Tag Archives: CUC

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 Their bread and butter was mostly Hollywood blockbusters several years out of date and the latest soap operas from Brazil and Mexico.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

Conner’s Cuba Rules Part II

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false] About six months ago I wrote Conner’s Cuba Rules, a super popular post that raised the ire of some readers. Rereading my musings six months later, I better understand some of the dissent offered by commenters. Given that much has changed here in Havana since then and I’ve had several opportunities to travel outside of the capital thanks to my day job, I’ve compiled a new, hopefully more positive, set of rules to complement the first ones.

The Revolution will be televised: I’ve met a lot of visitors (and even some foreign residents) who have never seen Televisión Cubana. Granted, there are only five channels here, but you’re missing out on a big chunk of Cuban culture if you don’t surf those five at least occassionally. For the intersection of politics and journalism, check out the Mesa Redonda (see note 1) and the prime time news. The latter is important in and of itself for the weather report; pay special attention if Dr José Rubiera is forecasting. Meanwhile, a good baseball game can rivet entire households, the novela even more so. Only if you watch TV here will you understand what Cubans mean when they say: “it was like the Saturday night movie” (see note 2). Meanwhile, the music shown down here – videos, documentaries, concerts and jam sessions – can be as moving as the live thing. I’ve seen Chucho Valdés, Clapton and Queen, the Festival of Modern Drumming and some guy from Uzbekistan singing Talk Boom, a riveting song I’m still trying to track down – all in a single night on Televisión Cubana. Watch it; you’ll like it (or at least get a good laugh or song lead).

Pack a sense of humor: It always amazes me when I read something that disregards, overlooks, or otherwise fails to recognize the Cuban sense of humor, which ranges from the side splitting to the sublime. The writer can be someone who knows and loves Cuba long time or a visitor who has parachuted in and out on vacation. No matter the source, the frequency with which folks miss the funny stuff here is alarming. It’s true, a lot depends on speaking Spanish (or a crackerjack translator), but however you resolve the language question, if you’re comparing Cuba to China, Vietnam, or the defunct USSR, you’re missing one of the most important ingredients in the Cuban character. These folks love to share stories, jokes, and the occassional tall tale, and use their verbal prowess to enliven, laugh, and woo; it is what has enabled these people to resist so much for so long. Even without Spanish skills or a translator, if you’re not laughing a lot on a visit here, you’re doing something wrong in my personal and professional opinion (see note 3).

Use pesos cubanos: If you know even a little about Cuba, you know we operate on a dual currency system with pesos cubanos and pesos convertibles circulating side by side. Since one of my goals of Here is Havana is to bust myths, I always take the opportunity to debunk one of the most pervasive: that foreigners cannot use pesos cubanos (AKA Moneda Nacional, MN), but only pesos convertibles (AKA divisa, chavitos, CUC). This is 100% false. Anyone can use either currency. It’s what each can buy where the difference lies. Certain goods and services, for example, are only available in CUC including cooking oil and butter, hotel rooms and the internet. But fruits and veggies, surprisingly pleasant cigars, fixed route taxis, movie tickets and lots of other stuff are sold in pesos cubanos – if you know where to look. My advice? Change some CUCs into MN (1:24) to experience firsthand how much pesos cubanos can buy and how the double economy works.

So as to avoid confusion +/o more myths: you can always pay for goods and services priced in pesos cubanos with hard currency pesos convertibles but never the other way around. And some services (interprovincial buses, concert and ballet tickets) are sold in pesos cubanos to Cubans and residents, but in hard currency to visitors.

Bring your own reading material: Rarely a week goes by when someone isn’t griping to me about the lack of English-language books and magazines here. What is available is largely limited to historical and political titles and they are very expensive (and make for dull beach reading besides). The Kindle can be handy in this regard, but the bonus to bringing print publications is that you can pass them along to some avid English reader (like me!) upon departure. Drop me a line if you have some good (ie no romance novels or sci fi pulp) English-language reading material to donate to the cause.

Hightail it out of Havana: This may seem contradictory, given that I have an iApp to the city and I recommend in my guidebooks and elsewhere that visitors consider basing their entire trip in Havana. But things are changing fast here and though I’m a city girl by birth and breeding, I’m back peddling a bit on that advice. Havana, with its dirt, garbage, and graft, noise and air pollution, and materialistic ways (I did call Habaneros ‘logo whores’ after all) is distorting Cuba’s image. In short, Havana is not Cuba, which can be said of every major city around the world from New York to Manila, Managua to Dakar. But since visitors often request recommendations for “authentic” experiences and how to discover the “real” Cuba, I now find it prudent to advise getting out of Havana and exploring farther afield. With more flights, both charter and commercial, to provincial capitals like Holguín, Camagüey, and Santiago de Cuba, this is also a more practical proposition than ever.

Above all, have fun and keep your head about you!

Notes

1. The Mesa Redonda (Round Table) is a nightly “debate” show which discusses a topic (US aggression overseas; Latin American intregration) on which all four guests and the modeator agree.There are many jokes in these parts about the program; the shortest and sweetest calls it the Mesa Cuadrada, meaning ‘Square Table’ in literal Spanish, but meaning something more along the lines of ‘Dogmatic Table’ in Cuban.

2. The Saturday night movie here is prefaced by a parental warning, the most common of which alerts viewers that the Hollywood action shlock about to be shown contains Nudity, Violence, & Foul Language. To wit: the old, slow, over-crowded camello buses (of which I took many), were always called ‘the Saturday night movie.’ [NB: did it annoy you to have to scroll down to read this note? Yeah, me too, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to hyperlink notes within posts; if someone has a solution, please get in touch].

3. Trying to connect to and use the internet excepted. Even casual visitors know that connectivity is no laughing matter here. Indeed, I flirted with the ledge and sharp knives today as I frittered away several hours trying to connect. Once I “succeeded,” it topped out at 9.6kbps – not nearly fast enough to load even a simple web page before timing out.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cigars, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad, lonely planet guidebooks, Travel to Cuba

Cuban Tourism 2.0

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New tourism figures were released by Cuba recently and the news isn’t good: arrivals are up (as fans are quick to point out), but revenues are down (as detractors never fail to underscore). Regardless of your love/hate bent (see note 1), the seeming contradiction between more arrivals but less profits makes sense since a Canadian can fly into Varadero and stay a week at an all-inclusive resort for less than a Toronto-Havana plane ticket alone. 

Visitors up and profits down isn’t necessarily a bad thing in the short term save for one small detail: many first timers who visit Cuba say they won’t return.

So what’s a little island to do?

Followers of Here is Havana know my feelings about the golf course strategy Cuba is doggedly pursuing to attract foreign investment and visitors, so I won’t flog that dead horse further. Medical tourism is another growth sector reaping rewards, if the number of Cuban Americans passing through the doors of Cira Garcia (the foreigner hospital here) is any indication. But I’ve recently seen another side of Cuban tourism and it looks a lot like the DR.

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One element of Cuba’s tourism strategy many people don’t know about is the push to get locals into the mix (see note 2). In theory it’s a great tactic: offer unbelievable deals for the domestic market and watch those precious CUCs migrate from under mattresses and into the national coffers. In practice however, it looks more like this:

Voluminous flesh rolling from scanty beachwareCuban fashion is a force majeure under the best of circumstances, but take it to the seashore and it’s a Frederick’s of Hollywood train wreck. Lucite stilettos and lamé swimsuits with cutaway sides and gold buckles of unusual size, plus ridiculously shredded ‘cover-ups’ providing full on views of what four decades of congris does to a woman’s body – like a car crash, you want to look away, but can’t.

Drink, Eat, Sleep – There’s something of the spectacular watching Cubans scrum at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Let’s just say there isn’t a plate big enough for the piles of protein and starch they crave. As a work-around, friends and family members divvy up duties and fan out to the different stations, regrouping at their table with multiple plates so heavy they take two hands to hold: rice for 15, bread for a baseball team, mountains of pork chunks and potatoes, and coma-inducing towers of lard-laden sweets. Once the feeding frenzy begins, it blows over quickly, like a late afternoon thunderstorm. From the table, each diner to a one lumbers towards the nearest chaise lounge and passes out. Look for the beer bellies, listen for the snores.

Cost cutting & control – It’s not as bad as the old days when silverware had to be chained to the tables, but almost – on a recent visit to a beach installation that will remain nameless, it became clear that the cornerstone of the national tourism strategy is to maximize profits while limiting losses and cutting costs. I first realized it cruising the buffet. No exotic cheeses and pasta or steak stations like at other all-inclusives. For us it was claria and hot dogs, butter-less bread and shredded cabbage – more like a ‘comedor obrero’ (worker’s lunchroom) than a resort buffet, right down to the single salt shaker for the 200+ crowd. Other penny pinching measures included ‘honey’ that was really sugar water à la Special Period and to wash everything down, the choice of water or water (boiled, not bottled). No matter – the guajiro behind me at the buffet kept repeating breathlessly ‘está riquiquisisimo. ¡Riquiquisisimo!

Tipsy entertainers – If you’ve ever been to a Cuban all-inclusive resort, you know they’re gaga for animación – entertainment from pool volleyball to salsa classes provided by gregarious, often gorgeous, Cubans known as animadores. At the low-budget place where we went, the animadora was a sweet ‘temba’ (35+) who downed not one, not two, but three screwdrivers before leading the crowd in a rousing round of karaoke.

Then there’s the reggaetón and overall pachanga of which Cubans are so fond – partying and kanoodling, dancing and romping about – often in public places. Not helping matters any are the plastic plates littering the beach, along with cups and fluorescent plastic straws, napkins and even a dirty diaper or two – in spite of the garbage cans spaced along the shore like birds on a wire or lovers on the Malecón (see note 3).

 I wasn’t surprised that this resort was virtually foreigner-free (present company excepted). But I did realize on this trip that the most effective enforcer of so-called tourism apartheid is the almighty Market itself.  

Money talks, bullshit walks – welcome to the Cuba Tourism 2.0.

Notes

1. Longtime Cuba followers know three cardinal rules apply when analyzing any news item: 1) consider the source; 2) read between the lines; and 3) after applying rules #1 and #2, accept the fact that you’ll probably never know the full story.

2. Prior to 2008, Cubans were not permitted to stay in hotels and resorts, leading many to brand the policy ‘tourism apartheid.’ That policy was reversed by Raul Castro

3. Cubans’ aversion to trash cans is rivaled only by their aversion to flushing perfectly functional toilets. What up with that?

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban beaches, Cuban idiosyncracies, environment, Expat life, Living Abroad, Raul Castro, Travel to Cuba

Lawyers, Guns & Money

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Why is money green?

Because lawyers pick it before it’s ripe.

To be fair, two of my closest friends are lawyers, which predisposes me to their ilk, but I had no clue how often I’d be relying on their craft when I landed in Cuba. To wit: the organization I work for is completely lawyered up and my husband and I required representation to get married. I’ve had clients advise me to retain counsel before they axed me unlawfully and I surely have a fat file somewhere in the bowels of the State Department (hopefully this will never be cause for me to call on my attorney friends).

I’m required to navigate all these legal hoops due to the simple, but paradoxically complex fact that I fell in love with a Cuban who, like 70% of his compatriots, was born under the US blockade. I’m based here in full compliance with US law, but no matter: I still require a phalanx of legal eagles.

The stated purpose of this 51-year old policy is to topple the revolutionary government. When a policy hasn’t worked for over half a century, it’s time to try something new, don’t ya think? Maybe I should write Poli Sci for Dummies for those bozos in the Beltway. In addition to failing to achieve its goal, it makes US administrations and the Florida PACs that yank their chains look like an abused spouse: they know it’s not working, witnesses and allies tell them it’s not working, but they keep coming back for more, taking a beating in the process (see note 1).

Sad and illogical for regular folks, but good for the lawyers.
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I grew up in New York, but didn’t see my first dead body until I moved to San Francisco and didn’t see my first gun until I moved to Havana. As might be expected on a blockaded island, weapons are extraordinarily rare in Cuba (the woman-to-woman withering stare and crippling bureaucracy notwithstanding) and Havana is the safest place I’ve ever lived or traveled (see note 2). But people talk…

Especially around Christmas and New Year’s, when money is both needed and tight, crime rates spike and run-of-the-mill rumors are spiced up with brazen robberies and cheeky scams. Since the daily papers and nightly newscast favor potato harvests over politics and international crises in lieu of the domestic variety, our only way of learning about heists, busts, or protests is through these rumors AKA radio bemba, the coconut wireless, and the grapevine.

As 2010 drew to a close, everyone was talking about the stick up at the Trimagen on 42 & 19. It wasn’t the ideal place to hit, what with the police booth and cameras on the corner adjacent. That area is a hive of activity too, meaning all of Havana was a-buzz with the story of the two masked gunmen and their derring-do. Robberies always dominate year’s end gossip, but the use of a gun distinguished this tale.

When a buddy of mine from rough and tumble Lawton shared stories of armed thugs robbing women for their gold chains in his neighborhood, I wondered aloud: ‘where are all these guns coming from?!’ (see note 3).

“There was a container full of guns stolen back in the 90s. They’re still floating around,” my friend explained.

Hearing about guns (or quakes or snakes) is one thing – coming face-to-face with them is quite another.

It was an inky, moonless night when we broke down by the side of the road. We were between here and there on Cuba’s main highway, called Ocho Vías for its eight lanes that in reality are reduced to four when you factor in all the potholes and horse carriages. This isn’t a highway in your sense of the word. Here, there’s no shoulder or lights, no roadside service or emergency call box. To get out of there we’d have to fix the Lada ourselves or walk to get help (we were too close to Havana to flag someone down – those days are largely over as suspicion displaces solidarity in the big city).

As I fretted about getting clipped by a passing truck on the side of that dark road, my driver – an ex cop who shall remain nameless – reached beneath his seat.

“Don’t worry. If anyone messes with us, they’ll be sorry,” he promised, brandishing the first pistol I’d ever laid eyes on. And I was worried about other drivers.
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Money: it makes even the most isolated, bull-headed island go ’round. This isn’t news – except perhaps for all those lefties whose rose-colored glasses are clouded by wishful thinking and dewy-eyed nostalgia. It has been a long time since Cuba was immune to The Market, marketing (Red Bull anyone?), and the opiate of the masses peddled by the likes of Steve Jobs, Barry Levinson, and Mark Zuckerberg. Cuba’s resistance was inspiring while it lasted and let’s give thanks that it lasted as long as it did. But those halcyon days? Konet.

I admit my relationship with money is fraught with difficulties and contradictions. I know we all need the green (some more than others, certainly), but I’m miserable at making it, more so at managing it. This is a deadly fiscal combination – especially in Cuba where it’s dreadfully hard to make money and life is expensive.

Playing the money game is something I’ve never been good at, which is painfully obvious when it comes to international banking – or lack thereof as the case may be. For those of you who don’t know, American credit and debit cards don’t work in Cuba. If your bank even so much as has a branch on US shores, your plastic is useless due to (again) the US blockade.

To give you an idea of how incredibly insidious this is, I ask you to consider the last time you traveled somewhere – even to the next town over – and couldn’t use plastic money of any kind (see note 4). OK, maybe during a long weekend in the woods or on an off-the-beaten track Asian odyssey, but living for months at a time, with no access to your bank account, nor capability to purchase anything with a credit card? How would you do it? (see note 5).

I’ll tell you how we do it. We mule in cash. Fat wads of Euros, pounds, Canadian dollars or whatever’s giving the best exchange rate at the moment (see note 6) are carried in by Americans forced to do so. As I type this, big stashes of cash are being tucked in bras and under clothing to wing their way from Miami to Havana.

Let’s hope there are no armed robbers lurking at Arrivals. My advice? Have your lawyers number handy just in case.

Notes

1. Many people have written on the economic boon lifting the embargo would mean for key regions in the US, notably Florida and the Gulf States.

2. Save for the Big Island which in so many ways is unto a class itself (see note 4).

3. It’s difficult enough to sneak in a hard drive or dried sausage these days past Cuban customs, let alone a firearm.

4. Residents of and visitors to the “cash is king” Big Island excluded.

5. I should mention here that there’s a Canadian outfit called Caribbean Transfers which sets up a totally usable card for you to use in Cuba to get cash and make purchases. I personally have not had luck with them, though I know other people who swear by this company.

6. Despite being called the ‘convertible peso,’ it’s impossible to procure or change (ie convert) Cuba’s hard currency outside of Cuba.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Expat life, Living Abroad, 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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