Things I Learned in Cuba

December 22, 2012 - Get free updates of new posts here

Last week I secretly snuck into Cuba to celebrate a close friends 30th birthday.

It was like traveling through a time machine back to the 1950s and I was shocked how many of the locals were excited that I was from Estados Unidos (United States for those non-Spanish speakers).

I was fascinated by some things I wanted to share with y’all:

  • Options are good and bad. Most of the food is government controlled and they are limited with their food trade. Hence at the super market there is generally only 1 type of product or not at all. Compared to our 50+ options for cereal they have one and DON’T even have almond butter. Yes, I know. At times it was convenient, the country’s rum, Havana Club, was delicious and cheap but eating Ham & Cheese Sandwiches got tiring quickly.
  • Be Patient. With communism there is less incentive for achievement or moving faster than everyone else. This is not a bad thing as I practiced being more patient as the people of the country aren’t always in “hustle” mode. This isn’t to say that some don’t have pride in their work but unlike other 3rd world countries they don’t harass when you tell them you don’t want to buy their trinket.
  • Look at the positive. There is hardly any internet, television channels and very little text messaging. It was such a NICE thing. People were outside conversing, not staring down checking email 24/7 and were way more present when interacting. It’s easy to complain about this or when there wasn’t a lot of things going on. Instead recognize what you want is there all along.
  • iPhone Challenge, my iPhone can surprisingly last 7 days on 1 charge when not using phone / data. Challenge yourself to only charge your phone once this week and see how long you can make it for 🙂
  • Being poor sucks. Having money to save you time and make things more convenient is (almost) always better. As we were trying to fly back from Cancun we had 20 minutes to change terminals, get our tickets, go through customs, security and run to the game. The terminal was a mile+ from where we were so we bribed an Avis bus driver $20 to take us there. Also, numerous times we bribed people so we didn’t have to wait inline. You can phrase the question so you don’t feel awkward. “Can I pay for VIP access or a premium not to wait in line?” or “Is their a first class line here?” I’m not as comfortable trying to slip money into someones hand.
  • Freedom is all mental. There is an embargo and it’s hard to physically leave Cuba. The Cubans generally make $30 / month. Total! They are able to travel to far ends of the world through music, art and alcohol. Read Viktor Frankel’s – Man’s search for meaning – to read about how a guy did this during the Halocaust.
  • Go with the flow. We went to one of the popular restaurants in town and found out they were shut down since they were out of gas. WTF? When does that happen in the States. Anywho, there are tons of restaurants out there and way more important things to sweat.

Another time we got to security to get our bags with 1.5 hours until our flight took off. An hour later our bags were still not there (the security was checking every bag for drugs). Get angry! Panic! Yell at security! Sometimes you can change the situation but other times being an asshole or complaining won’t change the situation.

Can you do anything about it?
Is it actually important?

  • You are smarter than you think. Card Games. While chilling I said next trip I am going to bring a deck of cards. Then I thought, shit, I don’t know any card games to play. Then I was like, well there is War, blackjack, poker and my friend started suggested some Vegas games (Paigow, 888, etc…) and after awhile there were 15 games that I did know. Try and focus. Don’t get stuck with your old script. You know more.
  • Richness is a state of mind. My buddy Ramit mentions wealth is not just how much cash you have. Yes, this may be seem hypocritical from my above point about being poor but that’s not the point 🙂 These people make $30 / month and are happy. What’s the point of life? Being fulfilled. They don’t need to work 80 hour weeks. They hang with family, live in really crummy houses, cook the same type of food every night and all generally seem happy.
  • Spice up life. I kept joking how the restaurants differentiate with silverware since they all have to share the same limited number of ingredients. A buddy of mine called me out how that’s kinda true in America… But which ingredients to include, which order, which spices, how to pick the right tomato in the stack, etc…is what makes the difference.
  • Be a barman. We asked a cab driver how much he makes a month, it was around $500 USD. Then he mentioned his brother (a doctor) makes around $40. :O Damn, my brother would be pissed about that. The government helps with some $, relatives help with the rest and the people live in poverish conditions. The doctor’s live that way cause they love what they do. The real winners are barman who live off propinas (tips). $5000 USD a month…
  • Being present is priceless. Personally I didn’t check email, text, internet, television for a week. Loved it. Takes a day to get used to but afterwards you forget about them. You listen to the people talking to you and you enjoy the moment while you are in it instead of constantly tweeting about it. Take today and evaluate how much of Facebook, Twitter and the emails you are reading / writing really made your day better. Compare that to how you feel having a great chat with a friend…

 

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19 responses to “Things I Learned in Cuba

  1. Ben Reply

    I loved this post, thanks man. They have NO internet at all? Do you have any pics to share of the city streets and beaches? I have ALWAYS been curious about Cuba.

  2. Brian Reply

    Noah, I have always been curious about Cuba; how easy to get in and out as an American? And like the post above, do you have any pics to share?
    Thanks in advance for any and all help/advice.

  3. Jared A Reply

    Yeah. When I went to Havana thought it was really weird that all I could find to eat was ice cream and rum. Anytime someone asks me about what it was like there, the food selection is always one of the first things to come up.

  4. Tracey Reply

    So you discovered the joy of being disconnected. Has that spilled over to when you got home? Or were you straight back into it without a second thought?

  5. Glen Reply

    Nice read! I’ve been to Cuba myself (I’m British) and found the people fascinating. Yes it was a package holiday with an agent in a tourist hotel but I ventured out loads and it was great!

    The people are so friendly and are happy to just sit there having a chat. I also found out about their financial situation and it seems unfair but they get on with it and seem happy.

  6. Stefano Reply

    This is quite a cool and genuine article, I am glad there are honest portrait of Cuba that don’t just dismiss their politics.
    Check also the cooperatives they have there, companies ownership is shared among its laborers (it resemble start-ups) and make people feel happier than cubicleslave…

    p.s.
    You should have signed No(ah) problem!

  7. Joe Saggio Reply

    I visited Cuba in July 2013 and also marveled at how the people of Cuba do so well with so little. I found that a week of no internet or cell phone wasn’t so bad. I actually survived. Beautiful country that I hope gets opened up to Americans in the future.

  8. Veronica Wirth Reply

    Loved this post, Noah. I was fortunate enough to visit some years back and that was my biggest take away as well – that they were simply happy! Also, so incredibly generous, even when they had very little. Thank you for the reminder to be present, kind, happy and…unplug! 🙂

  9. Jason Reply

    Noah,

    How did the passport thing work out? They didn’t stamp your passport right? Cash… is there a requirement for how much to not take? Any tippers on that?

    Jason Waite

  10. Gwen Reply

    “Be patient” reminded me of when I would stay at my grandparents for long periods of time as a kid. They walked much slower, so I would get in the habit of going at their pace. Life, nature, everything is much more observable at that speed. (of course when I got home my mom was always telling me to hurry up!)
    We do need constant reminders to stop and smell the roses.
    I agree would love to see pictures!

  11. Adriana J. Garces Reply

    Hey Noah:
    Loved this article! I am a Cuban immigrant since the age of 1 year, 10 months. yes, it sounds almost entirely American, yet the culture of my people lives in all my inspiration, from music, to dance, visual art, etc… Thanks to my parents, older siblings and other family members, I have lots to be thankful for. That includes a ‘wealthy’ upbringing. As you mentioned, “it’s not just how much cash you have…” I consider myself rich by many means other than financial status. I appreciate you brought that up. It’s a shame that some horizons cannot be crossed by everyone and the expansiveness of our world cannot be fully appreciated when oppression is the ruler. I am ashamed that one who is a native son of our island, calls himself a patriot amongst its people. that goes for anyone of that line of “genius.” One day I hope to visit (I never have since we arrived here) and would love to visit ‘El Callejon de Hamel’ in Havana, famous for its weekly Sunday jams. they bring music, dance and visual arts to a whole other level! It’s all over YouTube via home-made goodness, if you haven’t enjoyed it yet. Until next time, safe and happy travels-Thank you for sharing!

  12. Gabe Johansson Reply

    Sounds like an interesting time!

    It is weird though; there are times where I’m ungrateful for what I have and other times where I’m proud of what I have. The strange part is hardly anything has physically changed between those two states of mind.

  13. Charlie Ahern Reply

    The comment about “Options are Good and Bad” reminded me of Barry Swartz’s book “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.”

    Today at the grocery store I noticed in the spices section at least ten crab-boil spice mixes for sale. In Des Moines, Iowa. Why? My guess is that stuff has a shelf life measured in years and someone probably paid the grocer for the shelf space to store inventory. I could live with only three choices of crab boil mix. (If I ever thought to buy such a thing.) Maybe the crab-boil mix industry is ready for consolidation?

  14. Troy Reply

    Cool story but when you say a phrase like “poverish conditions” it kinda sticks out like a sore thumb. No such word, dude. “Impoverished conditions” is what you probably meant. Just go ahead and delete my comment after you edit your post.

  15. Deena Reply

    Noah:
    1. Are there any tacos there?
    2. I love how you are able to take a random (not) life experience not related to work and turn it into a fantastic and interesting learning experience for all of us.
    3. Definitely post pics.
    Thanks.