Havana, Cuba

Among the  confusing contradictions, power cuts, arbitrary pricing systems and fleets of fantastic old cars, Cuba, more than any other we've visited, is a country where the culture trumps all. Our travels in this fascinating country are perhaps best told as short stories:

Apartheid  ice-cream

The giant space age building that holds the flagship store of the state owned Coppelia icecream chain takes up an entire block in central Vedado. It is said that until recently, Fidel himself would dictate which ice cream flavours were to be sold each day. As we approached this dessert nirvana we were intercepted by a security guard. After ascertaining in English that we desired ice cream we were shunted off to a small kiosk with the other foreigners. This being our first Cuban purchase we were a little surprised when two rather merge chocolate ice-creams and a couple of bottles of water came to 6CUC. Further investigations later showed that Cuban nationals pay just 10 CUP (1 USD= 1CUC = 25CUP).  Capitalist ice cream aside, we were most disappointed not to be allowed to share our indulgence with local people.

The shouting corner

The Parque Central on the border of old and new Havana is a meeting place for locals to discuss a very important topic; baseball. Here, under the shade of the palm trees, mainly older Cuban men gather at all hours to discuss the sport. Wild gesticulations and shouting is the norm as they discuss the ins and outs of the regional teams. The favourite topic being Las Industriales (the better of the two havana teams), and their performance against the arch rivals Santiago de Cuba. To an outsider all of this is very confusing to witness, luckily as we were seated nearby, watching (having worked out the baseball connection through the wild swinging actions) the only lady to join in the melee stopped by to chat to us. In between selling cigars to local spectators, she cheerfully explained the whole affair, making sure we understood that she was an Industriales fan herself.

While we were in Viñales the finals were played and Pinar del Rio beat Matatsas. Discussing the merits of this was a good way for us to make friends when we needed a tour or transport booked.

How could we resist a pink 1950s convertible? Turns out the 5000% price difference between a 'tourist convertible' and an old taxi (same sort of cars) made it easier than you might think.

Taxis

Catching a taxi in Havana is not a straight forward undertaking. Sure, there is a large fleet of yellow and black government run cars, of varying decrepidness (the favourite being the USSR issued Ladas) but closer inspection reveals that almost every car has a little taxi sign stuck somewhere. Having taken a few of the 'official' taxis, and tired of the ubiquitous haggle down from the standard 5CUC starting quote, we decided to venture into the world of the local taxis. This involves standing on the side of a busy road and eyeing off potential rides. Almost all are fabulous Dodges, Chevys and Pontiacs from the 50s, some lovingly restored, other barely functioning. Once a suitable car is spotted (with room for two more passengers) we attempt to hail. Wether they stop or not is a different question. The drivers are often torn between knowing they can charge us double fare and the illegality of transporting tourists with other Cubans. Many though are happy to risk it ( police seem to turn a blind eye) and for the sum of 1-2CUCs (distance seems to be irrelevant) we happily squeeze in the back seat with a (invariably ample bottomed) local and enjoy the clunk and bumps of these great vehicles. Locals pay about 10CUP each.

Museum of the Revolution

We went to the Museo de la Revolucion one morning. This museum has a number of interesting artefacts and stories of the revolutionary era. Some highlights include the gold plate telephone presented to Batista for agreeing to a US communications company's request to hike local call prices, one of the radios used by the revolutionaries complete with vacuum tubes and volume control that goes all the way to 11 and blurry photos with brilliantly biased captions that met my expectations of a revolutionary museum. Some of the 'why is this here' items involved a spoon, formerly used by one of the revolutionaries but otherwise not of note, and a gift shop filled with overpriced trinkets after you have just finished hearing how they fought to kick all the capitalists off the island.

The big three: Camilo Cienfuegos, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.

Decadent foreigners and enterprising Cubans

There is an odd contradictory mix of socialism and capitalism in Cuba, assisted a great deal by the dual currencies. Cuban locals will do and say almost anything for CUCs. Indeed, the expectation that we as decadent foreigners should freely part with large sums of money at every turn is the one downside to visiting this fascinating country. One example being the miriad of excuses offered by waiters for why we will not enjoy the cheap ($3.50CUC) fixed menu option, we guess because it  could mean a diminished tip for them. Despite the obvious expectation that we will be spending twice their monthly income on dinner, our eternal stinginess always wins having worked out early on that the amount paid vs what you get rarely seems to match up (we tip a little more in these cases). Perhaps the most irritating aspect are the street touts. It is almost impossible to walk anywhere in Havana without being offered something. As a tall blonde, I have zero chance of blending in and so a leisurely stroll requires at least 20 'no gracias' to offers of taxis, hair braiding, cigars and one memorable incident, cocaine. It's a shame because it means all conversations with locals are started with our guard up and only a few end in the rewarding cultural exchanges that we enjoy. We have some perspective though, a typical government wage is 200-400 CUP ($8-16CUC) month and many important items, like phone credits and sunscreen can only be bought in CUC, so the desperate grab for CUCs is understandable.

A street in Havana in the fading afternoon light. Cocotaxi in the foreground, a motorcycle engine with room (optimistically) for 3 passengers.

A night at the theatre

Determined to experience some of the famed musical and dance culture we sought out a suitable outlet. Talking to a travel agent we were steered towards the tropicana. A flashy, bright and loud cabaret of much fame. Further investigation revealed the tourist only prices starting at $90 CUC, though we were assured this included a 1/4 bottle of rum. Being neither good tourists (too stingy) or good drinkers we sought an alternative. We were happy to find in the local paper ads for 'Amigas' the musical playing at the Karl Marx theatre.  Our initial excitement of the 25CUP ticket price was dashed when we were told that foreigners must pay in CUC. Cubans are paid really meager wages by the state and cheap cultural experiences are all part of the socialist regimes ideals, I guess that given we haven't paid into this system it makes sense to pay more. Still, paying 25 times more than the local people stung a bit, but this was still a good deal. The show itself was  highly polished and wonderfully performed. We were treated to all types of Cuban music and dancing and some amazing voices. Though the plot itself was completely lost on us! Plus we had one small triumph, being allowed to buy a programme for the local price of 2CUP(10c) and when the show was over we walked home along with everyone else because most people can't afford a car.