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.
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
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)
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.
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.