Lolu: A Nigerian in Cuba.
I went to Cuba for 3 weeks in December as part of a school mini term. Twenty-three people from my school went on the trip, which was partly organized by Havana Tours, a state run company for tourists. Almost all the businesses in Cuba are state run, though the government is beginning to give a bit of leeway for some private enterprises. But just a bit. Half of my time was spent in Havana (the capital) and the rest were spent in Santa Clara, Trinidad and Santiago.
The first thing one needs to know about Cuba is that it runs two currencies. The locals have the Cuban pesos, and foreigners spend CUC. 1 CUC is roughly about $1.2. The CUC the government gets is used to subsidize things for the Cuban people, and so 1 CUC is the equivalent of 23 Cuban Pesos.
Cuba has always been my dream destination. If your inclination is to the archaic, old architecture, jazzy music and the arts, then you’d love Cuba. It’s breaming with all these things. If you love smoking cigars and drinking rum out the bottle, you’ll find your ideal theatre here. A bottle of rum costs 6 CUC, and a cigar costs between 8-12 CUC. Cohiba, Montecristo, Bolivar, and Romeo and Juliet are the big name brand cigars we found. Bottom line is things are relatively cheap. The biggest worry you’d have is not getting cancer to be honest. Everyone’s either smoking a cigarette or a cigar (Indoors and Outdoors). I’m not exaggerating; it’s like walking onto the set of Mad Men.
Going to Cuba is stepping into a place frozen in time, untouched by modern disturbances. A quaint old world charm as if watching a 1950’s movie, classic and beautiful. It’s like stepping into the 18th, 19th and 20th century all at once. Beautiful buildings in the Spanish style surround you all around Havana. Old mansions, castles and monuments are everywhere. Vintage cars, street-side cafes, roadside singers, and small art and crafts shops is what Cuba is about. Go to old Havana and the popular Obispo Street to get a feel of the artistic spirit of the place.
It is also a very poor country materially, though not in spirit. Many of the buildings are in decay; a lot need paint jobs. There are long lines for everything, from ice cream to bus lines. Oh, and there’s only Wi-Fi in specific places. You have to pay 2 CUC for an hour Internet card, and only some hotels and the town squares have Wi-Fi. You can’t use your foreign cell lines either. Prepare to be generally off the grid. There’s a reason for this though. Ever since the United States embargo in 1960 (the Cubans call it a blockade), it’s been difficult to do business with the rest of the world. The reason is simple- Cuba can’t trade in dollars and cannot get any equipment or spare part that is made in America. So the country has been forced to make do, compromise and become industrious.
I found the food decent. The restaurants are top notch. Mojitos are customary once you sit on the table in any restaurant. I’ve honestly had enough mojitos for a lifetime because of Cuba. If you’re into cocktails, you’re in luck. It’s easy to get bored with the food though. Throughout the trip, the options we had were basically Pork, beef, chicken or fish. This comes with black beans and rice. Lots of beans in Cuba, I guess it’s a Latin American thing. Don’t drink the water if you love your system. I’d say 70% of the people I went on the trip with fell sick in the first week- mostly diarrhea. The hotel ambos mundos on Obsipo Street was Hemingway’s residence for ten years. It has excellent mojitos. The floridita bar is also very popular. It’s where Hemingway made the famous daiquiri. You won’t be short on spots to get alcohol for cheap, that’s for sure. For instance, a mojito costs 2 CUC. In Nigeria, the same drink would cost from 1,500 to 2,000 naira. Do the math.
Cuba has a highly educated population and a healthy one too. This is because education and healthcare are free. And I mean you can get an education up to PHD absolutely free. This is one triumph of the revolution. It’s not uncommon to see people who want to be Historians, or anthropologists, teachers or dancers-occupations that would otherwise be shied away from in other parts of the world because of their small income power.Any Cuban can walk into a hospital and get treated for free. This still puts me in awe to this day. I’m not just talking about getting a stitch for a small cut. I’m saying a receptionist or a farmer could go to a hospital for open-heart surgery, and get it completely free. For the more vain, even plastic surgery. As a Nigerian, that’s inspiring. The country is obviously getting some things right in spite of the difficulties caused by the embargo. You may be surprised to know that the country’s top export is medical doctors. You can imagine how many doctors the country has if it’s strongest source of revenue is the export of doctors. It’s very impressive stuff.
The relationship between Cuba and the United States is thawing now, but it’s well to remember that the effects of the embargo won’t thaw over night. Cuba is still a socialist (or communist if you’re so inclined) state, and all the benefits and negatives of that political system are in view. Cuba is the closest you can get to a truly egalitarian society. In a sense, this is a disadvantage to those who spend years in school for their degree. Most Cubans earn around $25 a month. So a waiter or a taxi driver usually earns the same as a professor or a lawyer. In fact, there’s a problem now because many doctors and lawyers are leaving their jobs to become taxi drivers.
If you happen to be a Nigerian, particularly Yoruba, you’ll feel special and shocked at the same time. Santeria is a dominant religion in Cuba. It’s a mix of Catholicism and the worship of Yoruba gods. People worship Sango, Ogun and the other deities, openly. It’s very common for people to go see a Babalawo, and its not in hiding. If you’re a Nigerian, this might shock you. But I also learned that they put value in a religion that Nigerians have dismissed as occult. It’s more Nigerian than Nigeria in more sense than one.
In all, going to Cuba was more a pilgrimage than a touristy thing. I’ve never come across more earnest decency than I saw in the Cuban people. There’s a real sense of companionship borne out of patriotism, struggle, and the necessity. The crime rate is virtually zero, and the people just love to have fun and live an easy life. Everyday without fail, weekdays to weekends, people just hung out well past 3am on the Malecon (It’s a long seawall that stretches the coast of Havana, and you should look this up) with their bottles of rum, beautiful women and just lived life. More than anything else, you’d see a different conception of living and organized society. It’s worth the trip.