinians because they “have no home” and “invade someone else’s”…oof!) leave for the cities and a better life, but if they can’t trade for/buy housing, they’re stuck. without registering as moving from one province to the other, they fall off the books. they build shanty houses, don’t receive ration books and have even worse plumbing than most Cubans, if that’s imaginable. they often don’t pay the (admittedly low) cost of housing/utilities, but they barely get them anyway. And often their children don’t/can’t go to school because of their status. I saw a great docu about them and I’d love to go back and do more research on it.

    Just another example fo how Cuba is never straightforward, and always has another side to show! If I remember the name/find a link to it (I believe it’s native cuban, so it’s probably not on the net) I’ll send it to you

    Really loved hearing the perspective of someone from a major US city!

    delia


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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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