Work Through the Language Barrier
A lot of what I’ve written thus far may flavor my recommendations towards not interacting with the people, but that couldn’t be farther from my intent. In fact, some of the most rewarding and enriching experiences from Cuba were gained specifically through my interactions with her local denizens, so please don’t rob yourself of the wonderful experience of communicating, or at least attempting to communicate, with the people around you.
Right off the bat, this tip probably doesn’t apply if you’re already fluent in the native language of the country you’re visiting. In the case with Cuba, that language is Spanish. However, even if you’re very comfortable with the language, there are a number of regional dialects, idioms and accents that can still make conversing somewhat challenging. I have a very cursory and broken grasp of the Spanish language. Basically, whatever my brain can muster up from my high school days of Spanish class is what I’m working with now. Fortunately, it was enough to let me communicate—often comically—with other people.
There’s a slew of reasons—many very obvious—as to why being able to communicate is so important. Maybe you need to ask where the nearest bathroom is (¿dónde está el baño?) or you need to ask how much that bottle of water is (¿Cuánto cuesta una botella de aqua?). And—probably most applicable—you’d like to ask that genial old lady if it’s OK to take her picture (Perdóname. ¿Puedo tomar su foto?)
In my experience with trying to strike up a conversation with Cuban people, they were all exceptionally gracious and accommodating to help bridge the gap in language. In fact, there were many cases where the person I was speaking with tried their hand at English and suddenly, we were having a conversation! In some cases, I never even tried lifting my camera. I’d begin with a smile and a simple ¡Hola amigo! or Buenos días or my friend Betsy’s new favorite, “¿Como va la cosa?” The next thing I knew, we were talking about politics (always an adventure), their job or their family. By the end, asking to take their picture was super easy and a mutual pleasure. Which leads me to my next tip.
Show the Photo After You’ve Taken It
Taking someone’s photo can be a very nerve-racking experience, especially for the subject and especially if your subject catches you sneaking a photo of them. Imagine the scenario where a local is standing outside of his house, living his life when, out of nowhere, some total stranger points a camera at them, takes a photo and then walks away. You can imagine the range of emotions this person could be feeling, which is why engaging them in conversation is so important. However, I also understand that there are many circumstances that could prevent you from having that opportunity before you take the photo. Maybe the moment would have been altered or lost altogether.
This is where showing the photo to your subject after you’ve taken it can go such a long way. Calmly approach the person, graciously thank them (muchas gracias) and then show them the photo on the back of your LCD. You’ll probably get bonus points for showering them with compliments like “how handsome!” (¡que guapo!) or “how pretty!” (¡que bonita!). More likely than not, you’ll elicit a laugh out of them and, most importantly, you’ll reinforce that having their picture taken by a total stranger can be a positive experience. In a way, you’re paying it forward for all the future photographers who walk in your footsteps.
Have a Pocketful of Small Bills or Change
Without going into too much detail, it’s safe to say that just about every single Cuban citizen I met lived in impoverished conditions. Now, I know that the ideal of a Socialist regime should prevent such things, but reality almost always operates on a different plane than the ideal, and Cuba is no exception (far from it!). On average, each person earns approximately $40/month, which is almost unimaginably challenging to live off of.
I can’t begin to count the number of times I was solicited by a total stranger for some money. This was especially true in the touristy parts of Havana and throughout almost all of Trinidad. I admit that by the end of my stay, I was mostly desensitized to solicitors and had no problem simply saying that I had no money to give (Lo siento. No tengo nada de dinero). It’s not that I’m opposed to helping someone by giving them spare change or small bills. I simply prefer to trade an experience for my money.
For example, on one of the first days that the group meandered around Old Havana, we came upon three men (two of whom are pictured above) sitting on the side of a building and we all started chatting. After a few minutes, there had to be 10 of us—three Cubans and seven Americans—conversing about a wide range of topics. The experience was wonderful! We laughed and talked about how terrified we all were of the upcoming presidential elections. We learned about how happy they were to see more Americans visiting them. And, naturally, we took a bunch of photos. In short, we bonded. When we were done, all of us instinctively and collectively put together a small pile of bills to give to them. It was our way of showing our appreciation in the most powerful way we could. Since that encounter, I repeated this transaction of sorts with anyone who I gained an experience with, and I couldn’t have been happier to do so.
So There You Have It!
Traveling to new countries can be both nerve-racking and utterly rewarding. If there’s one thing that keeps being reinforced as so important throughout my travels, it’s the establishment of the human connection regardless of language, culture or social status. When I forget that, all I need to do is put myself in the other person’s shoes. Reality can set in very quickly at that point and from that awareness breeds appreciation, compassion and a thirst to understand more. I hope these tips help prepare you for your own travels to Cuba or anywhere else in the world.