Cuba: Part One, The Contradiction

I’m home from Cuba and people are asking, “What was it like?”

I hardly know where to begin. I found Cuba backward but lively, poor but happy, decaying but beautiful. It’s a country of contrasts.

Cuba still struggles under a socialist government. Even our Cuban tour guide, whose company is government-affiliated, admitted the flaws in state-run establishments. For example, he pointed out this sleeping employee in an empty government-owned bar.

sleeping girl bar

Wouldn’t anyone rather have a cocktail in the lounge of this privately-owned restaurant (called a paladar)? I was told the bar has been restored to look as it did in pre-Castro days.

fully stocked bar

Incidentally, my husband and I, along with our travel buddies, ate dinner at this establishment, called Restaurante 1800, in Camaguey. We enjoyed excellent paella, shrimp pasta, and lobster entrees, which ranged in price from only six to eight dollars. I kid you not.

Even with generous wine drinking and tip, our bill was less than thirty dollars per couple, probably a third of what we’d pay for that kind of restaurant meal at home.

Paladars are not the only sign of private industry trying to make a go of it in socialist Cuba. This flea market in Havana had plenty of trinkets and vendors who were just as eager to sell as any I’ve seen in the Caribbean.

flea market

A potter in Camaguey showed us his technique before we visited his salesroom. (To his left is our Cuban guide for the duration of our people-to-people trip.) I couldn’t resist buying some of this beautiful handmade earthenware, especially when it was so reasonably priced. I paid only two and three dollars for a couple of nice pots.


Life appears hard for many in Cuba, a country that seems to have missed the progress and prosperity of modern times. For instance, horse-drawn transportation was common everywhere. In cities, horse and buggy outfits were used as taxis. This fellow here seems to be a farmer.

horse and buggy

Another sign that Cuba lives in the past is the method of drying rice–spreading it on the highway. Yes, that’s rice in the picture, not sand. Our tour bus stopped so we could get out for a closer look. I would think the rice would get dirty from traffic rolling over it but evidently not.

rice on the road

The average Cuban makes about thirty pesos a month, which translates into thirty American dollars. Of course, many supplement their paltry salaries by working in the tourist industry, picking up tips as waiters in paladars or employees in hotels. Some Cubans have relatives living abroad (think Florida), who send money.

It sounds like a hard life to me, yet the Cubans I saw in various cities as well as the countryside seem like a happy lot for the most part. They’ll certainly burst into song or dance in restaurants, on the streets, or anywhere they think a tourist may tip.


For more about the contrast that is Cuba, check out my column in the Rocky Mount Telegram:

Stay tuned for the next blog, Cuba, Part II, where I’ll share more photos of this fascinating country.

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