Posted by: Naomi Baltuck | April 13, 2016

Cuba’s Third Currency

The kids and I rendezvoused in Mexico City for spring break: from there it was a quick jump to Havana. We’d heard that thawing US-Cuban relations would affect big changes in Cuba in the near future. We wanted to see Cuba before that happened.

We arrived late at night, and taxied to our casa particular, a room rented in a private home. Eli said we would get a better feel for Cuba staying in a home rather than a hotel.  The Cuban government has allowed the practice since 1997 to accommodate and encourage tourist trade.  Upon our arrival our hostess Ana said her water pump was broken, and she turned us over to Orlando, who took us to his rental apartment.

We had to trust that everything would be okay.  And it was.

The electrical wiring at Orlando’s wouldn’t have passed a safety inspection.

 We were in a strange new place with its own set of rules, and had nowhere else to go.

 So when we detected the faint smell of gas, we opened all the windows, shut the door to the kitchen, and went to bed.

We awoke the next morning to the crowing of roosters, and a cacophony of social activity on the street; people laughing, talking, shouting cheerful greetings to each other from one balcony to the next.

We thanked Orlando, who turned out to be a retired chemistry professor, and moved to Ana’s place in The Old Town, several blocks from the capitol building.

At first La Habana Vieja, The Old Town, seemed a crumbling ruin…

…with people living in dilapidated buildings we at first mistook for abandoned shells.

In Cuba there are two forms of currency.  The Cuban peso is for local use.  The convertible peso is tied to the dollar, worth 25 times more, and is for tourist use. Most Cubans earn only twenty or thirty dollars a month, and use only Cuban pesos.

People sell…

…or buy whatever they can on their neighborhood streets.

 

Most shops have no refrigeration and little selection of goods.

This stand’s sole product was shredded cabbage.

In addition to wages, cigar factory workers are allowed five cigars a day, to smoke or to sell on their own time.

 

Tourists patronize government restaurants that few Cubans can afford, and even there the menu is limited according to what ingredients they can obtain. 

The Cuban government nationalized and charges admission fees to tourist attractions like museums…

…hotels…

…and restaurants.

 

Even the cemetery is maintained by the government, with admission fees charged to foreign visitors.

The government recreated a nightclub called The Tropicana…

…famous for its pre-revolutionary extravaganzas.

It charges tourists three times what most Cubans earn in a month for a two-hour show.

It’s what the market will bear, no more than we would pay at home, and it funds a government that pays for free healthcare and education for all Cubans, from pre-school through university and grad school.  Also milk for every child up to the age of seven, Ana said.  Gustavo drove us out to Ernest Hemingway’s house.  He shared valid complaints about government control and lost business opportunities because of it, but he also shared his plans for a new venture–in tourism.  That’s the only way most people will manage to better their circumstances, and earn dollars instead of pennies.

Everywhere there are reminders of the Revolution, on a grand scale, paid for by the government…

…but also celebrated by the people, many having lived through that momentous period of history.

 

I don’t presume to understand all the politics and history of those turbulent times.  I do note ironic parallels between the patriots of the American Revolution who fought for independence from Britain in 1776, and the Cubans who fought for independence from the US-backed Batista regime in the 1950s. Free speech and democracy are not enjoyed by Cubans, or the Chinese either, although China is a communist country granted “most favored nation” status by the US.  There’s also a history of human rights violations in China, as well as in Cuba, which includes, ironically, Guantanamo Bay. America is a big glass house, and in no position to cast stones. Yes, there was the Cuban Missile Crisis, but we mustn’t forget that the US meddled in Cuba’s internal affairs, including eight attempts to assassinate the president of Cuba.

That was a long time ago.  Today we’re trade partners with Vietnam, yet still we cling to the punishing embargo on Cuba that hurts the Cubans…

…not the Castros.

Everyone we met was open and friendly. It helped that my traveling companions were both fluent in Spanish.  I’m not, but “Hola!” (hello) was a magic word that brought a warm response every time. I felt safe, even late at night. Warmth was the third currency of Cuba.  When we couldn’t get Ana’s key to work, the man on the steps across the street came unbidden to help.  Orlando made a special trip to Ana’s to return a sock I had left there. After a chance meeting in front of the synagogue, Eleazor took us around the old Jewish quarter, delighted when Bea could speak Yiddish with him.

A friend who had been to Cuba suggested we bring paper and pens, something we often take for granted in the US.  I bought a couple dozen yellow pads and dozens of pens, which we gave to kids, students, and elders.  When we stopped to give these little girls pens, their mother asked if we were part of the president’s entourage.

No, but President Obama’s trip to Cuba coincided with ours, and he visited some of the same sites.


We toured the historic National Hotel…

…where Obama stayed while in Havana.

One morning, as we walked near the capitol, we saw a crowd spilling out of a little corner bar.

There was excitement in the air, as they listened to President Obama’s live speech on television.

https://i1.wp.com/i1176.photobucket.com/albums/x334/nbaltuck/Cuba%202016/eda50c09-96bc-4e95-8573-7c0554432296_zpsxem8g6uf.jpg

A man–his name was Ricardo–told us how much the president’s visit meant.

He began to cry, and told us that he finally dared hope for an end to the embargo, that it would bring more prosperity, a chance to see his family in the US and, because he had a heart condition, improved healthcare.

In the not-so-distant future there is much that I too hope will change for the Cubans.

But I’m guessing there are some things in Cuba that will never change…


 

 

…but then, we wouldn’t want them to.

All words and images ©2016 Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Future.

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Responses

  1. I only know a couple of Australians who travelled in Cuba and they loved it, it looks as though you had a great time as well. The colours of the buildings and the clothing they wear is amazing, thank you for sharing your holiday 🙂

    • Thanks so much for the visit, and taking the time to comment. Cuba just seems to click for some people–we met a Canadian couple who were making their 21st visit to Cuba. They go every year!

      • I would like to visit Cuba, it looks so fascinating. My wish list of holidays is getting longer and longer 🙂 Living in Australia sometimes feels so far from anywhere.

      • I remember noting how different the posters and bargains were when looking at travel agencies in Australia. Fiji, Indonesia, New Zealand, Japan–all those exotic places just a little jump away. But Australia is very far away from Europe or the Americas. I am excited to have my friend from Brisbane coming for a visit in June.

      • Yes, we’re close to some amazing destinations, many of which I hope to visit one day although all my plans tend to involve longer distances. It is exciting when friends come to visit especially when they live so far away 🙂

  2. Excellent coverage. I have never been there and I’m glad you’ve caught it in time.

    • Thank you for stopping by, and for the kind word! I think it is going to take a while for big changes to occur, but I’m glad I got there when I did.

  3. What an amazing experience! I would love to see Cuba before everything changes…

    • Hi Janaline,
      I hope you get there too. It’s getting easier to travel to. As US citizens, we had to got through Mexico, and some go through Canada, but you wouldn’t have to worry about that. It’s always good to hear form you–all the best, Naomi

  4. Cuba is very interesting country and also Cuba music is great. I am so glad to hear this change, I hope it would be well for everyone. Your photographs are so beautiful dear Naomi, how nice visit and how meaningful for the future especially before the change… Memories will stay forever… Thank you, Love, nia

    • Dear Nia,
      Thank you for stopping by and sharing your kind words. One day, perhaps, we can return to Cuba and see how it compares with our memories.
      It’s so good to hear from you.
      Love,
      Naomi

  5. Thanks for sharing your amazing photos with us, Naomi. I particularly enjoyed the sweet photo of the little girls. They look so happy with their gifts. 🙂

    • Hi Jill,
      I think that photo is one of my favorites too. They were adorable in person too. Thanks so much for the visit, and taking the time to share your response.

  6. Looks and sounds like an amazingly worthwhile trip. The Cubans you met show a resilience that is humbling … I appreciated the back story. A great photo essay. Thanks Naomi

    • Dear Meg, I think we all learned so much on this trip! Thanks for checking in, and sharing your very kind comments. Love, n

  7. Thanks so much for the interesting tour of Cuba. I know a lot of people who have been there, but I’ve never been.
    Great photos! I was really struck by the flashes of colour in the otherwise drab backgrounds in some of them.

    • HI Naomi, Thanks so much for stopping by and for sharing your response. I think your description sums up Cuba very well.

  8. Thank you for the tour!!! I’m going soon–I’d love to see it before things change too. xo

  9. Naomi, this is brilliant! Thanks for your thoughts and amazing pictures!

    • Hi Rita, Thanks so much for your very kind words. It is always so good to hear from you!

  10. Ah, brings back memories….I went when Fidel Castro was still in power….

    • Wow! Was it on a tour, or were you there on business? Thanks for the visit, and sharing your story. I’d love to hear more.

      • Two of us went to Cuba on a trip arranged, I think, by Explore Worldwide. They arranged the accommodation for us, and the flights and car hire…I drove 600 miles across the island. Quite an adventure…we stayed in Havanna, Trinidad and a number of other places. Sadly, I had a very basic little camera with me….

      • Wow! You really saw Cuba! We saw Havana, and I know there is so much more to see, but we had less than a week. Would love to see some of your pics!

      • I may have posted some in the past – you can search on my blog 😀

  11. I went to Cuba 25 years ago and loved it…thanks for the tour and the beautiful pictures.

    • Hi Shirley, I wonder what your experience was like 25 years ago. It will be fun to compare notes. Thanks so much for stopping by. n

  12. love the neighbors kind request to dress when hanging out in balcony. Wazza matter? They don’t like a little show?

    • Spoken like a true showman! Thanks for the visit, and adding a little pizazz to the conversation!

  13. Your family has my vote for Ambassadors to Everywhere! You speak so many languages, but the greatest is the language of love and respect for all people, and compassion for all suffering. Thanks for another great travelog, my friend! ❤

    • Dear Priscilla,
      You are such a thoughtful and intelligent person, and I have a high regard for your perspective. I can’t tell you how touched I am by your words. As ever, Naomi

  14. What a wonderful post Naomi. I think it’s the best yet I’ve seen on Cuba. Somehow you captured a feel for the place in both words and pictures that I’d not gotten before. It makes me want to go even more. Wonderful evocative rich photographs!
    Alison

    • Wow! Thank you, Alison! It’s not that hard to get around in Cuba, especially in comparison to some of the out-of-the-way places you and Don have traveled. I think you should put it on your list!

  15. Looks great!

    • Thanks so much, Lisa! I appreciate your stopping by.

  16. I hope that Cuba becomes a wealthier place with good healthcare and education for all. They seem such lovely joyful people, I’d like to go there before it changes too much.

    • Hi Gilly, I hope you get there too. It does seem like a lot of change is due, but I don’t think it will change the joyful good nature of the people. Thanks for stopping by, and sharing your thoughts.

  17. Brilliant post Naomi, some extraordinary pics, so well observed. A couple of friends visited recently. They say it is remarkable how practical and inventive the ordinary people have become as a result of the embargo.

    • That’s a very apt description. Everywhere you see ancient cars restored or perfectly maintained because of the embargo. SO much less waste. One day we walked everywhere, but ended up lost, and so far from where we started that we took a rickshaw back to our place. The guy who was pedaling had added bars to the framework for leverage in tough spots, and when the chain slipped off as he pedaled, he didn’t skip a beat, but fixed it as he went, darting in and out of the cars. A true artist! Thanks for stopping by, Roy. I hope you are well!

  18. Great article, a different view of Cuba. Thanks for sharing!

  19. A really fascinating post, Naomi. I found your photos and narrative absolutely spell-binding. Thanks for sharing your experience. I hope I can also visit Cuba before it changes too much. I’d really love to see those old cars. 🙂

    • Thank you, Sylvia. It’s hard to believe that Cuba is only 90 miles away!

  20. Ahh, Naomi, you feed my urge to go see and go do. That will not be happening for awhile, other than the annual girls’ week at the coast, so in the meantime I will enjoy through your adventures. Vicariously is better than nothing!

    • Hi Carol,
      Google Travel Zoo and Groupon Travel. You can’t believe what bargains they have for international travel, and many of them include airfare. I haven’t traveled with them, but they have tours to China or India, including airfare,that cost less than you would expect the airfare alone to cost. Maybe at your annual girls’ week, you can make plans for the next adventure!

  21. Wonderful essay, Naomi. I have never been, and I really don’t know much about the embargo and its implications. Thank you for the brief peek into life in Cuba!

    • Thank you, Kate, for the visit, and for taking the time to share a comment! Just popped over to your blog and got a boost. Must work in the garden on a gorgeous spring day, but that will be my reward for sitting down and working on a story first.

  22. Your words and images bring your trip to life for us, Naomi. Thank you for sharing your experiences. What an extensive, comprehensive gallery.

    • Thank you, Ruth. So good to hear from you! I hope you and your family are well.

  23. Wow, great post, Naomi! I’m so thrilled you had – and took! – the opportunity to go there. Thank you for reporting back to us, and giving us such a thoughtful look at life in Cuba. As always, your observations and photos are illuminating, fascinating, and lovely!

    • Thank you, Kathy. It’s great to hear from you. I appreciate the visit, and your taking the time to share your thoughts. I hope everyone is well!

  24. Thank you for sharing the journey and friendships. ❤

    • Dear Mary,
      Thank YOU for sharing the journey. It is always so great to hear from you, and I appreciated your passing the story along.
      Love,
      n

      • I recently took your _Crazy Gibberish_ book to a workshop of pre-school teachers, along with other resources and fun.

      • Dear Mary, I hope you all had some fun with it! Thanks for sharing the stories!

  25. WOW, magnificent post, Naomi. The photos are so atmospheric.

    • Thanks so much, Jean! I appreciate your stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Loved your last post–a part of me is still sitting in a bed of pinks on the cliff overlooking the sea. Is that what they mean when they say you are “in the pink”?

      • My pleasure, Naomi.

  26. Oh Naomi, it was like going back! Mike and I went on a ‘Jazz’ tour of Cuba about 8 years ago and were deeply impressed by many of the same things. Although the country is dirt poor, everyone eats, everyone has a place to live, everyone has health care. Also the music is a fantastic and unique blend of cultures that is duplicated nowhere else. I hope that letting capitalism in doesn’t erode what works so very well. Thank-you for sharing your journey.
    Loved the photos, and actually, the crusting away buildings and roads means let fossil fuel destruction from the making of cement!

    • There’s always a bright side! Thanks so much for sharing your story, and your perceptions, Judith. It was certainly a mixed bag. Change is definitely on the horizon, and I also hope there is only change for the better.

  27. It’s a different world. Such poverty and backwardness in many ways, yet you experienced such warmth from the people. The contrast between the tourist attractions and everyday existence for the Cubans seems very stark, but I’m glad that the revenue raised goes towards useful things that benefit the people. A very interesting and informative post, Naomi.

    • Thank you, Sarah. It is very stark indeed. They hope and I hope that will change.

  28. LOVE this post – the culture rich feel – from the wheel-less car to the three school girls walking in their uniform – what a unique place – and your posts always flow seamlessly. xoxo

    • Thank you! It was a very rich land from which to draw images!

      • 🙂

  29. I wanted to see Havana, before it changed with the thawing relations between the United States and Cuba, so my husband & I visited in Janurary of 2015. As we toured Havana, both the tourist and non-tourist areas, we were not charged to go into Hotels, restaurants, or cemetaries. I found that odd when you mentioned it. What we did see though were people who were quite poor, literally begging for food in certain places. It was all very sad. Hopefully their economy will prosper, with a better relationship with the United States.

  30. Hi Catherine,
    Did you go with a tour or on your own? With a tour, sometimes activities are pre-paid for by your guide or tour company. The kids and I went on our own, and we were definitely charged to go into the cemetery, something like $8 per person, as well as at the museums and historic sights, but we would expect an admission fee, except perhaps for the cemetery. It was hard to see so much poverty. Like you, I hope for a bolstering of the economy with improved relations with the US. Do you have a website that I can go and visit? (I will see if I clicking on your name links me back to one). Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your experience.

  31. What an interesting experience you had in Cuba. Your kids are amazing! I like the visiting from the balconies, the colorful fabrics, the beauty in the hearts that live there. Thank you for sharing with us.

    • Hi Patti, Thanks for the visit, and sharing your response. It was certainly a colorful place to visit!

  32. Like you, I’ve been yearning to go to Cuba before it changes with the influx of tourism. Your post and pictures made me feel like I was there! Every picture told a story. Your comments about the lack of ingredients, or hot water, and ways to earn wages really opened my eyes about how impoverished this country is. I hope to see it in the not-too-distant future, but am content for now to feel like I made a virtual visit through your blog.

    • Thank you! It’s so nice to hear from you! It’s funny how close Cuba is, and yet how foreign it feels.


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