Every culture has its own practices, customs, and traditions. When traveling, it's important to be aware of and respect the communities you're entering, so you can travel harmoniously without stepping on anyone's toes or unintentionally insulting someone's grandmother.
And so, without further ado, I present:
How Not To Be A Douchebag: Cuba Edition*
1. Tip your bathroom attendant.
Always carry change so you can tip the bathroom attendant. In Cuba, these people may also be the ones who distribute toilet paper - sometimes which they’ve purchased themselves. This is the way some people make their living, so don’t be stingy .
2. Always ask “el ultimo?” before getting into a line
This was one of my biggest irritators when coming upon other tourists. To give you some context, when you wait in line in Cuba, the lines aren’t really lines. They’re more like giant clusters of people and the way you learn your place is by calling out “El ultimo?” - which literally means “the last one?” - to ask who is the person who comes before you. Somehow in the cluster, all are able to remember who comes before them and who after. After waiting for hours in countless lines, I still have no idea how they work. But Cubans seemed to understand them, and that’s all that matters.
In any case, There were many times when I’d have to get in line - let’s say, to buy another internet card - and find a group of foreign tourists chatting loudly in a clump in front of the door, seemingly oblivious to the locals who were trying to figure out what was going on. “Well, hey now,” you say, “I did ask who the last person was, and now I’m just waiting like everyone else. What do you expect me to do?” One thing: communicate! Be aware of your surroundings, and if you see people who are looking obviously frustrated, talk to them so everyone is on the same page.
3. Don’t assume you know what poverty looks like
This was something that came up a lot while traveling. Many tourists - particularly those who were traveling ‘in support of the Cuban people’ - came to Cuba expecting to find the people impoverished, barefoot and in rags, desperate for help from abroad. They were then shocked and even angered to find that the majority of Cubans were way more fashionable and better dressed than they themselves were.
Here’s the thing: not all poverty looks the same, and it frequently doesn’t look like what we’re socialized to expect. Expecting poverty to look a certain way is both problematic and dangerous. It prevents the ability to explore the complex juxtaposition of realities all cultures hold, further fragments relationships between communities, and renders mute those whose stories need to be told.
4. Don’t romanticize the poverty you do see
The classic cars. The domino games in the street. The people laughing with each other on a bench in the park, rather than being glued to their cellphones or laptops. These are certainly some of the wonderfully refreshing parts about being in Cuba, but it’s important to remember that these ‘charming’ qualities are the result of a harsh political history, an embargo that has cost the Cuban economy over one trillion dollars in losses, and over half of a century of political isolation. Enjoy it (while it lasts), but appreciate it in context. Jules and Christian at Don’t Forget To Move have a great post that further puts things into perspective. You can check it out here.
5. Don’t hate on the jineteros
Interactions with jineteros, or street hustlers, can be uncomfortable to navigate. It feels icky when the charming person with whom you thought you were developing a friendship starts pressuring you for money. But before you start hating, take a minute to think about their reality. The average monthly wage in Cuba roughly equates to between $12 - 20 USD. The cost of a 12 pack of diapers is about $15 USD. One box of tampons costs about the same. If you’re working in the formal economy, the salary to cost-of-living ratio is impossible to live on.
Cubans have learned to live in this context with incredible resourcefulness and creativity. Opportunities are rarely wasted. An empty soda can becomes a hair roller, then a candle holder, then a part of an antenna, and then two or three additional reincarnations thanks to the DIY-inventiveness in Cuba. The improving US relations and growth spurt in US tourism is another such opportunity - one that would be foolish for Cubans not to take advantage of.
And perhaps there’s an opportunity for the hustle-ee as well. The nice person who gave you directions and walked you to where you were going might now be asking for money so she can buy her daughter milk, but hey - you’ve just gotten a mini tour of the neighborhood from a local. Your new local friend changed your order at the bar at now you’re drinking expensive 7-year old Havana Club instead of well rum? Close your eyes and take a sip. They might have just turned you on to your new favorite spirit.
*Please note that this is just a brief introduction, and should not be considered a complete guide in avoiding douchebaggery. I'm sure there are plenty of other ways to be a douchebag in Cuba, and I encourage you to get creative in finding methods to avoid being one! Have something you'd like to add to the list? Let me know!