Day 1: Hugs, cheese and Havana Club.
I was walking around in the spectacularly unremarkable town of Cienfuegos when I was approached by a very friendly and curious 23 year old Cuban guy named Jordan. He told me a lot about his life and answered question after question of mine as we sat on the marble steps of a huge colonial building. Whilst we sat, he told me about his life. I know some Spanish and he knew less English. It’s amazing how hand gestures and some broken Spanish can permit a full conversation. He showed me around the town, every few paces stopping to shake hands with someone he knew. After showing me the town of Cienfuegos, he offered to introduce me to his family and show me around his neighbourhood. I accepted and followed him further and further out of the town, I watched the houses and streets slowly become more and more dilapidated. The streets felt like a maze. And as much as I tried to take note of where I was walking I couldn’t remember to safe my life. I realised that I was walking into what seemed like a Cuban hood with a guy I just met. There was rubbish and all matter of abandoned objects which lined the streets and sidewalks.
We approached a narrow alleyway which I was led down. It was there where any anxiety came to a climax. There was seemingly only in and out which was a metre wide and could easily be blocked. The alleyway had a large puddle which you had to jump over, at one point cardboard was laid on top but as the people walked in and out and the water level rose the cardboard became more and more battered. As we walked doors appeared, almost all of which were open displaying one bedroom houses. I realised that this was a sort of community. As we passed each house we were warmly greeted and I was introduced house to house to the friendly faces inside. A lot of places had a tv, with a couple mismatched chairs set in front. Close behind were single beds. Jordan especially introduced me to the owners of the house with the phone. Apparently there was only one phone in the whole community which housed something like 80(ish) people.
Finally, we entered another open door which was the home of Jordan’s ex girlfriend, Shakira. She was 18 and had a 1 and a half year old child and was 6 months pregnant with another. Both were Jordan’s kids. This was not uncommon here. The house contained a kitchen and bathroom but had no running water. Buckets full of water for flushing the toilet, showering and dish washing were placed inside. Water was gathered from a tank outside of the house. The house was made up by a single bed with foam mattress, in front of a mismatched cardboard wall, baby crib and a small pole in which hung maybe 15 baby outfits. Under the crib and bed were boxes, one contained an album of Shakira’s glamour modelling photos. Something I found funny not just at their house, but all of the houses I visited in Cuba were the glamour shots on everyone’s walls. When a girl turns 15, she has a sort of 'sweet 15' celebration which often involves taking risqué glamour photos. And it’s not just the girls, all women in the house, mothers and grandmothers inclusive display framed, sometimes very awkward glamour shots.
Matias, was Shakira’s brother. He was 16 years old and lived in a room next to Shakira’s. Their houses were separated by a flimsy cardboard wall. His room, too contained a single bed which he promptly made upon me entering setting his stuffed toys in what seemed like premeditated locations. He had many religious statues and told me he doesn’t subscribe to just one religion, he had christian crosses, buddhist statues, angels, the star of David, and Santeria (Afro Cuban) images. Although he didn’t have much he explained his satisfaction with the little he did have.
Although both Shakira and Matias both had little they were very welcoming. Jordan’s mum and his younger brother visited during the day too. Something I should explain is Jordan’s dad owns a casa particular (guest house), so he receives a bit of money. His dad’s side is wealthier whilst his mum’s isn’t. From my understanding it’s Jordan’s job to meet people and bring them to the casa. It’s $10USD per night and alright looking but his dad does not do much work for it. On my second day, I moved to this house under Jordan's recommendation and was locked out 3 times in one day. Jordan tells me his father would rather chase women and a good time than run the casa. This creates friction between the two of them. On the other hand, Jordan’s mum has numerous kids to a few different fathers (which is not uncommon in the poorer areas) she lives in a very poor area of town with two of his younger brothers. Jordan moves between his father's, mother's and ex girlfriend's house.
At Shakira’s house, I was offered mango juice and cheese, while mangos are cheap in Havana, I knew the cheese was more of a luxury. They gave me a couple small slices laid out in a flower shape over a small plate. I was the only one who ate the cheese and upon offering, no one else took it. No one else was eating. Everyone there drilled me with questions but their thick Caribbean accents rendered me speechless and embarrassed on numerous occasions. Jordan would speak on my behalf or would translate (still in Spanish but in a tone much easier for me to understand). Before it got too late, Jordan’s mum and younger brother left. I was invited to stay for dinner where Shakira made fish, rice and beans. She was a great cook, especially for an 18 year old. Shortly after the dinner, we decided to go to a bar. We wandered back into town. I bought a bottle of Havana Club, as we walked they shared the alcohol with people along the street. We went to a local bar where a local band was playing. In Cuba there’s so much heart and soul that’s put into an instrument, I was told by a Cuban guitarist that playing guitar is like making love. I wouldn’t know.
Day 2: Lunchtime Special
I was supposed to leave but was invited to go to the beach with Jordan, Shakira and Matias. Early in the morning I moved my stuff to the guest house of Jordan’s dad upon his suggestion. We went back and forth over the town throughout the morning by horse and cart, taxis and by foot. We finally returned to their house to pick up Shakira and go to the beach. She was getting her hair chemically straightened by Jordan’s mum. She insisted on ‘fixing’ my hair but I declined as politely as possible. While we were there everyone, including Jordan and Matias got their already straightened hair touched up. We caught a local bus there for 2 pesos moneda nacional (Local currency- Cuba has two currencies, one for tourists and one for locals), I paid for two of us without knowing which is very easy to do when you don’t understand too much Spanish. During the morning whilst moving my stuff, they had seen a lot of the things that I owned, such as my camera and iPad. Matias was really interested in my iPad, but didn’t know what to do with it. He told me that he doesn’t have anything like it including a phone which he said at $25+ was too expensive for him to purchase. Obviously, in a country like Australia, owning an iPad and a camera does not represent much wealth at all, however here, it signified a lot as the way they acted around me changed. To be honest, after going to their house and seeing what they had, I was embarrassed, there was no reason why I, just because I won the genetic lottery by being raised in a developed country, earned or deserved these things more.
We arrived after lunch time and not having eaten we were all very hungry, I bought snacks along the beach which no one else wanted, it tided me over, yet everyone else was still hungry. They walked along the beach in the heat, only to stop at a small restuarant. They sat at a table insisting that I join them. Now, after being duped a lot of this morning into paying for taxi’s, street food, bus tickets and more with not even a 'thank you' I was growing skeptical. I had a feeling they were wanting me to eat with them so I would pay. On one hand, I’d seen their house, knew what they had and wanted to do something nice, but at the same time also wanted for them to at least ask me (rather than staying quiet and expecting that I pay) and acknowledge, through a ‘thank you’ that I was paying for 3 extra people that I didn’t really have to. The food was cheap, a typical Cuban meal. After seeing their food, which looked delicious I bit the bullet and ordered myself one. What I expected to happen, of course, did. The bill came around and no one moved. They looked away. No acknowledgement, just expectation. By this time I was tired of the expectation to just pay for everything, although the meal for 4 people only added up to $6 (which I could easily pay for one plate for myself in a tourist spot) it was the principle. I knew I was being used to pay for this. I felt as though they invited me just so I would pay for the day, which so far I had been. When I paid the bill, again there was no 'thank you'. They acted as though it was an inconvenience that they had to wait for me to pay and receive my change instead of jumping into the ocean. In Cuba the people there, if they aren’t in the tourism industry (which means they already have money in the form of an extra room in their house or a car) only earn around $10-20 per month. From what I heard doctors will earn $20- $40 per month. There’s actually basic food handouts such as flour rice, sugar, etc in which everyone is entitled to. However with such little money, the average person can barely pay for food (which the handouts don't cover), transport and bills. A common thought expressed to me by a lot of Cubans was that they’re just barely breaking even. No money to save no money to do anything but continue to work and hope for something better. Knowing this it's easy to understand how they would expect for me to pay for things, especially as they were in school with no income. Maybe it's a clash in cultures, but not showing appreciation really bothers me.
That evening Jordan asked me if he could join me on my travels. He told me he managed to save up $200 from the casa and wanted to spend it travelling with me. I told him he was welcome to come but travelling through Cuba, at least for me (a tourist with limited Spanish) is not so cheap. We agreed to catch a bus together the next day towards Santiago de Cuba.
Day 3: Hustled
Jordan arrived at the casa and brought Matias. I wasn’t sure why he was there or had a bag full of clothes but I assumed he came to say goodbye. I was wrong. He came to join us. Without asking. Unbeknownst to me, I was expected to pay for this. We had to catch a taxi to the next town. Jordan told me that he had money on his card but he hadn’t gotten it out and that once we got to the next town he would go to the ATM and get his money. Matias didn’t say anything. I paid for the taxi for all three of us. We went to the next town, and surprise surprise, Jordan’s card didn’t work. Matias finally actually asked me to buy him a soft drink. Fed up, I told them I had to do the rest of the journey alone and that I really didn’t have a lot of money myself and then I left. As a solo backpacker, Cuba isn’t overly cheap and I definitely didn’t have the resources to do it with two other people.
Although the last two days spent with this group of people wasn’t a 100% positive, it was an educational one. On my first day with Jordan, I was so moved by the kindness and hospitality of these people. Looking back, I try to recall only the first day and erase the second two from my mind. I’d like to think that the first day was a real, genuine experience. That perhaps it was just cultural differences and that I wasn’t just targeted on the street as easy prey. I’ve never been to a country with so many hustlers yet so many curious, and hospital people. Cuba is an incredible, beautiful and frustrating place to be. No matter who you are or where you go there, you will learn something.