Category Archives: Cuban customs

Trump: The Laughingstock of Cuba

Let’s get this out of the way – US travelers can still come to Cuba. Nothing has changed, despite what that fool-tool of a President (and his minions) want you to believe.

New regulations for travel to Cuba have yet to be written (they’ll be released on September 15) and won’t be actionable until sometime thereafter. Until then, they’re the same Draconian, out-dated travel restrictions as usual. Draconian because even though President Obama relaxed rules for travel to Cuba (a step in the right direction, without a doubt), it’s still the only country where people from the USA are prohibited from traveling freely. For those keeping count, we’re going on 60 years of attempts by Washington to control Cuba and if that’s not the definition of failure (not to mention stupid and a violation of rights), you need a dictionary, a foreign policy course or both. Never mind that all public opinion polls show that a majority in the USA want full, free, and open travel with Cuba. Another detail: Cuba doesn’t prohibit US people from visiting. On the contrary. They love folks from the US here. The restrictions are all on that end.

But here’s the kicker: though nothing has changed, people are already cancelling trips to Cuba. They write me on this blog, my website, Cuba Libro’s website, and Facebook. Tour group operators, independent guides, semester abroad coordinators: they’ve contacted me virtually or in person to lament the cancellations in the wake of Trump’s laughable, but shameful, speech in Miami. So while it’s still status quo as regards traveling here, and will be for the foreseeable future, Trump did do damage – he wound the clock back to the Cold War, reinstating the culture of fear (and dare I say: terror), that then reigned. And fear is a mighty motivator. It makes pussies of the powerful, cows the courageous and intimidates the intrepid. I know. I survived eight long years of George W Bush here, when friends and family were too scared to come. Or too confused – because this is the other card in the stacked deck wielded by anti-Cuban politicians: it takes even specialist lawyers, those with decades of experience interpreting the twists and turns of the embargo, considerable mental gymnastics, and many expensive, billable hours to tease out precisely what’s legal and not, as well as the gaping grey area between. Clearly, some people profit off the politics around Cuba. During his Miami dog-and-pony show, Trump also successfully pissed off Cubans everywhere – including in the swamp state known as Florida.

On the flip side, some US travelers are heading here now, convinced the hammer is about to come down. Literally as I write this, there’s a New Yorker here talking to a Cuban, saying she came to Cuba “before the law changes.” Forget the fact that this isn’t a law. I hear the same thing day in and day out and am truly amazed that so many people are willing to come here in July and August, the absolute worst times to come to this hotter than Hades destination.

Here in Havana, we listened to his speech live, on Cuba Libro’s beloved Sirius radio (though it was also broadcast on Cuban state TV). The dining room was crowded with Cubans who had never heard him before. Nor had I. One of the brilliant things about living in Cuba is the facility the context provides for existing within a bubble, where asshole politicians, Caitlyn Jenner’s ridiculous pronouncements, and the 24-hour fake news cycle is someone else’s problem. Folks are always surprised when they learn I had never heard him before Miami. But if you didn’t have to listen to his bullshit and blather – if you weren’t addicted to Facebook or Twitter or involuntarily subjected to a screen in a bar or airport, would you waste your precious moments on this dying planet listening to that buffoon? Or listening to pundits or talking heads or social media chatter about him? I was quite shocked listening to him ramble on. I was shocked at how infantile he is, how lacking in elegance, not to mention eloquence he is, and how insultingly transparent he is, manipulating facts and history of course, but also his own supporters. They’re as stupid (or opportunistic) as him. It’s hard not to feel just a smidge of schadenfreude for all the racist, misogynist, isolationist white trash who voted him into office and who are getting a wakeup call to just how destructive he is to their interests. Unfortunately, many innocents are also caught in the net of hate, inequity, and cruelty cast wide by the Trump administration.

Cubans are being caught in this net. But Cubans are cockroaches (old news for regular readers). They’ll survive us all. They withstood the Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs. With stomachs empty and vision failing due to lack of nutritious food, they withstood the demise of the USSR. They withstood and reigned triumphant during the Elián crisis. Hurricanes, drought, Zika and dengue, the embargo, two Bushes – they’ve survived it all. And they’ll survive Trump, too. In the meantime, they’re going to hate on him big time (and are losing money because of him, which fuels the cycle of hate and belies his claim that his policies are designed to ‘help the Cuban people.’) As soon as he began rimming the Miami radicals with his smarmy tone, regular Cubans in the street, bars, cafes, and along the Malecón, were making fun of him.

They were laughing at how behind the times and the curve he is, invoking events that happened over half a century ago. ‘Is this guy for real?!’ one Cuban asked aloud during the speech. ‘Dude! Come join us in the 21st century,’ said another. They were laughing at how low class he is. They were laughing at what an inept orator he is. And they were laughing at the shitty musician chosen to play the national anthem. They stopped laughing when they realized the “out of tune” violinist wasn’t going to follow up the US national anthem with the Cuban one. ‘He’s clueless!’ declared a young local. I agreed: no matter where a Cuban resides, they are first and foremost, cubano and loyal to one hymn: theirs. And no one was laughing when they learned from Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodríguez (and my runner-up choice for next Cuban president; my first is Josefina Vidal) that the violinist at Trump’s speech was the son of a killer: his father assassinated Frank País, a young Baptist caught by Batista’s troops in the early days of the revolution and shot dead.

For Cubans, Trump epitomizes bad taste and is devoid of grace. He’s like a bucket of ice water dropped on them after their first-hand experience with Obama. He (and Michelle) charmed the underpants off the place, their visit making history. Trump isn’t making history; he’s making an ass of himself and tarnishing whatever gleam and sparkle remained of the United States. Mulling it over, I think it’s Trump’s shameless douchebag-ery that ruffles Cubans most.

Going with the flow is something Cubans do with aplomb. They also live for the moment – they don’t get hot and bothered about what might happen further down the road. They’re very Zen in this way. They especially don’t get their panties in a twist with political declarations made up north; they’re way over buying into that kind of drama. Once they found out the 5-year multiple entry visas to the USA already granted wouldn’t be revoked, they went back to laughing at Trump, creating hilarious caricatures and tagging walls with graffiti – one, a larger-than-life portrait with the word ‘estúpido’ stenciled beside it, was quickly painted over by authorities. They should have left it if you ask me. And it’s too bad the artists (from a collective known as La Banda) didn’t go with their original design which read ‘singa’o’. Conclusion on this side of the Straits: Trump es un tremendo singa’o! And he’s making a laughing stock of the United States. Quo vadis?!

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, dream destinations, Expat life, Living Abroad

Inside a Cuban Posada

Brothels, bordellos, madams and the prostitution profession in general have long intrigued me. Even prior to writing about Heidi Fleiss (the Hollywood Madam), one of my first paid gigs as a scribe, I was a proponent of legalizing and regulating prostitution. For my money this is the best way to protect the health and safety of the providers and to bring the world’s oldest profession out of the shadows. It can never be eradicated – hooking, transactional sex, play for pay, whatever you call it – and if it can’t be wiped out, wouldn’t it be better for all involved if the violence and drug addiction, unsafe and underage sex, human trafficking and other related dangers could be addressed in a systematic way, applying legal and public health frameworks? I know some countries have taken certain steps towards this with mixed results – legal houses in Amsterdam; Sweden penalizes johns instead of prostitutes – and there are no easy answers. I certainly don’t have any, though I’ve thought about this quite a bit.

Prostitution in Cuba doesn’t interest me all that much. Or rather, sex tourism doesn’t interest me, but Cubans paying for sex does: it flows so freely here, it seems like money poorly (or desperately) spent. Some of this carnal action happens in what are known as ‘posadas,’ where rooms are rented by the hour. These fill a very specific need here since homes are overcrowded, while privacy is a luxury reserved for the very privileged. So it’s not all putas and johns that rent rooms by the hour, but also couples who just need a place to screw. Posadas are easy to identify. You know those little blue symbols on Cuban homes which signify that they rent to foreigners? There’s another, identical sign, but in red, which means the house rents rooms to Cubans only, in pesos cubanos. I’ve always wanted to rent a posada room for an hour or two, just to see what it’s all about until a friend said: ‘are you nuts?! All those rooms have holes for peeping or filming.’ That turned me right off to this new Cuban experience I sought.

Fast forward to last week and where do I find myself? In a posada in Santa Clara. My friend José and I went to the city of Che/city gay to celebrate International Day Against Homo/Transphobia, but we had no accommodation lined up. Our budget was tight, we were tired, and José offered to hunt down a house. He found something affordable, a bit outside the city center, but we had transport. The only catch was we had to be out by 10:30 the next morning – “seems like they’ve got a ‘palo programado’ (a scheduled screw).” I was too exhausted to ask. When we entered the room – no window, no toilet paper, no hot water, one pillow, one towel and an Igloo cooler on the floor filled with ice – I collapsed on the double bed, but sleep was elusive. The stench of cheap air freshener permeated everything – the sheets, my hair, our clothes, even the stale air stank. We slept with the door open to provide a shred of relief from the olfactory assault. Luckily the room faced a brick wall – to keep out prying eyes.

We awoke fairly rejuvenated in spite of it all and I was looking forward to getting a glimpse of the pair who had a standing date each Friday morning (escaping from work and/or spouses with a handy excuse I would have loved to hear but there are some things you just don’t ask). At 10:30am sharp, a cherry red Dodge with blacked out windows rolled into the interior patio and out stepped a bleached blonde temba (a woman of my age more or less) in platform heels and a puss on her face. A lover’s spat, perhaps? Her companion looked more upbeat (don’t they always?!), having already doffed his shirt in the mid-morning heat. We rode away and I was ready to get as far from the stench of chemical flowers as fast as possible. Too bad it still stuck to my skin.

Two days later, we got caught in a mountaintop rainstorm, quickly scrapping the idea of camping. Instead, we headed to the closest big town to look for a room. We rolled in to Cumanayagua at about 9pm, wet and tired after an all-day hike and were directed to a corner on the outskirts of this bustling rural berg. The sign said: Hostal, 24 hrs, AC, hot water TV and DVD. José walked through the big steel sliding door which I’m learning is typical of posadas (so cars can enter and the lovers can rent their room without being seen) to talk to the proprietress. Standing on the sidewalk, the smell of urine stinging my eyes, I heard her ask: “you want the room for the whole night?! It’s $4.” Suddenly I knew what we were dealing with, but I didn’t know what we were in for. We rented the ground-floor room and once again were assaulted by the cloying stench of cheap air freshener. Was there some lucrative business selling this shit by the gallon to posadas, I wondered?

The bed was flanked by golden gilded mirrors and even tackier curtains without a purpose; a TV on a retractable arm like they have in hospitals pointed towards said bed. There was a DVD player with a disc in it. I would have bet my life that it was some kind of B-grade porn; if I had, I would be dead. It was actually 172 minutes of C-grade music videos. While I surveyed our $4 surroundings, I overheard the señora say: “Who knows? Her ID card says it’s her, but I have no idea.” As if I would be in the middle of nowhere passing a fake ID at a flophouse that reeks of faux flowers and piss…

We hung our wet shirts and pants and socks on a clothesline we strung across the room and took a cold beer and cola from the fridge. That’s when I saw the first cockroach skitter along the wall – a Lower East Side-type sucker, the size of a Bic lighter. I decided it was time for a shower. My flip flops firmly on my feet, opting for our soap rather than the complimentary – used – cake on the sink, black hairs and all, I tried scrubbing the road grit and posada perfume from my body. I succeeded in ridding myself of the former, the latter not so much. When the soap slipped from my hand and skidded across the shower floor, it picked up a few black hairs in the process. Before getting into bed, I wondered who would actually use the comb provided for guests – obviously someone had.

Our hostess warned us that we had to be out by 8am (another early morning ‘palo programado’) and we were beat besides. We woke to the familiar smell of piss and air ‘freshener’ and packed quickly. Another cockroach sighting later and we were out of there. But as we did our final check around the room, the fan mixed with a breeze and flipped up a corner of the sheet, under which was a condom wrapper. At least they’re practicing safe sex, I thought. Ciao Cumanayagua, it’s been real.

I’ve now had my Cuban posada experience – twice in five days. Believe me, it was plenty.

_____

I need to add a little postscript to this post which has nothing to do with posadas but everything to do with how Cuba continues to puzzle. Besides, I need to exorcise the images swimming around in my head. In the five days we were tooling around the Escambray, I learned of a disturbing fact of local life. My friend José told me of a fellow he knows in the tiny town of Cordobonal who is clinically insane. And his family, rather than commit him, keeps him in a cage. I asked my friend not to share information like this with me; as a writer, I was visualizing his whole miserable existence (and that of his family). Later that night, sitting with José’s family in a similarly tiny town, I learned that his cousin’s wife has a nephew who went insane at the age of 14. For the past 17 years, this young man has been living in a cage as well. I think the worst part of it all is that my friend’s cousin was asked to build that cage – and he did. If I’m having trouble with the image of people living in cages, what about the person who builds them? I shudder to think. What makes it even more difficult for me to process is that Cuba has a national network of psychiatric hospitals – all free. Sure, conditions can be pretty scary, the food is scarce and terrible but is this worse than spending your life in a cage? I was talking to another friend about this yesterday and he told me about another one in the center of Vedado that he can see clearly from his balcony. And last night, I was watching Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (a documentary that has gone viral here) and I was left positively speechless when I learned that L Ron Hubbard kidnapped his young daughter as revenge against his wife in the 1950s, took her to Cuba and left her with a mentally disabled Cuban woman – who kept the young Hubbard girl in a cage. WTF people?! This boggles my mind, but it’s got me thinking I should make my own documentary…

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Filed under Americans in cuba, camping, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Expat life, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Travel to Cuba

Carnal Delights in Cuba

A friend celebrated his 40th birthday a few days ago and invited his closest amigos for a party – one of those blow outs with a guy posted at the door to keep out crashers, a DJ spinning cool sets, and the liquor flowing ‘a full’ as we say. The type of party Cubans call ‘tirando la casa por la ventana.’ When I asked another friend, formally invited, if he was going he said: “yeah, I’ll be there. But it’s bound to be a fiesta de chorizo.” It took me a moment to get what he meant – that the male to female ratio at the party was going to be grossly imbalanced, there would be 10 guys for every woman. It would be, in Cuban argot, ‘a sausage party.’

Later that same day, another friend was telling a tale about a recent liaison, saying it was a ‘palo de cebolla.’ For those around the table who didn’t understand, we explained that an ‘onion shag’ is when the girl has a killer body but a face only a mother could love: you lift her dress above her head, tie a knot, and get down to business, her ugly face hidden from sight. Sausage parties and onion lays got me to thinking about Cuban diversions, including sex, and how so many of the terms and phrases involve food. There’s a certain logic going on here since eating and screwing, food and partying share many of the same senses, are sensuous and fulfilling in equal measure (when done/cooked right).

As the wheels turned, I began recalling all sorts of expressions that mix the bedroom and the kitchen. For example, it’s hard to miss the double entendre in Los Van Van’s popular song ‘don’t bother knocking, the black guy is cooking.’ I started picking the brains of friends and away we went. The most obvious is the classic ‘papaya.’ When you’re in Havana and crave this juicy, coral-colored fruit, you best ask your produce purveyor for ‘fruta bomba’ – because here, papaya means pussy. I remember once a group of tourists invited me to eat at La Guarida, Havana’s most famous and in-demand restaurant and laughing out loud as we perused the dessert menu. The chef’s suggestion was ‘papaya pie’ and I explained to the table of yumas (yes, I used to sing for my supper, but no longer) that it was obvious they put it on the menu just to hear foreigners order ‘pussy pie.’

Terms and turns of phrase for the sex act (and fluids), are almost always referring to foodstuffs. Semen is called ‘leche’ (milk) or – as I’ve just learned, writing this post – sometimes as ‘lágrimas de chorizo’ (sausage tears). When you haven’t been laid in a while, you have ‘queso’ (cheese). It’s a veritable charcuterie around here, I tell ya. Talking to my next door neighbor the other day, I learned another relevant sex act phrase when he told me he was going to ‘jamar una heva’ (devour a chick). No matter that he’s married. A quickie, meanwhile, is known as a ‘palo de conejo,’ rabbit being a popular protein in these parts. There are also derogatory terms that I refuse to use including ‘tortillera’ (egg scrambler), loosely translated as ‘dyke.’

When I have questions like these, I go to the experts. In this case, I consulted Alfredo, a street-smart Casanova and all around good guy. Seems Alfredo is a breast man for all the terms he rattled off the top of his head for different kinds of tits (he also provided illustrations): bananas (with nipples pointing skyward); fried eggs (with large aureoles); and orange piths (saggy and sucked nearly dry). He also provided tons of food-related terms for penises: banana dicks curve up, cucumbers are a catch-all phrase for the male member, and my favorite ‘pene de Pelly.’ For those of you who have never gone searching for food here at midnight, been to a baseball game, or ventured to a Ditu, you probably don’t know Pelly, but it’s our Cheese Doodle. Garlic flavored. You can imagine the rest.

I’m sure there are many more; if you have a favorite, please do drop a line – I’m always anxious to broaden my vocabulary. Regular readers of Here is Havana know I’m a huge fan of Cuban slang and sayings (dichos). One of my recent acquisitions makes an apt close to this post: ‘come pan para no comer más pinga.’ This is a handy phrase for whenever a Cuban is being a douchebag – you only have to say ‘come pan;’ they’ll fill in the blank.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, cuban words without translation, Expat life, Living Abroad, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

Tourism: Killing the Cuban Encanto?

First came the packs of drunken jailbait to the Fábrica de Arte, snapping selfies while the Cuban band played their hearts out.

Then came the frat boys so blasted they lay unconscious in the street and had to be taken to their casa by the police. Only they couldn’t remember where they were staying.

They were followed by the wannabe musician from Ohio (passing himself off as Brazilian) who threw himself to the sidewalk, shrieking like a schoolgirl ‘SOY TURISTA!! SOY AMERICANO!!’ when the Cuban he cheated set upon him.

This is the new normal for tourism in Havana. It ain’t pretty. I figured I’d just wait until it blew over (and it will blow over – the college girls will discover the gorgeous mulatto bailarín is already married; the Yuma who bought a house with his Cuban ‘frens’ will return after a quick trip north to find the locks changed and no legal recourse; and word will get around that there are too frequent shortages here, of beer, water, electricity, English speakers, toilet paper, vegetarian food, whatever). Then something happened which obligates me to write this post.

“Where’s the closest Wifi? We have to connect!”
“There’s a park with Wifi six blocks from here. And they just activated Wifi along the Malecón.”
“What’s the Malecón?”
“…”

These were nice guys, don’t get me wrong. But this is akin to asking: what’s the Louvre? What’s the Coliseum? The Malecón is THE symbol of Havana. This instantly qualified as one of the top 3 most stupid questions I’ve been asked. Plus, it convinced me to try – once again – to do something about the pervasive ignorance about Cuba. I know I’m pissing in the wind here – if I’m lucky, this blog gets 400 views a day and those are mostly choir members: people anxious for on-the-ground information about Cuba, my followers, friends and family. So how do I reach the others? The cruise ship passengers in port for 36 hours and the spring breakers here for a mojito-fueled weekend? What about the 1% who land their private jets at José Martí International Airport and contract a paladar for their exclusive dining pleasure, paying $6000 for the privilege (the equivalent of 20 years salary for my neighbor Mercedes), and then jet off again? Or the family of four “daring” to visit Cuba, trying to keep up with the Joneses?

I’ve written tons about traveling more conscientiously to Cuba. I’m a founding member of RESPECT (Responsible and Ethical Cuba Travel) and tell everyone willing to listen about this new consortium. Anyone who asks to buy bottled water at Cuba Libro gets all the potable (boiled) water they can drink, free of charge, and an earful about why we don’t sell bottled water. Four million tourists in 2016, drinking small plastic bottles of water + island ecology = environmental disaster, no matter how you do the math. The same goes for anyone who asks for a straw. We stopped using straws after participating in the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup last year when we learned that drinking straws are the #1 plastic product polluting our planet’s oceans.

I’m one of those people who always wants to do more. Maybe it’s because I’m the youngest of four. But my time, money and reach are limited. I wish I could have an impact beyond sending these thoughts into the ether and bending everyone’s ear about the evils of (some) tourism. So, until I’m invited to do a TedTalk, here are some of the most egregious and under-reported ways that tourism is affecting us here on the ground:

No Spanish whatsoever: Get a phrase book, an app, an interpreter, whatever works for you, but learn at least a few words of wherever you’re traveling. One everyone needs at the ready here in Cuba is “permiso.” This means ‘excuse me.’ Learn it. Use it. I was at a popular club last week (part of my so-far-not-so-successful 2017 goal to re-establish some work-play balance in my life) and spotted my friends across the crowded dance floor.
“Permiso,” I said, the smile on my face audible.
No response.
“Permiso!” I repeated, louder.
Nothing.
“PERMISO/Excuse me!!”

The dude shifted his weight slightly to the right and I squeezed through. I get that not everyone speaks Spanish, wants to speak Spanish, or has the time, energy or brain cells to learn some local words before traveling to foreign climes. But when you start fucking with our mechanisms and flow, it gets annoying (and inefficient). It’s like the people in New York, my home town, who stand on the left side of escalators or who stop on street corners to look at maps or their smart phones. Permiso isn’t a hard word to learn or pronounce, nor is taking the último, which you should do in each and every line in which you find yourself. El último is the most important concept to learn before traveling here if you don’t want to screw with the local flow.

The classic car cliché – The fury for classic car tours has me irrationally incensed. I say irrational because there are upsides: cars rusting in back lots or abandoned in garages for decades are now up and rolling through the streets; restoring them is providing jobs for many; and the cars’ owners are making a killing taking tourists on hour-long loops around the city. Before I unleash my rant, let me repeat for lazy readers who missed it the first time: I recognize the benefits and I admit my attitude is irrational. Now for the complexities: convertible car tours have become such a trend that cars previously functioning as collective taxis for the local population are being taken out of circulation and their tops shaved off (to the tune of $3000 CUC) to satisfy tourist demand. Whereas these drivers used to hump their ass all day long (or hire someone to do so) collecting 10 peso fare after 10 peso fare (about 35 cents), they now get up to $50 CUC an hour (that’s double the average monthly state salary) taking Tea Party supporters on a Habana Vieja-Plaza de la Revolución-Parque Almendares-Miramar tour. I would love to do a Candid Camera-type maldad where fun- and sun-seeking tourists from Kansas jump into the convertible and instead of traveling around ‘Disneyland Havana,’ they’re taken into the dark, gritty depths of Jesús María, La Timba, Fanguito, Los Pocitos, and Coco Solo, ending up in Mantilla…and left there.

Sadly, whoever is currently chopping a classic car is screwed: word on the street is that the state auto regulatory authority won’t be approving any more post-factory convertible conversions. If true, I predict it’s going to play out like this: car owners unable to procure the proper authorization will operate anyway, illegally. The money is just too tempting and they have to recover their investment after all. When stopped by the cops, they’ll slip 20 CUC in with their license and registration and everyone will drive off happy. Instead of being just another cog in this cliché, I suggest taking a classic Harley-Davidson tour – you’ll get the same 360° views; be closer to the people and scenes you’re photographing; and helping a needier Cuban than the convertible car guys. It’s also much cooler. Two other factors about these cars chap my ass: the environmental damage of all these cars without catalytic converters is incalculable and when they line up on the Avenida del Puerto in the heart of Habana Vieja to await thousands of disembarking cruise ship passengers, it causes nasty traffic snarls, making it even more difficult for regular folk to get to and from home, work, or play.

Pro tip for those on one of these tours: someone, please sit up front! It is local custom for someone to share the front with the driver. Cubans are social like that, plus, you get to observe up close how a pro maneuvers 2 tons of steel , can feast on the dashboard details (I’ll bet you 10CUC the speedometer doesn’t work), and you get the same stellar views. Bonus, insider info will definitely be yours if you share a common language with your driver – whose ear you’ll have for an hour or more. So unless you’re on a honeymoon or something similarly romantic, ride shotgun – even, or especially if, you’re traveling solo.

Your lucha is our gain – There’s other tourism-related stuff annoying me lately: foreigners who refuse to stand in line and pay to jump it; visitors who scam subsidized cultural events here, insisting on paying the local price (almost all venues here have a Cuban and a foreigner price, just like in Hawai’i, the Seychelles and other tourist-dependent islands. Often these same visitors decry the low salaries here, precisely as they undermine them); and of course, sex tourism, prostitution, transactional sex or whatever you want to call it. I was very heartened to learn at the recent Gender Violence, Prostitution, and Sexual Tourism Symposium that Cuba is considering penalizing johns instead of the sex providers a la Sweden.

Because this is a very depressing post and we’re living in very depressing times, I want to end on a positive note. A couple, actually.

First, talking with my friend Ernesto today, he observed that one of the good things about all this tourism – especially from the USA – is that people are seeing Cuba for themselves and learning first-hand that much of what they’ve heard about Cuba – it’s dangerous, a repressive police state, that Cubans are miserable and hate their realities – is bullshit. People drawing their own conclusions from their own experiences is powerful.

Second is the story of Kevin, Bryant, Blake and Jeff (or something like that), four bros from the East Coast who came to Cuba on a quick 5-day whim of a trip. On Day 2, they went out to the Morro-Cabaña and while picking their way along the moss-slickened cliffs, Jeff (or Kevin or Bryant or Blake) slipped and went tumbling into the sea. He surfaced quickly, holding his iPhone above the water as his friends fished him out. They made their way back to their casa in Havana and began hunting for raw rice in which to submerge the iPhone overnight in an effort to salvage it. Night had fallen by this time; they didn’t know where to buy rice and no stores (let alone bodegas) were open regardless. They stopped in a restaurant and in their broken Spanish asked one of the waiters if he’d be willing to sell them some rice. A diner overheard their conversation, rose from the table where he was sharing dinner with his family, took the guys to his home, gave them some rice (refusing payment, of course), and invited them back the next day for some coffee and conversation.

They were thrilled and so was I: here were four dudes whose Cuba trip could have been filled with a classic car tour, mojitos, jineteras on the Malecón and getting nauseous on Cohibas. Instead, they embraced serendipity, solidarity and the spirit of experiential travel. I don’t know if they ever got the iPhone working, but I know they made travel memories that will last their lifetime.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, environment, Expat life, Hawaii, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

El Paquete: Opiate of the Cuban Masses

I’m not a particularly heavy consumer of the “package” (love the typically Cuban double entendre) but I know what I want, my ‘Paquete’ guy knows what I want, and I stray only for research and on recommendation. Samantha Bee; Transparent; Lie to Me (swoon, swoon Tim Roth); The Lobster; Sully; Captain Fantastic – here, we get any series you’re watching for $1 a season. Another buck gets me six or seven films playing in a theater near you.

What first turned me on to The Paquete in a hot and heavy way was when I discovered it also contains all manner of professional sports. My Paquete guy, Yuri, knows: any Knicks or Golden State game and all pro tennis, bring it on! I’ll take a Redskins game or any old Monday Night Football once in a while, too. I’m a life-long sports fan and active participant, still, and if you ask me, sports transcend. Watching and playing sports – the most democratic and unequivocal of all human pursuits – thrills me. I know some of you don’t get it and actively reject organized athletics. That’s cool, but I do think it’s your loss.

Enjoying sports via The Paquete however, has its quirks and downsides. Lots of it comes from ESPN en español, so none of the sportcasters are familiar, they’re using Spanish sports slang I’m still learning, and they can be terrible chismosos. Listen, I don’t want to hear about Carmelo Anthony’s new car – just call the game asere! Another downside is when you’re fast forwarding through the commercials, the total length of the program is indicated on the menu bar. So if Team X or Player Y is getting walloped, the length of the menu bar serves as spoiler and at a certain point it becomes obvious that a mid-game rally or late match come-from-behind is impossible. Knowing which side will reign victorious before or mid-way through the game takes a lot of the fun out of it. But ‘del lobo un pelo’ as we say here: something’s better than nothing.

For a fairly new phenomenon (within the past 8 years or so), The Paquete is making a huge impact. When I moved to Havana in 2002, most neighborhoods had a person – young, old, home-bound – with an impressive VHS (remember those?!) collection who made a few extra bucks renting them out. Their bread and butter was mostly Hollywood blockbusters several years out of date and the latest soap operas from Brazil and Mexico. The more technologically savvy and those with more financial resources eventually transitioned to DVDs and soon thereafter, businesses cropped up where the movies or series or soaps you wanted were copied directly on to a memory stick (‘pingüitas’ in Conner slang, for their form and propensity to catch viruses). The soaps and flicks were then re-copied and re-copied as you shared them with friends. The final stage of this digital evolution is The Paquete.

In the simplest terms, The Paquete is one terabyte of media downloaded (mostly via a super speedy connection provided by the State and motivation a-plenty for some people to hang on to their low-salaried State jobs) every Monday and then shared the length and breadth of the island via private businesses dedicated to just that. I’m fairly certain this is a ‘grey market’ activity, but according to ABC News, The Paquete is the #1 employer in Cuba today.

Accessing The Paquete is easy: within a 5-block radius of Cuba Libro, for instance, there are no fewer than half a dozen private businesses – usually in the entryway to a residential home or building rented out for this purpose – where you can go every Monday to download the entire terabyte of new offerings on an external hard drive. Or you can pick and choose what you like. Different distributors organize their offerings differently and prices and quality vary. Some folks I know price by the gig – 8 gigs for 10CUP (about 35 cents) is one of the cheapest I’ve found – others, by the number of movies or episodes you want. Some movies have been hand-filmed in cinemas (where you can hear audiences laughing at the funny bits and get a glimpse of the guy returning from the concession stand with his popcorn), while others are BluRay or high definition. There is also home delivery service of The Paquete where the distributor arrives at your door and copies directly on to your computer whatever you request (free anti-virus included).

It’s worth mentioning that The Paquete contains more than just sports and Hollywood movies and series – the funny (and not so) tapes from Havana’s police cameras; digital magazines produced in Cuba (of which there are many, Vistar being the most high-profile); erotica (AKA soft porn); La Voz; music videos; computer games and more. Super events like the Stones concert in Havana and the Chanel show are also popular and usually available in days following the actual extravaganza. Recently, Zoológico, a Cuban-produced soap opera deemed unfit for broadcasting on state-run TV has been a popular Paquete request.

Games of Thrones, The Walking Dead, West World: visitors are often shocked at how plugged in and current Cubans are. Me? I’m still shocked at the pervasiveness of the ‘Cuba frozen in time/stuck in amber’ myth. There’s now Wifi the entire length of the Malecón (to give you an idea of the type of tourist here nowadays, I actually had someone ask me last week what the Malecón was. Dios mío) and in parks from Mariano to Nueva Gerona, Quivicán to Guantánamo. A pilot project will install broadband in 2,000 Habana Vieja homes soon and Cubans will begin receiving data on their mobile phones this year. Every medical professional has full internet access via Infomed and those accounts are often “shared,” multiplying users two- or three-fold. In universities, the national network of Joven Clubes, at work: Cubans are way more connected than you ever imagined.

I know a lot of readers may have expected and wanted my new post to be about Fidel’s death and I’m sorry to disappoint. Rest assured, I’ll get around to it (once I’ve further wrapped my head around it). But I will provide you with this bit of intel straight from my friends who work distributing The Paquete: during the 9-day national mourning period, these folks made money hand over fist, working double time, until midnight most nights, copying movies and series and sports for Cubans anxious to watch anything besides the ‘round-the-clock Fidel documentaries being shown on State TV.

I gotta go.There’s a hot Murray-Djokovic match I’m in the middle of watching.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Havana, We Have a Problem: Stray Cats & Dogs

If you’ve been to Havana, you’ve seen them. The poor bitch in heat lying prostrate on the sidewalk trying – unsuccessfully – to prevent another macho from mounting her. Packs of roving cats scouring garbage night after night. Bony and mange-ridden, Havana’s strays have a hard row to hoe. Here, where food is rarely thrown out and the majority face daily pressures more urgent than a dumped or unwanted animal, street creatures have to be really scrappy to survive. They have to dodge the pet police, avoid getting poisoned (a shockingly, all-too-common practice here; when your dog barks too much or causes too much fuss, your neighbor just might feed her some meat mixed with crushed light bulbs or a fatal dose of BioRat, domestically-produced rat poison), and forage enough food to live another day.

lindapreop

Although Habana Vieja has a program for spaying, neutering, vaccinating and tagging strays, this is not the case throughout the rest of the city. Coincidence that the country’s #1 tourist destination is the only place with a functional animal protection policy? You be the judge. Animal rights activists here are trying to get a protection law considered – to present it to parliament, they have to collect 10,000 signatures from Cuban voters. And they almost made it; more than 8,000 people signed the petition to legislate spaying, neutering and vaccinating strays so they might be adopted. But the initiative went to shit when internal divisions (over money, I’m told, which isn’t at all hard to believe), split activists, leaving the petition en el aire, as we say here. Today, there are at least two groups still actively pushing for legislation: PAC (Protección de Animales de la Ciudad) and CEDA (Cubanos en Defensa de los Animales). There are also foreign associations – from Canada and Belgium for example – which help fund local animal protection efforts and come periodically to spay and neuter strays for free. These initiatives are admirable, but speaking from personal experience, wholly inadequate.

Toby. Linda. Tucho. Yoko. Luther. Belle. All of these cats and dogs are part of our family. Don’t worry. I haven’t turned into some crazy cat/dog lady; I don’t live with all these animals, but rather say ‘our family’ since here in Cuba we still speak more collectively than individually (let’s see how long that lasts; in Havana at least, the “me” mentality is starting to root). And each of these wonderful pets are rescues. At different times, under different circumstances in different parts of the city, they were saved from life on the mean city streets.

tony-and-marylou

Toby wandered into Cuba Libro, dirty and sorry-looking, in 2014, soon after his young owner headed into military service, whereupon he cast Havana’s most beloved terrier mutt into the streets. I’ve got empathy for abandoned dogs, but as my father once wisely observed: ‘living with animals went out with Jesus.’ Besides, I live in a three-flight walk up – hardly ideal for a dog. So Toby lived in Cuba Libro’s garden, eating pizza and spaghetti until one fateful day when a violent tropical storm ripped open the Vedado skies, sending down thunderclaps and lightening, a hard pelting rain, and almonds from considerable height. And then my conscience kicked in: ‘that very cute dog is waiting out this storm alone. I better go check on him.’ When I got the locks off the gate and entered the garden, Toby was in the corner, soaked-to-the-bone and shivering, with a heart-broken look on his face. Did I have a choice? No folks, I did not. I plopped him into my backpack, strapped it to my chest and rode him home on my bike. Every day since, we’ve walked from our apartment to Cuba Libro, where he is more famous than me.

Tucho, salvaje!

Tucho, salvaje!

yoko

Tucho, the dog, like his friend Yoko, the cat (her partner, John, went the way of the actual Lennon, unfortunately), were found dumped in garbage cans, on the verge of starvation before my friends Lis and Alfredo took them in. Luther, meanwhile, was rescued outside the maternity hospital in Marianao. Lis and Alfredo discovered him when they came upon a gaggle of mischievous kids pelting the kitten with pebbles. Following a proper chewing out for their cruel behavior, my friends provided house and home for Luther (named for Dr King, who Cubans revere). This is one superior kitten who scales trees and walls like a superhero, can leap through windows better than a thief, and who already has his very own fan club with a President and card-carrying members, of which I am one.

Local heroes, Liz & Alfredo (and Tucho!)

Local heroes, Liz & Alfredo (and Tucho!)

luther

Belle, a gorgeous mutt with a good dose of German shepherd, was found abandoned in a coop, her fur so infested with chicken lice she couldn’t stand herself. Or even stand. Belle was taken in by my friends at the organic farm Finca Tungasuk where they tried all manner of non-chemical applications to cure her. Seems these were some hyper-resistant bichos: they finally resorted to spraying her with Lo Maté!, Cuban roach and bug killer. This is some strong stuff (manufactured by Cuban convicts, by the way). ‘If this doesn’t kill these lice, nothing will,’ they figured, letting the aerosol fly, taking great care to keep it from her head, mouth, eyes and ears. These are CUBAN bugs, remember. Rather than die, they hightailed it to Belle’s nose where they formed a writhing black mass like something from a sci-fi movie. Grossed out but determined, my friends eventually relieved Belle of her vermin, now contained on her nose, using a small brush. The good news is, today Belle is a beautiful, healthy, and happy farmhouse dog. In fact, she has just given birth to six gorgeous puppies sired by Huracán from the adjoining farm.

belle1

belle2

There’s Belle and then there’s Linda. Similar names, completely different experiences. Linda was found in San Miguel de Padrón at death’s door. This is no Cuban drama-rama or exaggeration: this one-year old mutt with baby doll eyes was lying on the sidewalk literally more skin-stretched-over-bones than dog, unable to lift her head. Seems her owners (strike that: abusers) had kept her on a choke chain so tight, a one inch band around her entire neck was raw and bloodied, with tendons exposed. Meanwhile, the ring on the chain had opened a nickel-sized hole in her throat so any sustenance proffered (she was beyond foraging for herself), went into her mouth and came out the hole.

lindaoperacion2

lindaoperacion

Likely she had only a few days of life left when Alfredo and Lis (the same friends who took in Tucho, Yoko, and Luther) carried her home. What ensued was a modern fairy tale mixed with grisly, gory reality TV – a three hour surgical procedure to close her perforated pharynx (during which she flat lined twice), intravenous antibiotics multiple times a day, changing of bandages, intramuscular vitamin injections, and a special high protein diet, among other measures (yes, she was allowed to sleep in the bed!) to help nurse this helpless animal back to health. It put my friends in the poor house with all the transportation, medication and care required, but you should see this beautiful, grateful pooch just a week after her surgery. Hair growing back, eating like a horse, she’s constantly wagging her tail and setting her soft, gratitude-filled eyes on every human she comes across. And she and Toby have fallen in love. Exactly six days into her post-op recovery, she came into Cuba Libro bundled in a sheet carried by Lis. Toby immediately began licking Linda’s stitches and kissing her nose. He swiftly moved to sniffing her butt and before we could intervene, he mounted her. And she liked it. I swear they were both smiling. We’re now considering the possibility of mating them once she’s fully recovered. After Cuba’s cutest puppies are born, she’s getting spayed and he’s getting neutered.

linda-que-linda

Spaying and neutering: this is the #1 issue any Cuban animal protection campaign should attack head on. Where I come from, responsible pet owners spay and neuter. It’s hard to overstate how vehemently most Cubans reject this basic obligation – to the animals, to their neighbors, their city, and themselves. It’s part ignorance, part machismo (‘you can’t take away his manhood!’ I was told repeatedly when I announced I was going to neuter Toby. ‘I can’t? Watch me,’ I told dissenters). If more Cubans followed this standard practice, we wouldn’t have buried newborn kittens left in a box by the bodega last week.

Don’t like cats +/o dogs? Allergic? No problem. There are other animals left to the streets with alarming regularity – a duck took refuge in Cuba Libro’s garden a few days ago and Shiva, a tortoise, was rescued from a Centro Habana sidewalk by another friend a couple of years back. When she reached to scoop up the animal, she was chastised: ‘don’t touch that! It’s brujería!!’ (tortoises are used in various Afro-Cuban sacrificial ceremonies). She paid them no heed and today, Shiva is as big as a football and an integral part of her family. There are myriad reasons for leaving street animals to fend for themselves towards likely death. But there’s no excuse for putting a pet on the streets (a fairly common practice among Cubans preparing to emigrate) and one very good reason for rescuing them: it’s the right thing to do.

shiva
liz-and-shivas

NB: Friends of Cuba Libro, the 501(c)3 I founded to fund projects of high community impact, is launching an initiative to help activists defray costs of animal rescue and raise funds for a proper animal shelter in Havana. Please drop a line if you’re interested in receiving more information.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, environment, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Communicating from Cuba?!

One of my oldest, closest friends is having a tough go of it lately. Man problems, work-life balance problems, health problems. In a nutshell, she’s living life, which, as Hobbes observed, tends to be nasty, brutish, and short.

All I want to do right now is pick up the phone and call her in LA to commiserate, consult, and kvetch. Unfortunately, that’s an impossibility since I’ve insufficient saldo on my cell and besides, rates are outrageous (over a dollar a minute). It’s also impossible to call her from my home phone, which has no international service. At least I have a home phone – many people here can’t say that. But igual, rates are outrageous. What about email? you may be wondering. I can pause the pirated US Open match I’m watching, plug in the modem and phone line, wait and HOPE it connects (on a weekday night like tonight, even if I succeed in logging on to the remote computer, the connection speed tops out at 28kbps – that’s kilo, not megabytes, people). If it does connect, yay! Then I have to click through four screens to finally be able to kvetch and commiserate via email. Meanwhile, I’ll be praying no one calls, thereby kicking me offline. But you know what? That just doesn’t cut it when you want to talk to someone you love.

If this state of communicative affairs sounds terrible as you stream the latest Netflix series or rock out to Pandora, while taking calls and reading this blog via your broadband and bandwidth, it is. But things are a lot better than when I first moved to Havana in 2002. Back then I lived in a microbrigada in what’s known as a ‘silent zone’ – meaning a neighborhood with no landlines. For the next six years making a phone call (nationally only, of course) was a serious chore. I had to make sure I had the right coins (because not all coins are accepted; that would be too easy and efficient), go down five flights of stairs and walk several blocks to a pay phone. And if there was a neighbor gossiping with her girlfriend from Gunatánamo? Ay mamá! The wait for that precious phone could be half an hour or more. I remember a fight broke out once – nothing physical (it takes a lot, or a lot of rum, for a Cuban to raise a hand or throw a punch), but rather a loud, bellicose shaming: ‘chiquita! You aren’t sitting at home in your living room. This is a p-u-b-l-i-c phone. Wrap it up already!’ This encouraged others to chime in. ‘There’s a line here, you know!’; ‘we have to make calls too. Give us a chance muchacha!’ people in line grumbled.

Having a cell phone back then was unthinkable. It was extraordinarily expensive of course and it was illegal for Cubans to have them. That seems absurd now, given how far connectivity has come in the intervening years. The only people I knew with cell phones were international correspondents (who also had Internet and satellite TV; the latter is still illegal for Cubans). Fortunately, the days of illegal cell phones and silent zones are long behind us. Now we have Wifi in parks, people get emails on their smart phones, and don’t be surprised if the Cubans kids at the table next to you are glued to their tablets or iPads. In short, communication to and from Cuba is better than ever – not as fast or accessible or affordable as any of us would like, but still, we’re leaping into the 21st century. Here’s how we keep in touch in Cuba nowadays:

Cell Phones: Cubacel is the one and only cell service provider on the island. Once you sign a contract for a phone (cost: $30 CUC) and buy an actual phone if you don’t already have one, you have to fuel it in increments of $5 and $10 CUC to make calls. National calls cost between 10 and 35 cents a minute, depending on the time of day. International calls are over $1 CUC/minute no matter where in the world you’re calling. Text messages are more affordable (nine cents per 160 characters within Cuba, 60 cents to the rest of the world) but can be prickly in practice.

Just getting a cell contract is a neat feat since the lines at Cubacel offices can be obnoxiously long and it’s not uncommon to find they are out of SIM chips, in which case you’re shit out of luck. If your phone is from outside Cuba, it will likely be locked or won’t accept the size chip used here, which also renders you shit out of luck. This, however, is ‘resolvable’ since private entrepreneurs all over the island have opened businesses specifically to unlock phones and cut SIM chips down to the proper size (costing an additional $100 CUC or so all in).

Text messages are a fast, cheap way to communicate – I’m sure many of you reading this send scores of messages a day without even thinking about it – but texting can fail mightily here. The most frustrating aspect for me personally and millions of Cubans is that it’s impossible to send messages to or from the USA using a Cuban cell phone. You read that right. You can text a congris recipe to your friend in London, Madrid, Buenos Aires or Montreal, but can’t tell your mom in Kendall that you love her or confirm an upcoming meeting with a delegation from DC via text. There are services to allow texting between the two countries, but Im too tired to jumopop through even one more hoop! Internally, text messages also get delayed when volume is particularly heavy – on Valentine’s Day, say, or when the Stones are in town. How many times have I been rudely awoken by a 4am text that was actually sent the night before? Too many to count. And how many parties or family meals have passed without my presence due to delayed message receipt? Ditto. The moral of this story is two-fold: if the information you need to convey is time sensitive, spend the extra money on an actual call. And if you want a good night’s sleep, put your phone on airplane mode.

The same advice holds for US folks with Verizon, T-Mobile or Sprint, which now have roaming agreements with Cuba. Rates are usurious – you wouldn’t be the first to return from a Cuba trip to find you’d racked up $1000 in roaming charges. The only people these agreements benefit are business and government fat cats with even fatter expense accounts.

Now for the good news. A service appeared several years ago which allows you to recharge a Cuban cell phone via the internet. This means you don’t have to hunt around for someone selling the $5 or $10 CUC scratch off cards and you can do it any time of the day or night. Don’t have an internet connection and credit card? No matter – friends anywhere in the world can gas up your cell with the click of a few buttons. But it gets better: every six weeks or so, the companies providing this internet-based service have promotional offers which double or even triple the money charged to your phone. For those without friends or family abroad willing to plunk down money on your cell, there are private businesses all across the island which allow you to take advantage of these promotions for a $2 CUC surcharge. These services (Facebook is another), have literally transformed communication between Cuba and the world strengthening relationships and even reuniting families. My friend Douglas in Havana, for instance, reconnected with his long-lost brother, Clive, in Stockholm. They first made contact using Facebook and now talk via cell thanks to offers like those provided by ding which make calls affordable (admittedly, I’m often transferring money from my cell account to Douglas’ – and other friends – so they can talk. This is another new and wonderful option we have: using a simple code, you can transfer saldo from one cell to another here.) Clive has been to visit Douglas three times in the past 18 months and it’s heart warming to see their relationship blossom.

While there are a handful of companies offering this suite of services, my family and friends swear by ding (not for nothing but ding is headquartered in Dublin so receives bonus points for the Irish connection). Hearing about my mom’s latest canine escapade or wishing my niece a happy birthday, sharing details about our latest art show at Cuba Libro or regaling friends with Harley tales: I can personally attest to an improved quality of life thanks to ding’s generous recharge offers. And all you have to do is click Cuba in their drop down menu, enter the phone number and click ‘Top Up.’ This last has led to some panicked calls from Cuban friends: ‘Conner! My socio in Canada wants to put money on my phone before the offer expires, but they can’t find where to do it!’ I tell them to click the big green button that says ‘Top Up’. Even bilingual friends look confused at this point, unclear what ‘top up’ means – it’s less than intuitive this last step. The ‘top up’ service is sold in 500,000 retail locations around the world as well. Ding also has services for putting money on Cuban landlines and nauta accounts.

Nauta: This is even newer and more novel than cell phones. An email and internet service available directly from your smart phone (which one repeat visitor called ‘the new Bible in Cuba’), Nauta is very handy, especially if you work extensively with Cubans via email. Opening a nauta account may involve an interminable line, but it will be worth it once you pay your $2 CUC to open the account and receive a dedicated nauta email address. Then you can send and receive email and surf the internet for $1 CUC per megabyte – the money is deducted directly from your cell phone. Internet can also be accessed from hotels ($6 CUC/hr) and dedicated ETECSA internet offices (the most user-friendly is in Miramar Trade Center). Ding also offers Nauta top up services.

Wifi: Wireless access in public parks across the nation may just prove to be the revolution within the revolution. This technology was introduced a couple of years ago and allows people – again, those privileged enough to have smart phones – to connect to Wifi for as little as $2 CUC an hour using a one-use card. Re-sellers are rampant due to the high demand however, and do a booming business cranking the cost of the cards by 50 to 100%. Since my phone is more dumb than smart, I’ve never used the park Wifi but I know the connection can be wonky depending on traffic and well, communicating in a public space can present privacy issues. If you want real insight into contemporary Cuban culture, skip a night on the Malecón and plant yourself on a park bench during peak Wifi hours. A grandmother connects to the internet for the first time in her life and meets her baby grandson virtually; a mulatta lies to her husband that she doesn’t have anyone else, that he’s her one and only Papi; a third grader tells his mom about his day at school – whether you’re at 16 & 15 or Parque Coyula or any of the other parks around town with Wifi, such eavesdropping will be a revelatory experience.

For my part, thanks to my family and ding, I finally have money on my phone to be able to talk to my friend in LA. When the call connects, it goes directly to voice mail, costing me $1 CUC in saldo.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba