We couldn’t have been in Cuba more than an hour or so before realizing this trip was going to be really different, really special. Before turning in our first night, we both commented “the people are all so helpful to each other here“. I guess that is one positive outcome of living with socialism for 50+ years.
We’ve traveled to other polite places before (hello, Thailand!), although their kindness seems to be less sincere and more of a cultural influence. In Cuba, the people we met genuinely wanted to know more about us. They also freely helped each other. And that was how we ended up falling in love in Cuba.
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I think we got to know more locals on this trip than any other. Cubans are amazingly friendly. They were curious to hear where we were from, how they could be of help, and if we were enjoying their country. They also wanted to share their stories.
Life is approaching unbearable for the Cuban people. Yet they remain pleasant (even cheerful) and hard-working. They don’t complain about their situation although their frustration feels palpable.
The population is highly literate (99%) and educated. But, sadly even those trained as physicians and engineers make so little at their state jobs (1000 CUP/40 USD per month) that they have to turn to tourism. Most don’t want to leave Cuba permantly but do not see any other path to survival.
Falling in Love in Cuba
Come meet some of the people we fell in love with while in Cuba!
The man playing guitar in this photo is blind. We saw him while on one of our walking tours and Natty Guy gave him some guitar strings along with a tip in his basket. A woman in the store to the left told him what we’d left and when he reached in and felt the guitar strings he started crying, as did the woman from the store. An amazing moment!
We stopped in this guy’s shop on Callejon de Hamel while at the rumba party on Sunday. We bought a cool painting done on a piece of wood and he walked us to the restaurant next door to show us a photo of the guy who made it. When he learned we were from the US, he was eager to make sure that we knew that while his government calls us the enemy, the majority of Cuban citizens don’t view us that way.
This guy saw me through the doorway of his barber shop and asked if I wanted to come in and take photos. He explained that he practices Santeria (a combination of Catholicism and a West African religion). He makes a daily offering (see little plates) and had me shake a maraca-type thing over everything as a blessing. We took about 20-30 photos together, all in different poses!
We were in the bar of our casa having a happy hour cocktail and struck up a conversation with the guy in the A/X tee. He lives across the street and we’d given his niece some candy earlier in the day. The other tourist joined our chat and a short bit later, the neighbor asked if we wanted to join him for a game of dominoes. Another great connection!
How Did Things Get so Bad
After (somewhat) recovering from the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 80’s, several factors have brought Cuban society to an untenable situation once again.
- The pandemic and inherent supply-chain issues that has caused for all of us.
- The loss of aid from Venezuela after their economic and political crisis.
- Cuba’s reluctance to adopt economic reforms, despite encouragement from China, another socialist government.
- The US trade embargo, which has reduced tourism, travel for Cubans in the US, and, the amount of aid that can be sent back to families.
- Each Cubans ration has been significantly decreased. A month’s ration now represents about a week’s worth of food. Store shelves are empty. To buy more of any necessity, you must turn to the (illegal) black market, which operates in Euros or USD. There is NOT another option.
- An increase in connectivity. While sporadic, the internet is available in Cuba and most of the citizens are acutely aware of the discrepancies between what the Cuban government states and what independent journalists are reporting throughout the rest of the world.
How to Help the Cuban People
Travelers to Cuba are limited to 2 checked bags, 1 carry-on, and 1 personal item per person, anything more than this risks being confiscated. When packing gifts, choose carefully to keep within weight and capacity restrictions. We took only a few small gift bags on our trip and in hindsight, I wished we’d taken much, much more.
Cuban people are in need of so much right now that I think anything at all is appreciated. However, some of the most urgent items include:
- Medical supplies like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, antibiotic ointment, bandages, peroxide, stomach/anti-diarrheal medicine, and children’s pain/fever medication.
- Hygiene items like toothpaste, toothbrushes, feminine hygiene supplies, etc.
- Food, especially cooking oil, non-perishables (canned/pouched/dehydrated), baby formula, and candies (a real treat and easy to give to anyone you see).
- Clothing particularly underwear and clothing for children/babies.
- Small toys for children or deflated soccer balls.
We personally took a few packages with a mixture of things like batteries, ibuprofen, reading glasses, pencils and crayons for kids, candy, and supplies for musicians like guitar strings, picks, and valve instrument oil.
If you want to be certain that your gifts go to those in need, ask your host to connect you with an aid organization. Alternately, stop at a church with your supplies or hand them out as you wish to people you encounter in your travels.
There are so many more stories I could tell. About the resourcefulness of eh Cubans, making heaters out of old condensed milk cans. About the restaurant hawker that is planning to leave via a Latin American route in August. But space runs tight. Just know these people are out there. Struggling each day for a better life for their families and complaining far less than most of us do.
Consider a trip to Cuba to support people who need the goods/Euros/USD that you bring so desperately right now. And contact your representatives encouraging them to ease embargo restrictions that are harming the citizens but not the government.
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