Because we'd been in the first group to fly, we had time to explore before dinner. (The other group was
supposed to get in around 7, so we arranged to meet at the lobby at 7:30 to go to dinner. We had
reservations at 8. The rest of our group arrived at 8:30.)
So the two other people my age and I set off to explore Havana a little bit. We'd just left the hotel when
a security guard (really more of a concierge. They tried to help direct us every time we left, and despite
calling themselves security guards, the only thing I saw them even try to keep out was a dog, so they
seem to do more as concierges than security.) asked us where we were planning on going. We said we
didn't really know, just exploring, so he suggested we go down this street and then to the right, and it
would be pretty.
It was. It was also decently filled with people. We'd just arrived when two of them came up to us and
started talking. It went against most of my instinct to engage them, but we were in Cuba to learn, and a
significant amount of our time was free so we could do things like talk to the locals in small groups. So
I waited around the other two people in my group and talked with the two Cubans (David and... no one
remembers the name of the of the woman.)
They talked (in English) about a festival, asked us if we wanted to see it, and then led us to a cafe
where music was playing. They continued to talk to us, answer and ask questions. They also asked us
to buy them something to drink, a CD of the band that was playing and then, near the end of our time,
asked for money (10 CUC) to buy milk for the child of the woman.
Crash course on Cuban money: there are two different forms of currency, the CUC (convertible peso)
and the national peso. It takes about 24 national peso to make one CUC. CUC to dollar is roughly
equivalent, though there's a tax that's anywhere from 10 to 20% every time you exchange money. (You
can exchange money at any hotel, and they make a careful point out of counting it out to show you, but
the percent amounts are not consistent.)
So CUC are what all of the tourists have. They're also what everyone who works with tourists have.
They're also what people who receive remittances from family in the United States have. The average
Cuban makes around $25 a month in national currency. Hence why Cubans are so eager for tourists.
And most Cubans in the street of the Cubans I've met have been incredibly enthusiastic. Especially at
places like cafes or stores, where they don't need to ask for more money. We went into a very nice art
store, where obviously the owner wanted us to buy something, but was very nice when we said “we'll
come back later. They're very pretty, but I don't want to buy anything now.” We also made an employee
at the hotel very happy with a generous tip when a group of 8 of us went out after dinner. We later saw
on a sign that the place should have closed around an hour and a half before we got there, so he
definitely deserved it.
So one day in Cuba. I'm still trying to adjust to a very different way of approaching travel. I don't know
the language, which adds a level of difficulty. So going out of the way to talk to people is difficult, and
I don't want to end up giving away all my money just because they asked and I don't know how to say
now. It's a balance that I'm not quite sure how to reach.
Cubans love tourists, but not always for the right reasons.