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Havana sunset

13-17 February 2017. There are over two million people in Havana, over two million stories, all with similarities, and yet each unique. This is the story of our friend “Pedro”:

Pedro is a research scientist. His wife is also a professional, in a medical field. They have one child, a six-year-old boy. Unfortunately due to illness his wife is unable to work. With two professional salaries Pedro and his wife probably earned about $14,000 per year. When you factor in free health care, free education at all levels, subsidized childcare, and the relatively low cost of essential goods in Cuba, their income probably allowed them to have a reasonably good life, albeit without the everyday abundance of goods we take for granted in the west. With only one salary it’s impossible. Pedro’s credentials are such that he can get research fellowships at prestigious North American universities. This means that he is away from home for four to six months of the year, but it also means he can earn an adequate income to support his family. It is pretty much the only way he can earn an adequate income to support his family short of taking a second job completely outside of his field. Like the electrician driving a bicycle (bici pronounced “beecee”) taxi.

We hail the electrician in his bici taxi one evening. He speaks good English and is motivated to learn. He’s an electrician but his government wage is not enough to support his family so he transports tourists in his taxi at night giving him access to hard currency. I don’t know for sure but it’s highly likely his wife also works. He has two children, aged ten and twelve. He tells us that his dream is to be a fisherman in Alaska for five years to make enough money to set himself up in Havana with a casa particular. All owners of casas particulares, which are essentially tourist guesthouses, or B&Bs, make a good income from foreign tourists. I don’t know where the dream of Alaska has come from. He is young and strong, but has never been a fisherman, and certainly never experienced the deep freeze that is Alaska. Perhaps he saw a TV documentary that sparked his imagination.

Of the forty-two members of Pedro’s graduating class he is the only one still living in Cuba. All the others have left seeking a better life elsewhere. This is one aspect of Cuba’s brain drain. The other is that highly skilled professionals are seeking work in the tourism industry where good salaries and tips add up to a decent income. English teachers leave teaching to become tour guides, while doctors and engineers also leave to become waiters and the like. Anyone even remotely connected with tourism, be it bellhop, or bici taxi driver, gets access to the hard tourist currency, worth twenty-five times more than the local Cuban currency.

The electrician’s story reminded me of a young woman we met in Sapa, Vietnam back in 2010. She was of the Black Hmong tribe, twenty years old back then, married and six months pregnant. She had taught herself English by talking to, listening to, and learning from the tourists. She was our guide for the day hiking through the villages and rice fields of northern Vietnam. She said that life there was too hard and her dream was to move to Thailand for the chance of a better life.

I think it is a common theme amongst poor people throughout the world, this dreaming of a better life, somewhere, somehow, but it seems more wasteful to me in Cuba’s case. The system is set up to support everyone through a high level of education and then fails them, although Pedro did tell us that Raúl Castro is focused on developing the economy so perhaps things will gradually improve. Meanwhile most ordinary Cubans struggle with barely enough to live on aided by a truly remarkable collection of work-arounds and innovations to get what they need.

Like many crowded inner cities living spaces in Old Havana are small and crowded so a lot of life happens on the street.

and because it’s hot inside, and also probably because they want to know what’s going on, people hang out on the sidewalk, or on the balcony.

We see a woman wringing her laundry onto the street from her balcony,

a whole pig being roasted on the sidewalk, and a man walking by with a live goose under his arm. A hutia is a small brown mammal, native to Cuba, and about the size of a large domestic cat. We see one in a cage sitting on the sidewalk. It may be a pet. It is more likely dinner. People do what they need to do. What we experience on the street is usually lively with a sense of fun, often with music in the background, but sometimes conversations get animated and sound more like arguments. It’s life in the raw, exposed for all to see.

There is a perennial shortage of food in Cuba, and the lack of regulation of vendors creates high prices for ordinary people. Farmers bring their produce to the wholesale market in Havana where it is sold in bulk. Vendors then resell it in stores and small outlets throughout the city at three times the price. You would think that in a country where the government regulates just about everything that they would regulate the sale of something as essential as food. I am perplexed by Cuba.

Much that we take for granted is not available, though all the small stores we go into in Old Havana have plenty of liquor for sale, and once again I am perplexed by Cuba.

Most food is imported so naturally restaurants don’t always have what you’d expect. We eat in a variety of restaurants and the food is always just okay. We go with Pedro one day to his favourite Old Havana restaurant. It’s half the price of the places we’ve been eating at. Don and I share prawns and rice. It’s good enough though not outstanding. Some of our best meals are those we have at the casas particulares where we stay. One memorable meal is dinner for 7 CUC (US$7) at the casa in Havana: a really good soup with lots of vegetables, a salad, and beautifully cooked chicken with fried banana and beans-and-rice. And breakfasts there are plentiful and excellent.

From Don: For our last dinner in Havana before going to Viñales Alison wanted to eat at one of the restaurants in the Plaza Viejo where we’d always heard good live music every time we went by. As expected the drinks were cold, the music was hot, and the food was lukewarm. We got fabulous live music for the first fifteen minutes we were there then the band took a break, and they were still on a break by the time we were ready to leave. I guess we just didn’t have enough staying power.

As well as the music nothing seems to be more quintessentially Cuban than the classic cars. There are an estimated 60,000 pre-1959 American cars still cruising the streets of Cuba, maintained for fifty years or more with hand-made jerry-rigged parts, sheer determination, and regular Hail Marys. The embargo on car parts has produced some of the most creative mechanics in the world. The classic cars are everywhere. They range from those that appear to be in perfect condition for joy-riding tourists to those held together with string and paperclips and used as transport for ordinary people wealthy enough to own a car at all.

The streets are also busy with motorbikes with hand-built side-cars,

this rare and unique Harley,

horse-drawn vehicles, this one ironically caught passing the Peugeot sales room,

and people-powered custom-built tricycles.

As with all aspects of Cuban life the system challenges people to be creative, resourceful, and ingenious.

Pedro’s favourite line for expressing the bewilderment that is Cuba is and everything changed overnight! They were not allowed cell phones. Then suddenly everything changed overnight and one morning cell phones were allowed. They were not allowed access to the Internet. Then suddenly everything changed overnight and one morning purchase of Internet cards was allowed. For a long time they were only allowed to import car parts. Then everything changed overnight and now they can import cars. And so it goes.

There is no universal Internet in Cuba. It is available at the high-end tourist hotels, and with a bit of trial and error we find the best in Old Havana – the Hotel Iberostar Parque Central where you can buy a five-hour card that actually gives you six hours and forty minutes for $10. We sit with our laptops in the hotel’s cool comfortable leafy café eating club sandwiches and drinking coffee or a beer and catching up on emails, and can easily pretend we are anywhere but Cuba. Meanwhile outside ordinary Cubans make use of the hotel’s Wi-Fi signal to access the Internet.

They are not allowed to go into the cool welcoming interior of the Iberostar and up the stairs to purchase an Internet card from the nice man in the business centre. Instead they line up outside one of several ETECSA offices throughout the city, possibly for as long as an hour to buy their one-hour cards. We know this because we too stand in one of these lines, more than once, until we discover the Iberostar.

We notice a man waiting outside the ETECSA office. He never goes in. Every now and then he exchanges some money for a card with someone who has just emerged from the office. We watch this for quite a while. He buys several cards but never goes inside the office. Pedro tells us that he is probably buying them to resell to people who don’t want to wait in line. He can’t go in himself since you can only buy a maximum of three one-hour cards at a time, so he has others buy cards for him, one here, another there, until he has a stack he can resell. It’s typically Cuban. Everyone is looking for any way to make a little extra money.

You never know, it’s probably coming, suddenly everything will change overnight and there will be Internet available for everyone.

As an independent traveller (as opposed to staying in one of the resorts) you will stand in line in Cuba. As a local even more so: for bus tickets, for Wi-Fi cards, even for eggs:

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Little girls with bright scrunchies play with stickers,

some guys in the back of a truck on their way to work shout and wave with joy as we drive by,

kids play on the way home from school,

and individuality is seen everywhere.

Pedro tells us of some of the ingenious things Cubans have created to get around the restrictions they face. One is a special app for buying and selling second-hand goods, similar to Craig’s List. Internet time is expensive and hard to come by, but with the app you to only need to go online once a week to update it. You can then peruse it without the need for the Internet.

Another innovation is Cuba’s “cable” TV system. There is no cable TV in Cuba, but there are people who somehow have access to TV shows, and the ability to download them. The shows are then delivered weekly (for a fee) throughout the neighbourhood. People can pre-order the shows they want.

There is a kind of very subtle desperation here. People are poor and used to having to be extremely creative to make life work. As in most poor countries tourists are welcomed with genuine friendliness, but are also seen as a source of income. Havana is an extraordinary city, in part because of its rich history, and in large part because of the resourceful and creative Cuban people. Is everything wonderful? Not by a long shot, but the people are smart and resilient, and mostly the same as people everywhere – they do the best they can with what they’ve got, and no doubt music is one of the key ingredients that helps them cope.

We didn’t fall in love with Havana. We were enchanted with the beauty of the buildings, both those restored to their original splendour and those weathered by time and neglect but still proudly displaying the loveliness and integrity of design from earlier times. We were fascinated with the life on the streets, the raw energy, the camaraderie, the music. And it’s impossible to miss, no matter the hardships, the ordinariness of it. People are people, just going about their lives and making the best they can of it in circumstances over which they have little control. They laugh, they cry, they play, they work, they get exhausted, they have fun, they fight, they love. It is a grand and unique city, and for all Cuba’s troubles, Havana is one of those great cities of the world that calls out to be seen.

Next post: The joys of having a home, to be followed by several more posts about Cuba.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2017.