Before we went to Cuba, we had all kinds of expectations for what exciting things we are going to experience here. Rum, cigars, music, dancing, old cars and beautiful beaches. However, once we came here, what stuck with us the most early in the trip are the Cubans themselves. They are very friendly, curious, have a very good sense of humor and manage to find joy in small things to cheer up their difficult daily life. It is hard not to feel connected to them as life here brings us sad memories of how we had it when we too had a socialist economy, however not by choice....
To say you are from Lithuania here triggers many different reactions. Some find connection to us over Soviet Union, others admire our determination for independance but rarely did we have to explain where our small and less known country is. "Where are you from?!" asks a guy on a street. "Lithuania!" I answer. "Oh! You were socialist before! But not any more... you are strong people! Hey, so you want a taxi?" kindly showing us to his bicycle tuctuc - a type of small private busines that not long ago was unheard of here. Meanwhile at our Casa Particular (also a family owned hostel service) our host could not stop telling us stories of his travels to Europe during Cuba's sugar rush in 80s an 90s. Both he and his son worked on ships as product quality inspectors and spent some time in Uddevalla, Sweden and my hometown Klaipeda. "Do you speak Russian?" He asked. "Yes!" I answer and we exchange a few words in Russian. "Where did you learn Russian?" I ask. "When Castro came to power, he made education free for all. Not like Pinochet in Chile who thought that education should be sold as consumer goods, like this ventilation fan." One of few socialist points I can agree on. Where our opinions started to split was when his fascination with Russian media made an appearance. "What is this I hear about you Lithuanians discriminating Russian soldiers?" turning the conversation ever so slightly to the Russian propaganda talking points of how the Baltic states are all nazies who apparently make life for local Rusians a living hell. Clearly the tanticles of Russian disinformation have reached the Caribbean island as well. However, the conversation remains very civil. "You Balts were always different from the rest of Soviet Union. You are more nordic people than eastern. Maybe it's for the better".
"Be careful at night here" our guide says while we pass a small park in Havana in our pink vintage convertable. "Gays hang out here!" And procedes to tell some homophobic joke. However mid way he understands that I am not amused and quickly changes the topic. The revolutionary state has been harsh to the LGBTQ community and used to send people to re-education camps, but the tide has been turning since the 1990s and the state has become much more tolerant. Since 2008 sex change has become part of Cuba's free healthcare system. However it is apparent that many Cubans live under so called "traditional" family values. Men work, women stay at home with children. It is not so surprising that everyone seem to be only interested what I do for work and never Laura. That's not to say that there are no empowered women. On the contrary, we met self employed successful business owners, running hostels and restaurants. With time this situation will only improve.
Cuban people's need to conversate is highly apparent. When taking a Taxi Collectivo between towns, drivers often felt disappointed when we told them we don't speak much Spanish as it raises a risk of a quiet journey. But their curiosity overcomes all language barriers and some how we find ways to communicate. "I spent some time in Bulgaria, building a nuclear power plant in the 80s. Economy here is in shambles today. Sugar plantations have closed down and the only way to earn any money here now is from tourists. But even that is not easy today, especially with looming sanctions from US". Cuba could easily be every outgoing American's dream vacation destination and while Obama helped improve relations quite significantly, Trump pushed them back again by banning cruise ships to the island and planes landing anywhere else other than Havana. American embargo has one crucial condition that Cuba simply can not fulfill - end diplomatic relation with Venezuela. It's not an easy thing to do when almost 20% of Cuba's GDP is made up of Venezuelan subsidies. Remove that and the country stops functioning. But even without sanctions, Cuba is still a socialist republic with central planned economy. Foreign investments are not welcome here and while Raul Castro opened up possibilities for people to run small private businesses, it is far from enough to put the country on a way to prosperity. Many monetary transactions for products or services with locals still feel like shady drug deals - people sell cigars around a corner, husstle WiFi cards in the parks and change currency with a better rate than the national bank. You would think it's a scam anywhere else, but in a country with unstable and internationally worthless currency, buying Dollars and Euros is an investment to your future. On top of that you have to keep it hidden somewhere safe - it is hard to trust a bank of a state that can take your private property.
"Don't worry - in Cuba there is no mafia! The only problem we have here is rum and salsa..." says a young local hustler trying to convince us to buy some cigars that aren't exactly approved by the state. And he's right! Cuba feels very safe indeed! People drive according to traffic rules, houses are open day and night and we have not been scammed once. The poorer the neighbourhood we walked by, the friendlier people we met. It is in fact remarkable that people so poor do not turn to crime as a survivale alternative. You would think their socialist economy takes care of everyone, but the suplied food ration consists of 2.7kg rice, 570g beans, 3kg sugar, 6.8 kg potatoes or bananas, 12 eggs (but only in September-December months), kids up to 7 years old get 1L of milk per day. Meat or fish are available periodically, and you get 1 Kg of one or the other every 15 days. Monthly minimum wage here is about 8.5 USD, which you use to buy the rest of items you need. However when visiting local stores we did not see much to chose from. Meat section greated us with empty fridges, some had same type of sausage available, some biscuits here and there, cooking oil, canned fruit and rum. Lots and lots of rum. Quite a similarity we felt with Soviet Union keeping society subdued with vodka. Not that I complain though, the rum here is particularly good and mojitos cost less than bottled water.
So what do you do when you live in a society oppressed economically both internally and externally? You find joy of life in other ways. Some cultures in similar situations have turned to singing depressing songs about the hardships they face. Cubans turned it around and made life into an endless party. There is hardly a house on a street that does not have speakers blasting salsa all night long - unthinkable for us back home, where neighbours bang their broomsticks to the ceilings if you happen to squeeze a fart too loud after 9pm. A good tip for anyone who travels here - bring earplugs or the only way you will sleep is with an unhealthy dose of rum. "You know why Cubans dance so well? In other countries mothers encourage their babies to walk their first steps. In Cuba mothers encourage babies to dance." One local explained to us. And while it was ment as a joke, it is not hard to take it as a serious statement. Cubans dance whenever music plays and the music here never stops. Read full article