Cuba Journal: My five bests and worsts of Cuba

A garlic salesman on the streets of Central Havana.
A garlic salesman on the streets of Central Havana.
One of the many circa 1953 model Chevrolets roaming the streets of Havana.
One of the many circa 1953 model Chevrolets roaming the streets of Havana.
A dancer in Havana's Plaza Vieja.
A dancer in Havana’s Plaza Vieja.

My taxi in Cienfuegos stopped to pick up a ride before we headed up to Havana, and I didn’t know if it was a home or a vandalized construction site. It was a small one-story house which didn’t appear to have a front door or any glass on the windows. The paint was peeling. The front yard was a mix of crabgrass, dirt and cracked pavement. To the left was a small pile of broken concrete. Eduardo, a Methodist minister sitting in the front seat, turned around and told me, “Lifting the embargo won’t help the people.”

The general feeling among Cubans is more imports will merely help the government more than them. Unless salaries go up, the poor won’t be able to buy any of the imports. As when the Soviet Union fell, salaries stayed the same and costs skyrocketed. As in Cuba, I often got cab rides in Russia from professors and doctors trying to earn money on the side.

“The government is like big business,” Eduardo said, “a very big business.”

I told him my theory. Cubans come across as very happy people. They have their rum, their music, their passion. But deep inside they’re frustrated and tired.

“The embargo is good publicity,” he said. “Cubans can cry every day. Look at their faces.”

True, out here on the outskirts of Cienfuegos, with no salsa music and no sidewalk domino games, the average Cuban looked like they were shuffling off to the River Styx. Everyone’s frowning and walking as slow as they can to avoid the inevitability of a bad job that pays nothing. I also noticed no good-looking people here. Everyone’s lumpy and looks very, very old.

“Many people in Cuba are fat,” Eduardo said. “They eat beans or rice, rice or beans.”

Out of the house, however, came a quite attractive blonde in a shocking pink pantsuit. She spoke no English. I couldn’t ask her which one of Fidel Castro’s orifices she’d like to stick an Uzi.
Instead, I just sat back and watched rural Cuba go by. Some random sightings:

* Another one of the countless roadside billboards showing Che, Fidel or a combination of the two, with the words “Por Siempre Revolucion” (For Always Revolution).

* Horse-drawn carts carrying wood and a youth whipping the house with a giant reed.

* Dusty towns of dirt front yards and more broken concrete.

* Yet delicate, gorgeous palm trees providing shade to the peasants and farm workers.

* Rice fields. Cane fields. Fields that can grow nothing.

* Turkey vultures pecking at the side of the road, looking for anything to eat. They should just be patient. It looks like some of these people could die any minute.

Havana is steaming. It must be near 90 now. I returned from changing euros and could do nothing else but lie on my bed with the fan next to my face. I don’t know where these people get the energy to dance and jive in the streets. I did a photo run and it seemed the whole neighborhood was outside.

Men worked on the engine of a ’53 Chevy. Boys of white, black and mulatto played soccer with a beat-up ball that essentially looked like one giant ball of yarn. Middle-aged men, one wearing a brilliant red, white and blue Cuba baseball jersey, slowly grooved to a Latin beat from a window upstairs.

True confession: I’m fed up with Latin music. It all sounds exactly alike, from the instruments to the singing to the the themes. It’s sounding like elevator music. It’s nothing but white noise. Federica had on a video of a Mexican singer named Manti, a long-haired matinee idol who appeared to be playing to a packed soccer stadium in Mexico. When she saw my eyes glaze over after his third song about “only thinking of you,” she switched CDs.

“I know you like music in English,” she said. Who’d she put on?

Barry White.

I hated Barry White when Barry White was Barry White. A woman I was sleeping with in college put on Barry White once and I almost immediately went flaccid. More than ice-cold milk, my Jacuzzi or ESPN, I think what I need most in America is a good rendition of Iron Butterfly’s “In A Gadda Da Vida.”

My last night in Havana was another rum-drenched crawl. I dropped by the Floridita to see my fantasy blonde singer wearing black stretch pants that made me forgot about her moustache for a few seconds. I wound up back at the Bar Monserrat where I drank my last CUCs. Being an American on his last day in Cuba is a very good excuse to give to a blonde hooker with a black micro mini-skirt and black heels that laced up to her knees. “No money, honey,” I said.

I spent a good hour chatting with a KLM flight attendant, who was with her crew fighting off advances from the local men. The two Dutch guys with them entertained a flock of local women who were only slightly less predatory than the turkey vultures I saw earlier.

Flight attendants are always good company. They travel a lot and are open minded but I wonder if they ever stayed anywhere under a 4-star hotel they’d resign. We debated the merits between Hong Kong and Singapore and she showed me some spectacular pictures of her flat in Spain. However, she lost all of her street cred as a traveler at one point.

She said she actually likes the city of Houston.

I’m sitting in my dark room with only two light bulbs and an open window providing light as I wait for my cab to the airport. OK, here goes. My five favorite and least favorite things about Cuba:


* Playa Ancon. As a connoisseur of exotic beaches, this one on the south coast outside Trinidad is among the best I’ve ever seen. Clean. Unspoiled. Perfect sand. Warm water. I’d return to Cuba just for it.

* Casa particulares. No country in the world has a better way to see it. The best way to view a culture is through the eyes of a local and in three casas I ate with them, talked with them and commiserated with them. Poor Katarina. She’s been doing this for 10 years and is tired. She gave me some of her cards to distribute around Denver because it’s illegal to publicize anything in Cuba that competes with government hotels. Unbelievable.

* Food. Yes, food. Cuba is known as a culinary catastrophe but the government-run restaurants are very good. Grilled fish. Ropa vieja. Chicken breasts in Cuban sauce. I never found a meal I didn’t like although I’m glad Katarina waited until I finished eating her ropa vieja last night before she said, “You ever eat horse? You have now.”

* The people. I was told Cubans don’t like to talk about their problems. Wrong. Show a Cuban you care and he’ll sing like a canary. These people are so frustrated and miserable, deep down. The word I keep coming back to is “tired.” Unlike the past two Cuban revolutions, today’s Cubans are just too exhausted to rush into the mountains and form a rebel army. Besides, it’s all out of their control. “It will come down to what your government does,” one told me.

* Rum and cigars. I haven’t started getting the shakes yet but my post-dinner cigar with a glass of seven-year-old Cuban rum on ice has become a lovely habit. I’ve smoked cigars only in the fraternity when a guy got “pinned” or at a random celebration. I’ve always found cigars bitter and biting. My Bolivars are not. They’re smooth as a nice mountain breeze and somehow bring out the taste in rum. It’s like a wine pairing with a rebellion twist.


1. Music. Sorry. It didn’t grow on me. I don’t remember a single song, a note, a scene that made me want to move a single body part. The maracas, the Spanish guitars, the bongo drums, it all sounded like one continuous train crash. And wow was it loud. Whenever they threw in a trumpet, punt any conversation.

* Money. I had no money mishaps but I still didn’t feel at ease walking around Havana, a very dark city, with nearly $1,000 in my money belt all day, every day. I also find it annoying to count every penny and budget every day as if I was on an around-the-world, year-long tour instead of an eight-day vacation. I changed euros today then realized I only had enough money for three drinks that night. I had to go back to the bank to change 20 more. After 3 o’clock, when the banks closed, I was stuck. I am going home with a 10 CUC note and that’s it.

* Sidewalks. Yes, it’s nitpicking. I really didn’t find much not to like in Cuba. But it is real hard to walk in this country. The sidewalks in Havana are dotted with broken-up Spanish colonnades which you must walk around into the street to avoid. Or the sidewalks are just broken up. After a few steps, suddenly one giant piece of sidewalk gives way to a dirt pit. Wearing flipflops in Havana is dangerous and they’re impossible in Trinidad where the Spanish colonial architects used cobblestones the size of speed bumps.

* Hookers. I know all developing countries have them and the vast majority of Cuban women are educated, hard working and independent but in Havana the hookers try harder. One last night kept reaching over another hooker to pinch my side. Then she’d look away. It was a third-grade trick in Third World sleaze. On my bici taxi home last night, my driver stopped next to a friend who brought over two women no more than 20.

“Diez pesos,” he said, holding up two hands. I told the driver “Vamos.”

* Heat. This is the cool period and it is getting steaming. It’s nearing 90 and the humidity isn’t far behind. In the summer, particularly in the south, locals tell me it’s mid-90s. No wonder they play winter baseball here.

But I’ll come back. There’s no greater dichotomy in the world than a communist government inside an exotic island nation. It’s the cheapest place I’ve been in the Caribbean and one of the safest. Behind the frustration and the fatigue and the growing anger, Cubans love Americans. No one really knows what will happen when the Castros die. I suspect the U.S. will lift the embargo and free enterprise will pour in from all points. Wait’ll they learn the Cubans have no money to buy anything.

But timing is everything in travel and I couldn’t be happier to come here before the beards fall. In a world that’s getting smaller, Cuba is a tiny part that hasn’t changed.