First, I had to figure out how much I might possibly need in Cuba and then had to find places to stash it since I'm paranoid about carrying lots of money in one place. American credit and debit cards don't work in Cuba, so I had to get everything I might need from the bank.
Second, I had to decide what kind of money to take. Cuban money is not recognized in the global market, and there wasn't any certain way to know what they would charge as an exchange rate to change my kind of money into their Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs, or "kooks"). I opted to take mostly American dollars and a small amount of Canadian dollars.
The Queen sure stands out from those grumpy-looking old men, doesn't she?
Getting dollars exchanged into Canadian money was a surprising challenge only because I didn't want to lie to the overly-helpful Wells Fargo bank teller. Other travelers who had tried to get Canadian money from banks were turned away when they said they planned to take them to Cuba - one of the ways our freedom-loving government limits our options when going 90 miles off the U.S. coast. So I attempted to be friendly without lying to the teller or giving him reason to send me elsewhere for my valuable photo of the Queen. I managed to navigate the conversation but at one point the kind man had the week's weather forecast for Victoria, British Columbia pulled up on his computer because he was concerned I didn't know the weather even though I was leaving tomorrow.
When I got there, I discovered that somehow it cost more to exchange the Canadian money than it did the U.S. money. No exchange rates or fee percentages were listed anywhere, of course...I learned the exchange rate only by actually exchanging the money and seeing how much I got back after I'd turned over my hard-earned cash and received this pretty Cuban money in return.
I'd read every description of the dual Cuban currency that I could find before leaving the U.S. and felt like after much studying I had obtained an understanding of the local currency versus the more expensive currency used by tourists. (It takes approximately 25 national pesos to equal one CUC). Nothing was as simple as our tour guide's explanation, however: "If it has numbers it's worth something, if it has faces you don't want it."
We didn't have many direct chances to see the difference between the uses of the two currencies, but we saw the impact of the dual system every day. Cubans are paid by the government in national pesos, not the coveted and much more valuable CUCs. To obtain anything beyond the rations they're given - extravagant things such as soap and more food - they must buy them in CUC stores. And the only way to get CUCs is from tourists. Cubans get creative about making these requests, and for the most part it is never offensive. They offer to take your picture, then ask for a CUC. They offer to be in your picture, then ask for a CUC. They clean the bathrooms, and expect some CUC change in return.
The two-currency dynamic leads to what Erik perfectly described as "an upside-down social pyramid." Doctors, lawyers, and those who have worked hard to become highly educated are at the bottom of the social status since their revenues are in national pesos that often require them to find additional income. Those who are lucky enough to interact with tourists, like waiters or bellboys, are higher in society because their untaxed cash tips are in CUCs that give them access to the finer things in Cuban life.
Nothing symbolized the cruel nature of the monetary system for me more than my visit to the heralded ice cream shop Copelia.
I'd seen the lines for this place, and they always stretched for at least two city blocks. So when I was able to walk directly to the counter and order, I thought I'd discovered the one time of day Cubans didn't like ice cream...until I learned that I'd used one of two entrances. One side, the side with the half-day-long lines, was for those paying with national pesos who were willing to take one option for ice cream flavor; the other side, without any line, was for those paying in CUCs. With CUCs, we got three flavors from which to choose.
It's too bad I can't tell my bank teller how much more complicated things are outside that neat Canadian monetary system.