Welcome to Havana – The Festival
I landed in Havana on the 24th of January at about 9:30 AM. Got a cab and got dropped off on Calle Escobar (iconic name), not far away from the Malecon. (the embankment) As soon I stepped off the taxi I had a mini-shock. It seemed I had gone back in time 70 years. I don’t think I had ever seen such poverty on a street before in an urban area. (and I had previously travelled to poor parts of Romania, Thailand and Vietnam). It looked a bit like what I would see on TV on the civil war in Syria: buildings on the brink of collapse, debris everywhere, highly damaged streets. It felt as the harsh reality of Cuba had taken a grip on me. But I was excited nevertheless. I felt my survival instincts had kicked in. I obviously stood out since I had just gotten out of a taxi and was carrying a suitcase.
One thing worth mentioning is that Central Havana is not a place where tourists really venture, especially at night, because it’s very poor and can be quite intimidating and sometimes unsafe. I walked around a bit until I found the place where I was supposed to stay. I was a bit confused since I thought it would have been a hostel but it was just a building that seemed abandoned and also on the brink of collapse.
Just as I was about to enter the building, a drunk elderly man greeted me: “My friend! Welcome to Cuba! Where you from? What you doing here? Need a taxi?” He screamed with excitement. Other locals were turning their heads as they were passing by. He was a very jolly, short chap with blonde hair and blue yes. (surprisingly) His skinned was a bit tanned and dirty hence he didn’t look very white but otherwise I bet he would have seemed European. I told him I was fine and that I had just found my host’s place and I walked in. The house owner greeted me and showed me to my room: a room without windows and damp walls that smelled funny. That seemed to be the norm in that neighbourhood anyway.
As I was walking along the Malecon I got approached by two guys that told me there was a “festival nearby”, that I should not miss. When I asked what kind of festival it was I was told that it was an underground festival where cigar factory workers sold cigars at a highly discounted price. Moreover, it was ending in a few hours so if I really wanted to get some good deals I should have gone straight away. My bullshit detector activated instantaneously but my curiosity radar did not let me not take the bait. So I followed one of the guys who took me to ‘the festival. As expected, he took me to someone’s house that was selling counterfeit cigars. I told them I’m not interested in buying and went on my way towards the old Havana historic centre.
On my way I met the blue eyed elderly man again and he started walking with me. “Why are you going to Old Havana?” He asked me. “Do you have a lot of money?” He continued. “No, I replied, I’m just going because I am hungry and curios.” ” Well if you don’t have a lot of money you shouldn’t eat there my friend. Meals there cost around 15 CUC (15 Dollars) Can you afford to pay 15 CUC for a meal? Madness! I will show you some really nice places where you can eat for 20 CUP – that’s less than a CUC “ (less than a dollar – 25 CUC = 1 CUP)
As I was walking with the elderly man, we got interrupted by a young black man, named Alex. “Just got to Havana right? I overheard you are looking for a place to eat. Come to my grandma’s house, it’s very cheap. Only 5 CUC and you get a full meal plus a drink!” Blue Eyes didn’t seem happy about the interruption: “Can’t you see I’m talking to the man? What’s your deal?”
“Come on Arturo, why are you ruining our business? Don’t be like that” said another guy that was standing on the other side of the street. Arturo mumbled something and walked away. The other guy winked at me and on a comforting tone said: “it’s ok, don’t worry about him, go with Alex.”
I followed Alex and eventually ended up on the fourth floor a building where this old woman seemed to be waiting for us. “You’re early”, said the elderly woman to the boy, “I’ll get the food ready soon.” “Well, she’s not really my grandma but I call her that,” he told me smiling. “I know, you’re just doing business” I replied. I do understand your situation. After all I come from an ex-communist country”
“Good to know people like you, brother. So then if you do understand do you want to buy some cigars as well? You know just by you simply eating here, in our neighbourhood and not out in restaurants or by simply buying cigars from us and not from shops you help the community? And not the government, who barely gives us anything.”
“Let’s eat and we’ll talk after” I replied. I had a nice conversation with Alex, who told me more about his neighbourhood and the daily life of a Cuban. He was only 20 but he had a kid and he was working and studying nursing. “So, are you married then, Alex?” I asked since he mentioned he had a child. “No, brother, I’m only 20, not ready for that. First, I need a house, a good job and then marriage.”
I gave 10 CUCs to the lady (to pay for my meal and Alex’s) and then I followed Alex to a house where I could buy some cigars. I followed him to a nearby building, where he knocked on the door loudly. No-one answered. “Right, he’s not in his office so we need to go find him.” I followed Alex another block and then we eventually found the man: he was just coming back to his office. We went back with him and he allowed me to step in his office. “You like Real Madrid? I’m a big fan.” “I can see” I replied as I looked around his “office” – a small room decorated with Real Madrid posters and flags. Even the furniture had Real Madrid covers. “These are the real deal,” Alex told me. “Cohibas, Castro’s favourites”. “Sure they are” I thought to myself and asked him how much he wanted for a box of 20 cigars.
” Well, since in shops you buy one for 10 CUC I will drop the price down to 5 so you only have to pay me 100 CUC (100 Dollars) for 20. Great Price” “100 Dollars?” I asked laughing. “Listen I will get the box, pay you 40 dollars and give you one Cojiba as well. What do you say, does it sound fair” “No, you are asking for too much brother, this is theft!” he replied on an appalled theft. I burst out laughing and told him it was the only money I could spare and that he could either take it or leave it, without any hard feelings. “We have a deal brother”, Alex replied and continued: “And although they’re not the best quality, they are very good.” I thought to myself I had gotten myself a pretty good deal but to be honest those counterfeit cigars were not probably worth more than about a dollar each. However, they proved to be quite useful later that night.
Lastly, I asked Alex to find me cab as I had to meet someone in Vedado. The guy I was about to meet, Jorge, was a young economics student whom I’d booked on AirBnb as an economic guide. For 25 pounds he offered to take me around some local parts of Havana and teach me more about the economics of the town. He was a hustler as well, but a different type. As opposed to Alex, who hustled on the streets, trying to get tourists to buy fake cigars or eat at illegal Palladores (private restaurants), Jorge, did it online, on AirBnb where he advertised his services. However, as he told me later that day, in order to be able to hustle online as he did, you needed a special permit from the government, which not everyone could get as easily, and which also came at a price. The time I spent with Jorge was very insightful as he taught me more about how the locals managed to survive on so little on a day by day basis. He explained that many Cubans do illegal business in order to survive and took me on a famous street, called the black-market street. There all you could see were papers stuck on walls: papers that advertised products from basic ones such as toilet paper, to diapers or milk to software, movies, laptops etc. “To be honest, in Cuba you can find anything on the black market, but you need to have the money to pay it” Jorge explained. Most of these products are either smuggled across the border or brought by more privileged Cubans who can travel in and out of the country at ease and are sold at higher prices.
There was no such thing as 3G , 4G or widely accessible wi-fi. Wii-fi is only available in some parks or big hotels and you need a special internet card in order to access it. This internet card is basically a scratch card you scratch to get a username and password and then you can get up to one hour of internet usage for about 1-3 dollars. (price ranged) You can get it a lot cheaper from an official internet post office (where there are massive queues – but tourists get priority) The only downside of getting an official card is that you need to provide all your passport data to the officials so they can monitor your browsing history. The option I opted for was getting illegal cards from hustlers, which was really easy to obtain. All you had to do is go to a park and look around. Sometimes you would spot them but most of the times they would come to you and offer. Usual price would be 1 dollar for a 30 mins card.
My next question to Jorge was – “Does the police know about all this black market?” “Of course they do” and they are part of it as well. As long as you are in good relations with them, for example if you comply with their requirements (bribes or favors) they will let you get away with it. If not, they won’t. This is how the system work, this is how we made it work.” Jorge replied.
We ended the ‘tour’ at Jorge’s girlfriend’s grand mother (who was 96) where we had some rum, some of my counterfeit cigars and a very interesting conversation about Cuba’s history from before Castro until the present. Her house reminded me a lot of the old Romania I grew up in: a very old, dusted stove, Jesus’s picture on the wall, handcrafted cotton doilies on desks and tables. “Senora, how would you describe Cuba to an outsider like myself so I can get a better picture of it?” I asked the old lady. She smiled, and poured me some rum and coke in a glass. “What would you call this mixture, Cato?” she asked me as she poured herself a glass as well. “Cuba Libre” I replied. The answer she gave me sums up perfectly the reason Cuba became a Hustler’s paradise: “See, that’s the difference between you and I. We (the Cubans) would call it a “Mentirita” (little lie). Cuba was never free. We were freed from the Americans but enslaved by Castro and his men. We never got our promised freedom. The society you see today is the result of our lack of freedom”
Yet, they do make it work. Raul Castro is finally stepping down as president in April and a new government will probably come to form in a couple of years’ time (after his passing away as until then he will still hold power to a certain extent) Most Cubans I interacted with are not very optimistic about the future of the country nor are they proud of their past. However, they are proud of their resilience and their way to carry on and make the most out of the present by any means necessary. In order to be happy it is not the circumstances that matter, but rather our attitude towards them: how we react to our circumstances and how we deal with our limitations. Havana, The Havana Hustlers Club has exemplified this for me.
Because of pretty much everyone hustling in Havana, tourists are either confined to third hotel premises or the Havana Vieja/some parts of Vedado, where pretty much everything is built for tourists. Apart from local employees or musicians, I hardly saw any Cubans in restaurants because most of them could not afford the prices. For example, in the Old Havana you can end up paying up to 20 dollars for a meal and then cocktails start at about 6-7 dollars. When the national average salary of a full-time employed Cuban is around 25 dollars a month (and in some regions it can go a lot lower) it came as no surprise to me. However, you do see a lot of locals out in parks, on the streets or in restaurants/clubs in other parts of Havana (Vedado, La Rampa). Most of the locals you see on the streets are hustlers, just like Alex and Jorge. Some of them might try to sell you internet cards, cigars, some recommend you a restaurant/club in exchange for a price or some just ask you for some money. Others might be genuinely curious about where you are from and what you are doing in Cuba. However, because of the former, many tourists, especially the ones that stand out (non-Spanish speakers, very white, blue eyes, blonde hair) are very defensive and hardly trust anyone. For example I was chatting in front of a hotel with someone and asked a nearby french tourist if he could take a picture of us with my phone. Surprisingly, he first ignored me. As I thought he might have not heard me I asked again, and his reply was ‘No, I can’t take a picture of you, I’m busy.’ This never happened to me before, in any of the other 19 countries I’ve previously been to. It still bothered and still bothers me but I do completely understand why he was reluctant to respond when approached by a stranger on the street, even if the request was a very simple one.
As there have been several complains about these hustlers along the years, the police will now actually take away any local that seems to ‘bother’ a tourist. And ‘bother’ can be a very subjective notion. Because of this, a lot of locals avoid talking at all, especially to non-Spanish speaking tourists, out of concern of being taken away by the police. I’ve seen this and experienced it first-hand but I’ll further expand on it in the next blog post.
So basically, in this hustlers club you get 4 types of people: The Cuban hustler that will approach tourists, The tourists that will be very defensive and sceptical of anyone approaching them, The police officer that will take away any local that seems to be bothering tourists (even though he might not be bothersome), The genuinely curious local who will either be mistaken for a hustler by tourists or the police and the naive tourist that will interact with everyone. Obviously, the latter category is the scarcest of them all, and obviously the one I fit in.
Since I am the naive tourist that would rather believe the best in people and keep on getting disappointed than actually giving up on them I decided that instead of trying to explore Havana with fellow tourists I would try to infiltrate the Hustlers Club. This way I would get a better picture of how these locals get by on a day-to day basis but also how they have a good time at night. As expected, I ended up in the right places with the wrong people. More of this in my next blog post, Part 2. Until then, enjoy this classic by Orishas.