Cuba is one of those places that beguiles because of its “stuck in time” reputation. Admirers and detractors alike mention the vintage automobiles that have been kept running with duck tape and wire clothes hangers, colonial buildings that haven’t seen upkeep or renovation in ages, and wonderful people full of love and music. Admired, too, is the resilience of the Cubans who have been defying an American embargo for decades. This plays especially well for critics of US foreign policy and America-haters worldwide. Communist-run Cuba, the largest of the Caribbean islands, is a curiosity, and an icon of resistance against the boogeyman of global Capitalism. Or so it is presented. When one actually visits the island, one finds a slightly different reality, especially on the cultural front.
“Here, everyone takes what they can,” says a character in a film made in Cuba, suggesting a degree of desperation, which is exactly my impression when I spend a week in Old Havana. My first impression on waking in my casa particulare, located on a pot-holed street dotted with roaming dogs, just north of the Bario Chino, is of roosters crowing and people calling out to each other: “Hey Julio. Get the hell off the shit pot and let Claudia use the can!”
I put away my earplugs and head for breakfast to meet the middle-aged couple I came to Cuba with, Doug and his wife Annie. As part of the deal, we are served by our hostess, Mercedes, mother of a teenaged girl, wife of an electrician working in Miami, or so we are told. Breakfast consists of fruit, strong coffee, a couple of white buns, and scrambled eggs — every day. The bed and breakfast costs $35 US Dollars per room, paid in convertible pesos (CUC) which foreigners are obligated to buy so that the government can accumulate foreign cash. We are satisfied with both the breakfast and the accomodation although the apartment is dark and desperately needs rennovation.
On the streets outside, there are few foreigners in sight, but many Cubans are on the way to work or just hanging around, seemingly recovering from a night of partying. Idle men lurk in doorways or sit on benches, or line up with housewives outside filthy department store windows, waiting to be allowed in. There are similar lines outside grocery-depots where you ask for products on the shelves behind the counters. No self-service here. I note that people buy small quantities, and prices are not cheap unless you manage to work in the tourist trade as a guide, driver, hotelier, or prostitute. And, I was told that — except for the last option — you often have to buy such jobs from an employer. That says a lot about the socialist economy.
“Hi. Where are you from? First time in Cuba?” The familiar opening lines of a jintero. These are hustlers who work the streets, hoping to engage you in conversation at the end of which they will offer you “cheap” cigars (supposedly provided by cigar factory workers at great discounts). Jinteros also offer you girls, boys – anything goes, as long as it reeks of money. And, when it’s not a taut flaunting something in your face, you may well hear: “Oh, lovely dress. Do you have one to give me?” This request, outrageous as it seems, is for products in a country where certain (quality) goods are not available, unless smuggled in. Such goods include mobile phones and outdated computers or, as in this case, coveted clothing that makes the wearer unique. So much for the new Socialist Man and Woman. Whether its taxistas, tour guides, sellers of whatever, in Cuba everyone is out to make a buck, and you are considered the sucker.
On the Melecon, a long stretch of highway that follows the Havana coastline from Old Havana to New Havana, ideal for carefree wandering under a blue sky and even bluer ocean, we come across a taut who offers us a horse and buggy tour of essential Havana. “One and a half hours, only thirty Dollars. Cheap,” he says. (Fifty USD per month are a good wage in Cuba.) OK, we say and hop into the carriage. The man claims to be a former chef, now boxing instructor and tour guide who lived in Australia for seven years, although I detect no Aussie accent in his poor command of English. Seven years?
We travel along the Malecon, then turn up one of the streets leading into the belly of the old city. It is still morning, people are going to work, busses spew out volumes of black exhaust. Taxis (collectivos) suck up passengers until full, before emitting grey clouds of dirt. The street hasn’t been repaved in sixty years; there are potholes here and there, and there’s crap that no one has swept up. Bottles from last night’s parties litter stained sidewalks where pigeons, cats, and dogs shit, and old men smoke cigars. It all provides atmosphere. The sun climbs into the sky, and the heat increases accordingly. But, it is winter, thus bearable.
“Ola Carlos!” shouts our guide. “Hey, Francisco!” He seems to know a lot of street types along the route. “You wan’ cigars?” he asks us in a conspiratorial voice. “I can get. Cheap.” Doug’s ears pick up. Cigars are one of his coveted items to bring back from Cuba. He assents, too eagerly in my estimation, but what the hell. The jintero gives instructions to the carriage driver, and we shoot down a side street crammed with people, taxis, more potholes, clothes hanging from balconies of crumbling buildings that seem to have barely escaped a war. The street is dark in the shade and somewhat claustrophobic, but typical of the old town.
We stop in front of a nondescript building, are told to wait on the sidewalk while our guide enters a doorway. Then we find ourselves in a living room with a TV set, some odd pieces of furniture, and a shiny, expensive-looking motorbike. A muscular, tattooed mulatto comes from an adjacent kitchen to greet us. “Welcome. Welcome. We have cigars…,” he says. We shake hands all around, entering an air of conspiracy, for we believe we are going to buy “high-quality” cigars at “discount prices” (as promised), provided by employees who make a bit of cash on the side. “Of course, all legal,” the seller assures us, but locks the front door and closes the windows, just in case.
The deal for the cigars, involving several hundred dollars, is completed, and we want to leave. But, that’s not so simple, for now there is a police car parked just a few meters from the door. Our guide looks out the window, indicating we need to wait a while before leaving. So we sit, commenting on how wonderful the premises look, which they do, given that the whole street looks disastrous. Clearly, this fellow knows how to make money in the underground economy. Our guide looks around too and says his place is not as nice. Apparently, he has a ways to go before becoming a Somebody in socialist Cuba.
For a moment, I think If this were Mexico, this would all be a setup, with the cops raiding the place, taking any cash we had on us, then splitting it with the guide and cigar seller. But, happily, we get to resume our tour after sneaking out of the house and crossing the road where the horse and carriage are waiting. The tour, however, doesn’t go as planned. We are taken from one unimpressive place (like the Plaza de la Revolucion) to another, and finally to a restaurant in the fixed-up harbor district of Old Havana.
Eager to get rid of our guide, we ask how much we owe him and are shocked at the answer. Sixty Dollars! I protest, saying we negotiated an hour and a half for thirty. But, he says, our tour added up to three hours, and so it’s sixty. He grins in triumph. We give him fifty, and are satisfied to be rid of him, although not without a sour taste in our mouths for we have been ripped of on our first day in Cuba. And it doesn’t end there. When the bill for our mundane meal arrives, we are taken for an additional sixty dollars. (Ten dollars per person for lunch is normal in Havana.) We pay, reluctantly. On the way out, the owner of the place offers us a “40% discount” if we return for lunch tomorrow. Welcome to Cuba. Here, everyone takes what they can.
We spend the rest of the afternoon negotiating holes in the old streets, past idle men leaning up against ruined buildings, some without window panes, doorways falling apart, walls cracked. The men seem stunned, as though waiting for someone to wake them out of their coma. But that opportunity comes only from ripping off tourists, or from selling sex, of which there seems to be plenty. I get inviting glances from well-dressed, young mulatto women lounging on benches on the Paseo del Prado, a shaded promenade flanked by one-way streets and four-star hotels like the Inglaterra and the Telegrafo. This is where the nocturnal action is. The Gran Teatro and Capitol are just up the street, as are bars once frequented by American gangsters and Hollywood stars, casino goers, and men out for a wicked time. The area still has some of that flavour, although everything seems subdued – fraught with desperation. It’s as though someone is watching, somewhat tolerantly, as the city falls into sinfulness, but there is little choice for lack of a viable economy.
Many of the elderly citizens of Habana look prematurely aged, as they drag their modest purchases home for lunch, but the younger ones seem healthy enough. Many are well-dressed, carry cell-phones provided, we are told, by relatives from Miami. These can be used in public “hot spots” to access the Internet, at a price, of course. The young people seem ready to embrace the wider world whereas their grandparents may just be satisfied to have survived.
I note a couple of middle-aged men stuffing mattress springs on the sidewalk of the Old City. They use some vile-looking, stringy material that may be coconut “hair.” They wear surgical masks while doing this. Another elderly man is fiddling with a microwave oven, presumably repairing it. These become typical street-scenes because homes are too dark and crammed for workshops. There are stores and small shops with grimy windows. We enter one that seems to be a beauty shop, but on looking around, it is just someone’s living room where a woman is having her hair braided.
Annie wants her hair done and enters a negotiation with the hairdresser, but then a dark, tattooed thug enters the place from the street. His bulk blocks the entryway. He glowers at us and asks what we want. The hairdresser, a young black woman, seems a touch rattled by his sudden appearance. She explains the place belongs to him, el patron. We become wary as he looks like an underworld character. We explain we’ll come back “manana,” but he does not seem to want to move from the exit. It is getting dark outside, and I wonder how this will play out. No longer friendly, the hairdresser demands “Un dollar. Dame un dollar!” perhaps under pressure from el patron. Indignantly, we say No and manage to get out to the street. We will have to be more careful.
To be sure, the beaches are gorgeous, even close to Havana, but some of the resort buildings are dilapidated. You can access the beaches by bus from the Inglaterra Hotel. You can also take a hop-on, hop-off tour bus to Nuevo Habana, which is interesting for its 1950s architecture, reflecting the heydays of the city under mafia occupation. But even here, you notice the lack of paint and plaster. Buildings look like they are being eaten away by sea salt or torrential storms. Wear and tear is obvious. Inside the ex-Hilton, now the Habana Libre, where Castro and his revolutionaries once occupied the top floor, everything is neat and tidy and, more importantly, air-conditioned. You can get a coffee, without breaking your budget and wait out the heat of the day. You might want to see the university up the hill, but it’s a walk, and may not be worth it. There are several empire-style buildings worth a quick look-see, but student life is not much in evidence as many faculties are located elsewhere. Still, from the grand staircase to the entrance, there is a great view of Havana city, the ocean in the distance.
But, back to our exploration of Havana. We took the bus through the tunnel to the north end of the city where the citadels are located. These fortresses, in the Gran Parque Morro-Cabana, are imposingly positioned over the entrance to Havana harbor so that canon could blast any intruding navies to bits. When we visited, we had to wait well over an hour because, as was explained, the lady who was in charge of selling tickets at the entrance had not shown up for work that morning. Why someone else couldn’t just have collected our money, and be done with it, was a mystery. Several tour buses full of foreigners were turned away, and we soon wandered off to the less popular Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana, a bit further down the hill. By noon, we were exhausted.
Cruise ships (American included) now dock at the terminales where the old city has been made presentable. There are large halls of artwork on sale, paintings and prints, all very commercial kitsch of the highest order, but occasionally you’ll spot something unique. Then it’s pricey. Still, you are in the shade at the hottest time of day. There are many cafes and restaurants, a bit overpriced considering you can get the same meals much cheaper a few hundred meters further inland. But then you’d have to walk too far from your cruise ship.
After a three-hour taxi ride (cost $120 USD), we arrived in Cienfuegos. En route, we were impressed by how scarcely populated the land was, and how uncutivated. It seemed to be wild wherever we looked, with only momentary patches of arable land or grazing fields stocked with a few cattle. There were sugar cane plantations, but little else. The highway was barely travelled although in good condition. The only other thing I can recall of the journey was getting annoyed by my friend’s incessant commentary: “There’s a cow. Two cows. There’s small trees. I guess that’s ’cause of the climate. I don’t see any houses. No farms. No towns. Looks like sugar cane. Can you ask the driver if that’s sugar cane? I think it’s sugar cane. How do you say sugar cane in Spanish? Water towers look like UFOs….” I pretended to have fallen asleep, thinking: God-deliver-me.
Cienfuegos is cheaper, not matters of accommodation, but in terms of food. There are state-run shops containing booze and water, cosmetics, toiletries – everything. But, again, it’s all behind the counters. You line up to get into the stores, and you line up at the single cashier to get out. And it all takes time. But then, you have time. And you appreciate eating for half the price you paid in Havana. Rooms in casas particulares are, again, $35 Dollars; thirty for the room and five for breakfast, which vary according to the house you’re at. Compared to Havana, buildings in Cienfuegos have their windows washed, and people are well-dressed, and healthy-looking. By way of explanation, I was told the province has industries. Still, I met a stevedore who took great lengths to tell me he made eight Dollars per month (and then expected me to make up his pay package), so it can’t be all roses for everyone.
As in Havana, Cienfuegos seems to have a lot of idlers hanging around public spaces. As usual, there was a hot spot for internet reception in the local plaza where touts will sell WiFi cards for an extra 50% or so. It seems quite an industry, and I wondered how they get hold of so many cards. Interesting too, in Cienfuegos I noted placards denouncing wife and child abuse, suggesting paradise has its dark side.
The situation in Cienfuegos bus station was confusing, to say the least. I couldn’t make out what people were telling me, so we took a taxi to Trinidad. The trip took an hour and cost thirty Dollars (or CUC). Trinidad is considerably smaller and older, with most streets cobble-stoned, making it sometimes difficult to walk. It’s also a tourist mecca. Some visitors seemed ready to expire from heat stroke as they were shepherded from church to Plaza Major, to souvenir street, and back to the bus. In Trinidad I had one of my rare epiphanies, thinking Tourism is absurd. We invade cathedrals like bats swoop into caves, we buy junk, we get on the bus, and we leave. And tomorrow it’s another band of Visigoths who do the same thing.
From most people we spoke to, we learned that they all love Fidel — sort of like a family grandfather — and they all value the benefits of the revolution, but prices of commodities have been climbing, wages are frozen, life is harder than ever, so maybe it’s time for a change. This sounds like East Germany before the Wall came down. We learned that the police are well paid, so they’re supposedly honest. They aren’t much in evidence, hence I assumed they are not needed as much say, as in Mexico, where they are armed like shock troops. That could all change with more money coming into the island. Where wealth goes, drugs and crime follow.
I checked out some “modern” artwork in a town square: Che Guevara making eyes at Marilyn Monroe. OK…. (But they don’t dare do that with Fidel.) Old men smoking cigars (for now). Lined campesino faces testifying to hard work, suffering, perseverance: the Old Man and the Sea, the quintessential Cuban male. A dead Jean-Paul Marat with a Vermeer woman, all out of context. When I told a saleswoman who these figures were, she seemed surprised. I suppose, to most people, these are lots of images that say absolutely nothing. But, what the hell. It’s all art. There were also lots of carvings which looked like they were made in Africa, perhaps on sale in Cuba out of socialist solidarity. Who knows. As a tourist you come, you look, but you seldom see.
We also visited Santa Clara where there’s a huge monument to the revolution, a mandatory shrine for all school children and patriotic citizens. I didn’t bother going to it. By this time, my sinuses were so inflamed I could barely go out into traffic. I longed for clean air. I vowed, if there were a next time for Cuba, it would be an all-inclusive, seaside retreat with all the comforts of the first world. Enough of slumming.