Cuba: Lost in Space, Lost in Time
Oct 10, 2007
David Rich 1600 Words
24 pesos= $1 US (for locals)
1 CUC= $1.10 US (for tourists)
CUBA: LOST IN SPACE, LOST IN TIME
Cuba is a cock-eyed collage of colorful people, a constant adventure partly explained by an untimely historical accident befalling Fidel Castro on July 26, 1953, a botched first attempt at revolution. Fidel's fearless assault failed because of no street signs. Fidel's driver, leading 119 rebels, took a wrong turn and ended up at the local police station. Bad move, with 64 captured, tortured, and executed. But Fidel learned his lesson, dismantling every street sign in every city in Cuba. Thus no one without local knowledge, especially tourists, can find their way in any Cuban city. I learned to constantly ask directions, which means rudimentary Spanish is a big help. But there've been no further revolutions. Think Bay of Pigs, which admittedly suffered complications in addition to a lack of street signs.
By way of a nearly empty freeway I turned my rental car toward the Bay of Pigs, a mere hundred miles from Havana, easy to navigate once free from the chaos of the big city. The Bay of Pigs is a highlight if you love seafood, diving with shockingly near-modern equipment, easy snorkeling, and gorgeous bathtub waters crammed with coral and colorful sea life. Next to a dive site halfway down the 15-mile (25 kilometer) bay sits a spectacular cenote, limestone sinkhole connected to the sea where you can snorkel your heart out. Lobster is legally available only in government licensed restaurants costing about $15, but on a Bay of Pigs beach you can feast for five bucks. Seafood is a welcome respite from the monotony of Cuban food, which consists of roast pig served with glutinous globs of pig fat, unpalatable pizza (except a single variety identified early on), and decent rice with black beans. Always specify cerdo sin gordo (pig without fat) in the sandwich, available everywhere for 20 cents US, and enjoy palatable piggy.
The locals subsist on this fare because they have no disposable income. The average salary is set by the government at $15 a month, which under UN standards relegates Cubans to direst poverty. They escape this fate, however, because two essential of life are free; education resulting in a 97% literacy rate and universal health care, both of which rank well above the world median. But this is all the revolution achieved, except rations of two kilos of sugar and rice a month, and four eggs, per person. As one Cuban hustler told me, his family blows their monthly ration the first day on an omelet, and a big rice pudding. Otherwise the Cubans enjoy no human rights and are bored senseless without mad money, doomed to hustle from birth 'til death, sitting on porches practicing family values.
The Cuban hustle is not a problem because the Cubans hate it as much as the tourists. Unlike many other poor countries a simple No gracias goes a long way. The principle hustle is black market Cuban cigars, certainly a worthwhile scam for those so inclined. A box of 25 Romeos & Julietas, or Fidel's favorite Cohibas at a government factory costs $250 to $350, but on the street, mostly authentic, runs between $35 and $50, depending on individual bargaining acumen. This is how Cubans survive, stealing from their employer, which is the government.
This was vividly illustrated on the east coast of Cuba in laidback and picturesque Barbacoa where I visited the local cigar factory for a tour, but tours had been arbitrarily prohibited by El Jefe (the boss, who was evidently home taking a nap). The immaculate gentleman who nixed the tour whispered, Quiere usted cigaros, (Do you want cigars, yes for sure) upon which a hand snaked over the balcony with a dozen cigars, security guard looking benignly on. For a buck apiece I retired to my casa particular, on the rooftop terrace, puffing away with a panoramic view of the Caribbean.
Casa particulares are the only way to sleep in Cuba. With minor exceptions government-run hotels are over-priced and shabby. Casa particulares are private homes, actually mansions concerning which one should not be fooled by the outside façade. Inside they are uniformly gorgeous, immaculate, spiffy clean, marble, spiral staircases, and solicitous hosts offering as much privacy as you desire (I had one exception). All for $20 to $30 a night per room in every Cuban city. The proprietor pays government taxes of $300 a month for each rentable room (with private bath, air conditioning and often refrigerator), whether the room is rented or not. The people's revolution has utterly failed.
Hustling includes actual hustling, svelte, strikingly beautiful teenaged women and twenty-somethings dressed in mini-miniskirts, slank and slim, high heels and exquisite makeup, coiffured to the hilt, hitchhiking next to every thoroughfare. This is their only possibility of escaping Cuba, by snagging a foreign spouse. Otherwise, one can become a government lackey, brown-noser, or official, which makes up 2% of the population.
I met an American on the flight from Cancun, Mexico (all flights from the States are prohibited in the name of civil rights), who'd made a career of befriending gorgeous Cuban ladies. The result was vast local knowledge, a marriage to a formerly svelte Cuban, marriage on the rocks, and a five-year-old son. He cagily led a tour of Camaguey, from local beer houses to excellent restaurants priced in pesos, introducing a pair of sisters dressed to the hilt and whose company I regretfully declined. May this 65-year-old American remain forever young on Fantasy Island.
Cuban poverty and lack of hard currency means little building maintenance, personal mechanical aptitude to keep 1950s American classic automobiles running, and a hard life. My American friend swore 300 buildings a day collapse in Havana though I witnessed nary a one. However, once the blockade ends the Cubans are sitting on an antique-auto gold mine, though 90% are necessarily shambles. Cars from my childhood continue to scoot about with Russian carburetors, Korean engines, French starters, and multifarious foreign parts constituting new international Fords, Chevies, Studebakers, Packards, Plymouths, Dodges, Buicks, and Chryslers.
The saving graces for the hardy Cubans are phenomenal splashes of vibrant art and music. Both are everywhere. I began with a the Hamel block of street art featuring psychedelic Dalieque paintings and sculptures adorning the three-story buildings in the Vedado suburb of Havana. Art continues in every square, at the main tourist market next to the Malecon across from El Morro at the entrance to Habana Veijo, Old Havana. Fabulously colorful canvases are on offer from $5 to $80, prices that barely recoup the cost of materials. The parks are chock-a-block with splashy murals, ceramic mosaics, fantasmic sculptures, and creative walking streets strewn with colorful creations. And the music is both ubiquitous and famous. Where there is music there are Cubans doing the moon walk, tapping toes, and shaking booties, and there is music everywhere.
Above Cuba hovers the omni-present national bird, the buzzard. Appropriate for a desperate island without signposts, lost in space, lost in time.
When You Go as all Americans (its only illegal to spend money, which naturally I didn't) and Everyone Else Should: Fly to Havana from anywhere in Europe, Canada, or Mexico from $350 to $900 return; Google for the best current deals. Rent a car at the airport for about $50 a day, providing the easiest most convenient way to get around all of Cuba. Get the best map you can find but for lack of street signs you'll still get lost in the larger cities
Never stay in hotels, which are almost uniformly overpriced government rip-offs. Instead stay in private mansions which provide private rooms with air conditioning (a necessity) and private bath, $20 to $30 for two, or one. In Havana I heartily recommend the incredible marble mansion of Pilar Vidal Morejon, Lugareno #119, phone 878-1214or cellular 052944231, email@example.com. In Camaguey try Casa de Maria Eugenia & Rolando, Calle 5taNo. 238, 5332297191, firstname.lastname@example.org. In Santiago de Cuba I recommend Sra. Miriam Osorio Fonseca, Calle Aguilera #606, 5322624723, a block from San Juan Hill. In Barbacoa I enjoyed Manuel Lahens and Delsy Sanchez at Raul Cepero Bonilla No. 16 with nice rooftop views. But no matter where you stay the proprietor(ess) will provide recommendations for all the cities you're off to next.
The best beaches are resort studded and therefore little different from any first world resort area, at Varadero near Havana. Better less crowded beaches may be found at the Bay of Pigs (my favorite area) and on the islands offshore from Moton.
There are few great places to eat in Cuba. The cuisine is almost uniformly bland. My favorite in Havana are the Chinatown restaurants with great prices on seafood, the restaurants south of Hemingway's Bar, El Floridita, and the Heron Azul (Blue Heron). The street pizzas made in folding grills are excellent as is the whole carved pig, if they go light on the fat.
The best souvenirs are colorful art, which eclipses Haitian in both color, creativity, and panache, and of course the music and cigars. CDs are available everywhere for a near pittance.
The parallel Cuban currencies are confusing. Both are referred to as pesos, or dollars. The only way to tell which price governs is whether the establishment is mostly frequented by tourists and richer Cubans, or locals. Pork sandwiches and pizzas at street-side stands are priced in the cheap stuff; everything else (which most locals can't afford) is the expensive stuff. Exchange rates include a 10% commission for all currencies except US dollars, which bear a 20% commission; the feud continues unabated. Go now before the blockade is lifted and conservative Americans invade again.