Hustlers, History and Harmonies in Havana

Trip Start Dec 06, 2005
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Trip End Jun 17, 2006


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Flag of Cuba  ,
Tuesday, March 14, 2006

I have way too much to say about Cuba, especially Havana. It was incredible, unique, refreshing, interesting, frustrating, and beautiful.

Let me start with some facts not many people would know about Cuba:

(1) Itīs illegal for citizens to own a computer, let alone have Internet access.
(2) The average musician earns USD$14 a month for playing 6 days a week.
(3) There are 2 currencies, the local peso and the "convertible peso" (almost equivalent to the US dollar). The dollar is 24 times more valuable than the local peso. Anything involved with tourists is (99% of the time) in dollars, leading to the wealthiest citizens being prostitutes, hotel/resort employees, and taxi drivers.
(4) There are no youth hostels, only expensive hotels and private homes - called casas particulares. So budget travellers stay in casas, paying between US$15 and US$30 a night for the room, and having the option of breakfast, dinner, laundry, etc. provided by the owner (at a cost).
(5) Cubans, even if they have the money to, almost can never leave the country unless they marry a foreigner or have to work temporarily (eg. muso) overseas.
(6) No free press. Well ok this may be obvious with a communist government, but itīs still shocking coming from a democracy.
(7) Any local hanging around with a tourist will be questioned, if not detained, by the police, unless it is their job (e.g.casa owner, tour guide...). The government simply does not want this gap to close, making it really hard to find out about the real Cuba.
(7) Everyone is trying to rip you off. Seriously. Theyīre just after your money.

Having said all that, I loved the place and would love to travel back there while itīs still such a unique place - one gets the feeling that once the bearded man (no one actually mentions his name) dies, everything will change, there could be some serious political, social and economic turbulence.

So, what did I get up to?

(A) Saw the coolest cars in the world, all the time. Big old american cars from the 50s, some nicely restored, others falling apart.
(B) Witnessed Brooksy receiving some witchcraft-type medicine by one of our landladies.
(C) Walked around the historic centre, which was one of the first spanish colonial cities on the continent. Some great old buildings and fortresses.
(D) Saw one of the best live music scenes on the planet. Restaurants, hotels, bars, pubs, salsa and jazz clubs, all form part of this scene, which contains fantastic musicians playing styles from traditional īsonī and īboleroī to salsa, mambo and rumba, to local jazz. Loved it. Met the pianist from Buena Vista Social Club (see photo), just playing with a quintet in a random bar.
(E) Had some trumpet lessons from a random local trumpeter, earning the aforementioned 14 US dollars a month for his work, and his equally proficient 22 year old son. Way cool.
(F) Witnessed abundant prostitution. Brooksy was bluntly asked by one at a salsa club, "would you like my love of a cuban lady tonight?". An American staying at a casa with us told me all about his "chicas" here and how he īlovedī one of them even though he knows she and her family are just using him for money.
(G) Got right into the local sport, baseball. While we were there, Cuba came 2nd in the inaugural World Baseball Classic (to Japan) with amateur players where almost every other country had teams full of pros. Watched at least 3 full matches on TV, whenever Cuba scored, the town erupted!
(H) Copped an illegal-for-foreigners "bici-taxi" through the back streets of Havana, helping the driver avoid the large police presence.
(I) Met many random "friendly" guys after my money. They pretend to be your best friend, go out of their way to help you out, but once they realise that youīre not actually a money tree and/or are knowledgeable to their tactics, turn around and move onto the next tourist. See photo of "Pablo".
(I) Had a mojito or two :)
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Comments

Daniel on

Great work! I was over in May and loved the place and relate to all that you say and experienced.

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