Sunday, April 12, 2009

Cuba through my eyes, part one

The following post is a bit of a monster-story of how Cuba seemed to me, but if you have an attention span of a fruit-fly, please feel free to skip it :)


Oh how i dislike Cuban Spanish! They take this beautiful language and turn it into a shortened speech that most of the time sounds like drunken babbling, because they drop half of the letters and generally don't bother themselves with an actual pronunciation.

When we were in China with Jevgeni, every once in a while we actually tried to speak a bit in Chinese, but nobody ever understood us. Then one fellow traveler said that you have to pronounce Chinese as if you're making fun of them by barking the language at them. And curiously enough, it worked. We managed to converse a tiny bit from then on. Well, my advice about speaking Cuban Spanish is to keep it super soft like you just bit your tongue and it's painful to speak clearly. Talking speed must be cranked up to a maximum and also take extra care to drop 95% of the "S"-s. "Buenos dias" becomes casually "buenodia" etc. But all the ugly Spanish-speaking aside, Cuba is doing wonders with my Spanish! I can't of course converse fluently, but if my conversation-partner has enough time and patience, we can get along famously already :). Locals really don't speak English, so talking in Spanish is the only option. And i must secretly admit - i love every minute of it!


What a glorious architecture Havana has! But looking those old beautiful unique buildings i can't help but feel like i did in Jaipur (India) - someone please renovate and take care of them! It almost makes you wish that extreme capitalism would arrive to Cuba tomorrow - imagine just how well many of these buildings would be propped up & renovated in the atmosphere of thriving commercialism and lack of governmental monopoly.

View of Havana busy central area, photographed from the El Capitolio


Cuba is definitely a country of many peculiarities and one of those peculiarities for me was a total and extraordinary lack of self-criticism of some local women. Given the figure or rather lack of it actually, it felt that they really should be investing into more covering clothing. Or maybe their attitude is exactly the healthy approach, because they don't have Cosmopolitan (yet) to tell them that only tall & thin women are beautiful. And it doesn't look like the local curvaceous ladies lack the male attention either.

Another interesting observation was that the darker the woman the more sense of style she had.

Local men seem to be generally fit and often very trained. I don't know if it's due to a lot of physical work or vanity, but i saw only few over-weight or chubby guys. At the same time i found them generally unappealing, because the pack instinct is specially well developed in here and you can't pass a single group of guys without getting aggressive whistles and comments (good-natured though). There's something terribly unattractive and sad about a guy who feels the need to howl after every passing skirt.

Pancho, my Viñales tour-guide, said that it's a compliment for a woman when men whistle at her. And the polite thing to do, would be stop and thank them for the attention.


I have a friend who couple of years ago also visited Cuba. Lazy as i am, upon coming here, i didn't do much research and most of my background information about Cuba was from her and postings. I guess people really are different and their perceptions of things also. Maybe her kind-looking face and light blond hair were attracting more unwanted individuals than my mean grin, but after spending 9 days in Cuba i have yet to meet a person who was asking me money for taking a photo or generally just being a tourist and existing. Reminds me of our trip with Jevgeni to Saint-Petersburg (Russia), where walking on the street was seriously hindered because every local religious cult/organization/movement's representative was approaching us for donations. Except they took one look at me and went straight to Jevgeni. Not one person wanted to talk to me about money, even after Jevgeni started telling them that he is a kept man and that they should talk to me because i am actually the one with the money :).

Prior coming to Cuba i was reading forum posts by a guy who had spent many weeks in Havana and seemed to offer good insights about it. Now after spending some time in Havana and in Cuba generally myself, i am perplexed. The way he described - everybody, everywhere and anytime were trying to scam him, steal, strike up a conversation with intention to sell something or just plain annoy him. I remember he wrote that the hardest moments were when he was forced to stop somewhere, like standing in a nightclub queue or waiting somewhere for a rain to pass. He made it sound that the surrounding crowd just ran him down with their demands for money. He recommended having small bills of cash in your pocket so you can take them out one by one and give to the people that bother you. Well, maybe that was the problem. In any case, after reading his memoirs i was a bit worried about the attention. If already a grown man gets hassled so much what's a blond-ish single girl to do? And now i am puzzled - what the hell was he talking about? I got hassled 50 times more in India and Indian hustlers are more persistent as well - they just keep annoying you up to the point when i felt that murder of passion is indeed in some cases justified. Here in Cuba, when you tell someone to leave you alone, they generally do that. They seem to understand that there's no point wasting their time on you, if you're not an easy mark.

Jinetero/jinetera is a nickname for a male and female hustler. Originally jinetero/jinetera referred to a prostitute, but now the meaning is wider and includes pretty much all types of hustlers. If somebody offers to find you a casa particular or get you a taxi, they all get commission from that. Same goes to "recommending" you a good restaurant, shop etc. You can use or not use their services, it's your choice. If you don't mind paying the higher price (due to the added commission) your life might be easier in many aspects. But striking a deal with random strangers might also have other kind of consequences. In nightclubs jineteros/jineteras usually try to chat you up to get free drinks etc. You can mostly encounter them in tourist areas (Havana is notorious for them), but also in places like bus-stations etc.

Being a jinetero/jinetera can also be a matter of opportunity. If you approach a random person on the street with a question like: "Do you know a good restaurant to get lunch?" there's some chance that this person will slip into jinetero/jinetera mode. Of course, it's very unlikely outside the bigger cities, people just don't seem to bother themselves with stuff like that, at least such was my experience. But for example in Havana it's very common.

My first and only encounter with an inactive jinetera was exactly in Havana. I was walking by Malecon and a young woman was sitting by the railing. I asked if i could take a photo of her and she was ok with it. I took couple of shots, thanked her and walked further. 10-15 minutes later i see her walking in the same street as i and some time later i see her again. It became already funnily obvious that she is not there coincidentally, unless she was also photographing sleeping dogs and old doors. At some point she "discovered" me: "Oh, look at that! You are ALSO here .." which was closely followed by chit-chat in the style of "So where you're from? What's your name?" etc. As guessed, she soon started making proposals to walk to some good cafe around the corner for lunch.

This jinetero/jinetera type system thrives well in very many southern countries, but from my experience it's been the strongest and most unpleasant so far in India. There you don't even have to know the person who walks in the shop / restaurant / etc in the same time as you, he can still claim that he brought you and get commission off you, which you will end up paying for of course. Even couchsurfing hosts get their cut though i'm sure there are exceptions. That's why i prefer to spend my time outside the central city areas, people don't bother me as much and i don't have to spend my energy ushering away unwanted helpers and guides.

A guy snapping a photo of me


Life of a tourist is somewhat expensive in Cuba. And life of a single budget traveler can even get very expensive. I want to stress here the "budget" part as i am on one. If you have unlimited funds, Cuba is a swell place to travel. Knowing at least a bit of Spanish will greatly ease your dependency on other people (mostly jineteros/jineteras) and helps to keep costs "expensive" rather than "very expensive". OK, i'm talking of course from my own personal point of view, but both transportation, accommodation and food can get very pricey.

The main trouble for me was that Cuba doesn't have an extensive and cheap street-food tradition, at least not like most southern countries have. You can buy food from the streets, but it's not very widely available and you can only find it in certain areas. It's also pretty much the same stuff everywhere, so it gets very old very quickly. As random and repetitive as Cuban street-food is, you can still get some nice stuff though. Cuban street-food is meant for locals and sold only in local currency (cuban pesos) not in CUCs. And though some people might be surprised seeing you standing in a line with the locals, nobody is trying to charge you triple price or something like that. 1 cuban peso is roughly about 1/2 EEK, so street-food can be very cheap, if you can find it that is. For example the street mojito is 10 pesos, while the same stuff served in a prettier glass in a tourist restaurant costs 3-6 CUC. At some point i stumbled on a big crowd lined up behind one booth. Turned out that the booth sold hot-dogs. Very simple stuff: bread, sausage and a splash of sauce, but still very tasty, 10 pesos. Local ice-cream costs 3 pesos, hamburger 8 pesos and my personal favourite "cuban pizza" costs 5-10 pesos. They cook these little pizzas right there on the street in small flaky ovens. Usually they are just pastry + a bit of sour-tasting local cheese, upgraded version has also ham in it. But the bread is oh so sweet, soft and puffy.

Also buying stuff from the market can be a bit tricky. I guess it depends also in your location and season at hand, but markets seem to be a bit scarce in Cuba. In most cities where i asked the the locals about the markets, they said that there aren't special markets like that. They are more in the style of one guy selling tomatoes on the corner of the street, the other one cucumbers etc. I guess the locals already know who sells what. Some people were talking about big storms and such couple of years back, which seemed to have destroyed a lot of plantations and things still haven't gotten back to normal. I only managed to find a proper market in Havana, but considering it's produce choice i really wouldn't call it a fresh-vegetable-market, more like a week-old-second-hand-stuff market, cheap though. Plus i didn't quite get the sales system: once i wanted to buy pineapples, but the salesgirl said that we don't sell pineapples today, they are being sold tomorrow. All that with a big pile of pineapples stacked right next to her :).

Also a big obstacle in eating cheap in Cuba is the lack of proper grocery stores. There are some tourist-shops selling mostly packaged snacks etc, but you can't for example go to a shop, buy 2 buns, a bit of cheese or ham and be set for the day.

Tourist areas have of course many fancy eating places and i imagine the budget traveler and wealthy tourist see two very different Cubas.

The tasty local ice-cream

Street cafe menu, this one was particularly well-equipped

A street-vendor making burgers. He was doing business in the central city tourist area, usually they don't pay that much attention to hygiene


  1. what an excellent time it sounds liike you had! if you don't mind my asking, how much, there abouts, did it cost to make this Cuban trip? i'm interested in going myself, with a few friends, and we're just trying to figure out funds.


  2. Sierra, sorry for a long delay in replying you. I was in Syria and since Blogger is banned there, i didn't even see your comment until today when i reached to Jordan :).
    Anyways, as for expenses in Cuba, please see post: and scroll down to the very end, it's all written out in detail there. I hope it helps you.


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