Thursday, May 19, 2016

Music and Cultural Misunderstanding in Cuba

A music group on the streets of Trinidad, Cuba
There are so many new things to learn when you visit a country for the first time. Many are subtle. Our first night in Havana we made some mistakes from simply being unfamiliar with local customs.

We were exhausted and overwhelmed from travel. Because the money exchanges were closed by the time we arrived,  we'd only changed a little bit of currency. Luckily Ubaldi, had a friend who could do the exchange under the table. His cousin owned our airbnb apartment and he'd picked us up at the airport.

We were coming from having drinks with some new friends we met on the plane from Cancun, a lesbian couple from New Zealand. One of them had a bad cough so we broke up early and Deborah and I headed off to find a light dinner.

We went upstairs to a budget restaurant with a terrace overlooking Obispo, the main thoroughfare, a pedestrian-only street in Havana Vieja.  As we ordered our meal, we noticed a huge band setting up to perform on a stage area. We were the only customers in the place. I thought, how sad it was that they have this four-person band with singers and everything for such a deserted restaurant. They began singing and playing. We smiled. They tried to engage us in their songs.

All Deb and I wanted to do was talk and debrief about the plane, some immigration issues, our apartment and our new friends. And, of course, look out from the terrace to the bustling street. It was amazing being there, so near yet so far in every other sense. The music was good, but it was more of an interruption in our present state. We were being polite and waiting for them to finish their set. We were also eating. Finally, after many songs, they began packing to leave.

The woman singer approached our table and asked for money. We gave them a little bit, but we didn't have much because we needed to buy water for the room and were planning to change money tomorrow. All we had were Mexican pesos, because we'd spent a week on Isla Mujeres and had heard it was cheaper to change pesos to Cuban currency than dollars. The singer was a bit pissed, but she and the group departed.

Later, we did figure out how the music scene works in Cuba. The musicians travel around to restaurants. This group must have seen us go in and followed us. Then, you have a choice point. You can either smile and welcome them, which means you are willing to pay for the music. Or politely shake your head no, which signals them to go elsewhere. The restaurants, for the most part, don't have resident bands or groups but the groups who are the biggest draw tend to play at the biggest, most popular places.

It took a few days for us to figure out this system. After we did, it became quite easy to enjoy or choose not to listen to the ubiquitous musicians who are continually looking for people to entertain. But it was a bit of a misunderstanding because of our unfamiliarity with customs that are second nature to Cubans and to international visitors who are familiar with the system.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Hasta la Victoria Siempre.

This phrase in Cuba means "until victory, always and symbolizes enduring commitment to the values of Che's revolution which celebrated its 58th anniversary this year.

So much unabashed joy,warm welcomes and friendship. Old classic cars and crumbling infrastructure. The common bond of socialism. The proliferation of poverty. Visiting was both a thrilling and devastating experience. The Cubans people are intense and passionate. They talk loudly and use their hands. A tremendous commonality exists in a diverse society where races mingle without the level of  tension that racism breeds here in the United States. There is so much music, art and theater that creativity is an integral weave in the social fabric. I am still processing many conflicting feelings after my visit.

Their economy uses two currencies, one for the paychecks of the people and one for luxury items like hotels and restaurants. The national currency of the people is worth about 1/24th the value of the upscale currency, which is roughly based on the value of the US dollar.

Tourism is huge in Cuba. Many Americans don't realize that the rest of the world has been visiting regularly for quite a while. Yet, with the US embargo, the tourism-reliant economy is not enough to keep the people's economy afloat. Folks earn very little. A medical doctor makes around the equivalent of thirty dollars a month. Their rents and mortgages are paid by the government and food allotments of lower quality merchandise are given to everyone daily but those who can afford better quality items, buy them.

Houses can now be bought and sold. Higher up the hillsides and often near the ocean are nicer homes. Following purchase, all living expenses are paid for by the government. People who rent rooms in their homes or turn part of their homes into restaurants for tourists can supplement meager wages. I didn't find a classless society, but it is one without homeless people that has a safety net for the very poor.

The people we talked to said there are forms to fill out for everything. We saw a store in Havana where large appliances and sound systems from companies like Panasonic were in boxes. The woman who ran our pension in Trinidad said is a very regimented and it takes a while to get permission to buy things. People are used to waiting. The lines for the bank and the money changing office wound around the block.

Restaurant food is very simple. Cuba doesn't have salsa or tortillas or even potato chips. Homemade crackers with a mayonnaise-garlic-mustard sauce is a typical appetizer. The sea food is good and relatively cheap. Portions are small, which is a very tropical climate works well. If you ask for salsa, forget it. This is not Mexico. But they will gladly bring you oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. So, if you like salads, you're in luck.

We didn't find any supermarkets or tiendas in which to buy instant coffee or milk. What they call markets are startlingly stark. There is a lot of alcohol of all kinds and Cuba produces at least four brands of beer, all very tasty and cheaper, for tourists, than water. The people don't pay for water. Cigarettes and soft-drinks proliferate at the bodegas and there are no anti-smoking laws anywhere except museums.

In spite of the intense heat, there is very little air conditioning. Fans proliferate. I did get more used to the heat as time went on but it is painful to walk outside in the April sun during the day.

The penalties for drugs or violent crime are harsh. Marijuana use can bring 35 years. They still believe that weed leads to hard drug addiction. The streets are safe, even for women at night.

Music is everywhere. Traveling musicians descend on restaurants and play in bars. Many are very good and the streets at night are alive with sound.

The internet is not generally available. At fancy hotels it is 30 dollars an hour. We learned we could buy cards from the phone company for the equivalent of three dollars that would connect us for an hour if we stood in the street in front of a big hotel that had Wi Fi.

There is no advertising and very little signage. Billboards are used to glorify Che and the other movers and shakers of the revolution. All things pertaining to revolutionary philosophy are called propaganda, a word that doesn't have a pejorative slant in Spanish.

Toilet paper is like currency. Bathrooms are not free. They cost between 10 and 50 cents a pop, er pee, and there is a person, usually a woman, out front handing out little pieces of toilet paper for your use. If you speak Spanish, you can usually talk bathroom attendants into not taking money in a restaurant where you are purchasing food. Or if, like me, you bring your own toilet paper and promise not to flush. The bathrooms are clean but only in the fanciest restaurants and hotels do the toilets have seats on them.

Gay male Cubans are visible but quiet about issues. We met one Afro-Cuban lesbian. I didn't see any transgender people. As an experiment I dressed butch one day and was taken for male as long as I didn't speak. We got harassed less as a straight couple. As two women we were pestered for taxis continually and everyone assumed we were lost and needed help.

Some people talked politics with us. Many were afraid to express themselves. The national bookstores had a few leftist works considered propaganda. The used bookstores were packed with a wide variety of non-fiction, poetry and novels. They have large public libraries as well.

All in all, Cuba was a mind-opening experience. It is a socialist country quite different from others like Sweden. It has positive and negative sides to the vision of equality. But the warmth of the Cuban people is undeniable. They seem to truly enjoy each other's company and to live life for so much more than material goods. I can also see why someone would want to leave and try life elsewhere. If and when they do, I imagine they feel very isolated and alienated.