By Fiona Isobel Jackson
Hola mio amigas
160km an hour. I kid you not. This was how my summer trip began. At the airport bus stop, as is often the case as my stop is the last one before they hit the expressway, a cabbie rolls up and offers to take you out for not much more than the bus. As is also often the case, I’m running slightly behind schedule. What does a girl say? Of course! The guy was beeping his horn at buses, and overtook 3 cars on the edge of the road! I was too scared to remember the Korean word for scared and too petrified to interrupt his concentration. So I made it with ample time, which was just as well as the check in girl was sure I needed a visa my 8hr stopover in the US. I wanted to tell her ‘no darling, it’s you who needs the visa’ – or did I not watch the news the nite that Australia and the US had a big diplomatic row?
Finally on my way to Las Vegas. My next encounter on the ground was with another cabbie, who gave me the scenic tour enroute from the airport to city and when I requested my change I realized I was back in tipping territory. Sigh. I spent half a day galloping around ‘the strip’ in Vegas, and wandered thru a few casinos. All those fierce anti-smoking laws sure don’t apply to the casinos. The Bellagio, Mirage, Mandalay, Caesers, Excaliber, names, names names. They all reeked at 4pm: gross. One had a live pair of lions boxed up in a cage. All were tacky. The strip has lots of neon signs for girls, gambling and magic shows. A bit of shopping helped my sanity.
On to the more sophisticated taxi scams of Mexico City, where the airport cab folks have it down to a systematically fine art. Finally I arrived at my hotel and passed out for most of the day. I did venture out alone on a Saturday nite to find food but didn’t feel particularly safe. On my first day in Mexico I met a fellow www.hospitalityclub.com (HC) member on Cinco de Mayo (street). I’m looking for a man I have never met and 10,000 poor Mexicans were walking in the opposite direction to me. It seems I landed up in the middle of a peaceful anti-govt protest, where Mexico’s oil interests are the issue, and a left vs. right tug of war the subtext.
Mexico City is an art lovers, architectural (and food) paradise, with a slightly ruinous grandeur to it. As the former capital of Spain’s latin American empire, all stops had been pulled to construct a grandiose, monstrous sized city administration plaza that nears the size of Tiananmen Square. I went to Teotihuacan where ancient Aztec style pyramids are trampled by hundreds of tourists everyday. I tackled the metro system of the world’s largest city (perhaps the most crowded too, and boy could they use some air con, but at dos pesos, it sure is a bargain!), spent a little time in Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera’s old neighbourhood of Coyacan, visited many beautiful buildings and several galleries. It seems that due to the peculiarities of the indigenous population/s in this area, modern Mexico is still all about the aesthetic, and the heyday of modern Mexican art was the 30s to 50s when a lot of political changes took place there and in the world. The preferred colour combination for buildings are deep blue and burned orange: a visual feast. As I was there for 4-5 days, mostly alone except for a few meetings with HC people, I ended up watching a bit of TV in my hotel, and it was very dramatically noticeable that not one indigenous looking face was to be found on TV (starkly contrasting the streetscape). As with all European influenced cities, one can find lots of parks and places to sit in public, which was a welcome change. Mexico has plenty of street life and vendors, and food is cheap and plentiful. But my stomach has been Asian trained and on my last nite I had to cancel plans to finally hit the town as I felt ill from the oily food – though that turned into a flu a few hours later – then some not so pretty downstairs action. By the time I had to fly to Cuba I was reluctant to go.
However, oddly enough I felt fine after a few hours on the ground, having ditched the cool climes of Mexico for the 30plus degrees here in this tropical, Caribbean Socialist paradise. The weather, vegetation and pace remind me of my childhood, only this place is groovy (and dodgy). I was met at the airport by Cristel, whose home I was staying in, and her friend/art teacher. Her car, like many here, is a rattling old Russian Lada (the police cars are the same model).
My room is self contained so I’ve been mostly self catering (if the restaurants are any good people queue for over an hour for them and if you don’t need to do so, you can be assured the food is shocking and not cheap) which is fine, except for the fact that it’s really hard if not impossible to buy many many items. I photographed the most expensive can of tuna I’ve seen in my life and yesterday saw 2 average brand razors for $18! Some stores won’t even sell certain staples to non-Cubans without their ration card! It really feels like a childhood camping trip. Mum, you’d love it. Yep, back to powdered milk and tins of sardines. But can openers are hard to buy and expensive, hence I have to knock on my casa people’s door to get anything opened, and they are apparently all ye olde ones where you have to literally rip the can apart. Soap, fresh milk, tea, and many many other manufactured food and other items: forget it. No cute shopping bags here no matter how upmarket the shop is or how much you spend.
But the greatest irony is cigarette lighters. In a land where people wander around chomping on cigars and cigarettes and you can smoke in just about all restaurants (even in this very pricey business lounge of the fanciest hotel in town, though maybe because the internet connections are so very sloooooow), and along with a ministry for sugar, there is a ministry for tobacco, NOBODY has a light! For the first few days, you think people are just being friendly, cozying up to the rich tourists. In many places people bum a cigarette off you – but not here. In fact I saw a guy who actually fixes disposable lighters! It was no surprise to hear this is the only country in the world where this occurs. In fact it’s a country where people do fix things (including the man old American yank tanks that grace the streets). If only I’d taken all my junk jewellery that I’d love get fixed and broken umbrellas! I bought the most expensive lighter I’ve ever had to buy in my life at the Havana Libre hotel (formerly known as the Hilton, where Che and Fidel ran their operation from during revolutionary times). In fact most things of importance to buy and do happen in a hotel: weird. Any internet access here (unless someone has it at home illegally or possibly at their work), buying anything off the state govt agenda list of essentials, potentially edible food, pools, tourist advice and so on is on.
As you may expect, Che is totally pimped out here. The most popular calendar I’ve seen (the state sanctioned one I imagine) is the many sexy poses of Che. How many different poses can he fondle a cigar on? How pensive can he look (and he was a looker, for sure). Sigh … if only the 2010 one was ready for print. Che is the poster boy of Cuban communism (although a few other faces do come up, though Fidel’s not as often as you expect – so Belle – no cool Fidel paraphernalia for you!). Another thing that makes it hard to self-cater is that there is virtually NO advertising of shops and their wares: they are incredibly hard to find and just blend into the hood. I wonder whether the lack of advertising is part of the reason why loads of revolutionary murals are to be seen on the walls and billboard posters. Some feature a mix of Hitler and George bush and extol the virtues of revolution vs. terrorism (mas revolution is the answer, etc). Another wacky idiosyncratic feature of Cuba is the “American interests” building, which has a running broadcast board that shows a “message of the day” anti-Cuba propaganda slogan each nite. Well, it used to be that, I’ve since learned, but now it’s more of a news service. Right next to it is a bunch of black flags to symbolize those who died fighting the US: a visually dramatic stand off. It rather reminds me of the DMZ between North and South Korea, but there it’s North Korea who has the loudspeakers broadcasting anti US and South Korea messages.
On my first morning, I wandered in search of eats and all I could find was hot dogs and beer (and rum of course). Lots of drinking going on here from the early hours – though in fact some places just keep on keeping on 24/7 – the favoured ‘cafeteria’s’. The junk food is truly junk but one person I met commented that “we Cubans are just eating whatever we can”, which really seems to be the case for many people. Even though the fruit/vege markets sell in pesos Cubana (not CUC, Cuban convertibles, the money used for luxury items, anything expensive, including alcoholic bevs, and is the tourist currency – a state sanctioned rip off), things are still not cheap when you learn than the average wage is 500 pesos a month, about $20 US dollars, and doctors earn under $50 a month. Fresh produce (and many other staples) aren’t part of the ration card deal. Today my spanee class went to a good agro-mercado but a Cuban I’d made contact with before coming told me that place was far too expensive for his family to buy at. Although it’s a pain having to bother hustling with the Cubans as they line up on bread ration day and fighting the mama’s for the last mango, it has improved the authenticity of my time here, when I compare my day to that of other students. Actually the sheer size and taste of the mangoes and avocadoes almost makes up for the paucity of other choices.
Anyway, I’m here to report that it’s all true: Cuban stereotypes are alive and well. Old cars, a fairly casual attitude to sex (from what I can see and hear of), great music on every corner (though some of it is canned salsa as Santiago, not Havana is the origin of a lot of the good music), lots of hustlers of all kinds, a city full of beautiful colonial architecture that is falling down and in need of paint (that too is expensive and poor quality). However the place seems quite racist, as about half the population was slaves only 50yrs back, and that mentality is still alive and well in both camps.
There are many (most?) people of mixed blood, however the guys who you see late afternoon riding on the back of big trucks from the sugar cane fields or the like are usually very dark skinned. The white people still rule and when you mention a Cuban friend to people they often ask what colour they are, and as far back as my airport ride in, I was told to “just say no” to any black person offering me anything at all. I suspect a lot of central and south America continues this theme.
Part 2 next week on 3wm
Fiona Jackson is a veteran English teacher and traveler from Australia she can be reached at email@example.com