Havana Travel – Another Mind-Twisting Experience

Hotel Havana Libre, Friday, April 8, 2005, 2:47 pm

I am sitting here at one of the most famous hotels in all of Havana, after I just withdrew Can$250 (200 CUC, Pesos Convertibles) from my Mastercard. No big deal, you say….. Until you realize that the average Cuban makes between US8 and US30, not an hour, not a day, but for a whole month!

Havana architecture.

My professor for instance told me that she makes about US$18 or so a month, so the amount I withdrew is more than a year´s salary for a university professor…. I am feeling really weird about this and I also want to get most of the cash into a safe as soon as possible. I am simply unable to walk around with a year´s salary in my pocket…They talk about the “inverted pyramid” here, where a waiter in a hotel makes much more (due to tips from tourists) than a brain surgeon in a hospital…

The economic situation here definitely is the dominating topic. Just standing in line a young black man started to speak to me and told me that he has a degree in physical education, teaches martial arts at the national level and inevitably the conversation came back to the dire economic situation: the local refrain is “Hay que luchar”, – daily life indeed is a struggle around here.

There is no toilet paper around here, so having read about the shortages I brought my own little Kleenex travel packs from Canada. At the University and in the whole country there is tremendous shortage of writing paper. Basic things simply dont exist, or if they do, they cost a lot of money for locals on the black market.

As a result, a tourist is always pretty much a target. There are “jineteros” who try to lure you to a restaurant or bed and breakfast (in return for a commission from the owner), therer are “jineteras”, local young and good-looking Cuban women that seek contact with tourists, some of them straight prostitutes, others just looking for the occasional financial favour and entertainment opportunity.

Many local tourist employees try to take advantage of their contacts with tourists and there are definite rip-offs. 2 days ago I went to a state-owned restaurant at the far corner of the famous Coppelia Park. The food and service were horrible. I chose Arroz Congri ($3), a salad ($3), and a mango juice ($1), totalling $7. When the bill came I saw a total of $9.85 ($4 each for the salad and the rice and $1.85 for the juice). I made the waitress aware of the situation and she acted as if it had been an error and did correct the bill after all. But a less alert tourist would have paid 40% more than what was stated on the menu.

Square in front of the Capitolio.

Sometimes it feels like you are a “walking wallet” and I have developed a certain suspicion as to to the sincerity of some of the approaches by the locals. On the other hand, I realize, that with the $10 or $20 people that people make here a month, they are unable to live for more than a couple of days, so their economic reality forces them to try to make money any which way they can.

Services for tourists and even locals barely exist. I have been trying to rent a bicycle for the last 4 days. There were 2 contact phone numbers for bicycle rental places in my Lonely Planet Travel Guide. I have been trying to call both numbers numerous times – no answer. A co-student of mine has been trying to link me up with the owner of his bed and breakfast who has a new mountain bike. For 4 days I have been trying to reach this individual until I finally connected with him yesterday and I rented the bike for $3 a day.

But of course, you absolutely cannot leave the bicycle alone anywhere because it will be stolen and resold in a second. As a matter of fact, I “tipped” my hotel security guards a few dollars to look after my rented mountain bike particularly well, because anything of value “disappears”.

Yesterday, my friend Pedro and I went to eat in a Paladar (a privately owned restaurant). As a gesture of appreciation for his time and his insights I had given him a red baseball cap with “Toronto” written on it. He forgot it at the restaurant, but within a minute and a half we became aware of it and returned to the restaurant. The baseball cap was already gone, which made him very sad. He told me that it would be resold today for $8 (almost a monthly government salary).

For the most part, people here are unable to travel, even locally. Due to the “periodo especial” since the collapse of the Soviet Union (and the associated financial support for Cuba) gasoline is expensive and scarce, and there is not even enough for the local Havana transit system. So if you want to take the “GuaGua” you sometimes have to wait for 2 or 3 hours since there are so many people lining up for the local bus and there are not enough buses available.

Having a private car or access to the Internet is a luxury that only extremely few people have access to and I have heard different stories on the street that a regular Cuban person actually is not allowed to have access to Internet. As a foreigner, it´s very difficult for me to gauge which of these stories are true, whether it is truly prohibited or simply extremely difficult to get. Either way, I have noticed that people are still very careful about what they say around here.

The cruise ship terminal.

On the other hand, despite all these hardships and limitations on personal freedom, I have noticed a really amazing friendliness and a great sense of humour in the people. People approach me, ask me questions, without the immediate possibility of selling me something or expecting money from me. There seems to be a natural curiosity about foreigners around here, maybe because the possibilities of travel don´t exist. The professors at the University have been great and truly seem to enjoy the interaction with all the international students. When you get to meet people one-on-one (not in a government-owned restaurant), it is indeed a fabulous experience.

Last night my friend and I took an extended walk in a park after sunset, talking, discussing, comparing notes about our respective cultures. And it was completely safe, something that you wouldn´t dare to try in a park in Toronto. Even downtown, you see young, very attractive women, dressed up in really sexy clothing, walking around by themselves at 11, 12 at night. Immersing myself in this ultra-unique contradictory culture has been such a precious, unique and paradigm-shattering experience, and even though I have only been here for a week now, I feel like I have absorbed and learned so much….

It is so different from regular life in Canada that it feels like everyday I am entering into a foreign universe, a completely different world, but I have to say, I have never felt so alive……

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