“Loved the city. Hated the people. OR. Loved the people. Hated the city.” – Let’s accept it, travel is not always fun, and we cannot sugarcoat all our trips into great experiences. In the hope of publishing the most honest travel stories, StreetTrotter has rolled out its very new #LoveHateTravel initiative, asking fellow bloggers about their journey of a Love-Hate city they traveled to in recent past. Learning from both their good and bad experiences, this is our contribution to educate our readers to travel better and wiser in the future. Bringing the first of the series is Travel Blogger Claudia Tavani, confessing her reality of Cuba vs. Cubans…
I have recently noticed that a lot of people – not just bloggers – when travelling show huge enthusiasm for the country they are visiting and its people. They use words such as ‘wonderful’, ‘kind’, ‘friendly’ to refer to the locals and give a very positive picture of the country. Not many of us actually warn about the possible problems, which however are often encountered. It’s as if we would look bad if we actually dared criticizing a place. I tend to do the same, because my experiences are generally positive. Just a few days ago a friend asked me if I had any safety issue during my recent travels in South America, or if I ever felt in danger, and I simply could not say I did because it did not happen. What I also noticed is that, as time goes by, we tend to filter our experiences, and only the positive ones are clearly remembered and recollected, to the point that when blogging about them we may forget to warn readers of possible inconveniences they may encounter. I try my best not to do that, and to warn my followers and readers of possible scams and safety issues in the country they may visit.
As I normally do before any of my trips, before going to Cuba, I read lots of online travel diaries and blogs of people who had been there already, all enthusiastic about the country and mostly pointing out how fantastic Cubans are. I was prepared to have a blast, although I imagined that the reality of things may not be as rosy as pictured. My experience with Cubans, however, was so different to the ones I had read about, to the point that I wondered if we were even talking about the same people. I haven’t met the lovely, friendly and welcoming Cubans everybody talked about in their tales.
I always say that Cuba is one of the most interesting countries that I have ever visited, and I would really love to go back sometimes. My experience in Cuba was so strong and somehow so troubled, that it led me to start my blog, www.myadventuresacrosstheworld.com, so that I could talk about my experiences there and somehow warn other travelers on what to expect. It actually took me a while to metabolize my strong feelings of disappointment for the country and begin to recommend it to all my friends and followers to actually visit Cuba at least once. Travelling to Cuba can definitely be the most exhilarating experience for a backpacker, and the most frustrating one too. In my case, it was mostly frustrating.
Mixing with the locals is always part of the fun during my travels, wherever I go. Speaking Spanish fluently definitely helps when in Latin America. This is how I get into the local culture, and how I join conversations that are real exchanges, where not only I learn about the real life in the particular place I am visiting, but where I am also asked about my culture and my country of origin. But none of this happened in Cuba, not to me. For as much as I tried, I hardly managed to exchange a few words with the locals just for the sake of it: any conversation I may have initiated would lead to being asked to either have sex, offer any of my belongings (including the clothes I was wearing!), or buy something that would either be a drink in a specific place (to get a commission), a meal (for the same reason), or whatever else. So much for the cultural exchange I was hoping for.
The people I met seemed more to act like sharks who may well have thought I was a walking ATM to take as much cash out as possible, or a sexual object, or a passport, or all the above. It was annoying, it was tiring, and it made me feel less than human. I asked myself many questions about why I felt that way, about why I could not communicate with Cubans in a way that was constructive and helpful to both parts. I wondered if my bad luck was due to the fact that I was a female traveler (I met several others who had the same bad experiences). I considered the political and economic situation in Cuba, where for such a long time locals would not even have access to places open to tourists. But no matter how hard I thought, I could find no way to actually feel more at ease with the way I was treated and enjoy my relationship with the locals more.
I understand that Cuba is still a poor country, but I have been to far poorer countries and nowhere else I felt objectified as I have felt there. I have met kind people all over the world – people who had nothing, yet would gladly share that ‘nothing’ with me, help me if I needed, and overall showed a kindness that made my time there so much better. My experience in Cuba was not as pleasant: the poverty that in many other countries has turned the people into generous, welcoming ones, has hardened the Cubans who, instead, have devised any possible way to make more money at the expenses of travelers.
The general assumption is that, if you can afford to visit Cuba, you must be rich and so it is only fair to trick you, and steal from you. It is not just shooting taxi prices that you have to negotiate down – that is normal, acceptable and part of the fun for a traveler. It is more extreme, and I found that there was a meanness to it that I could barely escape. It’s pragmatic, yet so cruel. It wouldn’t matter to anybody that I may have saved for years to take that trip; that I may have given up on other things (anything – from getting new shoes to going to the cinema or for a meal out); it went unnoticed that I was a backpacker and not an all-inclusive, 5 stars resort kind of tourist.
The worst that happened to me and that still makes my stomach twist in anger, was with a guide I had hired in Viñales. We had been touring the valley for a couple of hours, and he acted rude to me most of the time, for some reason I could not understand. I had not been flirtatious at all, nor given any indication of being attracted to him. I was simply enjoying the place. At some point, during one of the stops we took, acting as if I wasn’t even there, or as if I would not understand what he said, he got into a conversation with a Mexican friend of mine and asked whether he had any intention of having sex with me, because if not, he would. Needless to say, he did not even look at me as he said that, and surely never bothered to ask my opinion on this. I don’t think I ever felt more objectified and mortified in my life.I am not saying that it was all bad and I did not meet any nice locals. But of my time there, the first couple of weeks I had to fight my way around to avoid being constantly scammed.
Having said this, there have been some nice encounters too: the owners of some casas particulares were very kind and talkative – one was so keen to practice his English that he took “advantage” of me on that. Some guides and drivers were protective and helpful, without expecting anything extra in return, and even offered to find the other taxi driver who scammed me so that they could “have a word” with them. A lovely young man in Baracoa saw me struggling under the weight of my backpack and did not think about it twice to carry it to the bus station.
All in all, I think Cuba is a great place to travel to, but it is better to know what to expect and be prepared for a culture that is at times shockingly different from others. I would love to go back again, with much more travelling experience, so that I could try to better understand the culture and its people and find those loving, welcoming, funny Cubans that everybody on the web seemed to talk about.
About the Author: Claudia is from Cagliari (Sardinia) and is obsessed with travelling. A former human rights lawyer and academic, after devoting her life to the protection of cultural identity, in November 2013 Claudia decided to give in to her biggest passion and started travelling around Latin America, and she has hardly stopped since. Blogging came as a natural consequence, for Claudia wanted to let her family and friends be updated with her adventures.
P.S. – If you are a Blogger / Traveler having a Love-Hate city story of your own, share with us at firstname.lastname@example.org