Cuba series index
- Arriving in a different world
- Thingamachinga complicates a center visit
- Old Havana!
- Breaking the law
- The Hershey Electric Railway
- Lazy Day
- Baptized and beach-bound
- Beaching and burning
- Last minute acquisitions
- Customer of customs
- Seeing Cuba in a new light
July 27, 2015
My introduction to Cuba came before I had reached the island; Interjet had a special line at Cancun Airport for Havana, and agents walked past the line to ensure that each passenger was carrying a passport, a Mexican customs exit form, and a Cuban visa. No visa? No problem. I handed the agent $20 USD, and he filled out a Cuban visa for me. Soon I was at the ticket counter to receive a boarding pass. At no point did anyone worry about whether or not my travel to Cuba qualified as legal under U.S. rules.
Landing in Cuba seemed very ordinary, except that after I passed through the metal detector with my carry-on I was directed to the wrong baggage claim area. Nobody seemed to mind when I re-crossed the security area to get to the correct baggage claim. After I acquired my luggage, I was dismayed that I couldn’t find my friend Lorenzo in the waiting area. I stood at the curb for a half hour, next to a stray dog who had found it a peaceful place for a nap. Eventually I saw Lorenzo walking inside. He, too, had been misdirected and was waiting in a crowd at the other side.
Lorenzo had given me prior warning about the car he borrowed from his family while in Cuba, nicknamed “Thingamachinga.” Seeing it in person, I was still shocked. The 1990s Russian car had been extensively reworked, with a piece of plexiglass with holes replacing the radio, baulks of wood holding the ignition switch in place, a trunk cover that had been rebuilt in wood, no seat belts, wires hanging loose beneath the dashboard, and spare parts and tools in the trunk. When he started the car, it responded with a cloud of black smoke and threatened to die at idle. This was our primary means of transport during the trip!
As we left airport parking, a sign notified us that we either owed 3 Cuban pesos (CUP) or 2 convertible Cuban pesos (CUC). That’s right, Cuba has two separate currencies. The CUC, introduced in 1994, is the principal currency used by tourists, and one can only exchange foreign currency for it inside Cuba. Loosely speaking, a CUC is a US dollar. CUP, however, are worth far less (25 CUP per 1 CUC). When Cuban nationals buy something, they may use a ration card at special stores, they may use CUP to buy more selectively, or they may use CUC (if they are in a position to acquire them) at government-run or neighborhood shops. The airport parking lot is heavily subsidized for people who must use CUP.
As we drove toward his family home, Lorenzo stopped at a farmer’s field along along the highway. The private farm, established under new rules during the 1990s Food Crisis, appeared to use raised-bed techniques. The farmer filled a plastic bag with lettuce and quoted a very low price in CUPs. Lorenzo rounded up by 50% and paid the bill. “This guy works hard,” he said.
Lorenzo’s family is quite fortunate in having three homes in close proximity. His father and mother live in a cement building on the ground floor, and they rent out the upstairs to a young couple. Lorenzo’s sister and brother-in-law (a gifted mechanic and former taxi driver) live across the street in a two-story building dating from the first half of the century. They renovated the space to have a hall along the side of the first floor that leads into a series of bedrooms on the other. The entry of the house, though, spans the full two stories; the high ceiling allows much of the heat to rise away from the people in the hottest weather.
Lorenzo’s two nephews have both finished college, and one recently finished medical school. The other son lives with his wife and daughters in a nearby two-bedroom apartment. They acquired the flat in part when Lorenzo’s brother-in-law traded in a 1956 American car that he had rebuilt with parts from other vehicles. The nephew who lives in the apartment rebuilds broken PCs in his spare time for extra cash, but by day he is an information technologist for a local company. A rich perquisite of the job is the use of a motorcycle. Having a vehicle all to yourself is a huge marker of status in Cuba.
Lorenzo and I drove through old Havana to the seawall (Malecon). As we arrived downtown, I was reminded of Durban, South Africa, where pedestrians and cars are in a continuous battle for possession of the streets. Construction barriers crowded the streets further as the UNESCO World Heritage Site teams attempt to recover the old buildings before they are lost permanently.
We arrived at the Malecon and followed it for around five miles. Every few feet, another group of people had nested atop the wall, some with guitars. After parking, we walked along the promenade ourselves. Lorenzo talked about his concern that well-connected people in Cuba are gaining ownership of valuable business properties, while most citizens are left with no means to gain hard currency. We stopped by a stylish cafe that gave every indication of new construction. We were met with attentive customer service, and we acquired some cold bottles of water. Lorenzo challenged me as we left; did I think an ordinary person in Cuba has the opportunity to set up a business like that? Now that Cuba is changing to transition from Castro rule to something new, will everyone have the chance for a better life, or just a privileged few?
As we drove back through the city center, I was struck by the crowds of people thronging through what remained of buildings from the 1950s. These buildings have been decaying for every minute of my life, with patches of bailing wire and twine to hold them together. The phrase “crouching among the ruins” came to my mind. Although some buildings have been constructed during the Castro years, it seems that most in Old Havana haven’t been maintained. In most cases that I saw, even when a facade had stayed in place, the building behind it would not pass even a cursory safety inspection in the United States.
Lorenzo’s nephew was staying with his parents during my stay, leaving me the two-bedroom apartment for my own private accommodations for the week. I felt very grateful that Lorenzo’s family had welcomed me with so much grace. My first half-day in Cuba had already shown me that life is very different there.