I’ve got some shit to get off my chest so best buckle up. Pour a stiff one, bust out the vape or tuck in with a nice, hot chai – whatever helps you chill and focus.
A lot has been written about Trump’s “new” regulations regarding “legal” travel to Cuba for US citizens and residents. The long and short of it? ALL of you can still come to Cuba. Please share this link; together we might be able to cut through the scare tactics and “alternative facts” floating about. Unfortunately, the scare tactics work, no matter that – I repeat – ALL of you can still come to Cuba.
And while for many of you this may be an abstract policy affecting a faraway land, for us, it’s human suffering on a national scale. It’s small businesses, once thriving, now shuttered. It’s families going hungry(ier). It’s hopes and horizons dashed. It’s exposure to new ideas (on both sides) now censored.
Some people are still coming to Cuba, but often, it ain’t pretty. What follows are all recent experiences we’ve had at Cuba Libro:
The “Influencers”: You know who you are. Perhaps you don’t know what you are, so I’m here to “bell the cat” as we say. Vapid. Banal. Opportunistic. You’ve heard about Cuba Libro on the news; you’ve seen our scene on social media; you’ve verified that we’re among the top 5 things to do on TripAdvisor; and you realize we’re one of the most authentic, chill places in town. So you come in, talk to no one, rebuff our friendly staff and snap some photos. You exit. You’ve experienced nothing. You’ve contributed nothing (your influence isn’t quite what you’ve been led to believe). You’ve missed the point – of Cuba Libro specifically and Cuba in general. Uncool.
The Cheapskates: We see it every day. You lounge in our garden, reading, drawing, meeting new people, petting Toby. You’ve pumped us for useful information – where to eat, where to dance, how to connect, how to get around. You’ve enjoyed the best/cheapest cortadito in town, while swinging in a hammock with the dulcet tones of Billie Holiday or the deep grooves of Cimafunk as soundtrack. After a couple of hours, you request the check, are charged 90 cents and pay with 1 CUC (or a 20 bill – happens all the time. We’re not a bank people.) That 10 cents change? It goes right into your pocket. As one of our veteran barristas observed: Do they think Tip is a town in China? Also uncool.
The Insulters: You are cousins to The Cheapskates, but take it to a new level. Witness a Certain US Tourist from Last Week: she rolled up in a classic car and nary looked askance at our friendly server’s offer of a menu (in this case, me).
‘I have my driver waiting,’ she said with a wave of her hand. Instead of relaxing with a refreshment, she asked if we sold ‘knick knacks.’
I explained that our strength is coffee and literature, but I showed her the pins made by a local artist that we have for sale. Something you can’t find anywhere else and made with creativity and care. I told her the price for each pin – $3CUC. She looked them over. She hemmed. She hawed.
‘We have some others in the office. I can get them if you like.’ I offered her a seat and spread out the other pins. She looked them over. Some had become rusted and spotted, victims of our oppressive humidity.
‘If you like one of those, I can sell them to you at cost – $2CUC. This is what we pay the artist.’
She fingered several. She hemmed. She hawed. ‘I like these,’ she said, indicating two. ‘Can’t you sell them to me cheaper?’
‘I’m sorry but $2CUC is what they cost us.’
She left in a huff.
The Abhorrent/Entitled: She strode in, butt cheeks peeking out from her too-short denim shorts and made a beeline for the living room couch.
‘How many CUC should I get for US dollars?’ she asked in rapid-fire Stateside English.
The four young Cubans enjoying their coffee exchanged glances during the ensuing awkward silence.
‘Eh, ah….’ one said, no one with sufficient English to answer.
I turned from shelving books to help out, quoting the official USD-CUC rate.
‘Oh! You speak English! Where can we get beef here? Or chicken? It’s all pork, pork, pork.’
I directed LaTonya (my pseudonym for this fauna) to the fried chicken joint around the corner. She thanked me but not before asking me about ‘that alley where there’s all kind of art and religion and stuff;’ this is Latonya’s second trip to Cuba to ‘buy cheap art and sell it for a lot of money in Amerika.’
Before heading off for some pollo chifla’o and Callejón de Hamel, she decided to sit in our little copse at the entrance – ‘the jungle’ in Cuba Libro parlance – to have a cool something to drink. I asked Alfredo to give her a menu and resumed my conversation with Maria Teresa at the dining room table. After a beat or three, Alfredo walks in, throws the menus down in front of us and declares: ‘I’m not serving her. Sorry, but that’s just disgusting!’
Maria Teresa and I give him the ‘WTF happened?’ look.
‘That girl just hawked up a ball of phlegm, leaned over and spit it at the entrance to the café. Not in the bushes or a plant – she’s only surrounded by them! – but right where people walk in. Not once, but twice. Who DOES that? I’m not serving people like that.’
‘All right. I’ll handle it. Not to worry.’
‘You’re so Zen right now!’ Maria Teresa, who knows me well, observed.
‘Yeah. I don’t know what’s come over me today.’ In reality, what was I going to do? To clean up that public health threat, I had to bust out the bucket and broom and swab down the entire entrance, right where she was sitting. I’d do it once she left.
Maria Teresa and I continued our conversation while Charlie whipped up LaTonya’s frappuccino. I served the drink and returned to the table. Talking to Maria Teresa about our next special event (Cafe Trivia Thursdays, she’s the Coordinator), I catch a movement out of the corner of my eye.
It’s LaTonya exiting the bathroom and cutting through the kitchen where Charlie is preparing another frappuccino.
If you’ve never been to Cuba Libro, let me explain that the kitchen shortcut is a) totally verboten – do you waltz into kitchens in other establishments? and b) really uncomfortable since there’s only room for two people (or three, if you’re like us, like family) in the very narrow NYC-style galley kitchen. But this lacra walks right in, grabs a cup off the drying rack, jams her hand into the bag of ice Charlie is manipulating to make the next order and grabs a fistful of ice. This is a person, you’ll recall, who has no compunction about spitting balls of phlegm inside a business and right in the path of patrons – AND has just exited the bathroom. We’re guessing she’s not a meticulous post-piss hand washer…He immediately threw out that bag of ice.
More ‘WTF?!’ looks go ‘round, this time with Charlie joining in.
Before finally departing, LaTonya shattered the frappuccino glass (accidents happen, but hell, girl) and paid for her beverage in US quarters – totally useless here since they can’t be changed in banks. And just our luck! She’s staying right up the block. Fortunately, on subsequent visits, she took her drinks to go. We were more than happy to oblige.
Let me be clear that not all visitors are like these –we recently hosted an amazing quintet from Dallas (thanks for the donations and the tip, Randy and crew!); a family from Oregon in the care of Soltura Travel; some kindly queer folk from Canada; and more. And we need people coming to Cuba, no doubt about it. I commend those that do.
But to all the Influencers, Insulters, Cheapskates, and Abhorrent/Entitled travelers out there, here’s some advice for when you come to Cuba/Cuba Libro:
– Treat people you meet with respect;
– Experiential travel is much richer and more rewarding than its voyeuristic counterpart;
– When you’re hosted at someone’s home or business, treat it as you would your own; and
– Tip your servers, damnit! We don’t live on air and good humor alone.
23 responses to “Travel to Cuba, Trump Style”
Regarding the person who paid with the equivalent of a $20 bill, that wasn’t me… but that was totally me buying ice cream. I had a really hard time figuring out the money and gave a CUC when it should have been a CUP, I think? I still don’t know what happened. I also compulsively worry about offending people by tipping incorrectly (either over or under). I’m sure that guy was a total jerk though!
Hi there!! No, it wasn’t you and I know the double currency can be confusing. But paying with one or the other is possible in most places and you won’t insult anyone by paying in CUC or CUP (you might get shortchanged but that’s another story!). Anyone wondering 1CUC=24CUP (or in other words: 1 CUP is about 4 cents CUC)
As for tipping: YES in Cuba! Usually ten percent in bars and restaurants, a bit more for a good guide and never in taxis (they’re already ripping everyone off!)
Thanks for reading and writing in
Wow ! What patience you must have ! Check out customer service wolf on instagram….its about a wolf who works in a bookshop dealing with rude customers… It might cheer you up !
Hi Conner – love your posts. Having lived in Havana for over 20 years I think you are one of the few who gets under the surface in Cuba. Most of your blogs make me laugh, but this one is just sad. Not because it is so difficult there, (de hecho, los Cubanos resuelven) but because people like LaTonya exist. No te preocupes – venceremos!
Visited in the Spring. Loved it and enjoyed every thing we did. I would go back and spend time and enjoy it, if I had the chance. Forgive all of us for the very ugly people you mentioned. Again I am so very sorry for those who don’t know how to act anywhere they go.
Wow. Just wow. The “Ugly Amerikan” is still alive and well apparently. Very sad to read about this type of behavior and the opportunistic motives of some. I applaud you for keeping it rather PG since it seems everyone is either searching for something or running from something in Cuba. My first visit to Cuba Libro was lovely and Conner, you could not have been more real and welcoming to me and the Harley book exchange. Next time, I promise to bring some more books for the library and coffee. You guys are great and the concept is phenomenal.
Hola!! That Harley Book is being read far and wide by many Cuba Libro visitors. A huge hit, thanks so much again for that!!
And ha!! You have given me an idea: Here is Havana, Rated R-XXX. That would get nasty fast!!
Also: “Ugly Amerikan” phenomenon continues: a drunken US patron yesterday grabbed the ass of one of our team members as she was serving her coffee. Full on, double handed, double cheeked ass grab. When our server said ‘hey! you can’t touch my body,’ the US woman responded “oh. does it bother you?!” If this is happening in the DAY TIME at a CAFE, I can only imagine how bad it gets at night for servers in bars. Yikes
Que bola, Conner?! Reading your words sadly reminds me of tourists from all sorts of places in all sorts of places. Fortunately, there are more and more cool considerate and generous travelers too.
The news that it is in fact ok for Yanquis to still visit the island is good. It will help to include some guidelines, or bureaucratic and practical details to offset trepidation. Misconceptions are running high amongst most folks here in the States (where I’ve been undergoing surgeries and rehab for a severe open compound fracture of my tibia and fibula in Honduras last year), even the adventurous. I hope to be back soon, and will continue sending good folks your way. Please lemme know if there are new needs, beyond the useful flashlights and rechargeable batteries, etc.?
How’s the Harley? A friend flew to Honduras and brought my bike back to Oakland, and I’ve begun riding again.
Hugs to all.
KAI!!!! As we say here: nunca vas a morir. We were just talking about you the other day, wondering when you’ll be back, what new adventures await. Rehab is an adventure in itself (of sorts, esp for someone so gung ho as you) and Im glad to hear its going well. I do hope you’re not having trouble paying for it all….
Ive just begun taking the Harley out for a spin as driver…a 1956 Panhead. FUN!!! so good you’re back out riding. Nothing better for stress relief!
Hope to see you back here soon and siiiiii: keep sending those good folks our way. Sending you healing vibes
Trump es el hijo de la gran puta.
I couldn’t have said it better myself! Gracias Laraine
Wow. I’m sorry you have to put up with such incredible rudeness. It’s good to get those stories out there.
But I’m curious at your contention that we Americans can still all come to Cuba. I hope you can expound on that in a future post.
Hola Linda. There are 12 different categories for travel to Cuba under the “new” OFAC regulations (new in quotes bc its essentially a rollback to the George W Bush days). the people-to-people category has been eliminated (essentially huge groups-your insight Cubas, Road Scholars, w a special people to people license) and cruises are no longer possible. But family visits, research, religion, journalistic activities, business, and SUPPORT OF THE CUBAN PEOPLE (this is where most US visitors fit in – staying in private homes, eating in private restaurants, shopping in private boutiques, etc) are all still legal ways for folks to travel here. There is detailed info in the link provided in the post. Cheers and thanks for your comment
Conner: I am struggling to get my head around your words that imply there is now some new “suck it up, be quiet, try to make everyone happy regardless” attitude at Cuba Libro. Tell me it ain’t so and that Cuba Libro is for the majority but sometimes a jerk comes in and needs to be nicely told that their attitude just doesn’t fit in. I know I don’t have to remind you that silent acceptance of bad behavior encourages it to continue. (but I guess I just did)
Yesterday was a smiling day for me. I frequently communicate with my Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott. I continue to point out that current US policy in Cuba creates a vacuum that Russia and China is filling. Well, I got to tell them that Russian warship docked right where the US cruise ships used to dock is a great visual example of where their policies lead.
I’m heading back to Holguin next week for the Gibara Film Festival but we will be in Havana in August for Yordanka’s visits to both the Greek and Mexican Embassies for visas. Do let me know if there is anything special I can bring. Otherwise it will be a surprise.
You know me/us better than that Bob!!! Usually what happens is that the “jerks” and pijos and conformists and naysayers realize on their own that they don’t belong and move on. With the others (like the sexual harasser I mentioned in a comment below), their misbehaviour is named, reclaimed and told that it has no place in Cuba Libro. Then there are some situations where it is not worth our energy, intelligence or time to bother with. LaTonya was one of these last. And thankfully, our dear, dedicated Cuban regulars and new to the scene folks, plus all kinds of new collaborations we’re doing locally (most recently with Revista Garbos which has been a joy) we don’t have to bow and cowtow to the almighty tourist dollar.
Enjoy Gibara you lucky duck!
Ugh. I cringed at all of those categories. I remember how worried we were that we’d unintentionally come off as gringo jerks, so we brought …oh man, so many comic books. Sooooooo many questions at the border about why we had 70 pounds of books. 😀
Noah and I still talk about that bizarre 1898 “history of Cuba” book we found, and left with you as a museum piece. I hope it brought some laughter…
Amy!! how are you? I was thinking of you guys last week when we had a honeymoon couple in and that same day received donations of V for Vendetta and The Complete Persepolis
Laughter?! Do you know how many people have tried to buy that book? It’s a treasure. And still sits proudly on our reference shelf. Take care!
You seem to have a lot of resentment towards Americans. You are American though, through and through. You are nothing like a Cuban woman. You are a feminist, strident, not family-oriented at all. Nothing wrong with that (except the strident part, your anger is really off-putting to be honest). I guess what I’m saying is that never in a million years would anyone mistake you for a Cuban, and despite your constant complaining, your life is not at all like a typical Cuban life. I just find it mystifying how someone can pick apart all the people who come to Cuba, when at the end of the day you have a hell of a lot more in common with them than you do with any Cuban. Despite your protestations. Your ‘street cred’ is with Americans after all, not with Cubans, who just think you are a total weirdo for living in Cuba. Just an observation.
You know SO much about me (and my cuban friends and family, mi central). Have we met?Thanks for reading
Nan Porter: your comment contains 8 statements of fact. All of them are incorrect. 0-8.
I am quite sure that you have never met Conner. Am I 1-0 or 0-1?
Now this is some pretty good writing here. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks. Im a little rusty, a little overwhelmed and my muse has taken a mental health year, it seems. But I will coax her back in to my lair damn it! Bring on 2020.