2002...CUBA….. 43 years on....a country still in trouble!
These Notes will soon be part of a book along with the photos
If you are a backpacker of any age, coming to Cuba, none of below will probably apply to you, as you will probably be doing Cuba on "the smell of a oily rag"
If you bought a tour package to a Cuba beach resort, beside being luck to see any real Cubans you probably will not be aware of anything I write.
Now as I make these comments below, I remind myself, that I am the one, to tell others to leave all of your background and standards behind in your own country and you cannot compare the country you are visiting with your own.
Reading thro this article I wonder if I am being too hard, but then I think Fidel has had 43 years of control and in this period other countries have become successful and after all he does speak how the capitalist days are numbered so by default his system must be better and under this basis I am judging his country and what I have seen.
If I had 9 mil pop that would work at a starting wage of 6 cents a hour (that they currently being paid) I would have factory's from all around the world using the labour, like Taiwan and Japan did, to get started, now look at them.
However what has "annoyed" me in Cuba, and I think that is the correct word to use is that the average wage is $US10- $15 per month, a pensioner gets about $US7.75. They (the Govt Owned coys) (GO) charge $55 a day for one of these people they pay $10 a month, that equals on a 40 hour week .06c per hour that is almost 100 times their hourly rate. From what I can understand no one can make ends meet on what they are paid, but the Govt will not increase the wage I am told because it will make people rich!
The tour Cuba coys (GO) have joined in the game, trying to rent a car to me, from another GO coy for $70US per day and that is a small Fiat, or Peugeot 106. The govt rental car coy charges $55. Taxi to the Airport (GO) $15, tour coy $20
The price I got to hire a Peugeot 106, their smallest car, it was the same price as the Audi A4 I hired in Germany, this was a new one with 5000 Kms. on the clock ! and there was no special conditions with the Audi on the damage to the car, that is why they charge insurance. I have been told that in Cuba they will do everything they can to keep the $200 bond you have to leave when you hire the car. In Cuba they charge you with the tank full of Petrol when you hire the car, in the West you normally bring the car back full, I said, in Cuba, well, I guess I will have to arrive back with a empty tank, O no! the assistant said, that is our perk!
Many people I have spoken to, have told me they are ready for another revolution.
To get to Cuba is not easy, you can not fly here from the States but need to fly in from Europe of Mexico, so I flew to LA, then to Mexico, then to Havana. Because I have a round the world ticket with the Star Alliance I have to return to Mexico, then fly to Frankfurt.
Well I am now in Cuba, Cuba is a cross between Turkey & India but the locals are out to make as much from the tourist as they can, for example the average wage is $US10 per month and one guy wanted $US 20 for the day, of course to an American it probably is what they expect to pay but to a Kiwi!!!! I would not mind paying a reasonable amount in accordance with what they earn times, well $70 to 100 a week I think would be good pay with the Cuba tourist season not yet started.
The old part of the Havana city is old, like communism everywhere if no one owns it no one looks after it. There is massive sign of neglect everywhere the only other place I have seen this is in the eastern block, but I think they have fixed a lot since I was there, and of course China.
I have walked for miles (that is further than Kms) today and my feet are sore or as we say in NZ my dogs are barking!
One thing you can not miss is at every street corner is at least two jumbo bins for the locals to throw their rubbish, this includes left over food so you do know when you are down wind from one, of course they are very successful at breeding flies, which are everywhere.
While I think of it I think Cuba is the first country that has a military rule where I have not had to fill in a customs form, you just front up with your passport & visa they stamp it and you are away, little different with the luggage, you wait and wait, however once you have it you just walk thro. O yes as you come off the plane they x-ray your carry on, why I have no idea, I suppose it keep others in work, I visualize the Captain or what ever, saying what are we going to do with Bert & Bill, or I should say Carlos & Antonio, well he said, we will drag out that old X-ray that does not work and make the capitalist tourists put their bags thro it!
It seems as if the Old Havana area that I am in is geared up for the night life there are ca lot of night clubs that do not open till 9pm with the floor show on at 11pm. I was shown the bar that Hemmingway drank at, yeap it has gone to seed and beyond, about four of wide boys that picked me up wanted to show me that, once they found I was on my own they tried a bit of pimping, at that stage I told them to bugger off!
There is a strong police present watching to make sure the tourist's are not interfered with or bothered, but as you will see later in this story it does not help!
There are some wonderful photos available to be taken of the OLD buildings and many of the windows have people leaning out of them, loads of washing on the lines round the windows. There are a lot of buildings that have the insides completely collapsed, many that have major supports to stop them falling down, in places it looks like a bomb site.
Out side the Capitol building there were four photographers with the old cameras we often associate with Turkey & Egypt where they expose first a paper negative develop in inside the camera box, fix it then they re-photograph, one guy took a photo of the photographer beside him and his camera with me in the background, I figured it was worth a $1, the negative & print are soaking in water at the moment as I am doubtful about the quality of the wash, and now that I think of it the quality, or length of time of the fix.
I was told that accommodation was a problem in Cuba so I booked everything except a bit where I was intending to be on the move. The Lido Hotel was in the budget class but at US$35 a night (that I was charged thro the agent compared to the front desk price of $26) where the wage is $10 a month was high enough!
Now here I find the perhaps the accommodation is stretched in the peak months, but there were plenty of touts on the street that could offer you anything from their sister to accommodation from rooms to apartments. All with hot water which is a rare item in most of the hotels from what I can gather, and certainly at the Lido. I am not sure if I will be able to manage a hot shower again, perhaps in the winter.
Well this is my third day in Cuba staying in Old Havana, I have walked most of it at least twice, found a Italian Restaurant where I can understand the menu and the quality of the food is good, which is not something I can say about some of the local joints. One had an interesting looking menu but no prices, I decided there is only one valid reason for that sort of price list and that is to adjust the price in accordance with who is asking.
Yes, the people are very friendly and nice, but it is overshadowed by all of the Wide boys, they all assume if you are a male alone the only thing you are interested in or are looking for is a female, that certainly tells a story of their experience in the past, and you try and not look at a young female otherwise they will be trying to chat you up, so the only ones safe to smile at are the oldies and they are delighted to smile & wave back.
I am told that before the revolution, men used to fly in from the States because of the good looking women and how little they "Cost", the revolution was supposed to end that, but I met many men that flew in just for that, one from Canada commented that it was almost too easy to pick them up, it removed any challenge!
I was told by a tour guide that I met that there were 17 ladies to very male in Havana, that does seem high to me, but he assured me that it was because of all the men killed fighting in Africa, fighting for the freedom of the Africans!
It is interesting how many photos are about of "Che", they are everywhere, it almost seems he was the hero of the country, poor old Fidel you see a few books he has written the occasional photo but nothing like the amount for Che. It seems you have to be dead to be a real hero, he even had his photo on one of the early banknotes, it would seem looking at his photo's and things he did that he was a colorful character and of course they add a little bit of glamour to any cause.
I have realized that to visit a large city like Havana unless there are cultural things to look at three days are enough, what I have seen so far have been worth the one dollar charged to view the exhibit although I am not sure how it pays for the six or more staff on duty.
They have, it seem tried to make something of the things from 50 years ago before the revolution, incidentally this is the 43rd year since the revolution which you see large signs everywhere reminding the people how lucky they are, and of course Che's photo is featured. These large signs sometimes show Fidel holding a machine Gun, they are still featuring guns all this time later, they can't realize it is time to move on like the rest of the world.
Now I think I will try and hire a car and see a bit more of the country, I hate most big city's which is probably coming across in this writing. I also hate to see people being restrained and treated like fools, lucky fools by a repressive dictator, I saw one of his books where he is predicating the collapse of the west, while his people in his capital are doing all the can to get the benefits of the west.
The American dollar is the only currency that I have seen in circulation, even the poorest local had this dollar, the sign, according to their leader of the collapse of the west, which I assume will be hastened on by him making the US Dollar legal tender.
Should you visit Cuba? Yes, but be prepared to be overcharged for lesser quality worst service than you would receive at home. The beautiful old building are worth the trip to look at even if they have had a token maintenance in the last 40 years. The people are friendly, and if you have plenty of time you will not mind the service.
Forget the hotels, unless you are unlucky you will get a better deal staying with a family or in a private apartment. They are very easy to find.
It is interesting, the revolution was for the people who were repressed by the rich, they saw the millions being gambled at the casinos, which was one of the first things they destroyed, now they see the rich staying in beautiful five star plus accommodation, being ferried around in new expensive tour busses, while they are still poor, but educated poor, their buses are large articulated affairs that will carry 300 people, that is more than a 767 or twice as much as a 737 Boeing, and is more suitable for taking sheep to the market. This is what it was all for? Well I guess a few people have had it better that they otherwise would have.
I have been trying to find a comparison to the poverty pre revolution in Cuba and I believe the Migrant workers in the States, that such a wonderful photographic record of I think it was the '30, as all of the migrant workers now are Mexican or similar, in the States, I would assume the children of those people have moved up the economic ladder. The Negro's of course had no rights before they were given freedom while there a lot at the bottom of the economic ladder now many thousands have "made it".
Now I think I hear people saying how the Black in America have things stacked against them in every area, well unless your father is very rich, no one from the working class has it easy, no one comes along and says, "come along white boy I will make you a millionaire" it takes damn hard work and a lot of smarts and that is just to get a job!
So in retrospect I believe the people of Cuba were sold a pup and would have probably be better off today with the capitalist system, as undoubtedly they will get once Fidel dies.
So today I was out walking again, decided to wander into a castle, there was all sorts of local artwork on display, a little interesting, but that was about it. Up to the top of the castle and there I saw a new market a block away, that I had not seen before. Wandered into the shop on the top of the castle and they were selling more art and Cigars. Thought who do I know that still smokes and I could think of at least one of my friends so I bought four different cigars in sealed containers. (they were cheaper at the factory, but of course it costs to get there)
Then it was down to the market and soon found it was mainly for the tourist with the tour busses stopping here and one could see they were the type of products that were made for the tourist, being of little interest to the cash strapped locals.
There was a section of the market with paintings, most of it was what you could imagine as being the type of art out of the Caribbean, and there was one slightly different that I would have hung on my wall, but fortunately they wanted too much, to my mind so I was not faced with the prospect of trying to pack it etc.
There were some horse & buggies beside the market so I thought I would go for a ride thro town, the one that was at the top of the line I did not fancy so found a interesting one four back, but no, I had to take the one at the front, I love there decisions being made for me, so I wandered off much to the discord of those in line.
It is always interesting when you take this line of little resistance, as I walked on and found a Bar that had happy Italian singing coming from it & then heard a tour guide answer, yes, this is the Bar that Hemingway drank at every day. So I wandered in and had the drink he made famous, what ever it was, they were pouring them out as fast as they could, the small room was packed, then all of a sudden a lot left, so I gave up my seat at the door and moved into the corner, something I would have missed had the buggy fourth in line taken me for the ride I wanted!
There I saw a t-shirt which I bought, why I do not know, I never wear t-shirts, but had another Hemingway's drink, took a few wide angle photos, the bar was so small I was glad of my 17mm lens, then I was presented with a small 6x4 inch card that a girl had drawn, I told her what was wrong with it as far as I, the customer was concerned, so she did five others, in all improving on each one, as far as I was concerned, making a silk purse out of the pigs ear, and with the simple electronic translator I had with me and her simple English I think she understood, the simple message was "flatter the client".
Cuba really pushes the fact that Hemingway lived in different places in Cuba, drank at different Bars around Cuba, and all of his other activities….
Saw quite a few Ford Edsal's the car Henry Ford named after his son and the car was one of the largest flops in history, they must have packed them all up and shipped them to Cuba, well they are still in wonderful condition and I saw at least one of them moving, there were two convertibles Edsal's as bridal cars at a wedding, but only one of them was able to leave the curb!
Cuba is the country of the unusual, in the way of cars, I saw a Lada as a taxi and it had been converted into a stretched limo!
Have considered booking a rental for the 27th for 12 days to travel south, and as a comparison priced a taxi and as I guessed it was too expensive, a wide boy who heard me asking about the taxi offered to take me in his beat up Fiat, but his English was almost zero and that would have presented too many problems
Yesterday we went for a 140km drive into the countryside to a small town where they made Cuba Cigars. On the way we passed hundreds of people waiting on the side of the road for a bus or some sort of ride into town. In areas they had a uniformed person stopping the cars and putting people on these cars. It is common at most traffic lights that lead out of the center to see people approach a car to see if it is going in their direction.
At the Cigar factory there was this whole room full of people, men & women rolling Cuba made cigars. It was interesting that they were almost all begging for money from the RICH tourists, one person was offering 20 cigars from his desk for $10, (one months wages in Cuba) one guy in the party bought them and he was delighted. It is obvious that the manager was in on all of this, and the revolution that was to rid Cuba of corruption at the top has bred it in from the bottom.
We next visited a Cuba Rum salesroom, they were selling five different Cuban Rums and it was interesting tasting the difference between the 12 year old and the six year old. We then went on to a large cave that lead to an underwater river where we went on a boat ride to the starting point where we had lunch.
After we visited a location called Two Sisters to see a mural that had been painted on the cliff face, it was a tourist stop with an excuse to sell more trinkets, I stayed on the bus saying I had seen better graffiti in NY.
We got back to the hotel in Havana at 6pm after the lengthy process of going around all the hotels dropping people off, thankfully it did not take the 75 minutes it took to pick them up, but I was still a long process.
Was the tour worth it? Well for the cigar smoking guy from NY it was, for all of those from the Latin American countries that were on the trip, yes, for me, well it filled in a day and allowed me to see what the countryside was like. Yes they are still using bullocks or cows to pull a plow.
I then went out with the camera around Old Havana to see if there was anything worth photographing and met this guy that spoke almost perfect English, he was black, his parents had moved here from Jamaica, he had been a English school teacher and a letterpress printer, we chatted for a couple of hours before we parted making arrangements to meet Sunday morning for him to show me, I am not sure what!
This afternoon I spent a couple of hours giving a pep talk to a young 27 year old about his future, I think I was wasting my time, but only time will tell. He drove a horse & gig so I employed him to take me out to the fifth largest cemetery in the world, I think they claim, which with all of it streets of marble tombs is a interesting sight.
Looking at all of the old houses on the way back they all suffered the same neglect that come from the owners having no money so no work at all could done.
On reflection the guy in the horse & gig may have been a bit of a con artist and I may have been conned, and I thought I could pick them. He asked me to change some local money into a US$1 to buy some cigarettes. Then after I paid for the drinks and we were leaving he gave me a dollar saying that was the commission he had been given for bringing me to the bar, perhaps he gave me my dollar back to get me to trust him! Perhaps I am being too cynical, but I guess that is what Cuba does to me!
I did see one or two Studios, if you can call them that, they seem to specialize passport and the supply of small photos, of course with the low wage there would be nothing left for Pro Photography. I did talk to one Pro that could speak English, I assumed he was paid by the Govt because of the work that he did and as he was not interested in making extra money as a guide he must have been very well paid. He did say that anyone buys a simple camera starts taking photos for money, sound familiar?
The normal procedure seems to be to have the 35mm film developed for 50c then with the rest of your comrades sit and examine every frame by holding the film up to the room light, nothing as simple as a light box, that would be too easy. They had a modern Noritsu 2211 and a V30 or 50 to process the film which seems to be the busy machine, I did not see much going thro the 2211. There was no service, the staff just wandered around doing a wonderful job of ignoring the customers that were lined up sometimes three deep, however this is normal in most shops so the locals did not seem to mind.
The old guy I met the other night came to guide me around the city, but everything he was going to show me I had already seen or was a tourist trap! We started off with a rickshaw ride to some local point at a special price of $4 that he negotiated, yes $4 in a country with a monthly wage of $10. So that should have warned me, but I went along for the ride to a area that a artist had made into a tourist attraction by painting Murals on the walls of the buildings around his studio and making some Black Caribbean statutes etc.
I met the artist, all the work he had done must have worked as he was looking VERY well off which was good to see success.
Then my "new friend" & I walked back to the hotel, which was not what he had planned, but he had to stick with me, I enjoyed the walk, but he was not used to tourists insisting on walking, but I will say this, he stuck with me. We went thro Chinatown, it is one of the few Chinatowns I have been to with only about four Chinese to be seen.
He dropped hints this is a nice bar to sit at and have a drink & rest, but I told him we could rest back at the hotel, he said he would like to rest at the bar. I then dropped the film I had finished into the mini lab and as I was leaving he called me he was sitting on a chair, I told him I am off back to the hotel, he followed.
He was telling me how bad things were here because of the American blockade, well I was having none of that, I told him NZ was further from the rest of the world than Cuba, we have to send all of our exports half way round the world and bring back products, the rest of the world will trade with Cuba so what was the problem I asked? He could not answer! Everyone uses the blockade as a reason why Cuba is so poor, I assume they have never compared themselves with Taiwan!
In spite of the blockade, I see no shortage of Coke Cola, Kodak film, Kodak paper, HP computers, Epson printers, but it must be working because there are no McDonalds or Pepsi!
So when we got back to the hotel I changed some money and was going to give him $5 for the half day and weakened and gave him $10. He told me later he was going to tell me when he arrived that he wanted $20 for the day, I told him I would have left him standing on the footpath, he then came up with the reasoning that it was a lot cheaper than hiring a guide in my own country, I told him I am not in my country but in yours where the average wage is $10 a month, he did not get it. Note this is like being shown aound London or New York for two months wages of those countries for 4 hours work..... GOOD DEAL?
This is what socialism does to a country, not only it the service in this country lousy they are out to rip you off every possible moment, OK they do this in most other countries, but here it is a national pastime and they think you owe it to them.
Fidel is called "Him" or "He" by the locals that talk about him and they are openly talking about how bad things are and do not expect things to get better till "he" dies, this is the problem of educating your country, after 40 years probably over half the population have no concept of what things were like before the revolution, but see what the rest of the world is like, today and all this via Satellite TV.
If America had the smart people leading it, it would lift the blockade, flood the island with tourists and "he" would be gone before you could say Uncle Sam.
Well to sum up Cuba is not a budget destination, you can probably do it on a budget if you rough it and live with the locals, but it still will not be cheap, if you want something with value for money I would choose India or Turkey.
You will be stopped often, being offered Cigars, taxi, guide or asked for a handout. Probably the same as in other countries, but you do not see those leaders lecturing the rest of the world on how the capitalist world is collapsing, while his people want this money which is evil!
I can travel through USA, stay in better accommodation, have cheaper rental cars and better service than I can here in Cuba. If I want somewhere more exotic almost anywhere else in the world is easier to get to and is probably cheaper.
Is it safe? well last night a old German now living in Australia that is in a type of wheelchair was sitting in front of the hotel watching some kids play, a couple of youths asked him for some money for some beer, he felt he had to give them $2, then someone grabbed his bag with his money and camera, he came back to the hotel, rang the police, in a few moments there were 12 police there, the kid ran, they caught him, the old guy had to go to the police station for about four hours to give his statement etc, got some of his money back, but the camera was gone.
This is the fifth time he has been here since 1995 and he said each time it is getting worse, he will not return even if his health would let him.
I am often asked what country would you not return to, up to now there has not been a country, finally I have one, Cuba, I would not return until it was free.
I leave Cuba 18 days early on Monday, Airlines permitting!
It was interesting, they charge you $20 departure tax, as I paid it I wondered why they did not charge a arrival tax! I know this is normal these days to charge a tax, but usually you can see where they are spending it on the airport, it was not obvious in this case.
I was questioned quite closely as to where I was going when I left Cuba, and was I a resident of that country; I must have passed the test because they let me escape. There was a strong military present at the airport even to the stage of taking the boarding pass off you as you enter the plane, this was done by a soldier, a job usually reserved for a pretty hostess.