In Cuba there are two currencies: the Cuban Peso a.k.a Moneda Nacional and the CUC. Cubans who work for the state are paid in Cuban Pesos which cannot be exchanged into US dollars. The CUC translates almost directly to the dollar and can be exchanged. 25 Cuban pesos is roughly 1 CUC. From what I’ve witnessed here in Cuba, the dual currency system succeeds in dramatically separating the tourist world from the world of the Cuban citizens. While sweaty, backpack-laden tourists frequent the “paladars” —often paying $7 CUC a meal— Cubans are hitting up the “cafeterias” which will sell the exact same meal (if not better) for sometimes less than $20 M.N. At first this was all super confusing to me, and then as I sank deeper into my semester, it made me question the value of things and the divisive power of money.
As a student, I walk an undefined middle ground between tourist and resident that on one hand allows me to experience things the “Cuban way” but on the other hand, makes me feel like an unwanted imposter. My friend Hannah and I went traveling the other weekend to Camaguey and then to Trinidad, two provinces that are located west of Havana. We had two options for transport since we didn’t want to fly: 1. To take “viazul” (the tourist line that charges CUC) or to take 2. Omnibus Naciónal also known as “Astro” to the local population. Thanks to our student IDs or “carnets” (which are literally just laminated photos of us, clearly profusely sweating as they were taken midday, along with our address here and for reasons unknown to any of us, the names of our parents), Hannah and I were able to take the second option. Albeit, not without some convincing. We trekked through Habana Vieja to find the train/bus station and arrived just as they were closing. I begged with a lady behind the counter to please just hear me out and she flashed me her fake nails, sighed loudly and promptly told me that she was severely agitated and wanted to go home. I had better luck with the guy in the next window. He allowed a special exception and let us buy our tickets for $106 Moneda Nacional (which roughly translates to $4 dollars). $4 dollars for an 8 hour bus ride…
Feeling proud of my Spanish skills, we boarded the bus on a Wednesday afternoon, wearing semi-matching “comfy” patterned pants and giant backpacks. We looked like the ultimate “yumas” (Cuban slang term for foreigners) and we hated ourselves for it. We had seats right at the front, with a pleasant view of the cloth decoration that hung on the front window that said “Feliz Viaje” and the driver continued to “check on us” (really make fun of us) for the duration of the trip. Every time we made a rest stop and got off the bus, people would stare at us: some of them amused, some clearly annoyed and some indifferent. We carried the largest bags by far. We all stopped at a place for dinner. Everyone got off and ate together but Hannah and I were full from our “gulosos” (oreoish cookies that are sold here with spongebob on the packaging) and everyone was very concerned for us. “Porque no comieron?!” They asked incredulously while making “eating” gestures towards their mouths, assuming we couldn’t understand. At the end of the 8 hours, we got off the bus in Camaguey, legs numb, feeling like for the most part, even though we were clearly imposing, that we had been welcomed. We spent our time in Camaguey, then headed to Trinidad which are both different, longer stories.
On the way back from Trinidad is where we encountered some trouble. We tried to buy a ticket at the Omnibus station and the man told us that we were put on the waiting list. We saw him write our names down and he told us to return the next day to see if we would be able to get on the bus. We showed up the next day, along with the crowd of Cubans eager to get to Havana and were told (by the same man) that we had never been there the day before and that our names were never on any list. We got angry, we argued and then we gave up after hearing “It’s not my fault its yours” one too many times. Next, we asked the bus driver himself. After a few seconds of silence, he nodded his head and said it would be $8 but that there weren’t any seats. Fine, fine, that’s great. We were eager because we truly did not have enough money with us to take the $40 Viazul bus. We boarded the bus and sat on the ground by the bathroom. We started our journey. I looked up out the window, feeling the burning discomfort in my back from sitting in that awkward upright position and wondered if I would be able to maintain it for 6 hours. Baby cockroaches emerged from a hole in the ground every couple of minutes and we would smack them with the magazine we were doing the crossword puzzle on. Two younger Cuban girls sitting next to us laughed at us throughout the bus ride. We stopped at a rest-stop. On my way out of the bathroom, the bus-driver abruptly grabbed my arm, had clearly been waiting for me, leaned in extremely close to my face so I could see the yellow residue on his teeth and hissed “Dame el dinero.” Feeling my heartbeat quicken, I quickly scrambled through my bag and pulled out 8 M.N. He looked at me incredulously and began to double over laughing. “FULA” he finally shouted, after he had caught his breath. Meaning CUC. Money. He wanted me to pay. Flustered, I quickly exchanged the money and paid him, feeling sufficiently put in my place.
Boarding the bus again this time around, the vibe felt different. The looks felt meaner, my face felt hotter and the air felt more oppressive. It felt like being called out by the teacher in class when you don’t know the answer, being caught drinking in middle school or high school by your parents or your crush telling you that they’re not interested. All the moments in life where for at least a brief second you’re able to glimpse an image of yourself that’s despicable and sad but that’s also real. The part of you that you try to submerge with distractions; the side of yourself that you would never post on facebook, that you try to hide by wearing makeup or nice clothes or even by “volunteering” or participating in some form of social justice that makes us feel okay about the space we occupy.
On the bus, I saw an interesting version of myself through the passenger’s eyes. I looked like a naïve young girl, with a way over-sized backpack and hilariously dorky pants that could clearly afford to take the air-conditioned, extranjero-filled viazul, but decided to take omnibus for the “experience” so that I could tell my friends from home that I “roughed” it in a vaguely subconscious self-righteous way. And unfortunately, they weren’t entirely wrong.