using my inside voice
October 25, 2009
Cuba, a land of contradictions, where hedonism lolls comfortably beside frugality. Where one scantily clad senorita scoffs a 500ml tub of ice-cream and another queues patiently at a ration store for her monthly quota of rice. Where dancing in the street on a Sunday afternoon is commonplace and begging for change in old Havana is a legitimate career move. This country is everything and nothing like I thought it would be. We drank mojitos and smoked cigars, but also learned a thing or two about what life is like for those that are living each day under a regime they call socialism.
Here is a round up of the good, the bad and the propaganda.
Yes, they really are as good as you hoped they would be. Sitting at El Patio, a restaurant in Habana Viejo (Old Havana), on a lazy afternoon, sipping mojitos and smoking cigars is really and truly all it's cracked up to be.
Not the traditional dance of Cuba, but catching a live performance unexpectedly on our last night was definitely a highlight. As they clapped and stamped their way through a few hours, and we drank and ate our way through a bottle of red and a delicious paella (chock full of prawns) it was hard to imagine wanting to be anywhere else.
Apparently Cuba has somewhere in the region of 16 brands of ice cream. And boy, do they know their stuff. It gave me some hope that if people are at least able to afford to eat ice cream most days of their lives then things couldn't be too terrible... right?
Having the opportunity to go inside an actual Cuban home is both eye-opening and heart warming. More so when you consider that any
house that is not a Casa Particular must apply for a permit from the government to welcome a foreigner inside (I guess we would start spreading too much capitalist propaganda and create dissent among the masses). Sure, they don't let you totally into their lives, but being somewhat of a voyeur was almost enough for me.
Imagine a McCain's microwave pizza. Now imagine a pizza with a quarter of the taste and toppings of a McCain's microwave pizza. Now imagine those measly toppings being a strange tasting cheese, and a sauce that may or may not be tomato-based, all you know is that it's red. There you have NATIONAL PIZZA. The apparent lunch choice of thousands of Cubans each day, and one of the cheapest options around, costing about 20c a slice.
National Hot Dog
National Hot Dog is the other apparent lunch option for Cubans everywhere. Whether it's meat is questionable, and the mustard is surely more water than anything else, but this daily staple will create a taste sensation unlike any other you have likely experienced to date (and I'm not sure that that's a good thing).
As I said, begging in the streets of Habana Viejo is a legitimate career move in Cuba, with many successful entrepreneurs making more money per month than a doctor.
There are also other lucrative street careers such a singing, performing, and drawing sketches of tourists.
As Luke and I were enjoying what I would probably class as National Pasta, we noticed a gentleman with a clipboard and an intent expression sketching earnestly away for a good ten minutes, with surreptitious glances at Luke every few seconds. We knew we were about to be harassed for some money to pay for the unwanted sketch, but as I thought about it, I figured that if it was a good drawing it would probably be a nice reminder of our lunch in the shade of a giant poisianna tree. When finally the drawing was laid ceremoniously on the table in front of us I had trouble keeping my scoff from escaping and wounding this would-be-artist's pride. The drawing was laughable, something even my 10-year-old niece would not be proud to hang on the fridge door.
Luke's dreadlocks had been turned into spiraling scribbles and were the only consolation to his actual appearance, the pencil was pushed so hard onto the paper I'd imagine it would have been possible to shade over the sheet below and get a negative of the original, and the face could have been that of any old joe in the street.
Sadly we had to decline payment. My guilt didn't last long however, as I saw him wander immediately to another unsuspecting diner.
Yes avid reader, you are correct, this was also listed in The Good list, but staying at a Casa did have its downsides. As you may gave guessed from my listings about National Pizza and National Hot Dog, dining in Cuba isn't always the highlight of a trip to the Caribbean Island. But, somehow, Casas manage to source amazing food from somewhere, and we dined on Lobster not one, not two, but four times during our stay.
However, there is sometimes quite an intense amount of pressure to take up the owner's kindly offered breakfast and dinner services as they try and squeeze as many tourist dollars as possible from their foreign guests. So, we ate at the Casas a lot, especially for breakfast.
And, because I do know how hard it is to source food in Cuba, I found myself politely swallowing whole a variety of foods that were not to my liking. For example, a plate of guava washed down with fresh guava juice so thick a straw would stand up unaided in its pink depths, mounds of glistening papaya (paw paw for the Aussies), swished down with a mammoth glass of dark-orange papaya juice, and bread so stale it could probably be classed as a crouton. But, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and by the end my aversion to papaya had decreased immensely.
While in Cuba there is no real advertising of any kind, for that next pair of jeans you have to buy, the shampoo that will make your hair oh-so-silky-smooth or the tea that will slim your waist in a matter of weeks, there is advertising of a different kind.
Slogans like Patriotism or Die really rammed home the reality of a life in Cuba, where poets, artists and nouveau-revolutionaries that dare to question the socialist word are locked up in jail like murderers and common thieves.
Images of happy workers, in blue shirts and hard hats, lined up side-by-side, loving their country and it's repression truly hit a nerve.
The propaganda lined the streets for all to see.
For those that don't know, there are two currencies in Cuba: the Convertible (CUC) and the National Peso. National Pesos are only supposed to be for Cubans, and it's the money in which their wages are paid.
Convertibles were created for the tourists, and any product or service worth having in Cuba is paid for in Convertibles.
Technically tourists are not supposed to have pesos, but you can easily change CUCs for pesos at the Cadeca (change booth). However, all you are likely to buy with your pesos is National Pizza or National Hot Dog.
Tourism itself, and the CUC to add insult to injury, have created a situation in Cuba where locals flirt dangerously close to capitalism, but never with any real follow through.
They need the CUC's to buy shampoo, electronics, anything other than basic food items, and so much more. But, to get them they either have to exchange their precious pesos (they only get paid about 300 pesos a month), open a Casa, have a market stall, beg on the street, or partake in some other endeavour which is purely capitalistic in nature.
They are hugely desired and make the local currency pretty must useless (and also worthless, there are 25 pesos to 1 CUC).
Yes, Casas feature once again. Part of the reason for the insistence on eating at your host's house has to do with the regulations that are enforced on Casa Particular owners in Cuba.
They must pay between $100CUC and $250CUC per month to the government for this privilege, whether they have guests or not. They are allowed only two rooms in their house, and only two people in each room. Plus, Casas are banned from resort areas such as Varadero, a 22km stretch of pristine sand east of Habana that is crowded with all-inclusives.
They need all the money they can get, and they will politely insist, with a smile on their face and their intentions on their sleeve, that you partake in another huge lobster meal to keep them afloat.
Museo de la Revolucion
The museum of the revolution recounts the history of Cuba's emancipation from Spain, as well as the subsequent rule of Castro and his entourage.
This is an intensely interesting topic for many, and for the most part you can get some sense of how it all transpired through a visit to the majestic building.
There are, however, some things that just don't sit right.
For example, Americans are constantly being referred to as yankees, the enemy, and the imperialist invaders. They are accused of many questionable acts, all of which could not possibly be true.
Sure, we know they didn't play nice, but the museum, which sees crowds of school children through its halls each day, really takes it to another level, in what could only be considered brain washing to those young, innocent minds.
You do get to see a pair of Che's pants though, so maybe it's all worth it...?
So, what did I think of Cuba?
So, from what you can see, Cuba left an indelible print on my mind. People keep asking me if I liked it, and I truly haven't been able to answer that question. Maybe I need more time to absorb it, and figure out how sometimes the world can get it so wrong, while at the same time the people do seem legitimately happy (at least to an outside observer). But, imagining what it might be like to live and work in Cuba would run the risk of trivialising it, so I won't try.
I think a fellow traveler summed it up best. In Cuba, you feel like a spectator. You can see what's going on, and maybe even why, but it's hard to imagine really feeling like part of that life.
Bay's career has been many and varied due to a penchant for traveling the world. After completing a double degree in Business Management and Journalism at the University of Queensland in 2002 she was lucky enough to land herself a job at Brisbane's Quest Community Newspapers. A year of roving reporting brought the epiphany that journalism and Bay didn't jive.
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