Cuba Part 1: Living in la Habana

Trip Start Sep 25, 2007
Trip End Jul 25, 2008

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Friday, October 26, 2007

First Impressions....

Okay, so I have arrived in a beautiful, historical city, where I am to stay for 1 or 2 months. Even the tattered buildings and dusty streets are charming. Vintage cars add to impression that I have stepped back into time. I am living with Ania Ramirez in her Casa Particular in Centro Habana. She is a lovely woman, who took the time to meet me at the airport and guide me through the city on my first day, showing me the University of Havana, where I was to take Spanish classes....
Quickly, I figured out that everything runs by rules, forms, procedures, bureaucracy. Everything from enrolling for university to seeing Ania run her business renting rooms in her house. She has to pay a high monthly tax every for her license which wipes out over half her earnings, regardless of whether she has tourists or not. Inspectors can check up on her at any time, and she has the risk of being fined from having unregistered visitors around and much more. Still, she really feels a sense of pride running her own business and says that she has more opportunities than many others, who earn between $10-30 a month. She has a really cute son called Giovanni, and like most Cuban families, she only has the one, as there is no salary supplement for having more children. 
Getting Mugged ...

The same day I decided to walk along the seafront (the Malecon) to Old Havana, where after the initial decaying part of town the houses and buildings became more beautiful and grander. I remembered walking around the historic part with my family about 7 yrs ago when we spent a couple of days in Havana, but I was more awestruck this time as to how museum-like this region really is. Wondering along the second hand book market in La Plaza de Las Armas, I started talking to Solema, a young woman trying to educate me about Cuban literature. I bought a Jose Marti book for children, to help me with my Spanish, which I never quite started as you will find out soon. She invited me to a local coffee shop where she treated me to peso (state subsidised) cafe cubano, and we spoke some more. I canīt actually remember what we talked about now, but it cannot have been that profound as I donīt think my Spanish allowed me that privillage when I first arrived!
Despite the heat, I decided to walk back to my casa. Never before have I witnessed so many cat calls, whistles and stares in my life. If walking down a street in Havana, any girl can be guaranteed to have every guy checking her out and making some flattering comment! Its something that everyone becomes used to, and luckily, all they do is talk. Its funny observing the difference in the way the women walk too. Cuban women walk with such confidence and pride, and they know exactly where every guy is looking. Head held up high, their behind stuck out, chest forward and their eyes subtly scanning their surroundings. Looking at the foreign (mainly European tourists) wondering behind or alongside them, I couldn't help noticing the contrast. Eyes downcast, shoulders low and trying to detract attention.
Okay, back to my journey home. About half way back, as I crossed a corner, a teenage boy appeared from nowhere and started tugging at my bag. I was in shock for the first few seconds and was holding on to my bag. He kept on struggling for it and in the end won it and ran off. I tried to go after him and asked some people to help. No one did anything. Luckily the only thing my bag contained was my newly purchased Jose Marti book. But still, I was really pissed off that I didn't knee the guy or struggle harder for my bag. It was the first time in my life that I have been mugged. Apparently it happens a lot in Havana. Rule one is NOT to carry a bag with you on the streets if you can avoid it. Apparently there is usually no violence involved, but it can happen...

Weekend trip to Viņales

After dealing with all the administrative and bureaucratic bits and bobs, I decided to go to Viņales in the North Western part of the island for the weekend before starting uni.
At first glance I thought Viņales has to be one of the prettiest villages on this Earth. A village conveniently stationed in the calm of the valley between huge green limestone mountains. The vegetation is rich and the air smells like burning wood.
Since the university had my passport and visa, I had to stay illegally in a Casa. Usually the owners have to register you in an official book and have to make note of your passport and visa details. So, I ended up staying with a woman who doesn't have a licence to rent rooms. She was really edgy and understandably nervous about having me, because had she been caught, she would have been fined heavily...but still, she preferred the prospect of earning some extra money. I donīt think I will do this again, as it really does put the family at risk. After leaving my bag at her house, I had to stay outside all day until it got dark to avoid bumping into inspectors.
I wondered along the main street up to a view point at the Hotel Ermita. On the way, I was distracted by a sign saying "Villa de Salsa....Clases de Salsa". No surprises there!! I asked about salsa classes and got talking to the teacher, a girl of 28. Her aunt ended up preparing me a meal for dinner, which set me back $5 (quite average for meals prepared by families). I got on well with the girl and we ended up going to a bar in the central plaza to dance salsa with her friends.
It was here that I met quite possibly the best dancer I have ever seen, Alexi! He really can dance with every muscle and bone in his body. Was really impressive seeing him dance off against other guys too. My flattery about his dancing abilities must have gone down well with him, because he then devoted his energies in teaching me salsa that evening and the next, when I went out with a couple of English girls I met. I actually fooled myself that I could finally dance salsa well...but it was more due to his abilities in guiding me, as when I tried to dance with the next guy, my abilities plummeted!!
Back to Habana 

Daily routine in Havana The university is like a palace. Its set on a hill, and its entrance, protected by huge white pillars, overlooks the surrounding streets. Its insides need some work still, but its really an impressive place. After enrolling for Spanish classes, I arrived enthusiastic for my first day of class in Espaņol Nivel 3 (advanced). Being the rebel that I am ( ;-) ), I decided that they werenīt for me and dropped out of my classes (luckly I hadnīt paid yet). I think its better suited for teaching the basics, and the syllabus for a month wasnīt challenging enough. Well, it wasnīt going to prepare me enough for my work in Venezuela. Ania, really generously, offered to help me with my Spanish for a few weeks. So for the next 2-3 wks, it became routine for me to have a Spanish class in the morning, followed by several hours of independent study...after which I had occasional salsa lessons. By night, I would go out dancing, or meet up with friends. During the weekends, we went to the white sand beaches about 40 mins away from Havana.

I also met the FEU, the student body organization, with whom I spoke to about U8. I was really impressed with how active this body is...organizing everything from debates, talks and forums to parties and sporting events. However, it was not easy getting a response from the body or follow up, because the vast majority of students are quite disinterested in politics. Students understand the system and the problems very well, but they are just not interested in discussing Cuban politics, which is a real shame as the future is in their hands. Many people have said that the young people would rather just leave Cuba than stay here and reform things. I guess with any socialist system that takes away political power and rights of free expression from the general population will eventually end up with a population less interested in politics and other things that they cannot change or participate in. Generally, the youths I have spoken to do not really support the revolution as strongly as their elders, and although they want change, they do not devote much time to thinking about and arguing for a workable alternative. Having said that most of them still adore Fidel with their lives.
Generally, I was really impressed by the culture. I went to the cinema a couple of times, and to the theatre, where they only charge the locals 2 Cuban Pesos to enter (equivalent of 1/25th of a CUC or dollar. Itīs incredible how people seem so educated...about literature and history for example. Rarely can you find such a large percentage of the population that can have intellectual conversations in Western countries let alone in developing ones. 
In case you didn't know, Cuba has 2 currencies, the local, non-exchangeable, and weaker moneda nacional (also known as Cuban pesos) and the exchangeable CUC (also known as convertible and dollar), which is more or less worth one dollar. The CUC didn't exist before the 1990s, and the peso is the currency in which the state pays the salaries. All state subsidized products are available in pesos too, and the price differentials for some things are huge. The CUC, which was adopted during Cuba's difficult period (after the Soviet collapse) was an attempt to integrate illegal (or black market) American dollars received from remittances from family in Miami into the formal economy. This has caused a lot of problems as some products are only available in CUC (like soap), which are much more expensive for Cubans who earn in pesos. This is meant to also be the currency that tourists use.
As for the black market, it exists everywhere. From furniture to food to providing tourist activities, many people buy and sell in the informal economy to supplement their state salaries...which really would be insufficient alone. In fact you can see tiers or classes in Cuba, which I did not expect. Those who get by solely on their state salaries look like they struggle to meet their needs...then people who get money from tourism, those who have family in Miami and those who gain from the black market are slightly better off...and finally you have the bureaucratic class, those who make the decisions who are wealthier and have a higher status.
It is clear that Fidel is like a god here. People adore him, and its not surprising. Every corner you turn in Cuba are more revolutionary and "Viva Fidel" posters, billboards and grafitti. When he was more fit, he used to visit a lot of public places, invite out locals and talk to the people. Cubans really pride themselves on their free health and education, and initially just communicate some frustration that they want cheaper goods and to be able to travel. Because of the US trade embargo, most products are only available if they are in season - for example tomatoes they only have now during the winter. There are always milk shortages because they dont have enough cows...Its not clear how much of this is to do with inefficiencies, politics or the trade embargo.
Havana is really a city full of contrasts. You have the plush mansionettes in the Mirimar and Vedado regions, and next door you have the urban, run-down housing of Centro and Vieja Habana...where the the streets are littered and plagued by pot-holes....and where families of 2 or more generations live together as it is almost impossible to find or to afford more housing. You have people dancing in the streets, drinking rum at all hours and laughing...singing praises to Fidel...older generations priding themselves on how different things are not compared to before the revolution...and then you have policemen turning a blind eye to the dissatisfied prostitutes and muggers that depend on tourists.
Return to Viņales and last days in Havana before travelling 

I returned to wonderful Vinales for a weekend with a group of foreign university students that I have become friends with. After a relaxing afternoon swimming, we went to the bar in the Plaza, where I met Yanesi and Alexi again. After several yummy mojitos and some salsa, we moved on to Palenque, a spectacular club in a cave (complete with laser lighting!), with our new found French friend, Adrien. Bike riding in the mountains the next day was incredible. We cut straight through these gigantic limestone mountains into the fertile valleys. I spent the afternoon watching a daytime performance in the plaza, where poet-singers were free-styling against each other.
The next couple of days in Havana, I started to plan my traveling around the Eastern part of Cuba. I realised how much I would miss Ania and Carmen (the woman who helps out Ania with cooking and cleaning)...I really had become close to them, spending most afternoons chatting, gossiping (mainly Ania) sometimes cooking with Carmen using my Indian spices (thank you so much, mum, for making me take them!). Ania used to ask for advice in running her is amazing how open and trusting she can be.
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kiwi_surfer on

nice blog
Nice blog, I really enjoyed reading about your experience. Cuba here i come.

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