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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

DIY US-Cuba Collaboration

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

UPDATE FOUR! (post Haiti)
Finally! One of my postcards sent up north arrived (and with comically large pope stamp which contrasted nicely with the B&W image of the rebel army in the Sierra Maestra).
Sent from: Habana Cuba on February 14 or so, 2010
Arrived in Queens, NY: March 23, 2010

UPDATE THREE!
Well folks, I’m hours away from taking off for Haiti but I wanted to let you know I had a nice little (record-breaking!) surprise in my PO box today. In the interest of brevity (haiti prep continues apace!):

Card with lovely family photo from A Lee
Sent from: Albany, NY on December 10, 2009
Arrived Havana: February 19, 2010 (slowest to date!)
Highlight:Stamped with a never before seen message in bright red ink: “Missent to Bermuda.” This is one well traveled card!

A Lee – you’ll have to wait for me to return from Haiti for your missive from here. So far, none of the people below have received theirs as far as I know

!UPDATE DOS!

Hi folks! New development on the DIY project front…

Postcard from LP colleague Zora O’neill
Sent from: Bali, Indonesia on January 20, 2010
Arrived Havana: February 13, 2010 (note: this is the date stamped on the postcard as being received at my post office, not the day I went around to collect it)
Highlight: The stamps are beautiful, four color floral affairs and the 1657 temple on the postcard is a wonder. Also, this is the first item I’ve received from someone I’ve never met.
Upshot: Nora, fellow LP writer/blogger and New Yorker is a fast rising star – thanks for taking out the time from Forkin Fantastic to participate in our little project! Also, her postal travel time is neck and neck with the goodies from LA – and came WAY farther.

UPDATE! UPDATE! UPDATE!

I’ve got mail!

Well, a big hola to all my readers (and writers) from across the Straits. I’ve at last been able to visit the old P.O. Box and what a haul! Our little DIY US-Cuba postal collaboration is bearing its first fruit. Interestingly, only items from the two coasts have arrived (once again, proving that middle America is a wasteland. Kidding!). Interestingly de nuevo, only items from people I already know happened to get here. Random, but at least it was speedy.

So here are the preliminary results:

Package from my dear friend AD
Sent from: Los Angeles on December 14, 2009
Arrived Havana: December 28, 2009
Highlight: A package! What more do you need to know? OK, it contained a collection of essays by David Foster Wallace that I can’t wait to read (can I BE him? please?) and a super cool envirosax reusable shopping bag unit with 10% of the sale going to the surfrider foundation (www.surfrider.org). I had to pay 1.5 pesos (that’s about 6 cents USD) to get the package from the nice lady behind the glass. Like all packages entering Cuba, this one was opened by customs, inspected and resealed with the aforementioned official form inside detailing what is/was in the package and the state in which it was found. Interestingly, for the first time, there was a problem with the form. Namely, it wasn’t mine! Instead, the form corresponded to Zeida Paez Garcia in Matanzas. Her package contained bags and jars, books, magazines, catalogs, and postcards. I like the contents of my package much better, sorry Zeida.
Upshot: Nothing cheers up like a package from a friend! AND it seems LA PO wins for speedy delivery – just two weeks (or maybe that it was a package had something to do with it)

Long, fun letter from my creative friend AL
Sent from: NY, NY on December 16, 2009
Arrived Havana: January 12, 2010
Highlight: So many! This letter was written in stages during AL’s performance piece enacted during 24 hours riding the F train – I especially enjoyed reading about her pulling into Coney Island at 3:37 am and awaiting the next train, wondering if it will be on time, observing all the other New Yorkers wondering the same thing. (It pulled in promptly at 3:41. Rudy Giuliani – he did get the trains running on time). Bonus: the original Keith Herring Free South Africa postcard, circa 1985. Thanks A!
Upshot: Anything arriving in under a month is pretty good in my opinion.

Postcard from my old friend C
Sent from: Westchester, New York on December 23, 2009
Arrived Havana: January 28, 2010
Highlight: Hubby out in a blizzard at the Jet’s game – some folks never give up hope!
Upshot: Took a month, but hey, it’s the holidays.

So far so good. To post offices and their employees on both sides of the straits, I say: keep up the good work! (If anyone is reading this in Miami or elsewhere in southern Florida, I invite you to participate in our little project: it would be fun to see how long it takes for a card or letter to travel that interminable 90 miles) And to my correpsondents: your postcard is on its way!

—–

So have you heard Obama and Company espousing ‘change’ towards Cuba? Newsflash! It’s a whole bunch of hooey, (despite pundits’ claims to the contrary). OK, maybe not a whole bunch, but mostly. For instance, absolutely nothing floated so far by the United States is bringing my dear friends Karna and Joseph any closer to my doorstep or my husband any closer to my Mom’s (see note 1). Nor has anything changed that would help bring life-saving medicines to Cuban kids with cancer or allow me to access my bank account. My knickers do tend to get in a twist, therefore, when I read about the supposed strides being made. From where I’m sitting, it’s the same old story, save for a new protagonist of color instead of the rich, old white dudes who have been ruling the free world for what seems like forever (see note 2).

But I can tell you from years of firsthand experience that things have improved markedly in one area: mail service. Sounds terribly unsexy and 19th Century, I know, but if you’ve ever had a smile sneak across your lips or a flutter erupt in your gut when a letter from a friend or lover graces your mailbox, you know receiving mail can be one of life’s small but great pleasures. Letter writing is also one of our few remaining acts of pure reciprocity – usually you have to write a letter to get a letter.

And living where I do, without YouTube or podcasts, Skype and webcam capabilities (see note 3), it’s a downright thrill to receive something “from the other side.” Imagine my delight peering into my post office box (a gilded iron affair with the Cuban coat of arms on the door) recently to behold a little pink envelope sent by my youngest niece from summer camp. No matter that she was already assembling her Halloween costume by the time it reached Box 6464 at Havana’s main post office. Or the record-breaking postcard sent by my good friend Claudia from the heights of Denver that took a full three months to reach me.

But arrive it did, which brings me to the pollo of the arroz con pollo of this post: I contracted my post office box in 2002. In those early years, I received magazines, recipes, letters, photos – even boxes packed with paperback books and CDs friends had culled from their collections. A sheet of paper tucked inside each of those incoming packages informed me that the box had been opened and inspected by Cuban postal authorities. It was all very official, with the standardized, column-filled form itemizing the contents and their condition upon arrival, plus whether any prohibited items had been removed. None ever had and nothing was ever stolen or damaged.

Then, after 3 or 4 similar packages and a couple of years of postal elation or deflation depending on what, if anything, my P.O. box contained, my mail lifeline was choked off. I’d get the occasional postcard from China or South Africa from globetrotting friends and family, but nothing from my compadres up north. Letters were getting lost somewhere in transit. Postcards sent from California, Colorado, New York, and New Hampshire never graced Box 6464. Mom resorted to sending newspaper clippings about the Knicks’ new coach and New Yorker cartoons just to see if they’d get here. Few did. I was dismayed – these handwritten, stamped gestures are like Red Bull for the expat soul (without the nasty taste) and I wanted to know what was up with my dose.

I went to talk to the postmistress. I explained the sudden death of my correspondence.

“But if you’re sending money through the mail…” she commented with a raised eyebrow and ‘what do you expect?’ shrug.

This is the type of foreigner-as-village-idiot comment Cubans sometimes make that gets my Irish up. My first inclination is to look the woman straight in the eye and ask: “¿¡tengo cara de boba?! (do I look like an idiot?!) But since this will likely be my postmistress for life, I must be careful not piss her off.

“No, no. Nothing like that. Just postcards and letters and such.”

I inquire as to whether there have been any staffing or procedural changes at the post office that may account for the lapse.

Negativo.

After months of missives gone missing, people stopped writing. Oh, I’d get a postcard from Kenya or Cambodia now and then, but these were few and far between. More often than not, I’d walk the long marble hallway to the bank of boxes, lean in and see nothing but a dark, empty slot. And so it went until one day, in some obscure way, the information reached me that George W had decreed postal services to Cuba would cease, indefinitely. I imagine there’s some P.O. purgatory somewhere up north piled high with pink envelopes addressed to Cuba by beloved campers and secret banana bread recipes that never found their new home.

Fast forward to 2009. My magazine subscriptions started arriving again and Mom’s clipping about the ongoing Kilauea eruption (see note 4) came at last. Then I got a letter from an old friend.

Finally!! I was experiencing direct, positive results from regime change in the USA.

So I’d like to get some evidence as to how well the US-Cuba mail service accords are working, make it scientific, if you will. Drop me a line and we’ll see how long it takes for a simple letter or postcard to cross the 86 miles of water separating us (see note 5). Some will surely never arrive, but those that do will receive a response from yours truly here in Havana. I’ll be sure to keep readers posted on the results.

Send all letter love (and please! nothing inflammatory or flammable, edible or fragile, dangerous or dissenting) to:

Conner Gorry
Apdo 6464
Habana 6
10600
Habana CUBA

Notes

1. Something that typically gets lost in all the venom and rhetoric is that the US routinely denies tourist visas to Cubans unless they’re over 70, an artist, or musician. My husband and several of my friends – although they traveled to the US on occasion prior to 2002 – can now only dream of visiting because of this unstated, exclusionary policy.

2. In no way do I mean to minimize Obama’s achievement. His election was triumphant and exultant and not wholly expected in that underdog, tear-jerking Hoosiers kind of way. But when it comes to Cuba, he’s singing the same tune – perhaps with more rhythm and style – but in the end, it’s the same regime change, capitalism-is-better-just-admit-it-and-surrender song and dance we’ve been subjected to for 50 years.

3. People (Cubans and foreigners alike) who can afford to use the WiFi at hotels (cost: $7/hr, 2-hr minimum) or access the Internet through a private provider (cost: $36 for 30 hours/month minimum) do have wider access than me to some of these services.

4. Kilauea on Hawaii’s Big Island has been erupting since 1983 – the longest recorded eruption in history. If you have never been to the Big Island, go there, now. And take my guide with you!

5. But wait! Please join in even if you live in Canada or Argentina, France or Hong Kong. After all, the blogosphere has no borders, why should our experiment?

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