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Weekend in Havana

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The news lately is putting me in a reminiscing kind of mood about my time in Mexico City. The mayor while I was there, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is now contesting his loss in the recent presidential election. And news that Fidel Castro has temporarily handed over power to his brother has brought back memories of my weekend in Havana. Not that I met the man himself, but it's put me in the mood to revisit that visit.

I'd only been in Mexico for six months at that point, and pretty much the only Spanish I knew when I'd arrived was "where are the bathrooms" and "how much does this cost." I figured I was doing pretty well, so I was dismayed to discover how different—that is, incomprehensible—the Cuban accent is. It wounded my pride a bit that I had to rely on my traveling companion to be my interpreter most of the time, but I felt better knowing that even a native Spanish speaker had trouble.

The many Cubans who approached us to chat tried to peg our nationality as a couple. Tall, fair-skinned Carlos didn't fit the Mexican stereotype. I'm tall and glow-in-the-dark skinned. When they asked where we were from, they refused to believe Carlos's answer of "Mexico," first turning to me in disbelief until I answered "soy canadiense" in my tragic and obviously non-Mexican accent, then turning to Carlos again in disbelief because, though his accent was right, he didn't "look Mexican." I found it amusing, but by the end of the three days, he was annoyed at having to justify his Mexican-ness. He also ended up suffering from sunstroke after three days of mocking my liberal use of sunscreen and unnatural attachment to my hat, so I was not as sympathetic to his annoyances as I could have been.

People would follow us to continue the conversation, and one couple tried persistently to dissuade us from visiting the museum we were going to, because they didn't want to go. We finally had to be blunt and tell them we were going to just continue on our own, then. We found out later that Cubans weren't allowed in, only tourists, and felt guilty.

We lined up at an ice cream place that had been featured in the movie Strawberry and Chocolate, which had separate lineups for separate currencies, effectively dividing tourists (short lineup, more expensive ice cream) from locals (long lineup, cheap ice cream).

We never did figure out the currency situation. There were three—American dollars, Cuban pesos, and convertible pesos—one of which tourists weren't supposed to use, so we stuck with American dollars. That meant things were far more expensive, but also that we could go to the many places that only took American dollars, and could find places willing to change our money, and didn't have to ponder the mysteries of currency in the short time we had there.

Despite the ubiquitousness of American money, it was like entering the Twilight Zone to be in a country virtually untouched by American influence. I know it's not exactly by choice, but after seeing McDonalds and Blockbusters in Peru the year before, it was comforting to see that a part of the world exists where the golden arches don't. You'd see Coke sometimes, but rarely, and it was Hecho en Mexico. There were American cars, but they were from the 1950s and only added to the otherworldly, other-time charm of the country.

The ornate colonial buildings were both majestic and heartbreaking, in various states of disrepair, some acting as slum housing. Old Havana has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site, but it's a crumbling heritage. One beautiful and well-maintained building was the possibly slightly history-altering Museum of the Revolution, which told of the heroics of Fidel and Che and their cohorts, and described the social utopia that is Cuba today.

There was some free enterprise, both legal and illegal. We stayed in a legal, private guest house—an apartment created out of the top floor of a couple's home—and they explained there were strict rules, heavy competition, and extremely high taxes.

We didn't make great use of the kitchen because we couldn't find anywhere to buy food. The locals got free rations from government stores, though our hosts told us the black market thrives because the government-supplied staples aren't enough to live on. We also couldn't find a bank machine. They exist, but people kept directing us to exchange houses that give advances on credit cards (unless they happen to be a Citibank Visa, even if it was issued in Canada).

Because of the high tax on free enterprise, some people operate illegal restaurants set up in their family apartment, with no signs on the outside to indicate the activity within. A young guy, maybe late teens, came up to us on the street saying basically "psst, wanna eat?" and led us to a paladar (as private restaurants, legal or illegal, are called) that had the most amazing, least expensive lobster-stuffed-with-seafood dish. I discovered later that only state-run restaurants are legally allowed to serve lobster and beef.

The boy who'd enticed us in sat with us for part of the meal, first trying to figure out where we were from, of course, then trying (successfully) to sell us a box of cigars. It could have been annoying, except that I could tune out and let the boys talk since I didn't really understand anyway, and the greatest fun was the surreptitiousness of it all … until you remembered why it was surreptitious, and wondered at the consequences if they were discovered (turns out, mostly fines, though jail time is possible).

We sipped mojitos at Le Bodeguita del Medio, a bar where Ernest Hemingway among other famous faces used to hang out. In fact, pretty much everywhere we went was supposedly some place Hemingway used to hang out, which didn't charm me nearly as much as it was supposed to since I'm not a great Hemingway fan, but it was a pilgrimage the tourist has to take. Especially the tourist who for some inexplicable reason has a complete collection of Hemingway's works despite not being a fan. The music and performers in a small street festival were more charming by far, and didn't smack so much of putting on a show for the tourists and their American money.

That was all about five years ago, and it was only three days, so I'd love to go back and see more of the country. But with an 80 year old president in failing health and his 75 year old successor, it's easy to wonder what kind of country it will be by the time that happens.

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About Diane Kristine Wild

  • Les Slater

    “I’d love to go back and see more of the country. But with an 80 year old president in failing health and his 75 year old successor, it’s easy to wonder what kind of country it will be by the time that happens.”

    I wouldn’t worry, Cuba has a broad based leadership that is quite competent. Fidel is important but life will go on with or without him.

  • Diane Kristine

    Yeah, not quite the point though. I’m not “worried” for one thing – the thing about it being a “utopia” was irony. The US and many Cubans themselves are hoping Fidel’s death is the opportunity for reform they want.

  • Les Slater

    Who says Cuba is a utopia? Certainly not the Cuban government.

    They do have many advantages over people in other third world countries and even some over those in developed countries like the U.S.

    The big thing is that the Cuban government, even with its very limited resources, acts in the interest of the majority of its population.

    What the U.S. hates most about Cuba is its positive example.

  • Diane Kristine

    Who says Cuba is a utopia? Certainly not the Cuban government.

    I did, ironically. I assumed you misinterpreted, but sounds like you just didn’t read the post, just the last paragraph, so never mind.

  • Clavos

    The big thing is that the Cuban government, even with its very limited resources, acts in the interest of the majority of its population.

    More accurately, the Cuban government acts against the interest of the majority of its population; that’s why the people continually risk life and limb to get the hell out of there.

    What the U.S. hates most about Cuba is its positive example.

    Except for the Cubans who made it here, who in the US “hates” Cuba?

    Do you live in Cuba? If you don’t, you should move there; you’d get over that “positive example” BS very quickly.