By Benjamin Porter | http://www.citizen-times.com
The taxi driver turned and gave me a quick glance. Then he turned back to my Cuban friend, shook his head, saying no, he would not give us a ride because I was a foreigner. And thus began my introduction to the uniquely surreal ways of traveling in Cuba, a destination I visited for three weeks in February.
The driver had no qualms with foreigners; taxi drivers are required to have a special license to carry foreigners, and at times, it seemed hard to find those special tourist-friendly cabs. Indeed, finding any transportation in Havana can be a daunting task, as the local buses were usually crammed to standing room only.
Havana’s transportation system seems barely able to handle its 2 million inhabitants. Cuban ingenuity shines despite the apparent obstacles. At many intersections one notices people standing in the median waiting for the traffic to halt. In the United States, this would be a location for panhandlers or windshield washers trying to earn money. In Cuba the locals wanting to catch a ride, “a botella,” wait in the median at traffic lights. No one sticks out a thumb. The people, usually women, ask the driver for a ride in the general direction they need to go. With a nod of assent from the driver, the hitchhiker happily gets in the car.
Of course, traveling in this manner takes patience, as one can wait 10 to 20 minutes before a car with an empty seat appears with a driver willing to give a ride. But the virtue of patience seems in ample supply in this island where Fidel Castro maintains a firm control some 46 years after the revolution brought him to power in 1959.
It is Castro’s Cuba, unique in Latin America, and indeed one of the last outposts of communism in the world, that attracted me to make this visit. With extensive experience throughout Latin America, I had long wanted to witness the Cuban system, with its benefits and its problems. I spent three weeks traveling across the island, meeting people, making friends and getting an informal sense of contemporary life on this, the largest island in the Caribbean. Cuba is a land of incredible diversity in its people and its geography.
Of course, the big question is what will happen to Cuba after Castro. As he turns 80 this year, Castro shows no signs of stepping down. Indeed, at this point he has outlasted 10 United States presidents and is the world’s longest surviving head of government. When Castro steps aside or dies, some say his younger brother, Raoul, will be the heir apparent. Others on the island think Raoul does not have the command or leadership to follow in Castro’s footsteps.
Admittedly, my experience in Cuba was short and superficial. Fluent in Spanish, I discovered a system in Cuba in which foreigners and tourists are kept separate from much of ordinary Cuban life.
One obvious example of this is that there are two monetary currencies used in Cuba. Both are called pesos, however the “convertible peso” is for the tourists and foreigners. The other peso, called “moneda nacional” (national money), is what the Cubans use in daily life. Why have two currencies? It appears that the government gains the most benefit in controlling the exchange rates and desperately needs the hard currency that the tourists bring to the island. It is also a means of controlling access and pricing. As a tourist, finding places to use the moneda nacional was much more difficult than using the convertible pesos. Unlike many countries in Latin America, there is no apparent black market in money exchange.
I discovered that when I could use the moneda nacional, my money went much further and prices were less. At local food markets dealing with the moneda nacional, prices were much lower than going to a grocery store using only convertible pesos. A restaurant frequented by locals and using moneda nacional offered meals in the $1-$4 range whereas a restaurant using the convertible peso offered meals in the $5- $12 range.
Another example of the separate world for visitors in Cuba is the bus system that links the major cities of the island. A foreigner who wishes to travel by bus must travel with the tourist-sanctioned Via Azul bus line. These are modern, comfortable, air-conditioned buses used predominantly by foreigners. Tickets are purchased with only the convertible peso.
Cubans can use the Via Azul line. However, it is more expensive than traveling on the non-tourist buses most Cubans use. These buses for the Cubans are comfortable as well (I snuck a ride on one), but officially foreigners are not allowed to travel on these buses, which accept the moneda nacional pesos.
Another interesting way of travel is on the back of mopeds and motorcycles. In Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s second largest city, I discovered an army of these two-wheeled taxis. Again, this is a system that developed to handle transportation needs. One waits on the curb for a “moto” to appear without a second person on the rear street. Waving at the driver signals an interest in a ride. The motor scooter driver will pull over, and if he (I saw no women doing this job) wants to take you to your destination, you hop on the back and get a ride for about 35 U.S. cents.
Another example of the different lives between Cubans and visitors is that there are certain beaches and hotels where only foreigners are allowed. Once again, this seems to be a system whereby the government benefits from the control of pricing and access. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-1990 and its support for the Cuban economy disappeared, tourism has become a dependable source of hard currency.
So who are these tourists visiting Cuba? Primarily they are Europeans and Canadians, though in the past when their economy favored travel, many Mexicans made the short flight to visit Cuba as well. On my journey, Italians and Canadians seemed to be the most numerous tourists, though there were a number of Spanish and Germans evident as well.
Americans are not allowed to travel to Cuba without special permission from the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Under the Bush administration, this permission has become difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. Working journalists are allowed to visit the island and American church groups seem to still have access to Cuba under President Bush’s policy; however the cultural and educational exchanges which flourished in the 1990s have been terminated as the political conflict between the United States and Cuba continues in a deep freeze.
Did this political enmity affect my acceptance and treatment by the Cubans I met? Not once! Indeed, I was treated with the courtesy and friendliness I have come to associate with the people of Latin America, and in many instances, I was somewhat of an oddity as there are few Americans in Cuba, and a Spanish speaking “Yanqui” seems even more rare.
One cab driver remarked, “Oh, we are much closer in spirit and culture to the Americans than we were to the Russians.” Indeed, everyone I met, without exception, had a relative or friend who had emigrated abroad, usually to the United States. Out of a population of 11 million in Cuba, it is estimated that more than 1 million Cubans live in the United States.
Indeed, the lasting impression that I will carry from the beautiful island is that of the Cuban people themselves. They are warm, friendly, funny and intelligent. Cuba is a very literate and cultured nation, with a literacy rate equal to that of the United States. Also, health care is free and accessible to all. Latin Americans are given free eye surgery in Cuba, a fact brought home to me when I met a Bolivian who had traveled from his country to be treated in Havana. Without this gift from Cuba, he would not have been able to afford treatment in his own country.
Cubans are also a very passionate people, and they are especially passionate about baseball. There is one park in downtown Havana where one can always find a group of 20 to 50 men gathered speaking, debating and arguing baseball. Whereas the rest of the planet has become obsessed with soccer, in Cuba, the Caribbean and Central America, baseball is king. One sees pick-up games frequently all across the island, from kids using a stick as a bat to the government- supported teams. Indeed, the Cuban national baseball team made it to the championship game of the recent World Baseball Classic before losing to Japan, and the Cuban players received a heroes’ welcome upon their return to Havana.
Another symbol of the historical link between the United States and Cuba is evident on the streets of the capital. There are numerous vintage American cars from the 1940s and 1950s still in daily use. At times they seemed so numerous that I felt as if I were on a movie set from the 1950s. The classic American cars in Cuba are loved and given much tender loving care by their owners. That the Cubans keep these vehicles running and on the road is a true tribute to the their ingenuity. No American auto parts have been shipped since the U.S. embargo commenced 45 years ago. Reflecting on the challenges of keeping 50-year-old vehicles running, I decided I would want a Cuban mechanic with me if I were picking a team to face unknown challenges in any kind of reality competition.
As my three weeks trip came to an end, I felt bittersweet about leaving Cuba. I had met and made new friends. My glimpse into Cuban society allowed me to see and experience the challenges that Cubans face on a daily basis. The struggle that they face daily has fostered an ingenuity and resilience needed to survive. I met my goal of visiting Cuba during the reign of Castro, and I came away with a profound respect for the Cubans themselves, touched by their joy and struggles, and very curious as to what may transpire when Castro does step down. And it is anyone’s guess as to when that day will arrive.
Benjamin Porter is a freelance photographer based in Asheville whose travels take him to many parts of the world photographing various cultures. His photographs have been published in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Newsweek, Forbes magazine and others. He founded the photography program at McDowell Technical Community College in Marion in 1990. He lives in Asheville.