Published: April 28th 2012April 28th 2012
Cigar smoking patriot.
There's a thinly veiled hint of self centredness at the root of many visitors motives for jetting into Cuba and we joined that queue. On the wrong end of US inflicted trade embargoes for over 50 years, Cuba's improvised methods to survive in the face of financial adversity are a surreptitious part of the attraction to this most individual of countries. Would Cuba still pique the senses to the same degree if the streets of Havana were choked with Toyotas rather than 50 year old plus Buiks, Plymouths and Chevies? Or would the crumbled elegance of its Spanish colonial architecture be just as seductive all spruced up in its Sunday best? Sure we'd all love to see Cuba back in the fold, but selfishly, a major component of its allurement is viewing it in its semi global isolation.With Fidel handing over the reins to his surrogate sibling Raul, and with Señor Presidente Obama hinting at a softening of policy over sanctions, there was a hint of "get in quick before we miss the boat".
Cuba isn't bulletproof but it's citizens have become survivors by necessity and they survive with panache. This vibrant panache would exist regardless of any sanction, dictator,
Off to his gig at La Casa de la Musica
revolution or communist overlord. A case sample? How about one sultry Saturday morning in the capital where we fell upon a thronging group of Habaneros who had gathered for a ramped up flea market. What was for sale? A few months back, Big Wig Castro version 2 passed a bill allowing, for the first time since the revolution, the sale of residential property. With no system in place for such deals, Saturday mornings in "El Prado" sees this hive of locals brandishing signs advertising their particular property for sale. If they don't want to sell, how about a trade or two. Everything is negotiable. The ambience came with all the joviality of a school fete and not a real estate agent within cigar smoke range. That got me thinking as I tried to envision life back home without estate agents. Birds were singing, flowers blooming, the surf was perfect and the Wallabies beat the All Blacks.
Speaking of transactions, you have the choice of a dual currency, the feisty CUC or the sissy CUP, the former roughly 25 times the value of the latter. This makes for some convoluted head scratching for tourists fresh off the plane. Havana's street
swindlers (jineteros), of which there are many, must salivate at the sight of these virgin arrivals, like shooting fish in a barrel.
Lingering on the topic of currency, an amusing side act is the 3 peso note. The first time I saw one, my initial thought was that a jinetero had slipped in a Cuban Monopoly bill. Nah, they are real but that hackneyed quip about the failed counterfeiter who tried to change a $9 bill but received 3x $3 in return, doesn't raise too many laughs in Cuba.
Moving the topic now to cars. Gas guzzling American autos are a ubiquitous image of Cuban streets. Even for a person who views motor vehicles as one of life's necessary evils, these spruced up relics are head turners. The streets of La Habana are an open air car museum. Some appear not to have been tampered with since rolling off the production line 60 years prior. How Cubans even keep them ticking without access to spare parts beggars belief. 1950s Detroit and 18th century Madrid may be strange bedfellows but the cross pollination in Havana makes for some tempting photographic burley.
On another tangent, a few fellow tourists
A couple of willing subjects
unveiled to us how much a rank and file Cuban earns in respect to his or her monthly State salary. In a nutshell, not bloody much. This invariably transcended into a conversation on how your average Juan Cubano managed to make ends meet and just how do the cogs turn on this socialism machine. Nobody seemed to have a fix on it and I guess you'd need to be born and bred into the system to have the remotest notion. Does the guy selling 50 cent pizzas from a window in a creaky lane way have a State contract to do so, with all money slipping straight through his hands into the public coffers? Or does the same guy siphon off a few pesos here and there for his own benefit? Buggered if I know but if you have an answer, this is a public site so please fill me in.
Fortunately I don't lose any sleep over such conundrums and was just as content not to dwell but rather plunge into a few of Cuba's tourist pickings.Such as, bike riding down to the Carribean for a soothing dip. Horse riding through languid tobacco fields. Bar and gallery hopping.
tight game of chess in the street.
How about a choo choo steam train ride into the bowels of El Valle de Los Ingenios. All part of the Cuban fabric, but if I'm to have one enduring memory it will be tapping into a minor vein of Cuba's much chronicled live music scene.
Music is everywhere. We ventured into a buzzing jazz club one evening but the real harvest was far more desultory. Kangaroo hopping from one bar to the next along the entire length of Calle Obispo in Havana or lounging around the steps of "La Casa de la Musica" every evening in Trinidad. You can't avoid it and you wouldn't want to.
We'd use a couple of drinks to lubricate the sessions, the beer of choice being Bucaneer and of course it's a buck a beer for a Bucaneer. At that price you can't afford not to drink. While an ale or 2 was sweet, the mojitos seemed far more appropriate given the ambience and you reckon the $1.50 version didn't slide down too smoothly in Vinales as "Valle Son" slid out their take on "Dos Gardenias". Cliched sure, but not a bad cliche and life felt very forgiving.
May I now
Carriage in the fog.
turn the page? Salsa, son, samba, mambo - bring it on. On the other hand, whilst plenty find Rhumba evocative, to me banging things and chanting is a sound only a mother could love. Surely a hint of string, brass or reed mixed into the equation wouldn't hurt. Despite my personal aversion, we were still dragged along to the much hyped "Callejon Hamel" rhumba jam session held each Sunday. Some love it but we found it a circus. There were 2 types of people present:
1. Tourists, aka bait fish.
2. Jineteros, aka sharks.
The feeding frenzy begins a few blocks adrift whereby groups of scouting sharks cleverly corral the bait fish into a large school gathered in the Callejon. From there it's open season:
"You want to buy my CD"?
"You want to buy me a drink"?
"You want to buy me lunch"?
"How about my sister"?
"Perhaps a donation so the children can have milk".
And on it went. We felt lucky to have escaped roughly in one piece. Deep breath, SIGH!
So that's Cuba, for this occasion anyway. One major regret, not enough time. Two weeks and
Che is the Man down this way
we've barely chipped away a section of paint. Havana is as gregarious as Vinales is laconic whilst Trinidad is just plain pretty. That's all we managed to squeeze in but how much fun is this country. I'll go to the extreme of bestowing Cuba with status in my Top 5 Hit Parade, even if that elite group is getting awfully crowded with about 23 other nations.
Burch would also like to add that he thinks he has found the world's easiest job. It may not pay much but drink waiters in Cuba won't kill themselves through stress. Lesson number 1 at drink waiter school - how to avoid eye contact with the client. We did manage some follow up service one evening. It was a textbook error from an inexperienced young lady but I'm sure she'll learn from her compadres.
Statistic of the week - I don't know how reliable this figure is but it comes third hand from the Canadian consulate in Havana. So far in this year already, 50 Canadians have died in Cuba. That's startling enough but even more so is the major cause of death. Any guesses? I'll give you a clue. The victims
Advertising the nations major export.
are mostly male who are well past the prime of their lives. Turns out these elderly gents should take more notice of the potential dangers of Viagra. This also poses the question of what these chaps were doing in Cuba in the first place, all loaded up with "performance enhancing drugs", but let's not judge now. At least it makes for some incisive catchphrases for the Cuban Tourism Board.
"Cuba - Head South then Point North" - for example.
Finally, a tip - arriving in Havana, make sure to stay with Julio and Elsa Roques at Hostal Peregrino (Crowded Planet guide book recommended). Apart from hosts that are amiable to a fault, the food is to die for and they are an indispensable font of information on Cuba, including transport and ongoing accommodations. NB. The author assures he accepted no gratuities for this recommendation.
When in Cuba do as the Cubans.
Gary and Burch certainly gave the local brew (Buckaneros) a nudge. I settled for the Cuban rum, not a bad drop and more readily available and affordable and more enjoyable than the local wine. Afternoons sipping mojitos listening to Cuban music live, a very
pleasant way to pass a few hours waiting for the evening meal to be served at our casa. Lobster, prawns and fish were on the menu for the majority of the time, and like the beer and rum, extremely well priced.
Not only were the local brews good value, but a pedicure here in Cuba is a mere 5 pesos, approx $5. Add to that a stop at the hairdresser to wash away the "greys", shampoo and blow dry for another 5 pesos, that's a good afternoon of pampering at a little more than the cost of a few coffees at home.
If drinking, eating and pampering were not on the agenda, then a bike ride to the beach, a horse ride through the tobacco fields and caves or an open air bus around the city equally were great value at only 5 pesos. The list keeps going.
A night out at the Jazz Club set us back 10 pesos, but that included 2 cocktails each and a fabulous local Jazz group. Even more quirky was getting into the club via the red telephone booth up on the street. The transport to get to the night club
Stilt people dancing up a storm
was via a large 1950's Cadillac taxi for 5 pesos and the offer from the driver to come back for us when the club closed. The Havana streets felt that safe that we opted to walk back to our casa and enjoy the throngs of music pelting out from rooftops, bars and private homes.
The best value for money in Cuba was probably our lunch stops at the locals windows where the price for pizza, spaghetti or sandwiches was listed in CUP, the national money. Our pizzas ranged in prices from as little as 40 cents to about 60 cents. The pizzas are served on a small sheet of paper or cardboard, then you hover in people's doorways or walk the streets and eat them. The spaghetti is served in bowls, a little more classy and once you have finished the pasta you walk back to to the window /doorway in front of the house and return their plates and cutlery ready for the next customer.
The two currencies is certainly a bit confusing and you wouldnt want to carry to many CUPS ( the local currency), you would need very deep pockets to fit all the notes
in. The 20 CUP boasts on it's front " free from the USA". We were told a story of a Dutch couple who decided to change their 1000 euro with a street vendor. instead of receiving over 1000 convertibles( the tourist currency) they received just over 1000 CUP ( the local currency, worth about $40).
Finally, why do all the Cuban men know how to move/ dance? They all have great rhythm, even the kids. Burch was given a little salsa lesson in the street one day while we waited for our very affordable 40 cent pizza after the cycle back from the beach. His salsa teacher happened to be a male, and a tad drunk, but that's a small technicality, he got more of a lesson than Gary or I did and can claim he salsad in Cuba with a Cuban!
There are more photos below