Love It or Leave It

By Erika Hoffman

Love It or Leave It

Havana has been dubbed the city of columns. For me, it was the city of tripping hazards! I’d have loved to peer upwards to view those Ionian columns, but if I took my eyes off the pavement for a nano-second, I’d fall over an upturned sidewalk or tumble into an open manhole or step in dog poop or horse dung, which I did once, in flip-flops no less. Everything’s askew; everything’s on the verge of crumbling. It’s like walking on a slanted, moving floor of a carnival’s funhouse.

I’ve heard Americans urge: “Go now. See the place before it changes – before it becomes like every other tourist destination in the Caribbean.” They act as if this city will be restored to its previous splendor overnight. “Not so fast,” I’d reply sadly. “The infrastructure is ruined.” For instance, you can’t flush tissue down a commode. It will cause a major blockage. You can’t drink tap water because it is unfiltered, and it will cause the opposite of a major blockage. Everywhere there is an uneasy sense, a foreboding sense, a “dis-ease,” a feeling of impending doom of apocalyptic proportions.

I didn’t see children begging. I did see the elderly with outstretched hands. Most were black. One elderly white man, skin and bones, scavenged through one large, metal, green garbage container after another. I gave him one “CUC,” and he grinned gratefully at me with a footlong stream of drool hanging from his lower lip. One CUC is about a dollar for us, but it is 24 Cuban pesos (CUP) for them, and they can buy a lot of food in the open market with their local peso currency. Foreigners are not supposed to use the local currency. We must trade with the Cuban Convertible Currency, the CUC. We were advised to exchange our greenbacks at the airport because it is difficult to find places to exchange American dollars or Euros elsewhere. If you have Euros, you get a better rate than if you exchange dollars.

The Cuban gals who work at the airport aren’t friendly; they wear black, lacy stockings with designs, making them look like streetwalkers. We were instructed not to take pictures at the airport and told that the government sometimes takes folks’ cameras away if they snap a photo. I really wanted to photograph the cute Cocker Spaniels that were sniffing everyone’s luggage. These drug dogs were well trained, affectionate and loyal to their handlers. One even rode on his soldier’s back. Cubans and their dogs seem to have an unusually close bond. Even the “street dogs” seem non-aggressive and polite, like the beggars. The mendicants are pesky in tailing you but always courteous. They’re not addled by drugs like the menacing, homeless beggars of San Francisco, California.  The Cubans are nice, nicer than those you run into at the Miami airport, but it may be because these islanders are desperate for help. It’s like the expression: When you’re in a deep well, you reach to grab any hand extended to you. Beggars can’t be choosers.

In the Miami airport, Cubans wait in serpentine queues with their belongings wrapped in thick Saran wrap. We Americans were escorted through a different way because we were part of a tour – a People to People Cultural Exchange; we were not on our own. They are cautious – the Cubans. They are afraid things will get stolen. They bring back TVs, fenders, huge automobile replacement parts. They have to procure spare parts for their ‘30s classics. Everything is jerry-rigged. Watching the behemoth–like Cadillacs zooming down the street in front of the Malecon, that long sea wall, may seem “enchanting” to Anthony Bourdain as he said in his CNN special On Parts Unknown, but, on a sultry night with oppressive humidity, it isn’t “enchanting” for that guy lying on his back on the dirty pavement, under the chassis of his unwieldy car, in the middle of traffic trying to get his ride to work. He’s on a busy street. Folks go around him. It is routine.

Cubans can’t trust the banks. They have no savings. A rainy day fund is a foreign concept. They live hand to mouth – not only the laborers but the professionals too. A professor at a university gets paid 35 CUCs per month. One confided to us that to run her air conditioning wall unit in her apartment costs more than her entire month’s salary. She lives on the second floor with her husband. Below her landing are her folks. In another apartment of the house reside her uncle and her sister and her sis’s husband. They feel lucky to own a house with so many floors, built by their grandpa before the Revolution.

Educated people, proud people, hard-working people live in rack and ruin in Cuba. One is paid next to nothing, but there’s nothing to buy. You wait in line for 25 minutes to buy a soda and a packet of cookies at what they call a grocery store. Mostly they shop at open air markets. Flies surround the fruits and vegetables and swarm the meat hanging in the sultry breeze. It is October and stinking hot!

If you want a good meal, don’t eat at the government-run hotels. The food is lousy. You are served potatoes, rice and something that looks like the Hawaiian poi – tasteless and white. Raul has only very recently allowed family-run restaurants called paladars. Here you dine on red snapper, a salad and flan. They serve mojitos and beer called Cristal or Bucanero and even wine, but not good wine.  This is not how Cubans eat. It would cost them a month’s salary to feast at a paladar.

Eager to return to The States, I felt thankful my ancestors had the good sense to come here centuries ago. I’m grateful that subsequent generations haven’t blown a good thing – this dreamland! Sometimes, you don’t know what you have until you travel and see what others don’t have that you take for granted.

About this writer

  • Erika Hoffman Erika Hoffman views most travel experiences as educational experiences and sometimes the lessons learned are revelations about oneself.

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21 Responses to “Love It or Leave It”

  1. Carol Trejo says:

    I always appreciate reading the adventures and stories of Erika Hoffman. I am still in the middle of raising children, and not so free to travel, but whenever I read her stories she has a way of making me feel I am there with her. Her sense of humor in her writings, and her sincere expression of compassion for others always makes her stories special to me. Thanks for publishing her work, so we can all enjoy a great read!

  2. Donna Atwater says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article written by Erika Hoffman on Cuba as I have been on the People to People tour of the island. I loved visiting the beautiful home on the hill of Ernest Hemingtway and learning about this island. I am glad after 50 years our leaders are opening communications with the Cuban leader as my contention is our country has so much to offer and Cuba has so much to offer to our country.

  3. Susie Park says:

    So glad you shared your Cuban story with others.
    When freedom is gone, people become less than what they could be. Protect and treasure what we have. Thank you, Erica, for letting others see Cuba through you eyes!

  4. I felt sad when I visited Mexico and Belize and saw the hungry people and animals. Your story was very moving and a enlightening.

  5. Thanks for this frank and descriptive look at the result of years under Communism. Being a car-loving family we’ve been aware of the treasure trove of vintage automobiles serving the people. One hopes in time the cars and the people and the basic utilities will join the twenty-first century.

  6. beth fallaize says:

    very intersting I don’t think i will rush to go to cuba

  7. Erika Hoffman is the best writer! In this description of her trip to Cuba, she starts off so funny! and then eases us into a sad reality, brilliantly crafted. Thank you, Sasee, for publishing this article that gave me a clear view into this other Caribbean world.

  8. Dallas Swan says:

    WOW!! I am so glad to have read this article I have so many friends wanting to go to Cuba and this has great information. I can see why their government did not want us to see the real Cuba. I am so glad they allowed Erika to write this article I am sharing it with all my friends not just informative but entertaining. Thanks

  9. Susan (Myers) Twyman says:

    What an eye opening article. It is sad that the Cuban people live in such horrendous conditions. We, as Americans, are so fortunate to have the opportunities that we do. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  10. Sherry Dodson says:

    This is a very informative article revealing the truth about Cuba today. I wish everyone could read it before planning a trip there. We are all curious, since it’s been closed to us for so long, but knowing what to expect will definitely make us think twice before planning a vacation there. Thank you!!

  11. Theadis Damewood says:

    Very interesting article. I do have clients who wish to go. I was skeptical about going. Thanks for the insight!!

  12. Erika Hoffman says:

    I appreciate everyone’s comments. Cuba has always intrigued me, and although I expected to find it in a better state than I did, I was impressed with the people. I’ve written a long article on my impressions of Cuba which I will launch on Kindle in a week or so. I’ve never self-published before and don’t use the device myself, but so many folks do that I thought I should widen my horizons and try it. My longer piece is entitled “Welcome to Cuba; Get in Line.” It includes quotes from others, who also trekked to Cuba in 2015. Photos which illustrate my words are incorporated into the piece as well.

  13. Interesting essay, Erika. I’d like to visit Cuba, as would my husband, but I’m assuming the best way to go would be on a tour. At least for the next few years. Glad you let us know what you saw. Sarah

  14. Hey Dallas Swan, just curious about your last name. Is your husband a Swan or is that your birth name? My husband is from Upstate New York, in case there’s a connection. Erika does write well, doesn’t she?

  15. Cora Brown says:

    Great piece! Thanks for sharing the Cuba experience so realistically. This article has enhanced my appreciation of the freedom and resources we seem to take for granted in the US.

  16. Barbara Margolis says:

    Thank you for transporting me to modern day Cuba and reminding me to appreciate the good old USA. I thoroughly enjoyed your take on being a tourist in Cuba.

  17. margaret says:

    Another fun and insightful article by Erika Hoffman! I went to Cuba last June and while my impressions weren’t quiet as stark, I do think she covered the state of the country well. The people are very friendly and appreciative of Americans who take the time to visit.

  18. Abbe Pike says:

    How very enlightening and most unfortunate for the local citizens. As I love to travel, this will not be one of more desired destinations. What an adventure for you!

  19. Rose Ann says:

    Erika, another interesting and honest article! We can become so complacent in our lives. Sometimes we just need to look outside ourselves. Thanks for sharing a slice of the day to day life in Cuba.

  20. Erika Hoffman says:

    I’m glad that so many of you took the time to read my essay. Cuba is a trending topic these days. Some of us are old enough to remember when it was regarded as a fun destination akin to Las Vegas. As a child, I remember my neighbors going there every year, and I was envious as I’d never been farther south than NC!
    Today, I loaded a second Kindle “book” which is again about Cuba but with a more humorous touch and more photos. I named this piece “Welcome to Koobah: What the CUC?”

  21. Claudia Frost says:

    Erika, thanks for sharing your article about Cuba. Your descriptions made me smile, laugh and move my head in agreement with your sidewalk issues…..definitely a challenge for walking about and trying to take in the sights at the same time…..I found similar challenges in Mexico and Peru this year. You packed a lot of insightful commentary into this short article….I look forward to borrowing my husband’s Kindle and trying to figure out how to get your e-book to download so I can continue to “sightsee Cuba” through your eyes.

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