Havana had me feeling completely lost for the first time since visiting Hong Kong in 1995, where I couldn’t navigate myself out of the maze of clothes, electronics and luggage stores. Despite booking a casa particular before arriving in Cuba and exchanging multiple emails with the booking agency, my host seemed to have no idea I was coming. This turned out to be because he couldn’t match the way I said my name with the spelling he’d been given (I pronounce Murray as in Mario without the ‘o’, but Spanish speakers read it as moo-rah-y). His accent was really thick, which made any kind of conversation difficult. I was on my own. I hadn’t eaten properly since lunch 24 hours before, and Cuban tap water isn’t safe to drink, so finding food and water were priorities. I also had a whole set of wet clothes from a tour I did in Mexico the day before. Finally, I needed to catch a friend before she left for Vinales, which meant getting internet access.
My mind was foggy from the humid heat as I ventured outside to begin my search. The many people standing around in the park at the end of my street looking at their phones and tablets marked it as a wi-fi hotspot, but I knew I would need a card to be able to log in. The first person I asked spoke so fast that I had to ask him to repeat a few times before I understood that I could buy a card from a hotel down the road. Because my tour in Cancun hadn’t finished until 10pm the night before, I hadn’t been alert enough to download a map of Havana, so I could only walk in the direction indicated and hope hotels here were recognisable. His directions took me past an unmarked but crowded food store, with all the products stacked on shelves around the walls, and multiple shop assistants serving a crowd of customers. I saw beans, powdered milk and other items that required preparation. I didn’t see water, biscuits, chips or anything that I could manage on my own. Hunger began to gnaw.
Further down the road, still on the edge of the small park, with no sign of anything like a hotel, I was stopped by a man thrusting a menu at me. At about $5 per dish, the prices looked good for lunch, so I took the opportunity to knock one need off my list. He was also able to sell me an internet card—double price of course—but it would do for now. I didn’t even taste the food in my rush to sort out my other issues, but the juice took the edge off my thirst.
I headed back to the park, and took ten minutes to work out how to log on, a task that in a calmer mindset would probably not have phased me. I left my friend a message and turned to my other tasks. The connection wasn’t good enough to let me download a map of Havana, so I saved the locations of a laundry and a hotel and then spent some time researching how to log off so that I wouldn’t be charged for time I hadn’t used. Apparently disconnecting wi-fi was enough, but I would have to remember to do so every time.
I grabbed my dirty washing and headed back into the streets, looking for the laundry. Every few steps I was accosted by locals wanting to sell me fruit or a newspaper (English or Spanish) or to come into a bar, and when each person saw my bag of clothes, they would immediately ask for a shirt—just one… please. I explained that I needed it all, that I’d been wearing this shirt for 3 days now because I had been hoping to buy clothes in Latin America but hadn’t found anything in my size. There were plenty of tall people around in Cuba, but if clothes were so hard to come by, I wouldn’t find anything here either.
I couldn’t find the laundry, but Cubans don’t seem to use signs, so perhaps I just didn’t know what to look for. I returned to the wifi hotspot and looked up what tourists normally do for laundry. In Cuba, the hosts at casa particulares will do washing for you for a price. That was a far simpler solution, as long as I could get my host to understand my request.
While I was contemplating that, a message from my friend popped up. She was in a cafe on the same park. Piece by piece I was getting things under control, but Cuba was likely to provide the first real culture shock I’d had since Hong Kong.
Where was the last place you experienced culture shock? How did you cope?
Cuba can definitely be a culture shock, especially if you haven’t had the time to prepare in advance.