By Fiona Isobel Jackson
A leap of faith I am mastering is getting into a strange man’s car. I thought that the dudes who rolled around in the big old yank tanks were so cool that they always had lots of friends. However, ALL cars in Cuba are potential taxis (illegally but very widespread), and these cars have more seating space than newer ones. So when you want to go somewhere, unless you want to pay in CUC and almost certainly have a wee fight about the cost and possibly get ripped off with the change (you ALWAYS have to check the change, or as another student commented: “Cubans aren’t very good at math”) You just have to muster the courage to flag down any old car that isn’t too full! In fact, there’s a huge culture of hitchhiking and it’s as systematic as it gets: there’s a place to stand to hitchhike and the guest pays a small fee. The highways are full of people doing it! I’ve been out of Havana three times and seen this a lot (as well as working horses, bulls and cows. Again, rather reminiscent of Geumgangsan in North Korea).
So as you may guess, this indicates that it’s really quite a safe place, on a physical level. I feel far safer here at night than Mexico City. The only thing to worry about is your bag, which is always the case in a less than wealthy country. So far so good …
After one week here, I found myself almost as busy as I am in Korea. University classes in the morning, salsa classes a few afternoons a week, beers with my Norwegian school teacher mate afterwards, private Spanish lessons, and a social life that is getting hotter by the day! No rest for the wicked. I have met some really nice students from other countries (predominately Europeans, though my class has more Asians in it than not and their diligence is showing me up!). However, I have to admit that the Spanish course isn’t easy for me as my class is a false beginner class and everyone has done at least some study before, and the basic stuff is review for them. Also, being here for only two weeks, not months, I’m juggling a tourist and student agenda. As expected, it’s a very old fashioned method of teaching, with zero speaking practice, and we think our teacher drew the short straw with our beginner class, but I have been seeing a private teacher every day for an hour or so, and he can and does speak English, so that helps. But perhaps walking in here cold on the Espanol stakes may not have been the smartest move (i.e. – more productive to have come once I had a better, or any foundation in the language), but the road to being a polyglot is long and one must start somewhere. Also, who knows if Cuba will be like this in a year or two? Probably it will but small things are changing bit by bit and it’s almost visitor friendly compared to a few years back so I’m told. Again, it feels a bit like the North/South Korea situation. From the outside it appears that something dramatic could happen any day, but from within it feels unlikely. And if you’re thinking about going: take ANYTHING you think you will need. That includes ALL the cash you think you will want to spend, as it’s unlikely your cards will work in the machine, if the bank clearing house is in the US (which seemingly Korean and Australian banks are). There is a 10% charge for withdrawing money and the same charge if you actually manage to be able to use your credit card.
After the “ba li ba li” (quickly quickly) culture of Korea, the pace of communist services takes some getting used to. Work ethics here are a little different: not surprising given the going rate of pay. Therefore many restaurants and bars are run by engineers, doctors and the like as what they can get in tips far outstrips wages in their own field. Certainly, the pace of life is far more relaxed and rather becoming after frenetic Asia. Similarly, there are few if any noise ordinances, and being given ear plugs for the plane was a stroke of luck. Thankfully there’s barely any building construction going on …
Some areas of the city have been fixed up (painted, renovated), but the more residential ones not so much (they’re the ones you see on street life postcards). Out of the inner city are masses of wonderful colonial mansion homes (one of which I’m staying in), but the best ones have been commandeered by the state. It is hard to get your head around the fact that some families live several people and even generations in a single room while others have an abundance of space – enough to rent out half of their house and make a tidy living from it. Apparently whatever your family had when the revolution occurred is what they have now, frozen in time. You can go to a park in old Havana and exchange your house with someone else’s, but if you’re trading up, a sly sum of extra cash is necessary. People who don’t have a job can be and are jailed, and those who have people staying in their home illegally lose their home after the third offence. Therefore, due to the paltry wages that one cannot live well on, everyone is on the take in some way or another. State jobs don’t require that you work long hours so people have time to do ‘extras’ on the side. That could be just hustling on the street, teaching various things on the side, using your car as a taxi or more sinister activities etc. It seems that the easy way to justify this extra income (people have to present ID and a rationale if they present a 50cuc note) is to have a family member offshore: a tried and true method of survival.
Another survival option is becoming a well known sports player or musician and then defecting. Apparently agents leave cards in hotel rooms when such Cubans go abroad and offer to help them not return home. The word on the street last week was three baseball players just jumped ship to South Korea, and recently the same occurred in the U.S. and has been going on for years. People are baseball crazy here and there is even a park where fans gather to discuss it and only discuss only that!
However, with all of this poverty fatigue most people look healthy, their teeth are reasonable if not good, which is more than one can say for most poor countries. Education is available to all, but it will take generations to level out the class system, which in fact just manifests in other ways besides income: lightness of skin, those with a relative abroad, or a high level govt. status etc etc..
I may be the only visitor here who actually buys clothing (barring a shockingly expensive t-shirt souvenir) and even food supplies. Perhaps as much fun as acquiring the stuff is queuing up outside a shop to be let in. Most I entered had their wares up on a high rack like they were jewels far from grubby fingers (and the prices were real world). People on the street (or in my case, in the water at the beach) will often ask you for clothes, pens, candy etc. If only I had known what to bring … but then should one encourage people to beg? Hard call.
Last Sunday, my classmate Sandra and I visited the famous beach resort town of Valadero, which is infested with tourists and tourist police. The water is picture perfect postcard Caribbean stuff, however I’ve since found out why there is so much rubbish in the water. It seems we were at the “Cuban” end of the strip. People stand in the water and drink booze and chuck their cans and cups into the sea. Incredible. But coming from Australia means I’m forever spoiled for good, clean beaches.
Like Che, Hemingway is also pimped out to the max. He apparently drank at every bar in old Havana (one of which I’m seeing some music at tonight) and they all have a chunk of his fame to call their own. Something that is very cool here is the addressing system. Where I’m staying, in Vedado, the streets are all numbered New York style (alphabetically one way and numerically the next), but all addresses come with the street name, number AND the nearest cross streets it is between. Too easy! I guess I wouldn’t have even noticed such a thing except certain East Asian countries could use this logic.
The “place to be” is the Malecon: the concreted sea wall that runs for 2km along the ocean as it becomes the harbour. Some say it is the prison wall, yet certainly it’s where all the fun is to be had – lots of concerts, people of all ages hanging out, strolling, drinking, complete with wandering minstrels.
Tomorrow, I’ll go the VERY famous ice cream parlour one sees in the opening scenes of “Strawberries and Chocolate” (1990s movie) and in “Before Night Falls”. People queue for hours and hours to sit down at Copellias, but I have a connection, Isnoel, who has a friend who works there and can get us in fast. It’s a great art-deco kind of construction and Fidel’s ice cream parlour isn’t going out of fashion any time soon. As I suspected, hanging out there for hours then doing the same for almost as long at the hot dog/pizza place across the road is a vibrant night out. Queuing up for stuff appears to be a national past-time, and people are remarkably patient it’s a face to face time with strangers who can become friends. It’s clearly the opposite groove to what South Korea tangos to.
Up until yesterday, I had almost nothing very bad to say about my time here and dealings with the locals. Certainly men yell things out and make hissing and whistling sounds (ignorance can be bliss when clearly whatever they are saying isn’t terribly polite), but most of it is good natured and not creepy. But yesterday I had a horrid incident in the tourist part of town (Remember I’m staying in a more residential area), of a graphic sexual nature. Nothing so threatening, just disturbing – and that will help me get on the plane and back to the work and study work and study world of Korea.
I always had a lump in my throat when I thought about leaving. But several not so great things occurred as I was wearing a sombrero: which is like an ambulance siren announcing my status here. When I was walking around the Malecon area with a HC member who lives in that part of the city, he kept asking me not to wear the hat when I was with him, as it cast suspicion on him doing illegal business with a foreigner. When Sandra and I took an illegal taxi out of town the driver asked me not to wear it (as well as pretend I was asleep when we went past police checks – red hair blends in nowhere!). Even getting home yesterday cost me more than usual as no driver would budge on the price, due, it seems, to the dammed hat!
For my last night, I’m going out in style, staying with a long term expat from HC. She has 2 kids and lives in a sought after residence that she gets due to her work. My casa people want to charge me for my last night (after 3 weeks of staying there), and they certainly aren’t poor and don’t even have to work, so I thought that was a bit mean and decided I’d check into a hotel. But this offer is even better and much more fun. Another HC member who is soon going to move to London will join us, and I’m going to take us all to the Hotel Nacional for their dinner buffet. Yesterday I finally met up with another HC member who is a newly graduated languages student and we had a great exchange of info – I wanted names of Cuban musicians so I can stock up on CDs and she had no clue about
specs for a computer some people outside Cuba have bought for her on eBay. Most of the tourist bars are STILL thrashing out the Buena Vista Social Club, which I was tired of even before I came here … She is quite involved in Afro-Cuban religion (which is mixed with Catholicism), and it was fascinating to hear about it. My suspicions about who those people going around entirely in white are …
So, despite a very few unpleasant experiences, I can genuinely say that although Cuba is firmly second world, it’s also deeply fabulous (well, for visitors). In some countries three weeks is well enough but here it’s a ridiculously short stay, and unlike other places, despite the everyday shortages the fact that you forever love it, it’s pace and idiosyncrasies is a foregone conclusion. I was privy to a particularly special and genuine Cuban experience due to the HC members I met with, and a few of my student buddies, who are experienced Cuban aficionados. As well as the few locals I met out and about, all of whom I’ll track down when I return. And I will return.
Now I’m heading back to Mexico City to meet up with a Colombian/Canadian for the afternoon on my long trip (five airports in total!) back to Seoul. Just in a nick of time! Both pairs of daily shoes I bought with me are worn out due to often rough pavements or cobblestones in the old town and in the heritage listed town of Trinidad. No wonder everyone just wears thongs (flip flops). Farewell to the fabulous music and grooving but gritty Caribbean.
Hasta luego, Fiona
Fiona Isobel Jackson is a veteran English teacher and traveler from Australia. She lives in Seoul and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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