Tag Archives: pesos cubanos

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

Cuba: Going to the Dogs?

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In my forthcoming article for NY Magazine, I write a bit about Havana’s newly-moneyed. Whether it comes from remittances, self-employed work, or working over tourists is irrelevant. What piques my interest (and hopefully retains yours, dear readers), is how wealth – relative as it may be – manifests itself here, how it changes behavior and tweaks norms heretofore adhered to.

Faithful followers of Here is Havana will remember my thinly-veiled diatribe against Cuban marca mania – if I’m not mistaken, I actually called my compatriots ‘logo whores.’ I repeat: not all Cubans, everywhere, but there does seem to be an inordinate amount of importance placed on logos and bling here. I understand why Cubans are attracted to shiny, pretty things, but at the same time I’m biased: one of my abiding principles holds that nothing you can buy builds character (except maybe psychotherapy). The whole status symbol compulsion and keeping up the Joneses – is it inherently bad? I don’t know, but I do know I’m hard pressed to find anything good about it.

These days status symbols are displayed with as much pride as cadres display their photo with Fidel (see note 1). Gold teeth and braces, anything Mac (even if it’s just the iconic white apple sticker), cell phones (working or not), and pure-bred dogs. It stands to reason that Cubans are drawn to perros de raza since they’re a walking (shitting and barking) status symbol.

Now, those of you of my personal acquaintance know I’m not a pet person. A tortoise, perhaps, or a crafty cat that can paw open the door and hunt down a bird when it’s hungry, I’m down with. But a dog? They’re dependent, they shed, they smell, fleas like them, and often they age poorly – farting as they lumber about on rickety bones and bump into furniture with their cataracts. Plus, they hamper travel. Sorry to Sam, Sadie, Paka, Bob, and all the other great dogs I’ve known, but when it comes to canines, I subscribe to my Dad’s axiom: ‘living with animals went out with Jesus.’

But let’s put this dog question into context: I’m sure the average Cuban doesn’t give much thought to any of this. A dog here – whether in the city or campo – means added security. Dogs keep vermin of all types at bay and sound the alarm. In Havana, I’m sure you’ve noticed, folks are very concerned about the safety of their stuff and enclose entire houses – balconies, doors, windows, all – in rejas (iron bars and gates). Even taillights on motorcycles have their rejitas; check it out next time you’re in town.

So a dog is an added source of protection. I get it. But it’s also another mouth to feed and represents all manner of unanticipated expenses like when they get parasites (and they all do) or when the heat wreaks havoc on their fur (hairless perritas chinas excepted of course). They also need to be walked, adding another task to already overworked Cuban women, who, if my observations are accurate, do most of the dog care. In practical terms therefore, I’m not convinced that the benefits outweigh the costs of keeping a dog here. But what I simply can’t get my mind around is Havana’s new status symbol: Siberian Huskies.

They are all the rage: from the grimy streets of inner Habana Vieja to the bourgeoisie boulevard of 5ta Avenida, you’ll see people trying to walk, train, and tame these über Alpha dogs. And what about the heat? Have you been here in August? Just being in your own skin is a sauna – imagine if you had a pelt adapted for permafrost. It disturbs me inordinately, so I’ve started asking around…

According to my dog trainer friend Yamel, these dogs make challenging pets under the best circumstances. They’re a bitch to train because they’re bred for dominance and it’s difficult to establish supremacy. Even Yamel – who works his magic with rowdy shepherds, disobedient Dalmatians and other maladjusted dogs – says he’d never have one for this reason.

My neighbor is case in point with her trio of Huskies. They pull their leashes taut, dragging her behind, paying her no never mind. Recently, I’ve seen her working with a trainer (another expense) in the park nearby. I’m sure she watches Cesar Milan – prime time TV fodder here – religiously. Then there’s the heat. Yamel tells me they adjust, but I’m dubious: I know of at least one retriever who died of heat exhaustion here.

I was completely taken aback on a recent visit to my dear friend Carmita to see she had acquired a Husky pup. This is an unlikely pet for an unfortunate household. She’s an 84-year old pensioner living with her college-age grandson. They get a little economic help from Miami and other points north and are church-going, so have some support, once in a while, from the congregation. But Iker – named for the Real Madrid goalkeeper – is no black market Husky; he’s the real deal. Offspring of Massimo Zar de la India and Bella Bon (I’m not making this up!), Iker was purchased at one of the periodical dog shows here (see note 2) for the exorbitant price of $200. Despite my prejudices, I put a good spin on it to Carmita.

“That’s great! Now you have company while Maykel’s in class.”

She makes that smacking, sucking sound which in Cuban means ‘bullshit.’

“He’s a pain in the ass and makes a mess of everything.”

Gotta love Carmita.

We don’t mention how much his food and care must cost. Why bother?

To be fair, the vet school here has services available in both pesos cubanos (24 to the dollar) and CUCs (one to the dollar), so are technically accessible cost-wise. The CUC section of the school is sparkling, there’s no line to wait in, and medicines are available. Meanwhile, the peso cubano section swelters with people and pets waiting their turn and the pharmacy may or may not have what your dog needs that day.

But the differences don’t end there: In the waiting room of the CUC services, snappy, pretty posters extol the benefits of pure breeds; above all, the posters underscore the beauty of these dogs. Shuffle over to the peso cubano waiting room and the script is different. Here, the posters are yellow and curling and don’t celebrate poodles, spaniels, and Afghans, but instead list the virtues of mutts, pointing up their strength, resilience, and force of character.

Pure breed or mutt? Pesos convertibles or pesos cubanos? Welcome to today’s Havana: suelta sin vacunar (on the loose, without her shots).

Notes

1. Every visit with The Comandante is documented by a state photographer. A few days after the meeting, a 6×8 matte photograph of you and Fidel arrives at your door.

2. While not Westminster, dog shows are serious business here, with breeders showing their stuff and buyers perusing their pups like johns trolling for ‘company.’ When purchased, Iker’s name was Kritop D’Spiritu Libre.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution

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.

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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.

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#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.

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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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