Cuba Prep - Part 2
Mar 31
Cuba has been forbidden fruit to Americans, and it's logical that we want to visit the isle. Many Americans have wanderlust, and the means to satisfy that urge. There are places all over the world that rely on tourist dollars to get by. Cuba is definitely one of those places. So, if you're (still) inclined to make the trek, let's talk about what you'll see and experience.

Cuba is a very poor country. Most pics I see of Cuba are very sanitized, which is logical since taking photos was discouraged for many years. This recent slideshow from the NYT is the most realistic depiction I've seen. The barbershop scene is particularly real to me. I stayed in old Havana while in Cuba, and this is a common scene: The folding chairs, the rubble on the ground, the small mirror. Women's salons are the same, as are butcher shops and produce sellers. Cobblers usually set up a chair on the street to work. Most services we are used to seeing in our travels are not available in Cuba. It's only 90 miles from Miami, but the country has been restrained for decades, simply neglected.

It's true that doctors and street sweepers earn about the same amount per month: 30 dollars. Since a drink is a few dollars, locals are usually not hanging out in bars or restaurants as patrons. The most well-to-do people on the island are those who work with tourists in any way, as those people collect tips, are paid in CUCs, and don't have a state proscribed salary. This means tourists are everything: A source of income, marks for con games, possible meal tickets.

If you are walking down a street looking for a bar and a local couple comes up to compliment your outfit or makes some other overture, be aware that this is their job. They are befriending you to earn money for the day. They will offer to show you the coolest bar in town, and they probably will show you the coolest bar in town. You will buy them drinks, of course. They will suggest where to go to lunch, and you will end up someplace with high prices. You may end up buying food for people you don't know, and at the end of the day, your new friends will ask for money for their services, because they're not friends or generous locals. They are on the job as de-facto tour guides and expect to be paid. If you balk, they will tell you their kids are hungry. This is not the kind of thing an American can turn away from. You'll pay them, and really, you had a great day. Why not pay? But maybe you don't want to do it again.

Anything can generate an overture. A friend dropped a flyer with a musician listed on it, and someone picked it up and handed it back to him. He told my friend, That musician is my father. I'll take you where he's playing tonight. Guess what? The musician isn't his father; he gets a commission for taking you to the club, plus he'll ask for a fee. There are hawkers standing outside restaurants trying to get you to walk in. If you do, they'll want money for the service of alerting you to the restaurant. Getting them to leave you alone is a challenge, but there are restaurants that don't employ people to stand at the corner and harass potential patrons. Cuban cigars are sold officially by the government. If you want to purchase them on the black market, you will have to find someone to take you, for a fee, to a showroom (a room in a crumbling building). If you don't buy any, you will need to pay the showroom worker in any case for the viewing and the time.

Cabs are negotiable. Fix your price before you get in, and be aware that the picturesque vintage American cars are more expensive than the Russian cars. Also, any of them could break down at any time. New parts have not been available for decades, so be ready to get out and push if needed. Also, be mentally prepared to see young prostitutes, as this is a high earning profession in Cuba. We saw mainly older white men with young men or women they had hired for the week.

Locals will feel free to ask tourists for items, like toothbrushes or soap. I had been told that this would happen, and carried toothbrushes and toothpaste and small packages of Advil and Aleve around with me to hand out. Street people would ask for soap, certainly, but so would schoolchildren. If you start to give something to a kid in a school uni, his / her friends will swarm you instantly. Once we gave one girl a bar of soap, while her friend got a package of rollerball pens. The girl who received the soap stamped her foot in anger, plainly annoyed at her pathetic bar of soap. Children are the same everywhere! Hopefully they shared. On another occasion a friend and I were on a relatively deserted street, and a young man came up to demand a toothbrush and toothpaste. I didn't have one for him, and he was clearly annoyed, aggressive, even. People run the gamut in Cuba, just like everywhere else, from polite to pushy. My emotional response to this was varied. On the one hand, I was happy to give someone a nifty OralB toothbrush; on the other, I was aware of disliking my smug American generosity. We truly have a lot - and it's painful to see people with so little. I was happy to give, yet unhappy to see pushy teenagers. Why? Teenagers are pushy; shit, I'm pushy! By the end of my time in Cuba I was tired of this back and forth between feeling guilty and alternatively, being annoyed at constantly being on my guard. I was exhausted. And I wanted was to use a toilet with a toilet seat, with an abundance of TP.

Final thoughts. You will hear that people want to go to Cuba now, "before it's ruined" by Americans. I found this more frustrating than just about anything else I experienced during my trip. Cuba is poor and in a massive state of disrepair. People will struggle to hold back tears as they tell you about relatives in the States they haven't seen in 20 years. This is a real country, full of real people who have been held captive for decades. It's not a cute little diorama of crumbling buildings preserved for our viewing pleasure. Here's the view of someone who has the right to talk about this issue.

If you are staying in a casa particular, a nice gesture would be to ask your host if there's anything you can bring over for him or her. We brought our hostess perfume, which sher daughter recommended, and which she loved. She also wanted me to leave my shoes behind, as we wore the same size (HUGE). I did not leave them, as I'm not that good of a person. If you're going to Cuba to look for business opportunities, would you please consider something in the environmental field? Cuba has no recycling to speak of and very little in the way of re-usable goods. There's barely any water via the "infrastructure", and its quality is suspect, so plastic water bottles are everywhere.

When you're there, you'll come up with all sorts of great biz ideas - there's nothing but opportunity there. If you're thinking of starting a business venture, please don't do it without taking the environment into account. After all, maybe it's possible that the American influx won't "ruin" Cuba, that we'll operate mindfully and positively. Fingers crossed.

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