Around the second week we got here, me and three friends were wandering around looking for food to eat. Not knowing where to go, we allowed ourselves to be ushered into this modern white box that looked totally out of place among the romantic decay of Spanish architecture surrounding it. When we got inside we saw flashing lights and black furniture. There were two levels, and on the second we saw a bunch of tables that each had a laptop on them. It looked like something Tom Haverford from Parks and Rec would pull together. This was around the time we realized we had stumbled into a tourist trap, but we were too hungry to bother finding somewhere else. So we sat down and treated ourselves to a somewhat okay, but definitely overpriced meal.
As we were eating, it wasn’t hard to overhear the conversations at the tables next to us. We didn’t pick up much, besides their southern accents (something I hadn’t heard since I had been in the US) and that they all seemed to be together in the same group. It wasn’t long before some of them started coming up to talk to us. We discovered that they were here on a cruise and had been docked in Havana for the day. Having grown tired of Havana Vieja (the more traditional tourist attraction), they hopped in a taxi and told the driver to take them somewhere for dinner.
What I remember most from that night is speaking to this one man from Miami. He was in awe of what he had seen so far in Cuba. To him, everything seemed just fine. “You always hear these stories from Cubans of people starving in the streets and not having food,” he told us. “Things seem just fine to me.”
I have thought about what this man said a lot while here. On first glance after docking here for a day, I’m sure Cuba doesn’t seem as bad as some stories make it sound. At the same time, on closer inspection it becomes clear the Cuba outsiders get to see is different from the Cuba actual Cubans experience.
Take the currency for example. There are two different types of currency—one is used by tourists (CUC) and the other is used by Cubans (CUP). The tourist places most of the time charge CUC, which is worth more than CUP. Cubans only receive about 20 CUC per month (about $22 in the US). As a result, most Cubans are kept out of places like the ones we were eating in that night where each of our meals cost about 10 CUC.
There are other ways that our experiences are kept separate unrelated to price. Sometimes, for example, Cubans can be kicked out of certain places tourists frequent just for being Cuban. There have been times when people have had to use the bathroom at a hotel, but Cuban friends have had to wait outside for them to be done. Cubans also aren’t supposed to talk to us. If a Cuban is found bothering tourists, tourists are allowed to turn them in to the police.
When you are in Cuba for a short amount of time, it can be hard to see the full picture of what is going on in a place as complicated as Cuba. Because we have the chance to stay here for two months it almost seems like our responsibility to look past how things appear. That isn’t to say that we will ever understand what that is actually like to live here. We never experienced the successes (such as the literacy project in the 60s or free accessible health care) or failures (such as government censorship and the special period in the 90s) of the revolution, and while we can learn about them we didn’t live them. At the same time, it is important that we try make our best effort to bridge the gap between the Cuba we are living, and the Cuba just beneath the surface.