The real face of Cuba
Break out of the all-inclusive box to meet ordinary Cubans
Andrew Renton , Freelance
SANTIAGO, Cuba - The young waitress, wearing a smile and a well-worn sheen to her blue serge skirt, made my selection. "Criolla Deliciosa" (delicious local food) was boldly emblazoned in white chalk across the blackboard.
My opinion of Cuban fare as a gastronomic nightmare was to be challenged yet again. Chicken, fried to a crisp? Canned sardines? Bread that fragments into low flying missiles at the mere approach of a knife?
No -- this time it was a pork steak, large and tough enough to resole my Rockports. I manage a grin "Mmm - deliciosa indeed," praying that my crowns would hold!
I have opted for a small, government-owned (they all are), hotel in Ciega de Avilar. With rundown balustraded sidewalks and horse-drawn traffic, the town has a hint of the Wild West. Oddly the toilet flushes with hot water that the shower fails to deliver. Otherwise, the price seems reasonable at 25 CUC (convertible pesos) or around $30 Cdn which includes breakfast.
There are two ways to visit Cuba. The all-inclusive resorts of Varadero, Holguin and Cayo Coco provide an all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink closeted beachfront experience. A great way to spend an "it's all about me" week, away from the bills, boss, winter blahs -- and well away from real Cubans who are banned from resort areas.
When Russia collapsed, the peso tanked. Fidel Castro's revolution guaranteed free medical, education, housing, and a ration book granting subsidized staples for life. Imported fuel, parts, and medicines require scarce "hard" currency.
In 1990, Castro announced a "special" period. Oxen replaced tractors. Horse-drawn wagons replaced local buses. All very cute for a "Kodak moment" but tough for a people used to modern amenities.
To get around, Cubans still catch open cattle-trucks to official hitchhiking points along the autopista. Vehicles with blue licence plates are government-owned and required, by law, to pick up passengers.
An arrangement to visit granny in the next town can be hazardous unless booked weeks in advance on the much cannibalized, shrinking bus fleet.
Breakfast brings the same grinning waitress. She carefully arranges a basket of week-old bread, a watery "cafe Americano," and an omelette the size of a wafer-thin hockey puck, then suddenly launches herself forward to "buss" me on both cheeks. "Buenos dias Senor." McDonald's could learn from this server!
To reach Santiago, Cuba's second largest city, my choices are limited. Hitchhiking sounds romantic but impractical for the 400-kilometre trip. Car rental at $75 CUC a day is over the top. Trains run at night and all flights are full.
The government owns a fleet of comfortable tourist buses which run between popular centres, via rest stops where a limp cheese sandwich will set you back a cool $3 CUC-- a week's pay to a local. Ticket prices on "Viazul" buses rival Canadian Greyhound at around $6 CUC per journey hour.
Cubans are banned from tourist accommodation -- Fidel's unsporting way of intervening between lustful foreigners and the amorous overtures of hot-blooded Chicas and Cabana boys -- (It seems the urge for an illicit dalliance is no longer a male bastion). But "amor" did find a way -- for a while anyway. To fill the void, illegal "Casas Particulares" or Bed & Breakfasts, proliferated like mushrooms on a soggy log.
Alas in 1996, the state thwarted these cupids' corners by bringing them under a similar regulatory blanket. Transgressors faced fines or even loss of their homes.
Two blue inverted V's displayed above a door like a military ranking, indicate approved tourist accommodation. For $25/$30 CUC a night this is a great way to meet real families, throw some money into private pockets and, with luck, enjoy a decent home-cooked meal. (Much of what you pay is taxed back by the government.)
In Santiago, I haul my pack from the bus depot into a waiting coco-taxi. The yellow snail-shaped vehicle has three wheels, a set of handlebars and an open-fronted roof which curves shell-like over the back and side and acts as a "rain scoop" in downpours.
Most doorways on the narrow lane bear the inverted blue V. I opt for a tall house requiring a full flight of stairs to reach the entrance. Maybe there'll be a view?
Arturo leads me through his home. Stone steps take me up to a room on the roof and a view of the bay. I will share my penthouse with a cunning cockroach the size of a sand crab -- for a few days anyway. The vociferous pig, tethered by day on the neighbour's roof, sleeps peacefully at night -- in their kitchen -- away from light fingers.
Arturo is a single, 40-something, English teacher at the medical school. His monthly income of $30 CUC a month is double the national average. My daily rent of $30 CUC pushes him into the upper middle-class. For an extra bit of "convertible cash" he will prepare black-market lobster and rum-based mojitos.
He beckons me furtively to a pile of rusting iron sheets stacked vertically under the staircase. An assortment of chains holds them together. "They'll steal anything they can get their hands on," he announces, unlocking the hasp of each padlock with a separate key. Eventually the last sheet is freed and laboriously pulled aside.
A shard of sunlight catches the polished chrome exhaust pipe. His baby, a gunmetal grey motor scooter built in Czechoslovakia, a 1963 CZ-175, glints from within its secret lair.
"You buy the gas; I'll show you around," he adds, relishing the thought of being financed to indulge his weekend hobby.
I park my 6-foot-3 frame on the passenger seat. We race up and down steep alleys. An agitated man stands at the curb with two bleach bottles filled with fuel. Three convertibles are snatched from my hand and stashed hastily into his trouser pocket.
"My friend was a doctor, now he drives the school minibus. It broke down when the mechanic was on sick leave. He used his own hard-earned cash to fix it privately."
"Wow," I respond, trying to imagine a Canadian driver digging out his Visa to keep things rolling. "Fidel sure knows how to pick 'em!"
But this is Cuba. "Luxuries" from toothpaste to toilet paper can only be purchased with hard currency from the 600- plus government-owned "convertible currency stores." The duties of my "hero of the people's paradise" include collecting and delivering food for school lunches -- from which he skims enough to feed his family with a little left over to trade.
Furthermore, his weekly gasoline allowance provides a chance to siphon off a few litres for the black market. Ah, the bleach bottles. "As a driver, he earns way more than a doctor, but if the bus breaks down ...?"
I lose the rest as we speed up into some serious hairpin bends. At the hilltop restaurant a top-notch band is belting out salsa to the gyrating crowd. The lead dancer from The Tropicana nightclub has just married a Dutch businessman three times her age.
"She wants to leave the country and needs to marry a foreigner to get a passport," adds Arturo, eyeing my quizzical, and slightly envious, look.
Survival for the average Cuban is a constant struggle. Water shortages and power outages are normal fare. Meagre rations of cooking oil are often replaced with rendered pig fat by month's end. Soap is a luxury as are razorblades and pens.
An indomitable spirit. The kindnesses. The music. The artwork. The smiles. These are the qualities that bring people back again and again. Break out of the box -- go and see the real thing!
IF YOU GO:
- VISAS: Not necessary for Canadians.
MONEY: One convertible peso (CUC) is about $1.3 Cdn.
- FOOD: To supplement the lack of restaurants outside major centres, the government has licensed private in-home "Paladares" allowing a maximum of two tables. Meals cost around $9 to $15 C for lobster. The food is vastly superior to normal restaurant/hotel fare. You will find these places easily as touts on the street will constantly approach you hoping for a commission.
- Note: It is better to book in the afternoon so the owner can shop to order.
- ACCOMMODATION: Casa particulares are the way to go. Mine varied from a historic mansion in Trinidad to a simple bungalow in Vinales where the table always groaned with delicious dishes. The tastefully renovated colonial Hotel Gran in Camaguey was also a great find with excellent buffets and a pool. Phone ahead to avoid disappointment.
- UNOFFICIAL CASAS PARTICULARES: The government has cracked down on these establishments which pay no taxes. There is a snitch network not to mention the ire of legitimate operators to contend with. Avoid, unless you don't mind being turfed out by the authorities during the night.
- CAR RENTALS: The government has a hand in every enterprise in Cuba so the prices generally are non-negotiable. The longer the term, the cheaper the rate. You are required to buy a tank of gas with no refunds at the end. Check the gauge before departing. Short filling is rampant. Cuba is frustratingly short of road signs and maps.
- SAFETY AND SECURITY: Cuba is the safest country in the world in which to travel, but take normal precautions. Avoid talking politics with your hosts. Big Brother is everywhere and the jails are filled with political prisoners and journalists.
- WHAT TO TAKE: The climate is hot. Sunscreen. A good map. Flashlight for blackouts. Cubans are short of everything:clothes, pens, soap, makeup, nylons, razors, blades -- the list goes on.
- COMMUNICATIONS: A few lucky people have computers and e-mail but the Internet is blocked. You must show your passport at official centres to access hotmail or webmail. Expensive international calls can be made from telephone offices. Internal calls are cheap. Post is unreliable. People will ask you to mail their letters from your home country.
- TIPPING AND MONEY: Canadian credit cards can be used and travellers cheques can be cashed at resorts, high-end hotels and banks. Tourists can rarely use local pesos. Tipping is survival for many and a chambermaid will cover you in kisses for a small gratuity left in the room.
USEFUL GUIDEBOOKS: Moon Handbooks Cuba by Christopher Baker is excellent. Lonely Planet does a moderate job, but is easier to follow.