Street Life in Cuba.
by Morris Weintraub
Walking the Spanish colonial streets of Havana is a wondrous experience. Everyone is out. The streets are full and the shops are empty, because the vast majority of locals can’t afford anything but the bare necessities.
They stand in line, sometimes hours in advance, guarding against the chance that their food ration might run out. One pound of meat (almost certainly chicken) per person every two weeks. In the country, the raising and slaughtering of beef is a federal offense as result of a law established to ensure enough meat to sustain the restaurants that cater to the tourists. There is too much to tell about this fascinating Latin world that was shunned by the American government nearly 60 years ago.
Civil liberties as we know them don’t exist in Cuba. Castro and his brother Raul work hard to keep their people as uninformed as possible and pay the military and police well to ensure an obedient populous. Politics aside, I found it impossible not to love the Cuban people. I experienced almost no anti-American sentiment and found the people to be as open, gregarious and friendly as anywhere I’ve traveled.
They are a very giving people, even with so little to give. Of course, you will be bombarded day and night by people trying to sell you something or make a buck off you, but consider this: The $5 bottle of rum you could buy and share with ten thirsty Cubans costs one-third a city engineers’ MONTHLY salary. That’s right, an engineer makes $15 a month! An ex-physicist who waited on me explained that he quit his job as a college professor to serve tourists spaghetti because he made far more in tips than he did as a teacher. (Although it must be said that the Cuban educational system is fantastic.) And most people tip really shitty there…. because it’s all Europeans remember! It was my experience that the Cubans love Americans. First, because they say we are generous and tip well. Second, because we are American and “right or wrong” that still gives us street cred. And third, because they have only met a few of us! God help our reputation once Havana becomes the new Cancun. Get there now people. Get there now!
Lets see, what else…. classic American cars are everywhere and it is definitely seen as a status symbol to own one. (You need a special license and the government forbids you from selling it.) They love baseball and they play it incessantly…… without a ball! It’s no wonder they are so good. Had I used a broom handle as a bat and a plastic bottle cap as a ball, I’d have been better too! Other favorite street games include hand ball, dominoes and chess. The tobacco for their world-famous cigars is grown a few hours east of Havana, but most people don’t smoke because they can’t afford to. It seems like everyone in Cuba is a musician. Music is everywhere and although it can get a bit redundant (as most of the bands play the same songs for the tourists) they really are quite good. The Jazz scene in Havana is especially cool. Their national hero is Che. Castro is feared, not beloved. Although, it did seem that he is supported more heavily by the older generations (as many older people still respect him for kicking our American asses out and taking back the country). Housing, education, food and health care are free, but if a Cuban wants something above and beyond what the government provides it’s probably going to be more expensive than they can afford. I met a man whose eye glasses where broken and he couldn’t get them through his socialized health care program, so he’d been saving for two years to buy a new pair…. for $75! (However, his wife was recovering nicely after getting a FREE quadruple heart bypass surgery). It’s also worth saying that I found Cuba to be exceptionally safe and easy to travel. Finally, I’d like to give a shout out to my new friends in Santiago; Andres, Alex and George – who were great travel guides and better party partners.
These images were taken over a three-week period in January of 2010. Travel itinerary: Havana, Vinales, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba.
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