What to Pack when Travelling to Cuba (Hint: it is not what you think!)

  There was a great article in The Verge this past week by Jonathan Katz (and incredible photos by Allison Shelly as well) called Havana’s Hotspots. In this feature, Katz described the state of connectivity (or lack thereof) for Cuba.
“…Weaker souls had taken off when the rain began to fall, but the stalwarts along the wrought-iron fence weren’t going anywhere. They had come to this corner among the faded manses of pre-revolutionary sugar barons and mafiosi to taste one of the rarest commodities in Cuba — the internet — at one of the wireless hotspots the government set up a few weeks before. They weren’t going to let a little signal outage, or a rainstorm, stop them from trying to get online…”
Through his writing, you really get a sense of a nation yearning to connect – physically and emotionally – with each other, with family and friends abroad, and with the world in general. After more than half a century of living in physical and digital isolation, Cubans are ready.
“…Over the last two decades, as the internet spread across the planet, Cuba has been in digital isolation. Only the most privileged or crafty have been able to get connections: just 4.1 percent of Cuban households had the internet as of 2013, the most recent data available, according to the UN International Telecommunications Union, and there is no public cellular data service. The only internet cafés are branches of the state telephone company, where customers can use an archaic terminal under the surveillance of a government worker sitting a few feet away. Even those with home dial-up can rarely access sites outside the national “.cu” domain…”
Like a lot of the countries where YO! is starting to get traction, Cuba’s pains are magnified: less than 5% connectivity, no mobile data networks, and state control over everyday life. For those who are fortunate to access the outside world (and private Internet connectivity is reserved for a privileged few), the cost of connectivity is as much as $5 per hour. Connectivity is limited to international hotels and few and far between “Internet rooms.” This is the equivalent of a full week’s wages for the majority of the population.   If ever there was a ideal market need for YO!, it is in Cuba.   Unlike a lot of our American friends, those of us up here in Canada have been free to travel to Cuba and it has been a fairly common winter destination for several decades. Warm beaches and equally warm smiles await those who make the quick trek to the Caribbean sun.   My last trip to Cuba was over Christmas in 1995. At that time, it was standard practice to bring things into the country when visiting that you would leave with the locals, so we decided that rather than buying and bringing Christmas gifts from home for each family member, we would each pack an extra suitcase full of gifts for the locals. Amongst the items my family brought: paper, pens, school supplies, chalk, candy, clothing, and more every day essentials.   But from myself? I struggled for a long time about what to give. Clothing? Books? What would a Cuban youth want? Eventually, after many hours of introspection I decided that kids in Cuba would want exactly the same thing that any child would want anywhere in the world: kids just want to have fun, play games, and enjoy life.   So, I brought them baseball.   In fact, I brought an entire suitcase filled with equipment that I had picked up from a second-hand sporting goods retailer: balls, bats, and gloves (my own glove along with nine more that I had planned to leave behind).   It is still one of the fondest memories of my life, being invited to join in on a weekly pickup game in a sandlot just outside Santiago de Cuba (south Island, less busy than the Havana side). And boy these kids sure could play. Every pitch had movement. Every swing was sweet. Every hit a homerun.   I do not speak Spanish, but we spoke the same language. There is a certain universality to sport and games, and we made a connection. And yes, at the end of the game, I left my own glove, my running shoes, and most of my other possessions too.   Back to modern-day Cuba — in his article Katz documents a common practice and a burgeoning economy for Cuban locals for El Paquete Semanal, or the weekly package.
“…Much of the information comes in offline, through phone calls and visits to relatives abroad, pirated TV signals, and dribs and drabs that make it through the state-run media. But thousands are also watching Juego de Tronos shortly after it airs on HBO. They get it on the paquete semanal, or weekly package — a fresh terabyte of movies, TV shows, video games, phone apps, articles, and advertisements that arrives on the computers of kingpins in Havana every Monday, then proliferates across the country on portable hard drives.   I went down to a seaside neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital to see how this worked. A paquete distributor in his late 20s, who works as a researcher in a state medical lab, greeted me on the front porch of the one-story home he shares with his parents. The deal is simple: each week he pays $5 to download the paquete onto his portable hard drive from a distributor higher up the chain, then he charges $1 to 20 or so regular customers to download from him….”
Their Internet is offline. There are no streaming services. Sharing photos with Snapchat or Instagram, and listening to music with Spotify – these are simply not possible. The paquete slowly trickles across the country from person-to-person, computer-to-computer, slowed by the pace of the courier walking between the homes of the downstream channel. But the people are connecting.   I have also seen this practice of the ‘SneakerNet’ replacing WiFi, data plans, and cable connectivity in my trips to Bangladesh. There it is comparable to Cuba where for 25 taka (USD$0.32) you could pay at a web café or computer shop and get apps, movies, games, news, video clips transferred onto the SD card of your phone. Like nature, connectivity will find a way.   I flashed back to my Christmas baseball memory when reading Katz’ article, and asked myself, “If I was going to Cuba today, what would I bring?”   The answer is simple. I would bring them YO! and as many WiFi routers as I could collect. I would fill my phone with apps, games, books, health guides, PDFs, course work, and as much as I could possibly squeeze onto my phone’s storage.   One of the things within YO! that we downplay a little bit — but is essential in markets like Cuba, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and several of the other regions where we are getting traction — is our Instant Transfer feature. YO!’s Instant Transfer lets users send the app to another user from within the app itself. This allows someone who doesn’t have Internet connectivity (and thus cannot download the app from Google Play, our website, or any AppMarket) to get the app from a friend. And once they have the app, they can get content and connect with others nearby.   We quote George Bernard Shaw in in our initial launch video where we outlined our vision and reason for creating YO!:
“If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”
We are still living by that philosophy with YO!, spreading ideas, hope, and joy to all those who use the product. Every decision we make, in fact, is guided by that principle. We truly believe that if we can connect the world, we can make the world a better place.   So, I ask you, if you are travelling to Cuba this winter (or know of someone who is travelling to Cuba) ask them to install YO! and then ask them to give it the locals. Show them how to transfer the app peer-to-peer from within the app itself. Ask them to share apps, games, news, and educational videos. Spread YO!.