This week we have a guest post from our good friend Andrew McGill and his girlfriend Kestrel Jenkins of Falcon Related, who just returned from a two week jaunt across Cuba. Check out Drew’s photos and Kestrel’s writing below. – Marko
For the people of Cuba, this is life. In a recent adventure across the largest island in the Caribbean, we consistently heard this sentiment. From taxi chauffeurs, park rangers and housing hosts to lifeguards and restaurateurs, the conversations all ended up in the same place: with an acceptance of the complex reality they live.
Just 90 miles off the Florida coast, Cuba has been disconnected from trade with the U.S. since 1962. After the revolution, the embargo and inefficient agriculture led to regular food shortages. While people today are generally able to bring home enough rice and sugar through Cuba’s rationing “libreta” system, they often have to seek out other foods, especially eggs, milk and meat.
Food becomes even more complex when you insert the double economy. Cuba functions on two separate currencies. Cuban pesos, or nacionales (MN), are the money of the people. Citizens employed through the government are paid in nacionales. The other coin, largely known as the CUC (convertibles), was created specifically for tourists and initially set to be 1 to 1 with the U.S. dollar. To put the divide into perspective, 1 CUC = 24 pesos (MN).
From afar, Cuba is known for its time warping image: colorful vintage cars, historic buildings, and classic street scenes. While it has all of that, its layers of history and beauty go far beyond.
In a landscape emanating complexity, travel can be just as difficult.
When we arrived in La Habana, we were abruptly bombarded with hagglers and chaos. In a quick attempt to escape the mayhem and search for a more nature-rich scene, we hopped on the first bus to Baracoa, which sits on the coast on the opposite side of the island.
Our caffeine free arrival was met with a gang of bici-taxis ready and raring to capture our bags, and bring us to their family or their friend’s casa particular. Casa particulares are a more recent way that Cubans can start a private enterprise. By renting a room out of their own home, they are able to earn CUCs, an income impossible on a government salary.
One of the most profound realizations we came to in Cuba was that everyone belongs to one or more “networks”. These webs of interconnectivity help every Cuban connected to that channel capture a chunk of the tourist CUCs spent along their adventure.
For instance, a taxi driver drops you with another taxi driver who can take you to your next destination. The original taxi driver tells the second taxi driver the location and name of a casa particular in your anticipated destination city. Before you know it, you arrive at the most incredibly welcoming home. A casa particular with an ocean view, a mother and daughter with glowing personalities and some of the most flavorful food you could imagine. It happened in Rancho Luna. And we were beyond grateful.
Now, this situation can go to the contrary in the blink of an eye. Once you get on a travel avenue, it’s like you’re amidst a relay race. You will be passed along onto someone else – a casa particular, another form of transportation, a restaurant or a guide. Before you know it, you may be in an entirely different place than anticipated, which could be a blessing or extremely frustrating. For us, we realized that when we didn’t like something about the current we got caught in, we set ourselves free entirely, and started fresh with a new race.
The tourist bus system – the Viazul – was one of those specific avenues we ejected ourselves from. After our initial overnight cross-country ride, we were over the bus scene. The Viazul generally stops at government-run restaurants, which serve buffets complete with bland and overpriced food – establishments overflowing with collections of tourists.
For us, the bus left us feeling like we had lost our freedom to choose, to explore, to ask questions, and to connect more with the local community. After some early struggles in understanding the culture and way of communicating, I finally threw my inhibitions out the window and decided it was time to barter right back. This attitude and our Spanish-speaking skills allowed us to jump into the taxi trellis, a travel option we found to be more economical for city hopping, and also far more rewarding.
Colectivos are taxis that travel from city to city on the regular and load up with as many people as possible. It costs pesos for the locals, but if you can speak the language, you can work your way into a seat for a far more reasonable price than the bus. In addition, you’ll have the opportunity to cruise the roads in some pretty insane vintage rides, while having the chance to chat with local travelers crammed into the car beside you.
Some of our most vivid memories are from our cross-country colectivo travels. The extreme green jungle views, the humid breeze blowing through the windows, the squeaks and sounds of the antique cars, the conversations, the questions, the connecting and the smiles.
What is travel without having the chance to engage with the people? That’s where the true beauty lies.
Big thanks to our good friend Andrew McGill for sending over these incredible photos and to his girlfriend and partner-in-crime Kestrel Jenkins for writing up this insightful article. Go check out Drew and Kestrel’s website and give them a follow!