The first day in Cuba had paranoia, confusion, restlessness, anxiety, repulsion, excitement, inebriation and absolute bliss.
This is de rigueur for any jaunt in Latin America—that plus a raging case of the shits, which I did not get.
It’s simply rare that it all happened on the same night.
Jose Marti International Airport is designed to assuage paranoia. The stern looks, the military uniforms, the photographing of every entrant—all there to make sure the state is secure. Yet there were glimmers of Latinate inefficiency here and there. As always, some people slid ahead of us in line, making me wonder which member of the Politburo I had to fellate to get anywhere in this country. I’ll pass on Fidel, thank you.
To an extent, the government has a point: it has been estimated that roughly 80-90% of the general population has little, if any, confidence in the regime or the revolution. That’s like Walter Mondale running things all through the rest of the 1980s; bands of middle-American white folks speaking in hushed voices about runaway taxes, pulling out of foreign adventures in Nicaragua, and…never mind.
The most bizarre feature of the process were the nurses (yes, nurses, gown and all). Along with a customs declaration, each entrant into Cuba needed a health form that stipulated any diseases or medical conditions we were bringing to the island. It even included space for “nasal secretions”, creating a hysterical scene of cold-ridden travelers hastily sucking up their snot in order to not get thrown out. The nurses made me want to bend over and cough, but I handed my form, smiled politely and went on my way.
Again, this paranoia has some basis in fact. Nobody checked Columbus and his crew for smallpox and typhoid when they landed in 1492; ask the Taino, the Ciboney and the Arawak how well that went. Remember that Cuba is an island—whatever is brought to Cuba inevitably stays here, like smallpox, typhus, malaria and ravenous European tourists.
And tourists we were, in essence. Never mind our “research delegation” status or our “general license” for academic research. Our motley coterie, great as they were, were at that point little better than the black-socked, chain-smoking, loudmouthed Teutonic throngs that seemed to infest the island like Visigoths of yore. I’m talking about Canadians, of course (just kidding, but they’re just as bad).
Even with the airport, my sixth sense of bullshit did not really ping itself until our tour guides began their spiel on the bus. To be honest, they were really incredible guides throughout the trip, knowledgeable, giving in their expertise and even funny. Their English language included a mixture of teenage vernacular (“Check this.”) with the effects of numerous American crime dramas (“Approach the bench.”) Both of these expressions became the running joke of the trip, proving that even leftists can have a sense of humor sometimes.
Anyway, what really struck me were two words of warning from the tour guide: “Keep with the group at all times,” and “Keep an open mind.” The former already had me thinking of other groups kept together: the Cherokees in the 1830s, perhaps. Being miserable together is rarely fun. Besides, most of the real thrill is going to the places you’re not supposed to go. Well, it’s still the first day…
That second thing, though, the whole open mind business was what really got me. Whenever someone tells you to “keep an open mind,” it’s usually a signal that whatever comes next is not to your liking. My mother said it while she shoved lentil soup down my throat, my father with boiled tripe, and my girlfriend with sushi (I have since surrendered to sushi. It’s a nasty vice.) In our country, whenever someone insists on impartiality, on being of an “open mind,” or, dare I say, “fair and balanced”, it rarely ends up that way.
And being the odd duck, I was probably the one to have to eat the tripe this week.
Yet little revolutionary rhetoric was bandied about that night. Our first dinner was at El Ajibe, a nice faux-cabana looking joint with big tables, a stocked bar and friendly staff. Oh yeah, not a single Cuban was in attendance at this place. We were clearly at a tourist stop, as packs of teenage South American snobs pissed away their copper reserves and Miami slush funds on bad mojitos and rice-and-beans. This was our toe into Cuba…I guess the pool’s still too cold.
Good thing this meal was included, since one thought was still nagging me—where the fuck do I change my money. I had a pile of Canadian dollars sitting on me, since you can’t use US credit cards here, and some US greenbacks. It did me no good, as we were now in the land of the CUC (pronounced, fittingly, “kook”)
In 1994, during the Special Period when Cuba was suffering from withdrawal after the Soviet spigot ran dry, the Cuban government introduced the Cuban Convertible Peso, or CUC. The CUC replaced the US dollar as the only hard currency on the island in 2004, and the only currency in use by tourists. Most areas of Havana and other tourist locations operate in CUCs, often solely in CUCs. This doesn’t bode well for the average Cuban, who gets paid a combination of CUCs and national pesos (Moneda Nacional, or MNs), worth about 1/25 of a CUC. We’ll leave the problems of the CUC system for a later date.
Right now, the problem was finding these multi-colored buggers in the middle of the night. We arrived at our first hotel, the once-grand, now woefully faded Habana Riviera. It was the dreamchild of American gangster Meyer Lansky, and opened just in time to see Castro take it away in 1959. Unfortunately, time has not been kind to the Riviera, which looks like an abandoned Acapulco resort. After placing my bags in the mildewy suite with collapsing curtains (shown here), we proceeded to our adventure of CUC acquisition.
Who knew it would be such a torture.
At first, we heard that the hotel’s money exchange office was open. Then, it was closed. But the Melia Cohiba would have money for sure…that is until we learned that the Cohiba ran out of money. Yes, it actually ran out. The only place to conceivably get CUCs was at the Hotel Nacional, an old 19th Century warhorse of a hotel that held the likes of Winston Churchill and Naomi Campbell. It was way on the other side of the Vedado neighborhood, and we needed a cab.
Cabs needed CUCs.
No one had CUCs.
Except me. For the first of multiple times, the capitalist will (seemingly) save the day.
Luckily, I made a long distance phone call, calming my parents and telling them I have not, in point of fact, stolen into the jungle with an AK-47 and a box of Cohibas. The call was a whopping 13 CUCs or so, but since I only had American, they would take it (real arm twisting, there). I got 5 CUCs in return, just enough for one cab ride.
Contrary to popular myth, not all cabs in Cuba are of the 1950s’ Chevy Bel Air quality. We packed four Americans into a 1970s era Soviet-made Lada cab with cramped interiors and doors that required sheer will just to keep them closed. Never mind that the cabbie was careening at top speed down the Malecon, a multi-lane road abutting the sea wall. One false move and we’d all be pieces of fatty chum floating into Key West.
The Nacional beckoned, with its 19th century lobby and uniformed doormen. The 24-hour money exchange bureau was closed. Later in the week, I returned to the Nacional, only to be told that the booth was indeed open for 24 hours yet it wouldn’t open until 7:30 PM. In a place as regulated as Cuba, you’d think they’d enforce truth in advertising a little more.
So now we’re stranded far off from the Riviera with no CUCs. It took some doing, but we found a cab willing to take American dollars. Another Lada whizzing us back to the Riviera, and it looked like a very short night.
Upon our return, we happened upon a gas station across from the hotel, and it was here that I got my first encounter with Cuban friendliness. For a skeptical, on-their-toes American, this can take some getting used to. A group of amateur musicians was outside the gas station, greeting us and chatting us up in conversation for no reason other than we’re strangers in Havana. I immediately thought they wanted a handout, and that’s the problem. They didn’t. Between the paltry state-run media and the overpriced tourist bars and clubs, Cubans have few outlets when it comes to cutting loose. Personal communication—any communication, for that matter—becomes a social activity in Cuba.
Furthermore, we managed to score some boxes of Planchao, which is Cuban rum in a juice box. Instead of Hi-C, out came cold white lightning that stung the mouth like gasoline, scarred like turpentine and had the distinct taste of third-rate tequila. Thus the second rule of Cuban communication: rum makes everything better.
We passed the rum with our new musical buddies, played some local tunes and danced a little party outside the gas station. It was a real gasser, especially when an unusually friendly young woman came and insisted on dancing with me.
As a gentleman, I obliged, only knowing too well what the next step would be.
Since the Special Period, prostitution has become a rising problem in Cuba. Though technically illegal, the practice has become one of the few tried-and-true methods to obtain hard cash on the island. Working girls prowl the nightspots, the Malecon, the clubs where sweaty foreigners ogle and grope, and a certain gas station where a certain sweaty foreigner was about to be groped. I declined politely, repeatedly, until offered a sexual act somewhere behind the station. That was it—enough. Thank God my compatriots intervened. It would be the first of many advances I’d get that week.
So hookers notwithstanding, we continued drinking, graduating from Planchao to beer, and thus interchanging about a phenomenon we know well—snow. Our new Cuban friends were fascinated by the stuff, which made us appreciate how different we are. Only in Cuba can such connections happen at two in the morning at a gas station. We’d be arrested in the states for such loitering.
Cuban police seemed to be just as uptight.
A marked police car turned and parked in front of the station. Out came a short officer with a beret, uniform and sidearm. “Now we’re talking”, I thought. “Here comes the beady-eyed secret police agent, rubber truncheons, electrodes up the kazoo. Come on, you pinko bastard, do your worst! I’ll go Rambo on your punk-ass…”
The little bastard asked for IDs all around. We gave him our hotel cards, he asked for nationalities. He gave us back our cards, questioned the other members of the band, and then proceeded to chat up the group next to us. It seems that cops the world over love to bust balls for its own sake, even in Cuba. Well, so much for the torture chamber.
The night was winding down, and I headed to my casa de mildew. I was only in Cuba for a few hours, and there were cops, hookers, musical locals, strong hooch, fast, dangerous cars, and late-night carousing.
I was loving this fucking country already.
Next stop, the hinterlands in Part III.