I grew up with Dr Suse “Oh The Places You’ll Go” but as an adult my travel memories aren’t just about the spectacular places I’ve seen, but the interesting people I’ve met. A new series for Try This Travel focusing on the locals who make places magical — starting with Havana Cuba.
In Havana you see historic buildings and classic cars, but you feel the struggles of the local Cabanos in a way that no camera can capture. We stayed in rundown Havana Centro in a pristine Casa Particular — family run B&B — in a room with a private bath and balcony. We spent several hours every afternoon watching classic American cars snake down the decaying road. An elementary school was around the corner and every afternoon we watched uniformed children getting picked up by proud parents. Below our room was a barber shop, across the street was a food market and we relished our perch observing people living normal lives. Locals were healthy, in clean cloths and most are well educated — all education, some food and health care are free in Cuba — the communist government’s goal is a provide a uniform standard of living, but in Havana, we learned some are more equal than others.
Unlike Cuba of the 1980’s and 1990’s, in Havana there appears to be just enough food to go around. Though a small percent are getting fat, we rarely saw people begging. For Cubans if you want to ‘get ahead’, if you want to buy items beyond basic food rations, education and healthcare — if you want a TV or telephone or fancy shoes — you need to earn CUC, the Cuban Convertible Currency where one CUC is equal to one Euro.
The Cuban Government sets wages for all professions and currently the national average is 15CUC per month, that’s about $20USD. For Cubans CUC are converted to Peso’s at about 25 pesos to one CUC, so Cuban’s shopping at Cuban stores can get what they need to survive, but not enough to buy a whole chicken or even basic up-keep on the crumbling mid-century mansions many call home. Foreigners can’t convert CUC to Peso’s, even spanish speaking tourists will find it near impossible to get Peso’s for CUC.
Entrepreneurial Cuban’s work hard to get a job in the coveted service industry, patiently waiting on foreigners, to earn CUC’s in tips. You may think that a 1CUC tip would go a long way in this type of economy, and in most cases it does, but don’t think you can tip everyone a dollar and they will be happy. The driver we hired to take us around in a convertible 1959 Ford Thunderbird made it clear that for our 30 CUC two hour tour he was hoping for at least a 5 CUC tip. Alone in the car our driver told us a bit about life in Havana, he was a mechanical engineer licensed to fix airplanes, but he could make 15 CUC per month working in the airport or he could make a 5 CUC tip in 2 hours (hint) of driving tourists in a classic car, so he can afford to take care of his parents and feed his 2 kids.
Our first day in Cuba we walked to the Cigar Factory, according to our Lonely Planet it was behind the capitol building. Unfortunatly the government had moved the factory to a new location and you need to get a bici-taxi there. Took up the young man’s polite offer for a ride, instantly regretting making this thin boy pull our fat American asses around Centro Havana. He pointed out the gates to China Town and answered all our questions. As we were passed by a new black SUV — the first I had seen in Havana, but not the last — I asked “if all cuban’s make the same amount of money how does that person get a brand new Hyundai?” “Eso es la pregunta.” Apparently ‘that is the questions’ with a dark answer. Our new driver waited while we took the tour then drove us to his ‘recommended’ cigar shop and finally the Museum De La Revolution. The ride cost 2 CUC and this kid was thrilled to get 3CUC, man did he work for it.
While touring the cigar factory we got to talking to our guide Jose, a wealth of knowledge and an eye for the security camera’s. Working in the Cigar factory is consider a good job — you get free cuban cigars — and tourists love cuban Cigars. Sell a few cigars on the side and some day you might be able to buy one of the classic American cars. We arranged to meet Jose the following night and got to spend 2 hours drinking Cuba Libre and smoking ‘damaged’ cigars (free). We may have purchased a box of cigars but what we valued more was the conversation.
Jose has an ex-wife with 2 kids and a new wife who is a master cigar roller at one of the other factories — there are at least 4 factories in Havana alone. Jose takes care of both his wives, his children and his mother, who also helps takes care of his kids. Jose says he has the best job in Havana and he also knows if he is caught selling cigars that his wife rolls at home he will be in more trouble than just loosing a job. He was scared, you could see it, but he explained the owner of the establishment where we met was friendly to cubans and even let them use the internet. What does Jose do with the internet? I can’t see him paying 1 CUC for 10 minutes to watch netflix — Jose e-mails his sister, who met a European, got married and now lives in Switzerland. Jose explained that Satellite TV and internet is illegal for Cubans, but we had both in our Casa, this surprised him a little. Jose explained that in Cuba it’s all about who you know and our Casa owners must know some very important people.
Elsa and Julio have opened their Casa to guests when it was made legal in early 2000. Their home is decorated from floor to 14Foot ceiling. The house was attended to by at least 3 people and the meals were feasts for all 10 guests at one kitchen table. They offered Mini-bar, bath products, Wifi, TV, meals, and laundry service, all for 30CUC per night — this was the only bargain I found in Havana. Julio is a Pediatrician and I think I see how he got so connected, would you do anything for the Doctor who helped your sick child? I image Julio has a lot of friends.
The importance of friends in high placed was echoed several other Cubans we talked to. One afternoon we stumbled upon a bar we saw on Anthony Bourdain — an empty place decorated to give the drinker the experience of being 20,000 leagues under the sea. In the quite of an empty lounge the bartender explained he had just started working at the bar this week, he had been promoted from a government office job to bartender. He explained that the prospect of getting a 2 CUC tip (HINT) was better in the foreigner bars so he asked to move, it had taken more than two years to get into a bar, he just stared yesterday. We mentioned to his boss that our bartender’s Mojito were the best we tasted in Havana — when the manager left, our drinks got a generous top off of Havana Club Ron.
We visited several other “tourist bars” including the busy and expensive La Florida made famous by Ernest Hemingway. Papa used to drink daiquiris there — though I image they were less than the 6 CUC they are charging now — the government has erected life size bronze statue to immortalize the great author. Any travel writer knows that Hemingway drank any local beverage at at least 100 different bars from Europe to the Caribbean (but hey they don’t have internet) for Cuban’s Hemingway’s daiquiri is “the cradle of all Daiquiris”. I wonder if they will make a life size statue of Beyonce and Jay-Z at the hotel/bar they visited? In crowed tourist bars and restaurants server were clearly the most experienced and loyal to the party — everyone liked their job, loved Havana and thought Che and Castro had succeeded in creating utopia, big smiling thumbs up and thank you for the CUC tip.
I will never shake the feeling of safety and comfort one experiences in the war-zone like surrounding of Centro Havana. Cuban’s fear the government and the government fears the people, a backward system if check and balances that keep everyone on best behavior. Cubans have enough to live, but not enough to live well, they are constantly hustling to get CUC’s and small comforts.
In 2013 is became legal to sell personal real-estate, there is no formal market so cubans line “La Prada” with hand written signs of the apartments they have for sale. As more foreign inventors flood the market scooping up deals and pumping money into the economy the future of Cuba is on the precipice of change.
But if you ask a Cuban if life it better now than 5 years ago they will say “Not much”.
Ask if they see change in the future and the answer is “Not fast enough”.
Visit Cuba on a government sanctioned tour and you wont get to ask a Cuban anything.