Posts Tagged ‘havana’

Jorge was selling his art on a narrow street in Havana Vieja, the historic section of Havana.   His art isn’t the usual bold colored paintings of the old cars roaring through Havana streets.  His color pencil scenes are softer, deeper.  He could tell I wasn’t going to buy any of the art he had displayed, so he pulled out a few more from a battered portfolio behind his chair.  The first that caught my attention was of a neighborhood street with a fifty-seven Chevy, hood up and wheels on blocks.  It wasn’t caricaturized like his competitors paintings, but simply parked indefinitely behind a 54 Willy’s Jeep that was stripped of all but its essential parts.  

“You can see this scene still, near my house,” he said pointing in the direction of his neighborhood.  “I just finished this yesterday.”

“I like it,” I said, “and this one too.”  I pointed to a picture of the Cathedral.  It’s one of the most photographed, painted and drawn buildings in Cuba, if not the world.  The building’s disrepair and weathered façade only adds to its charm for tourists and artists.  But in Jorge’s drawing it was white again, and perfectly restored.  It was healed. 

“These are wonderful,” I said, “why do you have them hidden?”  I asked in Spanish.

“I prefer we speak English,” he said.  “I need to practice.”   He looked at me and without saying so, we both knew why he wanted to be good at English.  It would mean a better job if he ever made it to Miami.

“I must keep these other drawings behind me,” he said, “because they don’t meet the standards. If the police see them, I will get a ticket.”

“The standards?” I asked.

“Yes, the government gives us license us to sell in tourist districts only if we make the scenes they tell us,” he said.

“How much for both of these” I asked.

They were the equivalent of about $22 together.  I gave him $30.00 and we continued to talk as he carefully rolled my new treasures in brown paper.

“Is this your only job?” I asked, “being an artist?”

“No,  . . . I mean yes,” he said,  “It’s my only real job.  I make enough to pay the fees to the government and then a little more.“

After handing me my package, Jorge began to pack up his paintings.

“Are you done for the day?”

“I’ll be back later when the crowds increase,” he said.

I offered to buy him lunch so that we could continue our conversation.   I had two hours left before I had to meet the group.  I had planned to sit in one of the bars that Hemmingway used to haunt, La Floridita or La Bodeguita del Medio but Jorge told me they were only for tourists and had expensive watered down drinks. 

“Follow me,” he said.  “I know a good place.”

We walked toward the Malecón, the famous break-wall that protects the roadway and promenade along the northern coast of the city.  He led me into a dark little bar that was neither for the “casual” tourist nor the typical Cuban.  Jorge noticed my reluctance and assured me I’d be safe and welcome. 

“Travelers come here for specific reasons,” he said.  “You can talk to the bartender here and find whatever you need if you have dollars or chavitos.” 

“See the women sitting over there by the corner window?” he said a little too loudly.

“Yes,” I whispered. 

“It is OK,” he said, “she only speaks Spanish, and Russian I suppose.”


“Yes, she came here from Russia in the seventies,” he said.  “Thousands of Russian women came when the beard [Castro] was what you call ‘in bed’ with the Soviet Union.  They married Cuban men or came as singles looking to find Cuban men.  They wanted freedom, socialism, anything but what they had .  I think they got a warmer version of the thing they were trying to get away from.  Since the Soviet Union fell, they have been stuck here, living on small pensions and unable to return to Russia, even to visit their families.  Yulia – over there –  is an old woman now, selling imported drugs like ibuprofen and Robitussin to Cubans with dollars, and selling Viagra to the old tourists who come here to find jineteras, prostitutes.  Yulia’s husband left her years ago for a younger women.  He left the young one too, for a boat made of plastic and powered by an electric engine and the battery from his old Ford.  There was talk that he didn’t make it to Miami, and there is no talk that he made it back to Cuba.  After he left, the soldiers came to her house and confiscated everything, her furniture, her refrigerator, everything.”

Jorge’s English was very good and his stories had my full attention.

“When the Soviets were here, times were OK for awhile. They brought us the Ladas and Moskoviches,” he said, referring to the boxy cars that still share the roads with the U.S.-made cars from the 50’s.  The Cubans say that the Lada is not really a car, but they like them because they are simple to repair and replacement parts can be made from scraps of other cars.”

“The Russian influence is large in Cuba,” he continued. “It is why we wear our wedding rings on our right hands, and why many Cubans born in the 70’s have difficult names that start with the letter Y,” he said laughing.

“Tell me how you survive,” I said. 

Jorge thought for a moment and looked at me as if he had some special way of knowing whether I could be trusted. 

“My other job,” he said, “is to help people like Yulia do their jobs.  I meet tourists all day with my drawings and talk to them.  I find out what they are doing here, what they need.  If they are looking for a cheap place to stay or a good place to eat, I take them to a casa that has clean rooms, good food and cheap prices. If they need a cab to take them to another city, I find them a driver with a car.  If they need a companion, I find them a young girl.  If they need help entertaining the young girl, I bring them to Yulia here for a blue pill.  Every time I find a customer for one of my friends, I make a small commission.” he said.  “And to be honest the bartender here will give me a few pesos for bringing you here to buy food and drink.”

When we finished our plates of roasted chicken, with rice and beans and salad, I told Jorge had that I had to meet our group for a bus tour.  He walked me to the Malecón and I promised him that I would bring the group by later to see his art.

“Will you be expecting a commission if they buy something?” he asked with a laugh.

“Yes, fifty percent,” I said. 

“OK, fifty percent.  Now I will have to raise all my prices before they arrive.”

“Jorge, what is that?” I said pointing to a huge white sculpture of Jesus on hill on the other side of the harbor.


“Ah, that is Jesus.”

“Yes, I know, but what’s the story?”

Jorge was as well informed about Marble Jesus as he was about Russian Yulia.  “The sculpture was commissioned by the Batista family and completed in 1958.  It was designed by a Cuban sculptor Jilma Madera and made of 67 blocks of marble that were brought from Carrara, Italy.  It stands 66 feet high,” he said.  “The eyes are hollow so that he appears to be looking at you no matter where you are when you see him.”

“There are many stories about him,” Jorge said.  “The statue was inaugurated only a few days before the beard (Castro) and his men arrived in Havana.  And on the day Castro entered the city, the statue was struck by lightning, ruining its head.  It has since been repaired,” he said.

“Jorge, I want to see it up close, can I get there with the tour bus?”

“This is the best view of it, right here.  Anywhere in the city, really!”

“I know, but I’d like to stand under it and see how big it is.”

Jorge seemed a little peeved. “It’s best to see it from here,” he said.  “If you go up there, they will charge you just to walk around in front of it and  . . . “

“How much?” I asked.

“It’s a dollar each.”

“It’s only a dollar!” I said, forgetting that ‘only a dollar’ is a meal or two for Jorge.  “Come with us,” I said.  “I’ll pay for you to see it with us, and my group will buy some of your work.”

Jorge’s anger was not directed at me when he raised his finger and said, “I will not pay a single centavo to Fidel Castro to see something that belongs to the people of Cuba.”

The bus horn interrupted my stunned silence and Jorge said he needed to get back to his business.  I thanked him for taking time to talk with me and promised to look for him later.  He shook my hand and asked if we would be going up the statue. 

“Not a single centavo,” I said.

Read Full Post »

His name was Ricardo. He was speaking to my group of American Students in a private home on the south side of Havana. It was our last day in Cuba and these students had seen the poverty of the streets, the crumbling conditions of once beautiful buildings, the unhealthy conditions of rural hospitals. They met a man who had been incarcerated for nearly three decades for his opposition the Castro regime and they had viewed the Libreta (ration booklet) of a family that could not afford to supplement the government’s meager allotment of food. But Ricardo was the first man who had agreed to speak with them freely.

“I’ll answer your questions honestly,” he said.

There were conditions, of course. There always are. First, the students had to agree not to write about him or to use his name on the Internet. He told of a friend whose family suffered a long string of “problems” after the friend’s opinions were published on the Internet. Second, the students could not take pictures or video of him. (Well, maybe a few pictures if you give him a copy.) Third, his children really need shoes.

I was only half listening to the interpreter, so I wasn’t sure what he was saying about shoes. He didn’t ask for shoes. He didn’t ask for money for shoes. No Internet. No video. And, by the way, his children don’t have shoes.

As he began to tell about his life and his work in the sugar fields, I noticed something being passed around among the students. When it got to me, I saw that it was an envelope stuffed with dollars and chavitos (Cuban Tourist Dollars). It simply said “shoes”  on the envelope. Apparently my students understood perfectly what he was saying.

“Do most Cubans want the Castros to die or lose power?” a student asked. I was stunned by this abrupt introduction to the Q and A, but our guest was not fazed.

“Many do, but many don’t,” he said without elaboration.

“How can some Cubans not want something better?” another student asked.

I was with them. How can it be that some still believe Fidel’s smooth tongue after fifty years of broken promises and unfulfilled rhetoric? How can they buy Raul’s promises of a more open system and a better economy? How can it be that they won’t fight for better health care, or freedom of speech? I didn’t understand. Ricardo was as interested in hearing the questions as my students were in hearing his answers. He explained the history and economy of Cuba and the “diabolically brilliant” mind of Castro.

“Fidel has convince many people that the problems of Cuba are the result of the American ‘blockade.’ He tells them that if they give in, the U.S. will take Cuba and its heritage and destroy it. People will be without health care and food. The rich capitalists will use up Cuba’s resources and leave it in worse condition than ever.”

He had a point, I thought. It brought to mind our involvement “helping” other countries.

“But I’ve heard that Raul Castro has made changes,” said one student with his native sarcasm. “He’s had public meetings to seek input for a more efficient system, loosened restrictions on access to tourist destinations, and allowed cell phone use. Right?”

“Yes, some of the rules have changed,” Ricardo agreed, “and that’s good for the image of Cuba abroad, but it changes nothing for me. A night in a hotel – a cheap hotel – costs three months of my salary. And while I’d love to have a cell phone, I could have had one before if I had a rich Miami relative and put it in his name. Legal or not, I cannot afford a phone and my ability to afford one is controlled by the Cuban government. We have a phrase: Raúl Castro es el mismo perro con diferente collar,” he said. Same dog, different collar.

“Oh, and we have a joke about those public meetings,” he said. “At the first meeting, a party leader came to the large auditorium and it was filled with people. He talked about the sweeping changes meant to improve conditions. When he was done he asked if anyone had any questions. One man raised his hand and asked why the chocolate in our stores so bad? The leader said he didn’t know the answer to that question, but he would check on that and report back at the next meeting.”

“At the next meeting the room filled again and the party officials made their comments. When they were finished the party leader asked again if there were any questions.  A different man raised his hand. The leader asked him if he too wanted to know about the chocolate in the stores.”

“‘No, the man said, I want to know where the man is that asked the question about the chocolate at the last meeting.”

When Ricardo finished the story he chuckled at his own humor. The students were horrified. “That’s not funny,” I heard one of them say.

“It’s a joke, but that’s how it works,” Ricardo said.

“But the man in the joke, what happened to him – hypothetically,” asked a girl on the edge of tears.

“Maybe he got a threatening message. Maybe his son lost some privileges at school. Maybe he got a ticket for an expired license. Maybe his paycheck was docked for that time three weeks ago when he was late for work. Nothing official, but he got the message.”

“We tell jokes about it because if we weren’t laughing, we’d be crying,” he added. “I still don’t understand why more people don’t want things to change. Why they follow Fidel or Raul. Why things are so slow to change even after Fidel has given up his presidency,” I said.

Ricardo took a long breath. “There’s a story we tell in Cuba,” he said, “another joke. It will help you understand the psychology of some Cubans.”

I looked around the room. Ricardo had the undivided attention of every student.

“There were three men walking down the beach together,” he began.  “One was an American, one was a Cuban, and the third was a Russian.”

Ricardo laughed. “Already you know this is a joke, right? Because Cubans are not allowed on the beaches with the tourists. . .”

A few students chuckled nervously.

“But let me continue. They came upon lamp that was partially buried in sand and covered with tarnish and dirt. The three of them had heard of such lamps and they frantically cleaned it and polished it. Finally a genie emerged, thankful for his release. I’m sorry, said the Genie, but I only have three wishes and therefore I can grant only one to each of you.”

“You are first, he said to the Russian.”

“I would like to own all of the oil fields in Siberia so that my family might be wealthy for generations to come, the Russian said. “

“Your wish is granted, said the genie.”

“And you, he said pointing to the American.”

“I would like to be wealthier than Bill Gates, said the American.”

“The Genie snapped his fingers and granted the American’s wish.”

“And you, he asked the Cuban, what do you want?”

“I know of a man who lives in Havana, said the Cuban. He has a beautiful house with many bedrooms and bathrooms. It has a swimming pool and a three-car garage. He also has a home on Varadero, the most beautiful beach in the world. He has four cars, and money in three different banks.”

“So, the Genie said, you’d like to live like this man lives?”

“No, said the Cuban, I want HIM to live like I do.”

Read Full Post »

I met a guy who knew a guy who knew another guy.  That’s how things are done in Cuba.  I was visiting Maria la Gorda, the beach at the western tip of Cuba, and looking for transportation east to the historic, architecturally rich city of Trinidad.  The bus seemed too touristy and I had already experienced the adventure of the country’s slow, undependable, and completely lackluster train system.  So it was that I became a botella.  In Spanish, the word “botella” means bottle, but in Cuba, it also means hitchhiker.  And the botellas are everywhere.  They gather under every overpass for shade waiting for a government truck to stop and cram a few more into the stake-racked flatbeds or for a private car with a generous driver.  When too large a crowd of botellas forms, you might see a policeman stopping cars and forcing less generous drivers to fill their empty seats.  In fairness, he may also require the botella to pay the driver a few pesos for his fuel and trouble.  Either way, the driver doesn’t complain.  He knows that the officer could easily ticket him for something;  a missing tail light, expired documents.  There are so many rules that only the rarest of Cuban drivers would be in total compliance, giving officers leverage to ask for just about anything.

Fortunately, my days as a botella came not from standing in the heat, but from sitting at a bar talking to a guy who knew a guy who heard that a guy was driving toward Trinidad the following day.

I met Emanuel early the next morning to begin our journey.  I offered him forty U.S. dollars to take me all the way to Trinidad, just an hour past his planned destination.  He agreed so quickly that I knew a had overbid.  We got on the road and Emanuel began to explain the rules of driving in Cuba.  First, he told me, it is more important that your horn works than to have brakes.  He honked at every car, cow, bike, and chicken to warn of his approach.  Second, you must slow down to 40 kph when approaching an overpass.  It’s for the safety of the botellas.  And you must slow to 20 kph as you pass a Punto de Control; police stations where you can be randomly pulled over, searched, or generally harassed.  I asked why some of these rules were marked with relative clarity and others not.  Emanuel said, we must follow these rules whether or not they are posted.  Many of the signs have been stolen.  The metal is pounded into pots for cooking or used to make car parts.  “Que Pais!” he said.  What a country! 

In Cuba, he told me, the police are not respected.  Often they are “orientales,” from the far eastern provinces of the country.  There are many jokes told about them, he said, that they are not very smart and speak very poor Spanish – mispronouncing their R’s and dropping their S’s.   Some people, he told me, call them “hijos de putas,” – sons of whores.  He assured me that he would never use such language, but other people often do.

“Is it the same in your country?” he asked.  “Do you have a similar name?”

“We do have a similar term,” I told him, adding that only occasionally is it aimed at our police officers who we generally respect.  That wasn’t good enough.  He wanted to learn the phrase.  “Son of a bitch,”  I told him. 


“Son of a bitch.”

“Soonafabeech!” he said smiling. “Soonafabeech!.”

For the next two hours, every officer or Point of Control we passed caused Emanuel to point and blurt out his newfound word which didn’t seem so inappropriate to say in another language.

With tedious attention to his best Spanish and brain-stretching focus on my fledgling vocabulary we talked about everything from politics to cars, seasonal fruit to baseball.  During a lull in the conversation he told me, “your Spanish is very good, but very small.”

Just east of Havana he announced that we would be stopping at his parents house in Matanzas, and spending the night.  He told me this as if confirming that it was part of our previously agreed upon plan.  It wasn’t. 

As we approached Matanzas, Emanuel told me about his parents and their tiny house where he grew up.  “They live next to a policeman,” he told me.  “The soonafabeech is a member of the communist party.  Whenever he smells my mother’s coffee he comes over and expects a cup,” Emanuel complained.   “They give it to him because they want no trouble, and maybe he’ll not look for reasons to cause them any,” he said.  “I hate him,” he added.

When we arrived his mother greeted me warmly before smothering her son with kisses and hugs,  a scene that was repeated a few moments later when his father came in from behind the house.  She put on a pot of coffee and before it was done brewing, the uniformed neighbor showed up, uninvited.  Emanuel courteously introduced the officer to me and then stood behind him scowling as I chatted with him. 

“Where are you from,” he asked in an accent that was new to me. 

“The U.S.”  I told him. 

“Your first time in Cuba?”  he asked? 

“Yes,”  I lied. 

“What about you?’ I asked.  “Did you grow up here in Matanzas?”

I could now see Emanuel’s mother calming him from his anger at the uninvited stranger horning in on the precious time he had to visit his family.

“No,” he said, “I am from Holguin.  It is at the far east of Cuba.” 

“I see.  Do you speak any English?” I asked. 

“No, none.” he said. 

“Not even a little bit?” I persisted. 

“No, None at all.” he said. 

“Well then,” I said switching to English,  “it’s nice to meet you, you son of a bitch!”

The officer smiled and took my outstretched hand as Emanuel blew coffee out his nose and hid his laughing spell with coughing and  choking.

Read Full Post »