I’m very excited to be working with VTA Cuba for their two back-to-back Cuban cruises over Christmas and New Year. Although I’m a lecturer in Latin American Politics and History, as someone from a Cuban background who has actually lived in Cuba, I’m especially looking forward to giving the passengers a glimpse into everyday life in Cuba, given the island is exceptional in so many ways. Before I begin my sailings with VTA Cuba, I wanted to share a story from a previous trip, a story that looks at authentic Cienfuegos and typical Cuban life.
On my last cruise, I took 8 passengers on an ‘optional excursion’ I organised in Cienfuegos as they’d heard me speak about the ‘real Cuba’ and wanted to see it for themselves. In Cuba, there are huge transport issues so I had to find a way of transporting these guests from the ship to the restaurant.
As luck would have it, the tour bus was sitting outside waiting to go back to the depot. I managed to convince the driver to take us into town for $2 per person. Whereas his salary might only be $20 per month, while driving tourists around he has the potential to make dollar tips. You might assume he could have got in serious trouble taking us to the restaurant on his way to the depot but these “extra-curricular” activities are commonplace and Cubans do them every day to earn much needed additional income. This practice is referred to as ‘la lucha’ which literally translates as ‘the struggle.’ You can ask a Cuban how they are or how they are doing and they will reply ‘estoy luchando’, which means ‘I’m getting by’.
Since the collapse of the Cuban economy in the early 1990s, following the loss of their biggest trading partner the Soviet Union, tens of thousands of Cubans have abandoned their careers to work in close proximity to tourists. Our bus driver, for example had studied to be an engineer and before running their own restaurant, the owners had been teachers.
The purpose of this excursion was that these especially adventurous guests could try an authentic Cuban meal so I took them to the best ‘paladar’ in town. A paladar is a private restaurant that Cubans are allowed to open in their homes. I’d visited this particular paladar several years back when it was just in their lounge, but these former teachers had become so successful, they’d bought the house next door and converted the original house into a 3-storey restaurant.
Cuban food isn’t renowned as the best, but if it’s done well, it can be delicious. The key is the seasoning as it can be very bland. A typical meal in a Cuban household will involve pork seasoned with garlic and onions, rice (with or without black beans), a few slices of tomato or avocado and possibly fried plantain or banana. I say ‘typical’ because you end up eating the exact same thing every day.
Due to the economic sanctions against Cuba, imports are limited and there’s very little variation in what you can cook. Chickens are imported from Brazil and frozen, it is forbidden to eat steak or lobster/seafood as these are reserved for tourists staying in hotels (but everyone who can afford to buys lobster and seafood on the black market) and pork is the national dish as it’s readily available and cheap! In fact, many Cubans keep a pig in their garage during the autumn and winter months and wait until New Year’s Eve to kill it and barbecue it on a spit. It’s traditional to see in the New Year with roast pork (and plenty of rum).
This paladar recommend we tried the lamb and the king prawns, both of which were excellent and well worth the $12 price which is far cheaper than if you eat the same dish in a hotel. The portions were so big, everyone was too full to try dessert. Obviously, they had room for several mojitos and piña coladas!
You may wonder how Cubans can afford to eat out at those prices but these paladares typically have an identical menu for Cubans at far lower prices, say $5 for those speciality dishes. In Cuba, almost everything is subsided by the state and private businesses serving foreign tourists have followed suit offering cheaper rates to Cubans. Don’t go thinking you can get away with pretending to be Cuban, I can do it but they can spot a foreigner or a ‘yuma’ a mile off!
After the meal, we went to meet the other guests at the Cienfuegos Club. Given we couldn’t find a taxi and our friend the bus driver had gone home, I decided to take the guests in bicitaxis. You don’t have to speak Spanish to guess these are bicycle style taxis comparable with rickshaws. These are one of the cheapest and easiest ways for Cubans to get around city centres and another way Cubans with little resources can start their own business.
You’ll see these bicitaxis around Havana and at night they’re usually decorated with fairy lights and blaring out the latest reggeaton tracks. Reggeaton is the Spanish Caribbean’s take on reggae/rap. You may have heard the song ‘Despacito’ which reached number one this summer? Although it’s a reggeaton track, its artists are Puerto Rican.
The Cienfuegos Club was first used by rich Americans in the 1950s (I’m sure you’ve seen the film the Godfather) but was taken over by the revolution and used as a place where ordinary Cubans could go to concerts or dances. Cuba is renowned for its music, it’s an intrinsic part of everyday life and Cubans love to dance. In fact, the word ‘salsa’ is an umbrella term for various forms of dance such as Casino, Guaguanco and Pachanga.
Anyway, you can imagine how the night ended with a full Cuban band and 100 passengers drinking free mojitos all night! The following morning, we had some free time and I decided to get some beauty treatments. I went to the state run beauty salon and paid 3 Cuban pesos which is the equivalent to $0.15c for a fantastic manicure. Ok I did have to wait 30 mins to be seen and the woman kept running off to check her daughter was getting on with her homework. Unlike in the UK, Cuban women are often allowed to take their children to work and they take their children’s education very seriously. All Cuban children go to school from 9am to 4pm and wear school uniform. Every Cuban parent dreams that their child will become a doctor and follow in the steps of Che Guevara or get a very generous stipend if they are posted to Venezuela.
After my manicure, I decided to get a massage. I’d seen a physiotherapist sign outside a house while we’d been driving around the previous day. It took me a long time to find the place but when I did, I got a 30-minute session for $5! The massage bed was over 40 years old and he had to use newspaper and castor oil but it was so good. He had studied anatomy at university and worked 4 days a week in the hospital with spinal injury patients (remember all higher educational and health care is free in Cuba). This is yet another way Cubans can make additional income.
On the way back to the ship, I had to stop at Coppelia and get some ice cream. Coppelia is run by the state and it costs 1 peso ($0.05c) per scoop so everyone can afford it. Unfortunately, I’d decided to get there at lunchtime and it was full of school children getting their daily sugar fix. Queuing is something you must to get used to in Cuba, but when you consider you’re paying so little, it’s worth it. By the time I got to the front, some 30 minutes later, they only had banana flavour left but it was delicious. Although everyone else was having bowls loaded with several scoops of ice cream and biscuits, I decided to just get one. After all, I’d been eating all those delicious desserts on the cruise for the previous two weeks and I had to save some room for the Captain’s dinner!
Dr Kersh will be joining Aegean Odyssey on her ‘Christmas in Cuba & the Caribbean‘ and ‘Cuba and Maya Mexico‘ sailings, in December 2017. If you’d like more information on these sailings or any of our other Cuba, Caribbean and Mexico sailings, please request a copy of our FREE brochure.