When I travel, experiencing local life is essential: I check out the grocery stores, venture outside of the tourist centers, and find cafes where no one speaks my native language. One of these tried-and-true methods proved difficult on a recent trip to Cuba, where grocery stores are government-owned and therefore off limits to American tourists. Out of both necessity and curiosity, I found the connections I sought in another up close and personal way: staying in peoples' homes - with them - and conversing every morning as they prepared breakfast.
Casas particulares is a Spanish term, specific to Cuba, that translates to "private houses" and colloquially means "private accommodations." In a sense, these are your quaint and classic bed-and-breakfasts. Family-owned and operated, lodging in a casa provides insight into Cuban life while directly supporting the Cuban people and their economy. Prior to 1997, the Cuban government owned all the hotels in the country; any citizen offering private lodging was considered a threat and their business was deemed illegal. While the government still controls the vast majority of the hotels (save for a select few privately-owned boutique operations), the legalization of casas particulares created new revenue streams for struggling Cubans. This simultaneously provided a different, and remarkably intimate type of accommodation for American tourists who remain prohibited from engaging with government-owned businesses.
Seeing into the lives of my hosts, and getting to know them briefly, was one of my favorite parts of my trip. In spending our mornings together, my worldview expanded. Our conversations spanned politics and communism, family dynamics, and what it meant to be a responsible tourist. Despite a lack of access to simple amenities, there was an unrivaled hospitality that I not only witnessed, but tasted. Inside the casas particulares, and through the lens of unfussy home-cooked meals, I learned about the complexity and resilience of the country.