Impressions of Cuba – March 2012
Cuba is a beautiful country. There is much to see and do. The cigars are best, the rum is excellent, especially the older stuff. The music is good, the architecture impressive, the Caribbean is balmy and clean, the UNESCO heritage sites a must-see. The people are on the whole decent, proud, educated and non-aggressive. Begging is very mild and harassment of tourists is light. There is a vibrant arts and culture scene, cabaret lives, there is social progress and reconstruction going on. Given the human capital and resourcefulness that suffuses Cuba, there is hope for the future, things can only improve.
We must however remember that Cuba has a peculiar history and underwent a communist revolution in 1959. This has led to specific socio-economic situations to the benefit of some and the detriment of others. A lot of the problems stem from the economic embargo still exerted by the US, the world superpower right on its doorstep. This has meant shortages of many basic commodities. Cubans have as a result learnt to make-do and survive through means not always beneficial to the tourist. What follows is a set of experiences I had in Cuba in March 2012, some strange, some indifferent, some unpleasant.
- “No can do” attitude
* A bank official tells you, philosophically, that their machine to process credit cards has been down for two days. They have not had a connection for all that time, neither do they know when it will resume, you are told with a shrug.
* No, there are no plugs for the bath or the wash basin, housekeeping tells you at the Habana Libre hotel, supposedly five-starred. But can’t you make a plan, you ask. Sorry, there are no bath plugs, you are told.
* Only two out of six lifts work at the Habana Libre hotel, a 25-storied building housing hundreds. You get the impression the other four have been disabled to save electricity. Why? Because when you really needed one some technician brought out a screwdriver and enabled a lift. So all people cram into two lifts, those who can get in. The rest languish on their floors in long Amadeo Modigliani faces, desperate and frustrated. To get a lift you go all the way up to floor 25, stopping at every floor, and then descend, stopping at every floor. The frustration comes when you call for a porter at 9AM to be told that he can’t help you as the lifts are full at that time of the morning. Eleven is better. But you have a journey at 09H30…
* You call for an ashtray three times and it is promised forthwith three times. You are still waiting for it by the time you leave three days later.
* The hot water is at best lukewarm – insipidly so.
* You ask your amiable Vinales casa hostess whether you can have more coffee at breakfast on the third morning of your stay. The answer is a flat ‘no’.
* The staff at Cayo Levisa pretend to look around for an hour for an adaptor for you, knowing full well there is none.
* The bicitaxi driver says he cannot spend more time with you as he has to get home.
* ‘That’s what there is – take it or leave it’ – is a common attitude. The situation: People get paid whether they do things or not – typical of the system. Don’t forget that Cuba is a communist country, with a different set of priorities from the frivolity of luxury-seeking tourists.
- How the taxi driver screws you
The taxi driver is nice, engaging, gaining your confidence as any confidence trickster would. He drives you with his girlfriend to Vinales, taking you around and giving you a good deal on the fare. He then suggests a restaurant, telling you it is cheap. You don’t ask for the menu, you go along with his suggestion, and then get a shock when the bill comes, without specifying any item but including his kickback for sure. The lesson: do your homework and insist that the driver take you to the restaurant of your choice.
- How the nightclub broker screws you
The taxi takes you to a popular nightclub where millions are queuing. A “queue broker” appears from nowhere and pokes his bulging pate into the car, offering you a deal to jump the queue and a good seat ‘on stage, right next to the DJ’ for 20 CUC’s. You refuse his offer but he follows you around, claiming you as a client and shooing away other queue brokers who swarm around you. You leave discouraged after ten minutes.
- Tobacco or banana leaves?
You don’t buy cigars from the official shops, but at 30% of the price from vendors of little curio shops who all sell cigars from back rooms. You know that cigar factory workers get given a quota which they sell to supplement their income. You buy a box of Cohiba maduros, fine cigars, excepting that the bottom layer you haven’t checked is filled with fake cigars, half-filled with banana leaf. You take them back and make a scene. They apologise and repair the damage after some investigation. You go back again and buy from them as they dare not cheat you again. I’m a regular client now. For good and cheap cigars, ask for Cacha at a curio shop just behind the Police Prefecture on the waterfront (Malecon) in Old Havana and cite the event of the South African who brought back his maduros.
- Another Dog has its Day.
When Cuban taxi drivers approach an animal on the road, they hardly slow down, just hooting and decelerating ever so slightly. One of them killed a dog that he could have easily avoided on a country road. He immediately turned around and said ‘no problem, we’re all right’, without bothering to stop. Presumably human life is infinitely more important. My fellow tourist passenger cries inconsolably for the rest of the voyage, terribly upset. In a fit of pique, she sprays a can of Coke all over him when we get out. He retaliates by threatening violence, reversing his car to where we’re standing and spewing the blackest exhaust fumes all over us. ‘That was deliberate I think’, assesses a Scottish tourist who alighted from another taxi. Penetrating observation. ‘Difficult transaction with the driver?’ he asks.
- Salsa Lesson in the Foyer
Catherina, an Austrian crypto sex-tourist who came to look at the room of the Vinales casa at which I was staying, suggested salsa lessons from Juan, who is purportedly good. You make an appointment with Juan and his female partner at 6PM on the town square, where salsa sizzled the previous night. They say they cannot give you lessons there and take you to an apartment block on the seedy side of Vinales. Dogs mope around, a pig frolics and forages on what could be deemed a lawn. Boys kick a ball around. Dusk sets in. Juan takes you to his first-floor apartment where a granny feeds a baby and looks at you with the disinterest she would an occupant. Juan grabs a sound system and some CDs and takes you downstairs to the small dirty foyer. He starts up the sound system and the lesson begins. People walk past in and out of the building as though we don’t exist. An everyday occurrence, these salsa lessons in the foyer. One or two people stop on the stairs and stare. ‘Uno-dos-tres’, Juan counts the basic steps. ‘Uno- dos-tres’, we move, right there, in the waning light, before an onlooker, two dogs and a grunting pig.
- Smuggled Cigars.
I visit the cigar factory in Pinar del Rio in the Vuelta Abajo, arguably the best tobacco-growing region in the world. There they are, rows of torcedores, cutting, twisting, wrapping. We watch the process from beginning to end. The reader is not in that day, the tour guide tells us. Great pity – I had always wanted to hear the readers in the cigar factory reciting works by Shakespeare, Dickens, Puskin et.al. as has been done since the 19th century. No photographs please, says the guide, and do not diverge from the tour path. A while later she excuses herself to fetch two British tourists and I wander into a packing room. A worker nervously shows me some cigars, not banded. Five CUCs for ten, he says. His hands shake from nerves – this is highly illicit. Factory workers earn around 30 CUCs a month, and this money will surely be spread along the smuggling chain. I hand over five CUCs in a flash and he instantly puts the cigars in my pocket, nervously, and throws my loose shirt over them, warning me to keep them hidden. I rejoin the tour group a minute later. ‘Where have you been?’ admonishes the tour guide in an accusing voice. ‘Looking at the packing rooms’, I say, boldly. I find out later that my cigars are Trinidad Fundadores, in all probability hand-rolled that morning. I can safely say that they were the finest smoke I had in all of Cuba.
- Those nice old cars
Many cars in Cuba pre-date the 1959 revolution and are in many ways symbols of Cuba. They come in shiny colours do these beautiful old Fords, Buicks, Pontiacs, Chevrolets… An army of mechanics maintain them all around Cuba, and some are in the most perfect condition. They make splendid taxis. Others are held together by tape and reek of the foulest petrol fumes. Smell before you leap.
- No-one steals in Trinidad (Cuba).
My bicitaxi man in the city of Trinidad, Eday, assures me that there is no theft in Trinidad. Oh, perhaps there is from people who come from elsewhere, but they’re not Trinidadians. The dangerous places are Havana and Santiago de Cuba, says Eday. There you have to be careful. But I notice that he doesn’t dare leave our water bottle on the tricycle when we park it even for a few minutes…
- Nice work if you can get it
The government tour guide on the bus from Vinales to Trinidad says she will not interrupt us with much talking, as we would probably want to be left undisturbed. Oh good, you think. She then says absolutely nothing except to announce the bathroom rests and the stop at the restaurant where she gets a kickback. Not a thing, no information, nothing, just sound sleep. A saintly sinecure.
- Crooked taxi broker
Carlos is a taxi broker in Vinales. He promises you an English speaking taxi in a modern Hyundai car – like the one right there in the street that you can see – to take you to Trinidad the next day. The next day two men turn up in an old car reeking of the most asphyxiating fumes. You cannot breathe in the cabin. A mere hour’s exposure will irreparably sicken you. Neither do they speak English. So where’s the new car and the English speaking driver, you ask. They’re sorry, but there had been an accident that morning, and the car’s a wreck and the English-speaking driver is in hospital. So why didn’t Carlos inform us of this when he spoke to us a little earlier, you ask. Shrugs all round, followed by a lame explanation. No deal, you say. Oh, but they were in any case going to Havana and could make the trip cheaper – were we perhaps interested? No way. The lesson: Make them stick to the agreement and do not back down. We took a comfortable bus instead the next morning. What happened must have been this: Carlos, instead of paying the taxi driver, found two guys who were going in our direction and engaged them instead at half the cost of the taxi.
- Sorry, no receipts.
The government bus service to Trinidad was fine but the booking office would not issue receipts. There were none, said the official, pocketing the money. Humph. There must have been a receipt book somewhere, but we can safely assume that this fare will not be declared. It will instead be dished out to the usual make-a-plan chain. So be nice. Don’t upset the set-up. Shut up and be a quiet, gentle, good tourist.
- Art, so-called
The ingratiatingly nice gallery owner shows you a piece slightly different from the usual canvasses depicting old cars in Havana streets. His very own work, he attests, crosses his heart and swears to die. Two days later you go to the artisans’ market and a dozen similar mass-produced paintings laugh back at you. Now there are good galleries in Cuba – you have to find them though. Look around before buying.
- Talented Artist
There is a lot of what passes for art in Cuba, and then you find the real thing. In Trinidad, I see a work I like. The gallery owner says she can call the artist, who arrives in ten minutes. His name is Ernesto Rodriguez, he works in Spain and has already won first prize in an art competition. He is young with dreadlocks and pins and has that typical artist’s attitude. He is shy with no apparent social skills. You buy. He invites you to his studio and you pitch up the next day. He unravels one of his magnificent works before you, the Marilyn Monroe Madonna. ‘It’s precious’, he says. It is. You buy.
- The Crushing of Male Egos.
I’m in Trinidad trying to arrange for a taxi to Havana with a female fellow-tourist. We decide to leave the bargaining to her. We’re bargaining with the taxi driver, the taxi broker and our bicitaxi driver for the fare, but she’s not sure of the price and insists on trying at the bus office right in front of us. She goes in and the taxi broker, the driver and my bicitaxi man Eday jointly try to convince me of the good taxi deal we’re getting. They should tell this to her, I say. They shake their heads, spend a few seconds with her then come back for five minutes trying to convince me. I shake my head in turn, puff a cigar in the bicitaxi and send them back to her. Back to her for a few seconds, back to me for a few minutes, back to her. It must be curiously strange to them, a female with decision-making power. But they eventually see the light. She decides on the taxi.
- Price of the Day.
I paid between one and three CUC’s for the same can of Cristal beer at similar establishments. The system is called ‘the microeconomics of the price of the day and what the face of the tourist says it can bear’. The same goes for taxi fares, your being quoted between 5 and 20 CUC’s for the same journey. Bicitaxis will ask you anything between 3 and 10 CUCs an hour, don’t pay more than 5 CUCs. The bicitaxi charge for Cubans is less than 1 CUC per hour. Shop around, there are many taxis. Do the same with casas. A little time spent can pay dividends.
- Couple on the Make
You walk around Old Havana minding your own business, smoking a cigar as you would when a couple approaches you. “A light for her cigarette please?” asks the woman. You oblige. They then start to work you over. There is a concert starting in half an hour, at precisely (ha-ha for Cuba) 10H30 in honour of the musician Compay Segundo. It’s occurring four blocks away and they can take you there. You think about it and say no. They then tell you another story. When they get nowhere she turns on the pity by saying that life is tough in Cuba and that the children need soap and food and could you help. So do they in South Africa where you come from, you say. They give up, the man imparting a sotto-voce insult as they depart. You spot them thirty minutes later working over another tourist, presumably for the concert that is now about to start at precisely (ha-ha for Cuba) 11H00.
- Old-fashioned Barber
After a decade of having my hair cut by Tania at a unisex hairdresser in a shopping mall, I dare to have it cut by an old-fashioned Cuban barber just across the way from my hotel. He chatted in the old way, telling me about the electricity grid, the revolution, hurricanes and the recent drought, as barbers do, but not hairdressers. Hairdressers talk to you about fashion and foot traffic in the mall and where they’ve been on holiday. He gave me an uncomplicated square cut, not a fancy layered-whatever cut, the type of cut I used to get when my father took me to the old-fashioned barber as a boy. I could relate, especially to the 5 CUC’s price, half the hairdresser’s price. There was no water in the tap at the basin alas – that was coming later, he said, butwe made do with spray from a squirt bottle. He even did my eyebrows!
The Last of the Clarinet Quartets
I heard a clarinetist warming up promisingly from my hotel room and was excited for the music that would follow. And then they played three tunes and three tunes only – Besame Mucho, Schubert’s Ave Maria and Quizás, Quizás, Quizás. These three tunes were repeated again and again until I realized what was going on. The Hotel de los Frailes is somewhat of an historical place, having previously been a monastery, and as each successive tour group walked in, they were piping up the exact same music to welcome it. OK for the once-off tourists, hell for residents.
Cuban Customs Nightmare
I had terrible difficulties at the customs office. Be careful to go through the official procedure of registering any piece of art you buy at any market or else you will be held up by customs (an ID piece will follow in which I fully describe my ordeal). You don’t want to go through the hassle.
The Revolution Rules OK
Whoever I spoke to was not really against the revolution excepting for a taxi driver who did me in. Myrna, an intellectual who kindly spent time talking to us about Cuba, summed it up by saying that there is poverty in Cuba, but no misery. And a change of government will not really have any immediate effect. That’s more than can be said for many places. So let’s all drink a toast to Ché and Co!