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Cuba, I hardly knew you

In Cuba it’s illegal to host foreigners in your house unless you have special permission from the government and you charge them. The houses that are able to rent a room tend to be the cheapest option around at around 25 CUC (30 USD), Cuba’s designated money for foreigners.

There is also a separate transportation system for inter-city travel. Foreigners are legally obligated to leave from separate terminals and ride in separate buses. Though, I also quickly discovered that many Cubans share cars for inter-city travel—this was how I traveled.

Cuba has a lot of great things for visitors to see and experience, but if you seek to understand the nation and how it’s people live, the two-tiered system makes the task very difficult. It’s also hard to tell when locals are being friendly or just opportunistic.

A few days ago, I was staying in a house in Viñales, a small touristy town in the far west of Cuba. When I paid the owner for the night I also asked her where I could get a shared taxi to Pinar del Rio, the nearby provincial capital. The previous day I took the short ride in one of these taxi’s, crammed in with four others, and knew there were frequent return trips. Classic American automobiles from the 1950s, kept running since before the US-led economic blockade, brought locals back and forth between the two cities and cost 1 CUC.

“You need a taxi?” the house owner smiled. “Come with me.”

I followed her to the street where a taxi was dropping off passengers.

“Hey, this guy wants to go to Pinar.”

“Twenty CUC,” the driver shouted back.

“No,” I protested. “I want a shared taxi. I came in one yesterday for 1 CUC. Where can I catch one of those?”

The woman looked at me, her smile had faded. “That taxi will take you.”

I walked in the other direction. I figured the pick-up point would be closer to the center of town or at the edge facing Pinar del Rio. On the way I stopped in a store to buy water.

“Hola,” the woman said with a wide smile when I walked in.

“Hola Gladys,” I said. I was in there the previous evening and had had a friendly conversation with the clerk. She lived in Pinar del Rio and traveled back and forth every day for work.

I paid for the water and asked her, “Where are the shared taxis for Pinar del Rio?”

“You need a taxi? Come with me.”

I followed her out the door onto the sidewalk. There were several men standing around. Many of them had taxi’s though others seemed to be selling bicycle rentals, horse rides or other tourist activities.

“Enrique, this guy needs a taxi to Pinar del Rio,” she said.

A man turned toward me and offered to take my bag from me. I refused. “How much?” I asked.

“Twenty.”

I turned to Gladys. “No I don’t want my own taxi. I want to take the shared one.”

The taxi driver interrupted before she could reply. “Fifteen.”

“No,” I said, before turning back to Gladys, still thinking she could help me. “Where can I get the shared taxi?”

“What shared taxi?”

“When you leave work today and get a taxi back, where does it pick you up?”

“I always hire a private taxi. I have to go, but Enrique will take you.” She turned and walked back into her store before I could contest her story that she paid 30 CUC a day to travel to a job where she likely earned around 5 CUC a shift plus commission for various referrals.

As Gladys walked away more taxi drivers approached and offered to drive me. I asked where I could find a shared taxi but they all feigned ignorance. I left, continuing up the street. I figured it would be close and knew what it would look like. I scanned the street for a car half filled with passengers, engine idling while the driver stood outside the car.

I walked two blocks, crossed the street then turned around as I was clearly leaving the town center. When I approached the block of Gladys’ store again a man sitting on the curb called out to me as I passed in front of him “Hey, the shared taxis to Pinar del Rio wait there.” He pointed half a block away. “If you hurry you can get a spot in that blue one, I think it’s about to leave.” I looked and saw an idling car, driver standing next to an open door. This stranger must have heard my interactions a few minutes previous. “Thank you,” I said.

The car was across the street from Gladys’ store.

Most travelers I’ve meet here rave about how friendly Cubans are. They are impressed with how quickly locals help. The house owners and store clerks are always ready to make a phone call or even personally connect them whenever they ask what to do or how to get there. “And they are always smiling while they do it,” they say.

In my experience, they only smile until they realize that they will not make a commission on the transaction. Feigning an emotion to profit at another’s expense is an antonym to friendliness.

Cuba has a lot of great things. The beaches are beautiful and it’s a stunning site to see classic American cars idling in traffic, blasting salsa. And there are many ordinary people I have met who have genuinely desired to help and know me. But, the people tourists will interact with most in this country, those that work in anything that does business with foreigners, are far from friendly, they are opportunistic. The nation is set up with dual systems, one for locals the other for foreigners, and funnels any foreigners toward a select few people while minimizing interaction with the rest of the population.

Of the 50 nations I have ever visited, Cuba is the least genuine and least friendly to the traveler passing through.

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