Yap Seow Choong

Yap loves design, travel and everything beautiful in life. He writes for various media about travel and design and has published works, including Wander Bhutan and Myanmar Odyssey. Formerly publisher of Lonely Planet (China Office), Yap is now Chief Content Officer of Youpu Apps, a Beijing based travel app company.

Cuban creativity

06 2020 | issue39

A Mi Manera is a famous flying pizza restaurant in Havana. Situated in the city centre, the restaurant can be found in a neighbourhood that is rarely visited by tourists. Most of A Mi Manera’s customers are local residents. This flying pizza restaurant not only sells tasty delicacy but also a legacy built by Cuban people’s wisdom of overcoming hardship.


In 1993, the Cuban government lifted restrictions on commercial activities and started to allow Cuban people to open private restaurants in their household. Since then, all kinds of creative restaurants you can now visit in Cuba started to pop up. Visitors to Cuba no longer need to endure bad service and plain dishes at state-run restaurants. But of course, they would have to pay prices similar to those of western restaurants to have a taste of specialities offered in those private restaurants. Such expense is not affordable for ordinary Cuban people as the average monthly income in Cuba is merely USD25.


A Mi Manera means “my way” in Spanish. The restaurant is actually on the top floor of a building, which is quite inconvenient for customers to go up and down. There is also a lack of dining space. Given these physical constraints, A Mi Manera decided to “fly” their pizza from the rooftop to their customers. Pizzas are lowered down from the fourth floor to the ground floor with a front grill of a fan. Then the customer can just grab the pizza and go. Although the pizzas at A Mi Manera are priced higher than other pizza places that the local often go to, they taste great (the best meal that I had had in Cuba) nonetheless. Because of its tasty pizzas, A Mi Manera is often flooded with customers, selling around 900 pizzas every week. It is said that lots of people would come from other towns to buy pizzas from A Mi Manera.


The famous private restaurant San Cristóbal is not very far from A Mi Manera. San Cristóbal gained a big reputation after the former U.S. President Obama’s visit. The restaurant’s decoration is similar to that of our grandma’s house. You can see piles of antiques in San Cristóbal. With a shabby chic interior design, the restaurant presents a nostalgic vibe to its customers, which will definitely satisfy visitors’ expectation for visiting Cuba. Cuba does not have the resources for fashion or luxury. In general, you cannot really find a lot of intriguing things in ordinary shops. That’s why it is natural for Cuban restaurants and shops to go for shabby chic design, which matches Cuba’s own voice. As for the dishes offered at San Cristóbal, I personally think they can fit into the category of “ok considering the lack of resources here”. However, you can easily experience two different worlds of Havana in these restaurants. The waiters here wear smartwatch from Apple. Many people would give up their formal jobs to serve dishes here because they have the opportunity to earn foreign currency here. The tips they get one day might be the amount of salary that common folks make a month.


Photo courtesy of unsplash


The urgency for utilising creativity is established by the lack of materials. The long-term economic sanction by the U.S. government did not bend Cuba, a small country at the Caribbean. Cuba subsequently opened up its border to tourists and launched several reforms that still look foreseeing now. The government encourages the local to use their home to accommodate tourists when there is a lack of hotel rooms. Perhaps Airbnb was inspired by this? When there is a fossil fuel shortage, Cuba would incentivise its people to commute by bike more. Cuba actually once bought one million bicycles from China. As for situations where there is a lack of food, then the local are encouraged to grow their own fresh produce at their backyard, which is more economical and brings healthy food. These are exactly the low-carbon lifestyles that are trending today. But they have long been embedded in Cuban people’s genes. The difference here is that they did not have much choice when choosing their ways of living.


Travellers who have been to Cuba would always complain about the Internet service there. It is not just slow, but also very expensive and inconvenient. But you will be surprised by how familiar the local are with western pop culture. Their exposure to the west is attributed to El Paquete.


How do Cuban people break through the Internet restrictions imposed by the government and the extremely slow speed? To have more Internet access, Cuban people developed EI Paquete, which means “The Package” in English. EI Paquete is a very simple method to share information. Cuban people that are living overseas would download interesting content from the Internet to hard disks every week, and then smuggle them back to Cuba. The local would only need to pay USD1-2 to have access to the underground network and download content from the hard disks. The available content includes Hollywood movies, digital newspaper and other publications, smartphone and computer applications, etc. This also includes e-commerce information similar to that of Taobao. El Paquete is updated on a weekly basis, allowing Cuban people who have limited Internet access to also keep up with the world’s development.


The Internet has undeniable contributions to the world. But we now live in a world that is overwhelmed by information, where we are always distracted by our smartphone and the Internet. This does not necessarily bring us more joy. Is it enjoyable to live in Cuba? This is not a simple question to answer. What I was able to see is that Cuban people’s ability to make use of their creativity to live their life even with limited resources, and that they can find their joy without using different kinds of high tech.