Before there was Airbnb, there were Cuban Casa Particulars.
When Cuba began to lose economic support from the Soviet Union after the collapse of the communist bloc in 1989, some Cubans sought alternative sources of income by opening up their homes to tourists. These “private homes,” as they translate to in English, are typically short-term room rentals in single-family homes.
Nowadays, these Casas still offer visitors an authentic taste of Cuba, including a fresh breakfast made in an immaculate 1950’s-era home kitchen and a chance to feel like part of the family, but as relations between the U.S. and Cuba warm, these arrangements may change.
Inspired by old family photographs of her grandparents enjoying Cuba’s nightlife in 1946, (her grandfather was stationed in Key West for a year, and they made trips to Cuba), Texas photographer Meg Griffiths longed to follow their trail. She found the easiest way to make contacts before her trip was by searching Casa Particulars online. There she met Isabelle Gomez, a woman who rents rooms in her house in Havana.
While Griffiths stayed with Gomez, they became close. She ate well and even learned how to cook some authentic dishes, like ropa vieja (“old rags”—a long-cooked shredded beef stew.) So when Thanksgiving rolled around, she decided to return the favor and make Gomez an authentic American Thanksgiving dinner. It turns out that obtaining and cooking a turkey in Cuba was a tall order. “I had to get two different cars to take me to a store out by the embassy that was heavily gated.” That’s where she found her sought after bird.
She finally got the turkey into the oven after crowdsourcing foil from the neighbors and stuffing it with an unconventional citrus medley. But while the bird was cooking, the gas shut off.
“We shoved the turkey in the microwave. It spun around in there thumping for a while. It was definitely too large.” The gas turned back on and she was able to cook her host the first turkey she had ever eaten.
While Griffiths enjoyed her time with Gomez, she longed to see more of the country. With Gomez’s guidance, she made her way across the island; eating, sleeping, and photographing in the homes of the locals. (We are obsessed with her food-focused photos, but her project is much wider than that. You can explore more of her images here.)
What she discovered was the simplicity, freshness, and slowness of Cuban cuisine. “The microwave, the pressure cooker, and the crockpot were the main tools to make a meal,“ she says. “A lot of the houses I stayed in, they’d have people bring them bread every day. They make their own yogurt. They also make jams and jellies. I learned how to make marmalade de mango,” Griffiths explains.
On her first trip to Cuba, she stayed about two months. The next year, she returned for six weeks in the fall and winter. But in 2014, she came back in the spring and was amazed by a totally new landscape.
“In May, it’s like the entire country is in bloom, and fruit is just falling from the trees, so when I traveled to different houses, people were pawning off as much fruit on me as they could to send to the next family. They had so much bounty, so much fruit. There’s only so much giving away to neighbors because they have their own gardens.”
In 2015, Airbnb started up in Cuba. Gomez lists her house there, too. Griffiths says things are changing. Casa Particular hosts have “become much more catered to a westernized sense of hospitality, I think. In the beginning you’d have more families, they’d sit down with you for meals, and you’d feel like you were a part of their family—hanging out and making meals.” Now, she says, “It’s much more about service. Maybe people don’t really want to interact, they just want to come in and stay at a place like a B&B, have breakfast, go off, and come back in the night, rather than having an interactive experience.”
This could also mean the food experience will change from fresh and local island food to more convenience products, which would be a shame, Griffiths says. “People are concerned about what will happen to the food culture and the culture itself as [Cuba] opens up and they start catering to what people want. And maybe they get further away from what they love about their culture so much. There’s a sense of pride in the simplicity of the way they live. There’s definitely a sense that they want what other countries have in terms of access to certain things,” she says. But she still senses a hesitation. People say, “‘We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. We’re excited but we’re a little nervous.’”