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Let Us Pray

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false] I ventured once again outside my comfort zone yesterday here in Havana: I went to mass. It was as oppressive (and let’s be frank – hypocritical) as I remember from Jesuit high school (see note 1), although this one was presided over by the big Catholic kahuna himself, Pope Benedict XVI. It was also mercifully short.

While I’m sure you’re oversaturated with ‘The Pope in Cuba’ news up your way, one of the indelible lessons I’ve learned in my 10 years of island residency is that the picture you get of here from there – especially when refracted through the lense of reporters sent to cover such an event – does not accurately reflect what we’re experiencing on the ground. It’s not only that every media outlet from The Militant to FoxNews has an agenda. The view is skewed also because Cuba newbies rarely grasp the complexities of our context (see note 2), nor the attendant history influencing those complexities. You don’t get this perspective unless you’ve been around and stick around and only if you speak Spanish – even a translator is no guarantee (see note 3).

So let me tell you about the mass I attended yesterday under a blazing sun, delivered by a frog-like man in a funny hat.

What folks are saying: One of the pervasive myths about Cubans is that they’re afraid to speak their minds or offer opinions, and that self-censorship is rampant. While it’s undeniable that people keep their heads far below the parapet in the workplace and have the tendency to adjust responses to what they think people want to hear, I’ve always found Cubans to be fiercely opinionated – once you get to know them. Or more to the point: once they get to know you.

The Pope’s visit confirmed this impression.

“I’m so sick of this Pope.”

“Wasn’t he a Fascist?”

“I’ll come by your house once The Almighty Pope leaves and things calm down.”

“Son of a b@&*h! The Pope took our Internet.” (see note 4)

“Faith, hope, and peace: that’s what it’s all about.”

Rocking our rum-pork-party holy trinity: Another element piquing my interest was how Cubans approached this whole Papal visit. Essentially, yesterday felt much like hurricane preparation and landfall: people laid in stores and stayed home watching events unfold on TV, with some chicharrones and a bottle of rum close at hand. Except – and this was a rude awakening for several of my unprepared friends – authorities instituted a booze ban the evening before, which lasted until the Pope Mobile and its cargo were safely at the airport. So those who didn’t lay in the ron were homebound with pork, friends, and family, but no curda. In my decade here, I only recall a few alcohol-free events: election days are always dry and if I’m not mistaken, they did the same during the Non-Aligned Summit here in 2006. Let me tell you: no rum makes Havana kinda grumpy.

Revenue coup: The cleverness of Cuba never ceases to amaze me and yesterday didn’t disappoint once I saw the huge numbers of tourists in the Plaza for mass. My first clue was the distinguished older gentleman of means dressed in khakis, a pink Oxford, and penny loafers, with not a gin and tonic in sight; clearly not one of us. I started looking closely at the crowd and their clothes and distinguishing different accents. Nicaragua, Argentina, Chile, Panama, the DR, USA, PR, Mexico, Venezuela – flags from all across Latin America snapped in the wind whipping across the Plaza and I realized that aside from the pride and so-called “soft power” the Papal visit signified, it also represented a hugely-needed and greatly-appreciated influx of tourist cash. There wasn’t a hotel room to be found; paladares overflowed; extra charter flights were added from Florida. And all Habaneros (save for cops and docs), were given a paid day off. This is the type of devotion we could use more of and we thank you for supporting the cause.

The US matters less: After Juan Pablo II’s visit in 1998, Bill Clinton’s White House issued a press release announcing new policies ostensibly resulting from this historic trip. Most importantly, the release approved people-to-people visits in order to foment “regime change” and “promote a peaceful transition to democracy” – concepts mentioned no fewer than six times in the short document. Blatantly threatening the national sovereignty of an independent and peaceful country thusly is absurd enough, but that Obama maintains precisely the same policies and parrots exactly the same rhetoric 14 years later – that’s just loco. While the US is embarrassingly and unjustly static in its policy, the world and importantly, Cuba has changed, is changing still. Raúl is a different bird from his brother and that manifests itself in many ways, including less of the ping pong policy-making that based decisions on what the bully to the North was doing. That’s how it looks publically anyway.

holy jama!


As anti-climactic as the Immaculate Conception: I’m sure you’ve already divined that the religious importance of having his Holiness here held no interest for me and in this I’m not alone: I’ve never seen an event so thinly attended in the iconic Plaza de la Revolución in my 10 years here. In fact, we strolled into the central area just a few moments before the 9:30 mass kicked off and were going against the current of people streaming away from the square. “I came and took the pictures I wanted; I’m going home,” a friend I ran into said. The curiosity seekers and thin crowds were surprising but make sense: as a whole, Cubans just aren’t that church-y. Religious and faith-bound, yes, but that’s different from kneeling before a man in a dress and goofy hat while he proselytizes a doctrine peppered with sins bound to doom your mortal soul. Cubans just aren’t down with that, but they do love a spectacle: one of my favorite moments was when a women who wanted to taste the host tried to fake her way through the motions while the priest held the wafer aloft. When he caught on, he patted her on the head and returned the host to his jaba. Though the Pope himself failed to inspire, Cubans never do.

Notes

1. This, Fidel and I have in common, except those same Jesuits expelled me my junior year (another story entirely!)

2. A simple example: journalists arrive here and compose some flaccid or purply prose (even leading with it occasionally, dios mío) about all the old cars rumbling about. For those of us with continuity here, that’s ‘dog bites man.’ The more compelling, ‘man bites dog’ story is the unbelievable amount of new cars on the road and what that means for traffic, transport options, pollution, etc.

3. The press conference by Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez upon the Pope’s arrival is case in point: his response to an English-speaking reporter about “freedom of consciousness” was elegant and sweeping in the original Spanish, mangled and less inspired in English.

4. Cuba has limited bandwidth due to the US embargo-cum-blockade which prohibits the island from connecting to underwater cables running nearby. Instead, the connection for the entire island is provided by a sole, slow Italian satellite. This bandwidth was prioritized for visiting press so they could report live from Cuba. It’s back now, thankfully, obviously.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad, Raul Castro, Travel to Cuba

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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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban beaches, Cuban phrases, dream destinations, off-the-beaten track, Travel to Cuba, Uncategorized

The Greening of Cuba?!

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My knickers are in a bit of a twist over here and it’s not due to the chronic butter shortage or colossal heat (both of which are cause for loud complaint, believe me). What’s got me riled up these days is more macro. Regular readers know that I (try to) let most of what Cuba hands down roll off my back. But I could go to the mat on this one.

Golf.

Cuba recently confirmed what rumor had held for a couple of years already: moving forward, the cornerstone of the country’s tourism strategy will be to develop 10 golf courses across the island. This grand plan was revealed by tourism Minister Manuel Marrero at FIT – Cuba’s international tourism fair (see note 1). I had hoped it wasn’t true. (I also hope to win the Pulitzer and earn the Cuban Medal of Friendship someday. Don’t mean it’s gonna happen). But this golf scheme seems particularly hair brained to me.

Let’s review the facts, shall we?

WATER
A conventional 18-hole golf course requires 312,000 gallons of water a day (that’s 1,181,048 liters for my more advanced readers) to keep it green. I knew they were resource-suckers these playgrounds for the rich, but 312,000 gallons a day?!

Meanwhile, back on our little island…

“a [Cuban] government report released in mid-April said large areas of Cuba have been suffering the effects of a prolonged drought that began in November 2008. The shortage of rain has led to a significant drop in water levels in the country’s reservoirs and has hurt the availability of groundwater, affecting water supplies for more than 500,000 people…The Meteorology Institute’s Climate Centre, said that the overall scarcity of rainfall from April 2009 to March 2010 ‘has affected 68 percent of the national territory’…while 2009 had the fourth lowest rainfall total in 109 years, according to official sources” (see note 2).

LAND
An 18-hole course requires between 140 and 200 acres (57 to 80 hectares) of land – half of this is maintained turf. Multiply that by 10 courses and you’ve got a healthy chunk of Cuba’s territory. Maybe it’s just me, but wouldn’t that land be put to better use raising cattle or homes?

PESTICIDES
Keeping those greens green requires about 30 different types of pesticides. These poisons have the potential to contaminate ground water while destroying wetlands, mangroves, and other habitat. And they’re seriously bad for us bipeds too: a scientific study found golf groundskeepers have higher mortality rates than the general population for lung, prostate, large intestine, and brain cancers, with some non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma thrown in for good measure (see note 3). Meanwhile, a study has yet to be conducted on golfers, who are also regularly exposed to these toxins.

The pesticide question scares me – have you ever seen them fumigate for mosquitoes here? Clouds of chemicals shot from a “bazooka” into each room of a closed home without a scrap of protective clothing or gear in sight. Worrisome, this pesticide-dependent “sport” called golf.

PUSHBACK
From the Bahamas to the Philippines, environmentalists and land reformers are saying NO! to golf courses (sometimes violently). Given global trends, Cuba is appearing pretty backwards with this golf strategy (see note 4). I’m a golf dissident, I admit, but given the few facts I’ve presented here, shouldn’t we all be? Maybe if there was more information available about this strategy, it would temper my position: where will these courses be located? Who’s designing them? Will alternative methods be employed?

Alas and alack.

Golf is a multi-billion dollar business and Cuba needs revenue. I get it. But so that we might be as forward thinking in our backwardness, I’d like to offer you, Mr. Minister, the following policy recommendations:

– Employ alternative designs that use fewer chemicals
– Consider going organic – Cuba wouldn’t be the first
– Use only drought-tolerant grasses and native plants
– Irrigate with grey water
– Conduct independent feasibility and environmental impact studies for each proposed site (and be prepared to follow recommendations, including scrapping plans for sites that threaten habitat, migratory flyways, etc)

I repeat: I think the Cuban golf strategy is folly. Who’s going to play Pinar del Río when there’s Pebble Beach? Or Holguín instead of Augusta? Some, I’m sure (including those people of color and Jewish-ness denied access to US links). But enough to sustain and make profitable ten courses?

And is this what we really want? Throngs of sorta sporty men in pastel plaids and unfortunate loafers laying claim to thousands of Cuba’s green acres for their individual pleasure? The whole plan just seems too extreme, too contradictory.

Leading up to the Cuban tourism fair, Spanish golfer Álvaro Quiros gushed: “golf could become a new attraction for tourists visiting Cuba because of…the magnificent climatic conditions on the island all year round” (see note 5). Excuse me, Álvaro? Have you heard of a hurricane? How about drought?

Extreme, contradictory and…hair brained.

And while I’ve got your ear, Mr. Minister, would you please consider putting an end to the capture and use of dolphins for those swim with dolphin programs? Or haven’t you seen The Cove?

Notes

1. The week-long affair was themed ‘Authentic Cuba,’ which is hilarious for so many reasons. And ironic: how, exactly, is golf (and yacht clubs which also figure in the grand plan) ‘authentically Cuban?’ But as always, truth is stranger than fiction and the irony of the ‘Cuba auténtica’ press junket/dog and pony show was summed up by a Colombian journalist who whispered dramatically to a reporter friend of mine: ‘do you want to sit in on this interview? I’ve got a guy who’ll talk about the bad things in Cuba for 10 bucks. You pay five and I’ll pay five.’ On second thought, this is probably the most authentic Cuban thing that happened during this journalist’s island jaunt.

2. For full article, see Drought Looming again in Cuba

3. For more see www.beyondpesticides.org/news/daily_news_archive/2004/09_23_04.htm

4. Ditto the blind acceptance of Styrofoam. Until a handful of years ago, I never saw one piece of Styrofoam here. Now it’s everywhere and will be for generations to come. There are advantages to a one-party system. You can integrate health and education efforts for example and you can ban bad shit like Styrofoam with the stroke of a pen. Whatever criticisms you may have of Cuba, who can argue with the wisdom of keeping this evil out of our midst – especially on an island? What, after all, has Styrofoam ever done to improve our lives?

5. This, along with the golfer’s other assertion, that “golf helps to improve the health of practitioners, encourages personal relationships and caring for the environment” qualifies, in my opinion, as some of the stupidest shit ever uttered by a professional athlete. No small feat.

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Filed under environment, Uncategorized