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Conner’s Cuba Rules

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Since I’m from the Estados Unidos (more fittingly known as ‘Estamos Jodidos,’ or the independent republic of ‘We’re Screwed’), very few friends have visited me here on the “wrong side” of the Straits (see note 1). The lengths the US goes to keep Cuba down makes me indignant, but also sad since my peeps haven’t been able to experience this place for themselves and draw their own conclusions as to how good (or not so) things are in my world.

Last week however, the friend blockade was broken by some dear old amigos who finally made the leap and turned up for a visit.

As you might expect, they had lots of questions about governance and control, salaries and employment, the burgeoning private sector, tourism, race relations, emigration and myriad other aspects of Cuban life. Their curiosity and desire to better understand the sometimes unfathomable reality that is Cuba, forced me into a thoughtful analysis of the mundane, germane, and slightly insane features of life here.

Since the contemporary Cuban reality is so complex and different from what most people know, I’ve developed several rules of thumb for travelers wanting to maximize their Cuba visit. Part philosophical, part practical, the following complement Trip Tips: Havana Independently, posted in these pages some time ago.

– 8 out of 10 people approaching you on the street want something. ‘Do you have the time?’ ‘Where you from?’ and ‘Hello, my fren! Francia?! Italia?!’ are the most common lines used on new arrivals by jineteros. These are always asked with a good dose of charm in some of the best English you’re likely to hear in Cuba and it usually takes a couple of days before visitors get clued in to the hustle.

Conner’s Rule of Thumb #1: Deny hustlers an easy opening by eschewing clothing or accessories that identify your nationality and learn a few deterring phrases. These might include ‘déjame en paz’ (leave me alone) or for those who won’t take no for an answer: ‘no te metes conmigo, coño’ (don’t mess with me damn it). If you’re a hustler magnet (or hater), consider steering clear of tourist hot spots in Habana Vieja and Centro Habana altogether. In the end, all foreigners are seen as rubes and marks regardless of station, education, or experience.

– Cubans tell you what they think you want to hear. As a rule, foreigners receive the ‘poor oppressed us’ line first. A sympathy ploy laced with political assumption, this tactic is tiresome for its banality and blatant disregard for facts. You’ll be told, for example, about the stiff penalties incurred for killing a cow, but this ‘woe’s me’ contingent will conveniently leave out the part about the government guaranteeing milk for all children under 7, pregnant women, and other vulnerable groups – the reason cows are protected property. Cubans renting rooms in their houses are notorious for this type of incomplete picture peddling, complaining to clients about the taxes levied upon their business. What they neglect to mention is that their income-earning homes are provided by the government virtually rent-free. Wanting a rent-free property to run a business and be tax exempt? That’s chutzpah.

But this cuts both ways. If, for instance, you evidence respect and awe for the Cuban Revolution, you’re likely to hear about free education and the wonders of organic farming. What you won’t necessarily hear about are the overcrowded dormitories with shitty food and water shortages or the country’s experiments with genetically-modified crops.

Conner’s Rule of Thumb #2: Cubans tend to see things as black and white, when the truth more often resides in the gray. When picking a Cuban’s brain, always consider the source and listen to the complainers very closely: you’ll likely hear the axe they’re grinding loud and clear.

– You can’t ‘fix’ Cuba. There’s an especially annoying type of tourist who after two weeks here is convinced they’ve got it all figured, that they know precisely how to fix what’s broken (see note 2). Their simplistic ideas often disregard the complexities of Cuban society and illustrate a woeful ignorance of history, geo-politics, even the weather. For example, if you think hurricanes have little connection to health and housing in Cuba, you might be this type of visitor. Even after living here for 9 years, I can’t figure it all out and while it’s possible some tourist is better positioned to analyze Cuba, it’s not likely.

Conner’s Rule of Thumb #3: The more you know about Cuba, the less you understand. Remember: it’s better to remain silent and appear a fool than open your mouth and prove it. If you’re truly keen to learn, read widely before your trip, ask lots of questions once here, and avoid declarations.

– The more things change, the more they stay the same. Huge, watershed changes are taking place here, but at its core, Cuba is still Cuba. It’s a cultural constancy that may be drawing to a close as market forces gather momentum, but I’m not so sure. Consider this quote:

 It is plain there is a good deal to be learned here…Things which we cannot do without, we must go out of the house to find, and those which we can do without we must dispense with. This is odd and strange, but not uninteresting and affords scope for contrivance and the exercise of influence and other administrative powers…I must inform myself on the subject of this strange development of capital over labor.”

– Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

 What’s so interesting about this observation is that it could have easily been made yesterday, but dates from 1859.

Conner’s Rule of Thumb #4: Cuba is evolving, but not necessarily in the direction or way you or I might think (or want). Though the steps people take to maintain balance might change, the fact that the ground is always moving never does. Do like Cubans and roll with it.

No coge lucha. Threats to national sovereignty notwithstanding, Cubans don’t take too much too seriously, preferring to get and go along over fussing and fighting. I’m convinced it has something to do with the weather – this heat is enough to wither anyone’s defenses – but is probably also related to the fact that there is so little housing and employment movement here, if you piss a neighbor or co-worker off, you’re in for a lifetime of problems.

Conner’s Rule of Thumb #5: Don’t get your knickers in a twist if things don’t go as planned or a government drone isn’t cooperating. Have a sense of humor, laugh it off and follow the old axiom: you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

Writing all this, I realize I’d be wise to take my own advice!

Notes

1. For anyone new to this blog +/o US-Cuba relations, the freedom for US citizens and residents to travel to the island has been restricted for 50 years. As I type this, the House Appropriations Committee has just voted to reverse the small opening Obama offered US travelers wanting to travel to Cuba.

2. These types really chap my ass, almost as much as the Cuban émigré who hasn’t been here in 20 years or worse, the person sitting at their computer who has never been here.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, dream destinations, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba, Uncategorized

In the Mix: Café Cubano

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Alicia Alonso. Santería offerings. Sunday supper. There are some people and things you just don’t mess with in Cuba. This includes coffee. More than a simple stimulant or mere morning habit, coffee here is history, tradition, and ritual rolled into one.

All manner of human affairs are conducted over teeny cups of the black, sweet elixir: friendships are forged, pacts made, and lovers wooed (or booted or double crossed) while sipping the stereotypically strong brew. Indeed, every proper visita to a neighbor or friend’s begins with coffee and even meetings – from the most ad hoc to high level ministerial pow wows – include café. No matter how powerful or poor, behind schedule or the eight ball, in Cuba, coffee is an ice breaker and friend maker. As iconic as rum, as ubiquitous as cigars.

But as I’ve said before, changes are afoot. Whereas any move by Cuba in the past 50-plus years had to be analyzed through a kaleidoscopic prism of political cause and effect, changes today are undertaken and evaluated according to economic cost and benefit (see note 1). The recent announcement of the resurrection of café mezclado is an illustrative example of this ‘new normal.’ And it’s got Cuba’s collective panties in a twist.

On May 3, it was announced that coffee distributed to all Cubans on the ration card would once again be “blended.” This is an old concept known to poor java junkies the world over: by mixing ground coffee with something else (e.g. chicory), you stretch your resources and enjoy more, albeit weaker, coffee. Cuban campesinos have long had a tradition of blending coffee with chícharo (see note 2) and the state adopted this approach throughout all these lean economic years.

There was the euphoric, dare-to-dream moment during Chavez’ halcyon days when oil money flowed throughout the Global South and Cuba was able to upgrade from café mezclado to café puro. This meant that 11 million Cubans were receiving near-free, pure coffee via state-provided rations guaranteed to all citizens (see note 3).

But reality is upon us anew and our cupboards once again harbor coffee blended with chícharo. But this time is different. Tolerance for ‘suck it up just a little longer’ is ebbing and indeed may be at an all time low (except among those reaping the rewards of the new economic regulations, of course). This is compounded by the fact that Fidel isn’t at the helm, which has had various ripple effects – not monolithically good or bad, not all visible – which are felt acutely when it comes to morale boosting during such ‘suck it up’ special periods.

Then there’s the blend itself.

Pre-petrol dollars gracias a Chavez, the blend distributed on the ration card (see note 4) was 40% coffee and 60% chícharo. It had a particular, not bad flavor and I enjoyed plenty of it with my little old lady cabal. Today’s blend, however, splits the difference right down the middle – 50% coffee and 50% chícharo.

More coffee, less chícharo. An improvement one would think.

But this is Cuba, where digging deeper, reading between the lines, and parsing the details are essential for truth finding. And so it is with café mezclado. Whereas the old 40/60 blend contained less actual coffee, it was superior Arabica, recognized worldwide as the best tasting, today’s mix uses hardier and more caffeinated but less toothsome, Robusta. And therein lies the rub.

“It’s bitter, acidic and muy fuerte.”

“If you ask me there’s more than 50% chícharo in there.”

This is what folks around here are saying about the new blend. And even as analysts and quality-control specialists go on TV to explain in excruciating detail the cost, taste, and agronomic differences between Robusta and Arabica, people remain skeptical and critical.

And scared. Fear isn’t a trait I typically associate with Cubans, who are amongst the most courageous people you’ll ever meet. However, this café mezclado is rocking our world and not just for its shitty flavor, but rather something much more sinister: the blend makes coffee pots blow up.

According to those aforementioned analysts and quality-control gurus, instances of exploding cafeteras (the stovetop espresso pots used by 99% of us) have been documented. The new blend is to blame. They assure us that all should be fine if we follow the brewing instructions on the package – necessary no doubt, thanks to the coffee bombs created by café mezclado. I mean: what Cuban needs a lesson in how to brew coffee?!

So we suck it up, follow the instructions on the package, and trust Them when They say the blending strategy will be evaluated and tweaked over time – dependent on economic feasibility, of course. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more episodes of exploding cafeteras and a limp economy conspire to strike coffee from the ration card altogether.

Buckle up babies: it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

Notes

1. The complete absence of political discourse/orientation in the new and revolutionary lineamientos is of great concern and wide comment on this side of the Straits. The other issue which people are anxious about – and the single most debated point in the lineamientos – is the eventual reduction or elimination of rations. Stay tuned.

2. The international press – which jumped on this story like an old Italian on a lithe mulatta – translates chícharo as pea. While you may be thinking ‘sugar snap’ or Jolly Green Giant style, this is the dried legume and looks more like a small garbanzo.

3. Currently the coffee ration is 115 grams and costs 15 cents. The other change is that Cubans aged 0-6 no longer receive this ration.

4. In hard currency stores you can buy 100% pure café cubano, whole bean or ground. The most popular brands are Cubita or (in my opinion), superior Serrano. This is the coffee served in bars and restaurants, hotels and clubs and what the overwhelming majority of visitors are drinking. Only in someone’s home (not a casa particular – there’s a world of difference) or in a private peso cubano cafeteria are you likely to get a taste of café mezclado.

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Trip Tips: Havana Independently

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Havana is hot and I’m not talking about mulatas or the weather: from Cayo Hueso to Regla, Cementerio Colón to Ciudad Deportiva, you can’t swing a dead gato around here these days without hitting a tourist. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’ve seen this many foreigners in Havana since the 2006 Non-Aligned Meeting (see note 1).

There are reasons of course. The Cigar and Young Filmmakers Festivals are going strong as I write this, we’re getting a couple of monster cruise ships docking each week, and all-inclusive packages from Canada are mad cheap (see note 2). But most importantly, Havana’s streets teem thanks to Obama’s rollback to Clinton’s policy whereby US college students and select others can travel “legally” to the island. I’m surprised the effects have been so lightening fast – the new/old regulations were just announced in January – but everywhere I turn these days there seems to be a fresh-faced co-ed in Wesleyan gear or a Teva-shod geek. I hope they all have iPads.

Many of these people won’t end up liking Havana (hell, even I don’t like Havana some times). Starting with poor air quality, negative travelogues grouse about the expense of this place; perceived levels of state control; difficulties scratching below the surface +/o contextualizing their experience; and of course, crappy goods and even shittier services.

The dramatic economic changes happening around here – legalizing 178 types of private business from clown to cook, masseur to manicurist – are altering the travelers landscape (see note 3). So that Here is Havana readers can maximize their visit to this enigmatic city, I dedicate this post to travel strategies designed to get you beneath Havana’s skin.

#1. Talk the talk. There is no better way to maximize an independent holiday here than to speak cubano, with all its chopped off words, odd pronunciation and slang (see note 4). Even if ¿que bola asere? and ‘la heva está enpinga’ isn’t in your repertoire, try at least to dust off that high school Spanish since surprisingly few Cubans dominate English (and many of those that do are unusually accomplished charlatans). Not speaking Spanish doesn’t mean you’ll have a bad time – on the contrary. But it will limit your ability to get information, negotiate, learn and arrange logistics.

#2. Embrace pesos cubanos. As soon as you’re able, get some moneda nacional, also known as pesos cubanos and CUP. There’s a myth out there as tenacious as herpes in a whorehouse and which no amount of posting, commenting, and conversing seems to dispel: that tourists can’t use this ‘local’ currency. Complete rubbish. The truth is, most visitors simply don’t know how to use CUP. I suggest starting your trip by changing $5 of hard currency (24 CUP = 1 CUC = 0.82 USD) into this funny money to use for fixed route taxis, movies, food, condoms, cigars, and stepping out.

#3. Roll like a local. Long-finned Pontiacs, Capone-era Dodges, and other ‘Yank tanks’ leap to most minds when Cuba is mentioned. Undeniably cliché, these cars are everywhere, plying Havana’s streets working as communal, fixed-route taxis. For 10 pesos cubanos (about 0.40 USD), you can hail one of these endearing jalopies (I climbed into one yesterday that had packing tape upholstery and a ceiling lined with old refrigerator boxes) between Playa and Vedado or Habana Vieja, out to Miramar or Marianao. Longer routes – from Habana Vieja out to the Playas del Este beaches for example – will run double. To grab one, just stick out your arm parallel to the ground and ask the driver if he’s going to where you need to be. It helps to be on the right thoroughfare: 23 or Línea in Vedado, San Lázaro or Neptuno in Centro Habana, Avenida 31 or 41 in Playa, Calle 51 in Marianao, or 3ra Avenida in Miramar.

c. C Gorry

Even lower down on the transportation food chain is the guagua (pronounced wa-wa) – the Cuban bus. A ride literally costs pennies and while not especially comfortable or efficient, riding the guagua gives a real taste of Cuban daily life with all its attendant humor and hardships.

If these options don’t appeal, consider renting a car and driver. Part of the new regulations stipulate that licensed freelance drivers can now be contracted (by anyone, including foreigners as I understand it) to provide transport islandwide. There are no set fares, with rates to be determined between driver and client. Already nearly 6,000 choferes in Havana have applied for the freelance license; 2,000 have been granted. If the market has its way, the increased competition should make for more bargaining power and improved service. At the very least, it provides visitors an alternative to renting a car for $100 a day (which will somehow end up costing more when the agency is done with you). I predict that freelance drivers who speak English are going to do very well under these new regulations.

#4. Make yourself at home. One of the great benefits presented by the new regulations for travelers is the possibility to legally rent an entire house. This means you can shop at the agro (using those pesos cubanos) and cook for yourself, throw a dinner party, or introduce Cuban friends to the concept of brunch. Having your own private space means you can channel surf Cuban state TV (University for All! Little House on the Prairie! Seinfeld!), take mojitos on your porch to the delight of the neighborhood gossips, or stumble in carefree at 4am.

Another idea for a different Havana experience is to take lodging in more off-the-beaten-track places like the beach towns of Guanabo or Baracoa or Cojimar – the fishing village made famous by Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. These are close enough to enjoy Havana but just far enough removed to give a taste of small town life.

c. C Gorry

#5. Get primped & pampered. The new regulations approve all sorts of services which visitors can now enjoy without any sneaking around. Now your visit can include a 1-hr massage for $20 (really $10, but you might be charged double – the foreigner tax digamos), manicures for $2, and haircuts for $5 (careful with this last however).

If you’re interested to learn if someone – driver, masseuse, pizza maker – proffering these and other goods and services is licensed to do so, ask to see their licencia de cuenta propista. Most people are proud to flash their spiffy new ID cards.

#6. Spread the wealth. Frankly I weary of travelers asking me how they can avoid patronizing state businesses. That’s like asking how to avoid death or taxes. From the moment you buy your $20 tourist card to enter the country, to the minute you’re paying the $25 tax to leave, you’re supporting the Cuban government. What’s so evolved about this place is that paying into government coffers does in turn support the Cuban people (maybe not how or to the extent you’d like, but in my book the Cuban approach is fundamentally better than subsidizing bombs in Afghanistan and spies in Caracas). If you have a problem with this, do us all a favor and go to Cancun.

Having said that, I do recommend spending your hard-earned cash at a mix of state and private enterprises, but how to tell the difference? With eateries, there are some telltale signs. If your server is wearing a uniform or hairnet the place is probably state-owned. If your food descends from a balcony in a bucket it’s definitely private.

With taxis it’s even clearer: 99% of the old Motor City monsters (and many of the Ladas) brandishing taxi signs are privately owned. When in doubt, do like the Cubans do and look at the license plate (see note 5). There’s an entire code for plates here, with the first clue being the color: blue is for state-owned, yellow is private. All hotels, meanwhile, are at least 51% state-owned, but casas particulares (rooms or independent houses for rent) are privately operated. Look for the blue ‘arrendador divisa‘ sign.

c. C Gorry

If you’re interested in learning more of the Havana ‘mécanica‘ including bus and fixed-fare taxi routes, the best spot for 75 cent whisky shots and $1 lunch, Cuban line etiquette and more, please check out my iapp Havana Good Time.

Notes

1. It’s highly doubtful we’ll reap the same benefits however: when Cuba hosted the meeting as is customary for the country holding the rotating presidency, Havana’s main roads were repaved, trees were planted (including many of the trees lining Boyeros every visitor zooms by on their way from the airport) and house facades all along the arrival route were painted up nice and spiffy for the visiting delegations.

2. These 7-day all inclusive deals are oftentimes cheaper than just a Toronto-Havana Cubana flight. Savvy travelers just book the package and stay a day or two at their resort and then travel independently. As an aside, tourism figures for January indicate a 16% increase for the same period last year. Top countries visiting Cuba: Canada, Italy, Germany, France, Russia, Argentina, and Mexico.

3. I say travelers here instead of tourists because I believe there is a fundamental difference between a person who passively observes a culture and someone who desires to actively participate in it. If you’re one of those disposed to take issue with the tourist vs traveler terminology, I invite you to focus on the phenomenon/philosophy I’m talking about rather than the etymology of the terms used to describe it.

4. Those interested in Cuban slang and phrases should check out this Dichos iapp. I haven’t been able to get it yet (the US government blocks iTunes from operating in Cuba) but am loca to try it.

5. This national reflex is widespread and wild to watch: no matter what type of car you’re in, observe how passing Cubans immediately drop their eyes to check out the license plate. Via the coded plates, they’ll know if your car is from Havana or the provinces, whether you’re a foreign resident or visiting, even if you work for the state, a mixed Cuban-foreign enterprise, a church or an NGO.

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