People fascinate me.
How they look. How they talk. How they smell (well, not all people smell “fascinating”). But the local people are definitely one of the major things that I observe and analyze while traveling.
Interacting with the local people & discovering how they live life forms an integral part of the travel experience. It didn’t take me too long to realize that the Cuban people were certainly a highlight of the country.
Walking through the streets of Cuba you can see anything: a blonde-haired women with brown eyes, a black man with blue eyes, or a mulatta with light green eyes. Years of interracial mixing have resulted in a rainbow-spectrum of Cubanos.
But it’s not just their physical beauty that “te llama la atención” (gets your attention), it’s also their contagious happiness & resiliently optimistic attitudes, in spite of the everyday Cuban struggle. Keep in mind that most of these peoples’ official monthly salary is between $15-25 USD, meaning they must find some other way to earn money & put food on the table.
I was inspired, so I decided to start a project called Faces of Cuba. I took pictures of various people, and tried to meet most & discover a little bit about them. These people left an impression on me, and I hope through these pictures & brief descriptions you can begin to use your imagination & piece together what they may actually be like as a person, or what type of life they might lead.
Faces of Cuba
Dailin was the next door neighbor of a friend who I spent a lot of time with in Santiago. One day I was really tired & wanted some coffee, so my friend told me to go over to Dailín’s house to ask for some. “No importa” (It doesn’t matter) is what my friend dismissively replied when I told her that I felt a little weird asking people I don’t know for coffee.
Dailín & her mother brewed some coffee up for me right away when I reluctantly asked for them, & invited me into their home. We talked & sipped coffee for a bit, then I left. Over the next few days, I couldn’t even walk past Dailín’s house without them inviting me in for more coffee. A few times they even prepared food for me, and every time we had interesting conversations. By the time I left Santiago, they had redefined what it was for me to be a “good neighbor.”
Margarita was a waitress at a restaurant where I sat down to kill time waiting on the bus. She wasn’t my waitress, just another waitress on shift, but that didn’t stop us from talking for quite some time.
When I asked for her name, age, and occupation (the standard Faces of Cuba bit) she also wrote down her entire address for me, making me promise her that I would come back someday to meet her family. She had never met an American before, and wanted her family to see that just because the schools & government taught them to view Americans a certain way, didn’t necessarily mean that it was true.
I met Norma in line at the same restaurant where I met Ruben from Faces of Cuba 1. I didn’t understand when Norma first told me that she was a cow milker.
“Entonces, ¿usted es una campesino?”
“So, you’re a farmer?” I asked her.
She reassured me that she was only a cow milker, and then proceeded to tell me about the delicate situation regarding cattle in the country. In Cuba, only the government or authorized personnel are allowed to kill cattle, and in fact, unauthorized killing of a cow can land someone in jail up to 10 years. This is due to an extreme cattle shortage on the island because of the US trade embargo & drought. Each & every cow’s milk, & eventual beef production must be carefully calculated & rationed amongst the people. Many Cuban children have not been consuming enough milk, leading to malnutrition, physical underdevelopment, & brain damage. Norma, along with thousands of other Cubans, have been tasked with maximizing milk production in order to combat this very real problem facing childhood in Cuba. Norma treats her job with the utmost seriousness & rightfully so.
Luis was hanging out with his friends on someone’s porch one day in Santiago de Cuba. They called out to me as I walked past because they could see that I was a tourist with my camera hanging around my neck like a good gringo. I surprised them when I answered with,“¿Que bola aseres?” a typical Cuban greeting which means the equivalent of “What’s up dudes?” They invited me up on the porch for a Cuba Libre (rum & coke). When I told them that I was traveling alone, they insisted that I come back later that night to go out on the town with them, and that’s exactly what I did.
We started off the night by putting a speaker in the middle of the road in front of Luis’s house and blasting Cuban reggaeton & salsa at full volume. They taught me some dance moves so I could be “more Cuban” and then we went out. Throughout the course of the night, they took me to a festival, and to a few local, Cuban-only bars where normally extranjeros (foreigners) aren’t allowed. It felt good to hang out with a group of locals after having traveled alone for a while. They instantly accepted me into their group, and I felt like I had been one of the “aseres” for years.
Gabriela. 35 years old. Sells clothes in the street. On bus between Holguin & Guardalavaca, Cuba.
Casa particulares are the designated houses of particular Cuban families who have been granted a permit by the government to host foreigners overnight. It’s considered a valuable money-earning privilege to have this permit, so these Cuban families are on their best behavior to ensure tourists enjoy their stay. Señora Inés Maria went above and beyond with her hospitality, and was probably my favorite señora de la casa (woman of the house) in all of Cuba. She wasn’t just a joy to laugh & converse with, but she also always went above and beyond with her desayunos (breakfasts).
Having big breakfasts in casa particulares throughout Cuba is nothing rare, but usually breakfast quality & size are the first thing to suffer when travelers manage to negotiate rooms for very cheap. We managed to haggle Inés down to $16/night for a room we split between 4 travelers. I was expecting the breakfast to be a banana & a “that’s-what-you-get” look from Inés every morning. Instead, we always arose to more fruit, extra coffee, and chunkier tortillas (Cuban for egg omelets) than the day before, all dished out on the table in front of us with a beaming smile on her face.
Christopher gave us hours upon hours of entertainment, being the baby king of the house. Watching Inés spoil her first grandson at any time of the day was heart-warming, and it was impossible not to take part. For me, there was no better way to digest one of Inés’ hearty breakfasts than by getting down on the floor and rumbling with the big guy himself!
Highly recommended to stay here if you travel to Baracoa, Cuba. Other Casa Particulares in Baracoa may have the big breakfasts, but no one else has Christopher!
Casa Inés María Hernandez Hernan. Direción (address): Flor Crombe 110 entre Frank País y Marabi. Baracoa, Cuba. Teléfono: (+53) 21645698. Correo (email): email@example.com
Let’s be honest, from the first time I saw Adrian beebopping through the streets of Santiago, I knew he had to be a part of Faces of Cuba. How could you not notice this guy? But it wasn’t just the largest dread of all time, folded back in forth on top of his head like a giant pile of spaghetti noodles on a fork, but also his infectious smile that effortlessly reflects his worry-free lifestyle.
Normally the people that I randomly stop in the street either agree or disagree to let me take their picture, politely answer my questions, and then go on their way – but not Adriano.
“¡Claro hermano! ¿Pues, porque no te muestro todas mis cosas en mi cuarto tambien?”
“Of course brother! Well, why don’t I show you all of my things in my room as well?”
At first I was a little reluctant to accept an invitation into someone’s room that I had just met, but after searching Adriano’s face for some trace of sketchiness, I could find nothing more than “one-love” staring back at me. After introducing me to his family who were all huddled around a 20″ TV in the living room, he led me to his room in the back, and swept aside the doorway curtain with a look of pride.
He proceeded to show me a bedroom that looked more like a shrine to Bob Marley than a place to sleep.
He worked his way through the room, explaining the significance of song lyrics painted on his walls, his artwork, the basics of his worldview, etc.
You see, Santiago de Cuba is actually closer to Jamaica than to Havana, meaning that rastafarian culture is deeply entrenched in various Cubans’ lives there. Adriano told me that there is an extensive brotherhood of rastafaris throughout Cuba. Even though Jamaica is just right off the southeastern shores of Cuba, he had never been, but fiercely longed to visit his “homeland.”
Adriano gave me one of his painted gourds to remember him by, let me take as many photos as I pleased, and gave me the biggest hug when I bid farewell. I didn’t leave a converted rastafari, but I can’t deny there was something powerful in his beliefs & convictions.
And for all those wondering, the answer is yes, Adriano did let his hair down for me:
After catching the one bus out of town to El Castillo de Morro & spending hours climbing all over the UNESCO fortress, I had 45 minutes to kill before the return leg looped back around. I really craved a cold beer, and popped into the only real restaurant around.
Namibia was immediately recognizable by her exotic look and forward presence, no doubt assisted by her being the only person in the portside bar not wearing an establishment uniform (see: bikini). My motives were never compromised, but I can’t deny it was an interesting conversation. I sat down with my Bucanero beer, ordered food, and then politely deflecting her advances for the next half hour. Plus it made for great Spanish practice. She wanted to take me swimming at first, then sat down at the table with me & the 2 other waitresses to earn her tip.
“Y tu novia, ¿que? ¿Dónde está ahorita? Como sabras con quien está y que está haciendo? Hay que vivir en el momento, papi.”
“And what about your girlfriend? Where is she now? How do you know who she’s with & what she’s doing? You have to live in the moment, papi” she kept whispering in my ear.
“Es que tu me encantas, tu me encantas. Solo quiero probar tus labios, solo un beso, un recuerdo de Cuba para tí.”
“I really like you, I really like you. I just wanna try your lips, only 1 kiss, a memory of Cuba for you.”
When I’d look to the waitresses sitting across the table for help, they’d just roll their eyes and shrug their shoulders, eager to restart our chat. When she finally got the picture that I was only paying for fried fish, plantains & Bucanero she gravitated over towards a new table of young guys, and I got to know Margarita & Uberlinda better.
I always wait to the end of my trip to load up on souvenirs & gifts for others, so I took advantage of my last days in Havana & went-a-hagglin.
Wandering in & out of the shops in Habana Vieja, you can usually tell how much selection a store will have based on the size of the Che Guevara painting out front. This store didn’t have any Che paintings, or much of a selection at all for that matter. Whether business was bad, or they were just awaiting a new shipment of products, I’m not sure. But the shopping experience there involved the entire, friendly family helping me, and for $10 I walked away with 4 keychains, a traditional Cuban fedora, and 2 bracelets.
Uberlinda was the only person at the restaurant where I killed time waiting on a bus (the same place I met Namibia the prostitute & Margarita) that I actually should have been talking to on a consistent basis. She played an odd, dual role of waiting on me & talking to me, while somehow taking Namibia under her wing in a motherly type of way. I’m not sure if this was because Namibia was a “regular” who helped “entertain” restaurant clients, or if it was just some sort of social dynamic of the accepted & widespread prostitution in Cuban society that I didn’t understand. She did a fair job of waiting on me, but a fantastic job of keeping me entertained with jokes & stories.
Lianne has the most decorated Couchsurfing profile I’ve ever seen (based on number of positive reviews). This is especially impressive because the basic idea upon which Couchsurfing is built, providing free accommodation for travelers at your house, is illegal in Cuba. Not to mention Cuba is one of the few countries left without widespread internet access.
Lianne, or “Mama Chicken” as she’s affectionately known on Couchsurfing, has found 101 other ways to help travelers: connecting backpackers with cheap & trustworthy casas particulares, picking up travelers from the central bus terminal, helping partially or completely plan itineraries for others, taking people out to the best salsa clubs, etc.
She does it all out of the goodness of her heart, a desire to meet people from all over the world, and a desire for people all over the world to fall in love with Cuba. Considering I fell hard for Cuba, and the city of Santiago de Cuba in general, I’d say she’s done a pretty good job. I hope that in the future, the Cuban government will relax their restrictions on letting citizens leave the country. Then she can maybe have the freedom to travel to the US one day where I will return the favor. If you ever travel to Santiago de Cuba, don’t hesitate in contacting Mama Chicken.
Any trip to Cuba isn’t complete without a visit to the late Earnest Hemingway’s favorite watering hole & originator of the mojito, La Bodeguita del Medio. But when you finally round the corner out of Plaza de la Catedral and see the sign, the first thing you’ll be greeted by is a beautiful tenor voice floating through the air, the voice of Rodovaldo.
Rodovaldo is a blind musician who makes his living playing acoustic guitar right outside La Bodeguita. Considering there’s usually a mob of people spilling out onto the street in front of the bar with everyone waiting their turn to go in and try a mojito, Rodovaldo picked a pretty decent spot. The 2 times that I visited La Bodeguita, I saw numerous people put tips in Rodovaldo’s hat in appreciation for making their wait more enjoyable.
La Bodeguita will always hold a special place in my memory – for the Hemingway signature behind the bar, the live salsa band, the picture of Hemingway and Castro shaking hands hanging on the back wall, the overpriced but delicious mojitos, but also for Rodovaldo’s captivating talent on display right outside on the sidewalk.
The Cuban People – Beautiful Inside & Out
A while ago, National Geographic published an article about What Americans Will Look Like in 2050. Well, that’s what Cubans look like, right now.
But Cubans aren’t just physically stunning. Cubans are, despite all the adversities of life in Cuba, some of the happiest people I’ve ever met. Sadly, many foreigners never get to know Cubans because they are intimidated by the directness of jineteros (hustlers) in the street. If they’d only dug a little deeper…
“No es facil” (It’s not easy) is a popular saying you’ll hear Cubans say daily, and it describes life in Cuba perfectly. With limited products due to a trade embargo, limited freedoms due to their government, & virtually no luxuries nor disposable income, it could be easy to think that Cubans would be bitter & resentful people. Instead, I met one joyful & content person after the other.
Traveling through Cuba reminds you to be happy with what you do have & to appreciate the simple things in life. It’s a stark contrast with the dangerous cycle of consumerism which characterizes many other countries.
You don’t need a lot of things to be happy – just look at the Faces of Cuba.