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Cuba: Old meets new - Part 2

This article is second in a three-part series about the Central Lakes College Cuba trip, which occurred amid a historic warming of relations with the U.S. that will signal a new flood of tourists and business coming to the island. The tour, which...

A dog naps in the shade in Trinidad's main plaza. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch
A dog naps in the shade in Trinidad's main plaza. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch

This article is second in a three-part series about the Central Lakes College Cuba trip, which occurred amid a historic warming of relations with the U.S. that will signal a new flood of tourists and business coming to the island. The tour, which went from March 6-13, went from Old Havana 186 miles (300 km) east, to the heart of the isolated nation. Part two focuses on the culture shock Americans might experience when travelling in Cuba, and travel advice on how to adapt American practices and expectations to being in Cuba.

The key to having a good time in Cuba is managing your expectations, and maintaining a willingness to adapt. The attraction of going abroad comes from experiencing an environment that's unlike the United States, so one must be mentally and practically prepared to deal with all the ramifications of that environment: both the good and the bad.

Cuba's hospitality infrastructure is struggling to catch up with the wave of tourists, and in certain instances it's necessary to adjust our demands for the amenities we've come to expect in our home country. However, these adjustments are dwarfed by the immense amount of fun and learning that will welcome you once you land on the island.

That said, here are some travel tips to prevent and overcome the culture shock you may experience when travelling in Cuba.

Bring a flashlight. Our hotel in Havana kept many of the lights off, so the stairwells and upper floors were almost completely dark. I suspect it's a combination of high prices for electrical power, plus the Cuban attitude toward environmental conservation. No matter the reason, it will pay off to bring a small travel flashlight for you to use indoors.

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Many of the exterior lights of buildings aren't lit either, so make sure you know how to get back to your hotel using street names and directions, rather than just landmarks. In Havana, streets are designated by square, squat obelisks about 2 feet high with the corresponding street name written on each side.

Familiarize yourself with both kinds of Cuban currency.

To my knowledge, no member of group was pickpocketed or had any item stolen outright during the entire trip. However, there was one instance where a member of our group was given Cuban pesos as change for a purchase he made instead of the convertible pesos he made the purchase with.

Here's why that's an issue: convertible pesos are the currency that tourists and better-off Cubans use. They're 25 times the value of Cuban pesos. To avoid what happened to my friend, Google pictures of both currencies and make sure you know the difference.

Watch your water intake. We were told not to drink the water for fear of an upset stomach, and we didn't experiment to see if this was actually true.

I and my roommate (in his mid-70s) used regular tap water to rinse our toothbrushes and shower, and we were fine. However, we relied on bottled water or water from the hotel bar for drinking.

It's hot down there. Wintertime-prime tourist season-has equivalent temperatures to our summer, and hotter. It's easy to become dehydrated when running around all the places Cuba has to for you explore.

Bottled water went for about one convertible peso per 16-ounce bottle, which is more than a bargain. Make sure you have some on you.

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Try the outdoor markets-but be prepared to haggle.

The market vendors we encountered were honest, but aggressive in their sales pitch. You may feel a temptation as a meek Minnesotan to simply take whatever price they give you, but that's leaving money on the table, and it's also less fun.

All the outdoor markets in the Cuban towns we visited had the same or similar items in them: license plates, Che hats, cigar boxes, figurines, musical instruments, cars made out of beer cans. That's not to diminish the quality of the items themselves-just bear the fact in mind that if you pass on buying something you can usually find it in the next town over.

Merchants will actively try to keep selling you things until you either run out of cash or explicitly tell them you're done. Just remember to be polite, but blunt. The experience of haggling is worth it.

ZACH KAYSER may be reached at 218-855-5860 or Zach.Kayser@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZWKayser .

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