Cuba, 2003

Cuba stands apart from the rest of the world because of the American trade embargo. On America’s doorstep but shut off from formal contact with it, Cuba has been sheltered from the juggernaut of American corporatism. Of course that means that the country has also been spared from the jobs and investment money that goes along with that.

Given Cuba’s existence as one of the last Marxist states it’s easy to think of it in political terms before you visit. Once you get there however you forget all that and just enjoy yourself. I found the Cuban people to be very friendly and easy to like. All my interactions with them were pleasant and cordial.

It’s common in many poor countries for a certain subset of the populace to look upon tourists as easy marks to be conned or cajoled out of money. Cuba is almost entirely free of that. In my experience there no one expected to get hand outs from foreign visitors.

One of the things I look forward to most when I visit another country is trying the food. In that department Cuba was a huge let down. The food was bland and boring due to the absence of any herbs, spices, or condiments. In addition, the variety of food was very limited. Beef was not obtainable at all. Same with lamb and mutton. If you wanted a sandwich you could get ham, or cheese, or ham and cheese together. That’s it, nothing else. The same went for pizza which tasted like soggy wet cardboard in any case.

Most of the restaurants were state owned and these featured tasteless meals with ridiculously high prices. Your best bet for getting something to eat was to stay in a family home that was licensed to rent rooms to tourists and have them cook for you.

The bottle of hot sauce that I brought with me from home was a life-saver.

Another peculiarity about Cuba back in 2003 was that foreign tourists could only pay for things in American dollars. Seems ironic given the embargo. I actually gave some dollars to a Cuban guy so he could go into a bank and exchange them for pesos so I could see what real Cuban currency looked like. Once in possession of my very own pesos I, as a foreigner, could not buy anything with them except for street food. I sampled some of the aforementioned pizza. My only other option was to join one of the very lengthy lineups for an ice cream cone.

Forgettable food aside I had a really good time in Cuba. In addition to escaping some of the wet, drab Vancouver winter weather I was able to come home with some vibrantly colourful photos of a country that impressed me with its warmth and affability.

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