Saturday, 23 March 2013

La Habana

I was pretty depressed in the morning that my New Zealand Vodafone did not work in Cuba. There were things happening at home and I couldn't touch base at all. 

I set the alarm to wake me up at 7.30am as the guide was to show up at 9.30am to start the city walking tour. The alarm rang and I reset it to 8.00am as I was too tired from all that travelling. On the second ring at 8am, I forced myself to wake up regardless, afraid I will miss the walk. The guy from the night before, Leo, was no longer around and there was someone else by the name of Alexandra, who did not speak a word of English. So the translation problem started. He prepared breakfast for me, which consist of two buns, butter, honey, guava jam, coffee and a bowl of fruits. The fruits were not fresh and neither were the buns but they were not bad. The coffee was fantastic. Thick and hot, just the way I like it. With just a little bit of sugar and milk, it was the perfect liquid to wake your senses. Just as though that was not enough, he made scrambled eggs but was rather oily. I tried a little bit of the guava jam, but was not something I liked. Was a little runny and didn't look very appetising at all.

Cuban Coffee
The guide that was supposed to take me on the walking tour was supposed to turn up at 9.30 and it was almost 10 and no one came. I was getting a little worried and just when I was going to call Jorge, the guide came by. She told me that in Cuba always give another half an hour. So much for fixing a time.

So we finally left at 10 for the walk. I told her I'll do the whole day given that I will not be seeing much of Havana with Intrepid. After the end of the day, I'll regret that. The walk started well but as we went along, she talked so much so fast, I could hardly remember what she said but she was good and had a fantastic knowledge about Havana and Cuba. She was very good in interpreting all the local signs, although I'll never know if they were all true since everything was in Spanish. I took quite a lot of photographs but now I will not be able to put a photo to a place in Havana. That'll be a shame because Havana is such a beautiful city, at least the old Havana, or Old Habana as the locals call it. I will also later learn that Havana is also an expensive city - so much for my assumption yesterday that Cuba was inexpensive. Not sure if it is just Havana or all of Cuba. I guess I'll find out in a few days time. So instead of talking about the places I visited, I'll talk about my experience of the city.

The streets of old Havana reminds me of the alleys of Beijing or Hutongs. They all look alike and it is very easy to miss an alley and get lost. To make things worse, some have street names and some don't, so looking for an address is not a straight forward matter especially to a foreigner. Some of the alleys are cobble stoned while others are paved, and yet some others are being paved. There was one particular street that was paved in wood, like parquet flooring - only this was outdoors. This was apparently because the Spanish did not like the noise from the cobble stones passing by their main municipality building. The buildings on both sides of these alleyways are in the state of being reconstructed. Many of the buildings are in a terrible state of disrepair. Apparently, until the last decade many of the buildings were never maintained and so they were literally falling apart. These buildings were at least 300 to 400 years old. The casa I am staying here in Havana is one such building. The first three floors have been refurbished and turned into home stays while the roof, where the bar is situated, is still being refurbished.

We visited one of those buildings that has not been refurbished to see what it is like because ordinary Cubans still live in them. This one building we went to was shared by seven families and the condition was so bad, you will need to walk between cracks on the floor and rubbles that has fallen from the ceiling. The stairs also looked like they might give way. It kind of reminded me of how Christchurch looked like after the earthquake.

The family we visited was on the second floor and was occupying a small room of about twenty five square metres. There were four people living in that house. Although the kitchen was in the bedroom the cooking was done outside the house. The stove was located on the corridor and was not turned off. So, I asked why it was still left on, to which I was told that they didn't have to pay for it. At night, instead of turning on the lights, they leave the gas burner on to save on electricity. The electricity was not free. Each family pays about 70 Pesos a month for electricity, that's about NZ$0.70. Thankfully, none of the windows could be shut completely as they were all broken, or they could all die of gas inhalation - which they never heard of.

The father of the household was suffering from some sickness and had lots of pills lying around. I asked if medication was expensive. My guide told me that all medication for local Cubans were free. This is the socialist system. There are two types of pharmacy in Cuba. One, serves the ordinary people. This pharmacy requires a prescription from a doctor and medication was dispensed free. The other pharmacy did not require a prescription but you had to pay for it with convertibles. The one that was funded by the state dispensed medication made in Cuba and the one that charged, dispenses medication imported mostly from China and Russia. The latter caters mainly to foreigners and rich Cubans. Even hospitals are free for ordinary Cubans but foreigners have to pay. I was told that they were both run by the state and there was no such thing as private hospitals in Cuba. Despite being run by the state, they are apparently pretty good. They perform heart surgeries at a very high success rate. Many of the doctors are sent to other poorer South American countries when help is needed.

The education system in Cuba is free till you finish University. Many Cubans take advantage of it and study to become doctors and engineers. The education is apparently good but are all in Spanish. Unfortunately, the socialist system does not provide a good income. The state hires all of them into the system but because there are so many qualified doctors and engineers, they don't get paid very well. My guide told me that she earns more as a guide than a doctor practising medicine will in Cuba. How bizarre!

My guide told me there are three good things and there are three bad things about being a Cuban. The good were free education, free healthcare and a good welfare system. The bad things were breakfast, lunch and dinner which is hard to come by. Cows were not many in Cuba and when it was hard to provide milk for the people, Fidel declared cows as endangered and cannot be slaughtered so that ordinary Cubans have access to milk. So, today beef is out of reach to ordinary Cubans. My guide's son is 22 years old and apparently has never tasted beef in his life. No, there are no McDonald's in Cuba. The cow is so protected in Cuba that the penalty for killing a cow is as bad as killing a human being - death!

Long ago, Fidel Castro decided that in order for the country to be safe, there must be no crime. How right he was. But to make the country safe, he needed to confiscate all weapons. He did that but crime was still high. So he took the next step. He made punishment very harsh and the prison very bad. Capital punishment is still practiced in Cuba, not by hanging or lethal injection. These are too easy for criminals. The death penalty is by shooting. When he first introduced this, shooting was shown on TV so everyday Cubans could see what could potentially happen to them. He also made prison very bad. Most criminals who go to prison rarely come out alive unless the sentences are short. Even then, you only eat one meal a day and they are apparently filthy. Cells do not have toilets, so you do what you need to do, where you can and once every few days they get hosed. These were also publicised on TV in the early days. So you have to be really desperate or hard core to commit a crime in Cuba. But there was no reason to steal as food was readily available for free to everyone. And since housing was also free, there were no homeless people or delinquent teenagers. There are no racial tensions although you see all colours and religions in Cuba. 

All this resulted in a very low crime rate. You still get the odd petty theft, pickpockets and the odd con men but you don't get the kind of violent crime you get in other parts of the world. I think Fidel is a genius! Cuba never has any problems with the world, because the US ignores it and so the rest of the world ignores its draconian laws.

On the streets of Havana it is very easy to see old cars from the 30's to the 60's. Most of them are taxis. I asked how they still work as they all seem to run really well. She asked one driver to open up the bonnet and saw a 1950 Buick with a Toyota Diesel engine. Most cars don't have their original engines. Cuban mechanics are a genius when they try to fit one engine to another car. They had to be creative as spare parts are not easy to come by. Some of these cars are very well looked after but in order to make some extra money, they ferry locals as well as foreigners for a few Pesos or convertibles.

Until 2011 the Cuban economy was such that an ordinary Cuban could not buy or sell properties or cars. So, in order to be able to get from point A to point B, mechanics had to improvise with whatever they can get their hands on. This resulted in old American cars being made to run on whatever that was available to them at that time. Some of the newer looking taxis were only available to the population recently. Most are refurbished imports and could cost a lot more than what a similar new vehicle could cost overseas. Prior to 2011, Cubans were not allowed to buy or sell properties but they could trade houses. They were provided houses for free so did not own them and hence cannot sell them. So when a family downsized or children moved out, they could trade their bigger house for a smaller one and perhaps a car. That's how the economy chugged along, since most Cubans did not have the money to buy or sell anyway. In October 2010, Fidel Ramos (the current President, Castro's brother), opened up the economy ever so slightly and people were allowed to buy properties and also to start private enterprises. Even so, only a handful of people can afford to do so. A beachfront property currently fetches between CUC25,000 and CUC30,000 which is actually a steal anywhere else on earth when you come to think of it, but even then it's not something everyday Cubans can afford - at least not yet.

If you live like a local, cost of transportation which is heavily subsidised by the state is extremely cheap. Given their salaries being so low, cost of living has to be low to make ends meet. For foreigners it is the opposite as I soon found out my CUC280 I changed at the airport yesterday, was not going to get me far. The taxi that cost me CUC25 yesterday would have cost a local, less than CUC1 because they pay in Pesos and they pay the subsidised rate. We took the local bus from one end of town to the other and it was Peso 5 for the two of us. How you turn a profit in that, I wonder. The flip side of being cheap, the buses are not regular, and they are poorly maintained and extremely crowded. We had to wait for awhile before one came and it was packed to the brim. Most of the buses are used buses either bought from or donated by China and Russia.

Queues are formed at the bus stop and I saw two queues. I asked if they were for different busses, but they were not. One queue was for people who wanted to sit and the other queue was for people who wanted to stand. If you sat, you had to pay Peso 5 per person but if you chose to stand, you pay half of that. The queues are not a straight line but looked pretty chaotic but when a new person comes to join the queue, they asked who the last person was and just follow from that. When the bus arrived, they allowed the persons in front to board first. I thought that was pretty civilised. You paid the driver as you boarded but no receipts were given, so where does the money end up? To the state or the driver? People who can't board at the front door will still pay the driver and then go to the back door to board the bus. If you paid to sit and do not have a seat, do you ask for a refund? Or if you paid to stand and see a vacant seat, do you ignore it?

We took the bus to the main railway station to a look at the trains and the train yard where old steam locomotives were being refurbished. There were trains from the US, Europe and Russia, some dating back to 1900. They were incredible! We then went to the flee market which was not too far from the station. They had some of the most beautiful art work I had ever seen. I am not into art but these were just amazing. There is so much talent in Cuba but due to all the problems the world has with communism, it is hard for artists from Cuba to be discovered. I wanted to buy one but was afraid as it might get confiscated in the US when I return - didn't want to risk it. Here you'll also find souvenirs of all sorts. I wanted to get some tee shirts and a fridge magnet. Every single seller sold poor quality tee shirts for CUC10 each which is about US$10 each! Ridiculous! But that was socialism at work. In a market economy, you will sell at a price to beat the competition or at what the market wanted, but not here.

We then made our way to the ferry terminal to cross the bay to Casablanca. The guide wanted to confirm if the Hershey train will be running tomorrow. The crossing by ferry again was only Peso 5 for the two of us one way. The ferry was also pretty dilapidated. No holes on the ground but many on the walls where rust had taken over. Billowing black smoke from the diesel it was running on, the smell of fuel was strong inside the ferry. Luckily when it started moving, the fumes went away. No seats, so standing room only and I did not see a single life jacket. I was reluctant to ask as I think I knew the answer.

When we got to the other side, we were told that it was indeed running and the schedule said that there was one at 12.31pm. I liked the precision but I had a very strong feeling, it might be well after that. Later that evening, my guide left me at the casa and said she will be back tomorrow at 11am.

After buying the souvenirs, lunch and paying her for her services, I realised that I didn't have much convertibles left. I then decided to go look for the "Cadeca", the government money changer on my own. I asked the lady at the casa for directions. She could not speak a word of English and I could not speak a word of Spanish. So, with a few hand gestures and a map drawn on a piece of paper, I ventured out on my own. After a few turns, the map became confusing so I showed the name "Cadeca" to a policeman who pointed me to one street and then when it seemed like a wrong turn, I asked yet another policewoman who pointed me to another street. Eventually, I got to the money changer and changed all my Euros into convertibles. Outside the Cadeca, there was a guy selling pizza. So I bought two slices for dinner which cost me CUC2. I am sure it would have been a lot cheaper for a local and I was charged in convertibles because I was a foreigner. As I was walking back I passed a few street musicians that were really good. Good enough to cut a CD, I think.

Finding my way back was another challenge. I completely lost my way due to the many turnings and identical buildings. I was skeptical of asking just anyone for directions so asked a well dressed lady if she could help me get back to the address. She was extremely nice. She walked with me right to the front door and then I realised I was actually not that far off. After the door to the casa opened, I said thank you in Spanish (gracias) and she demanded CUC2 for taking me back. I quickly went up the stairs after saying thank you.

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