The Black Box

Cuba has been making advances over the past few years with free public access to digital television. I recall several years ago now when they first began selling the digital tv decoders in Cuban stores, swarms of locals rushed to the local TRD (Tiendas de Recaudacion de Divisa, where they charge in CUC for all merchandise) to get theirs before the stock ran out. I can’t blame them. With no legal cable television for the population, the local options are limited. Sure, there are still illegal shared satellite connections around and there’s the bootlegged “paquete” with all kinds of weekly digital entertainment for a fraction of what it costs Netflix users. But for $44.95 if there’s an option out there to get access to local/international news, movies, soap operas, and a host of other locally-offered programming for no monthly fee, with the option to pause it and view it in (hold your breath) High Definition, why wouldn’t you jump on that bandwagon?
We have always had pretty bad reception on 3 of the 4 channels we received at home, despite trying a multitude of different antennas and positions. Having largely turned into workaholics of late, only being able to watch Buenos Dias (the morning news magazine) and Multivision for an hour’s worth of entertainment after work was not really a big issue for us. But friends & family kept planting the bug in our ear about the improved reception and features of the digital decoder box so we figured that after several years on that market, what the heck. While running errands a couple of Saturdays ago we decided to drop in to the mini shopping center at 5ta & 42 in Havana. Lo and behold, they had the cajitas in stock; several other places we’d asked over the previous weeks didn’t. But there was a lineup. And no air conditioning. In August. My husband & I looked at each other and shrugged. Both of us know the rule: if it’s in stock and not astronomically priced and you need it, buy it and don’t wait until later. You never know if they will be in stock when you return. Alright, might as well do it, we’re committing to the lineup. ?El ultimo? we asked. ?Y detras de quien vas? Because you don’t want to get caught screwing up the lineup. And then we settled in for a long wait. The lineup itself was my entertainment so you get to hear about it (as it’s much more exciting than work these days).

Being workaholics and living in Cuba where there’s always something we need/can’t find, we took turns holding our place in the lineup while the other would check out the adjacent mini supermarket, hardware store, or housewares to see if we could cross anything else off our list and make the best use of our time. They guy who marked his place behind us struck up a conversation with me, asking if the box had HD capability. I told him yes, but in order to view television in high definition you first have to have a high definition television, and then the programming has to be recorded in high definition. If all those requisites are met, then in my experience watching tv in high definition compared to what we’ve had until now is a huge difference. You can see every flaw and detail in an actor’s complexion if your screen is big enough. He wasn’t sure if his mother in law (who he was buying the box for) had an HD tv, but there was no way he was leaving the line. Another dude came into the store who had a lot of information to share about the decoders. He targeted the same guy in the line behind me and started telling him the white box was better than the black box, and all kinds of other information before I realized he was a re-seller trying to recruit customers. My husband returned and I told him if somebody tried to do that in Canada they’d be escorted off the premises. In Cuba, most of the people (and the guy behind me who had also caught on by then) just tried to ignore him. He lost any potential fish he might have had the hook for his unit, but he told everyone in the line (in a typically loud Cuban voice) that he was an electronico, an electronics specialist, and his box was the best box, why were they wasting all that time in the lineup, blah blah blah. So then, still having no bites, he left. People wait in the lineup because they get the store guarantee (which is a heck of a lot more complicated than an exchange at Walmart, I can tell you that, but it’s something).

More people came into the store. “El ultimo?” they asked, marking their place in line, and then “Pa’ que es la cola?” because if there’s a line there must be something worth buying, right? In walks a pretty young Cuban woman and she approaches me asking what the line’s for. Well, it’s either the automatic washing machines or the decoder. That’s what people are after today. She asks if they’re on sale. No, $44.95 is the regular price. “What are all the reduced price tickets for?” she asks. “Merma”, I answered. Stock that’s either broken or so freaking out of date that the Cuban retailers have to reduce the price to see if they can move it off their shelves. She’s looking for a rice cooker though. So, being a foxy Cuban, she approaches one of the male store attendants who looks her up from head to toe (front & back) and tells her she doesn’t need to wait in the line for that, go see the third counter attendant (by that time lunch was over, so all 3 were back behind the counter). She waited about 10 minutes while he was attending to another customer, only to be told when it was her “turn” that the rice cookers were defective. Merma. See? I told you so, but nobody wants to believe the blue eyed, blonde haired foreigner as you figure she doesn’t know what a CDR or a libreta is, right?!

My husband is back with something from the hardware store and we’ve moved up considerably in the lineup. The couple in front of us is pointing to a dvd player in the merma section and the store attendant kindly tells them that although it’s his job to sell merchandise, he wouldn’t recommend investing their hard-earned money into a technology that’s outdated and probably won’t even read all the codecs that are out there nowadays. Being from Remanga la Tuerca (Cuban for Timbuctu), they insisted they needed a DVD. The poor souls, I thought, they probably don’t realize that if you get the paquete on a flash drive you can just watch that on the (cheaper) decoder. But let the salesperson do his job, it’s not the customer’s job to interfere. Not being able to convince them otherwise, he finally told them that if they had to have a DVD, to go to La Puntilla (another department store) where they had more modern versions available that might read more codecs than the model at 5ta & 42. So off they went, having waited 1.5 hours in the rotten lineup instead of first asking the question. Finally, it was our turn and I told my husband I was buying 4 units. “4 UNITS?!?!” he retorted. “You’re darned right, 4 units”. If we have 4 tv’s and I’ve waited this long you can be sure that I’m not doing this again. I smiled at the clerk and told him 4 units, 2 people buying them, and he had to agree to that, so the paperwork began. They have 3 clerks working just on the task of selling the boxes as one person takes it out of the box to get all the serial #s and plug it in to a power source to prove it’s working before you take it from the store. Another accepts your money. And a third fills out the store guarantee along with your identity card so if it blows up before the 3 months expire, at least you might have a chance of getting it fixed or replaced. This is not the Walmart mentality, remember, where time is money. As we’re working on that, another couple walks into the store and the woman is excited that there are decoders in stock. But it seems to me that her husband a) doesn’t want to wait in the line or b) spend the money on the box because he’s poo-pooing everything she says. Oh yeah? But they’re the black box and everyone knows the WHITE one is the best. The store clerk says, no, these Konka ones are actually the latest technology. They’re the same as the white ones, just a different color. Oh yeah? But it doesn’t have Alta Definicion he tells his wife. She asks me, “Tiene alta definicion?”. Mmm, hmmm. See the HDMI cable? Her husband retorts: “Sure, but does it have HDMI 1 and 2?” I didn’t bother answering that as by that time I was onto his game. He wasn’t buying it, wasn’t doing the lineup, either that or he was just a complete imbecile and that’s OK too.

On our way home I was telling my husband a few stories about the line and he told me that in Cuba people don’t know that HD = Alta Definition because it’s an English term. Yeah, I know. I should be more understanding right? Sometimes these macho men can be a little infuriating. And I know too that many have never experienced high definition tv or movies before, heck I’ve only seen it while visiting family & friends in Canada. But it is pretty amazing. So back at home once we got everything put away, the dog fed, and supper heated I was stoked to connect up our box and see if this little black box was going to really make a difference in our Saturday night movie viewing pleasure. But my husband wanted to eat first. So I plugged in everything except the HDMI cable. I didn’t see a plug for that on the side of the tv (which, as in most Cuban households, is placed not at eye level while you’re sitting, but higher up on the wall). Momentarily confused and recalling something about having previously hooked up my laptop to the tv with a monitor cable, I asked my husband if our tv had HD. “CLARO” he retorted, as if I were born yesterday. So I patiently waited for him to finish his dinner and then (being taller than me) he deftly hooked the HDMI cable up to the back of the tv. He sits down on the bed and takes possession of the 2 remote controls and then pauses for a moment to say, “But what I don’t remember is if this tv has High Definition”. OMG!!!!!! After our conversation in the car, I couldn’t believe he actually said that. I’m not sure if he was pulling my leg, or if he really did clue out for a second. But the little thing works like a charm. We now even get Cubavision International. Radio Stations. Can pause/record our tv programs and everything. Pretty luxe compared to 1 clear channel and 3 fuzzy ones.

So what are we watching? The latest and most talked-about show on Cuban tv this season is a Cuban singing talent show called Sonando en Cuba. They have 3 judges who are giants on the Cuban salsa scene: Paulito FG, Haila and Mayito (formerly of los Van Van). There’s a great amount of talent on the show, but way too much talk. And for some reason I find it particularly annoying that a show that’s obviously conceived to promote Cuban culture has all of the contestants calling their mentors (the three aforementioned artists are each assigned different talents to train) their “Coach”. Like a knock-off version (and poor relative of) The Voice. Come ON already! And then I saw Haila on another show the other night where, after she admits she’s on a diet as he no longer boasts a svelte figure, she states that there are two things in life she loves: the kitchen and shoes. Haila is a self-proclaimed Cuban Diva who actually got a sign made for her car that said Diva. Who does that?! A friend who’s been on tour with another famous Cuban orchestra in Europe was once in the same hotel as her and told me a story about her shoe fetish. Always wanting to give her beloved public the impression that she’s wildly successful economically, she had been bragging in the hotel elevator about how much money she’d just spent on a pair of jeans. My friend, who earns a much more modest income as a musician touring with someone else’s orchestra (and possibly could make even more money being an impersonator or a comedian), says that he later spied her at a discount store not only shopping for shoes, but diving into the discount box after them. I’m not sure what’s more entertaining in the end, watching Cuban tv or listening to Cubans tell stories. I’m strongly inclined to say the latter, however.

Last weekend we had to drive my brother to Varadero for a flight. On the way back I asked my husband to stop at the TRD in Santa Cruz. Being a smaller town, they often have stock that other stores don’t. Are you guessing where I’m going with this? Yup, you’re right. 3 employees in the store. No customers. As we walked in the man was holding a newly-arrived black Konka box in his hand and all 3 workers were wondering about it. OMG!!! I just waited 1.5 hours in Havana last weekend to buy that very same unit!!! Apparently they’re bringing in 1000 units a time into 5ta & 42 from the warehouse, and they can’t keep them on the shelves. No kidding, they said. Is it any good? Marvellous. What a difference. That’s the way life goes here. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

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Summer Heat, Music & Tramites in Cuba: My Canadian Perspective

If I had my way, I’d spend the entire summer in my home province of Prince Edward Island, Canada. This Cuban heat is insufferable! But due to an unusual set of circumstances entirely beyond my control, that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. So I usually limit myself to a month or a little more of life in the developed world every spring/early summer, surrounded by family and my oldest friends. This year’s highlights were booting around Charlottetown on a Toba electric bike (fun, fast, and affordable), hanging with and catching up with my oldest girlfriends (and especially my hula-hooping/kite-flying bff), Canada Day escapades on her daughters’ electric scooters that we “borrowed” including a perch at the Grand Holman penthouse suite to view the fireworks, and being invited into the delivery room to see my sister give birth to her second daughter. Not having procreated myself, my girlfriends all urged me to accept her invitation, conditional on my not planning on actually ever going through that experience myself. It was worth it, very amazing indeed. The lowlights were watching my parents age before my eyes while my siblings and I struggle with issues of how to manage the next stage of their lives while providing them with all the independence and dignity they deserve. That part makes me tear up a little just thinking about it, maybe because I don’t live or deal with their issues on a daily basis which, admittedly, can be frustrating. Perhaps it’s because I’ve lived in Cuba for so long that I’ve resolved that we should not resort to moving either of them into a care facility until the situation is unmanageable. But I almost went over the edge when my sister suggested a nursing home might be the best thing for my mother. My Cuban sister in law was the one that helped me deal with that blow, also agreeing that between all of us we’ll find a way to manage things for as long as we can. Between the four siblings and our families, and thanks in no small part to my sister, we’ve managed so far but two of us, including my brother and his family who live beside my father in PEI, spend the entire winter in Cuba. We’ve been lucky enough to be able to acquire a property facing our house here in Havana which we’ve been plugging away at turning into the “Old Folks Home” where we hope to be able to provide our elderly family members with a supervised place to stay close to their children, independent to a large extent, but with a support network nearby. That construction project and another one in Old Havana destined for a cooperative my husband has proposed, have been occupying a lot of our time and most of our personal resources over the last year. But more on those in a future post.

Being tied up financially and time-wise, we don’t have a lot going on in our social schedule these days. But we have managed to take in a few memorable activities nonetheless. One was a day trip to visit friends who rent a house with a pool every summer for their family mountain vacation in Soroa. When we got there our host took one look at me and told me “No te hagas la extranjera” (Don’t play the foreigner). Yes, it’s been that long that they even want to strip that away from me. We ended up having to go back a couple of days later with the trailer in tow to rescue a friend’s motorcycle that broke down on his return in La Moka. That ended up being a full-day adventure in itself with a broken wheel bearing in my husband’s car. Light on tools for once in his life, we ended up being incredibly fortunate when we pulled over close to some Pinareños who were prepared for just about anything. And who said that Pinareños were fools?! Several couples in 2 cars and an old truck had intended to spend the day at leisure in Las Terrazas but they arrived late and the visitor capacity was already full, so they just camped out roadside, opened up their cooler, turned up the music and fixed a spread of roast pork and tamales right out of the trunk of their ´57 Chev in the middle of nowhere. Luckily it was in the shade. The inner part of the bearing was stuck on the axle and after much tooling around and more than 2 hours, and several trips by myself and the other girl in our car to ask for one tool or another while my husband and his friend tried every experiment they could think of to loosen the inner part of the bearing, the Pinareño men finally wrenched themselves away from their girlfriends and hammered the old bearing to pieces so we could install the new one and get back on the road. Thank heavens for those resourceful Cubans. They had more tools in the back of their truck than most hardware stores stock in Cuba.

Since we live outside of town we don´t often take in evening cultural performances, but we have indulged a few times this summer. My favorite was visiting the Fabrica de Arte Cubano (F.A.C.) the night William Vivanco was playing. We arrived on a Saturday just before 8 pm when they open and checked out the various exhibitions of architecture, fashion, and visual art on 2 levels, snacked on octopus, and sipped iced tea while we chatted with friends on the upstairs deck. X Alfonso’s mom was even working helping to set up the upstairs bar when we arrived. She and her husband, from the Cuban group Synthesis, are probably considered among Cuba’s cultural royalty, but as with most Cuban personalities, they take all of that in stride. It’s funny how relatively respectful Cubans are of some of their best-known personalities compared to how celebrities outside of Cuba are often bombarded in public spaces. We stayed long enough to catch just a few songs by one of my favorite Cuban troubadors downstairs before we skipped out to get home at a decent hour. Although it’s open until 4 a.m., we left at around 11:30 and by then the lineup already extended around the corner. This is one fabulous space for adults of various ages.

Less culturally fulfilling for me, but perhaps more amusing in a sense was our first-ever visit to the Maxim Rock theater. A Cuban rock group associated with a motorcycle club my husband is in recently auditioned and were approved by the commission, and was making their professional debut. We sat with a photographer friend of ours who’s also in the club. While I love rock & roll, listening to most Cubans singing it with a Spanish accent and often bad pronunciation is just not my cup of tea. We are da champions my frens. You know. Our friends had (for the first time ever) invited another group to open for them. And the lead singer was actually pretty impressive. Not only because he didn’t massacre the lyrics for me, but because he was also a one-armed guitar player. I’ve never seen anything like that before. His left arm was amputated below the elbow and he had a strap-on pick to strum with. The female backup singers had decent voices, but their English pronunciation was driving me up the wall, so I headed out for a bathroom break before my shoulders adhered to my ears as I listened to them killing Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n Roll”. The Cubans don’t know the difference and seemed to love it, so why ruin it for my husband. Grin & bear it. On the way back in I almost got whipped in the face by one of the dreadlock headbangers. His dreads reached his knees and he was swinging them around in a circle (too close to the door) as I awaited my chance to skip by him. I felt like I was on Frogger waiting for the right moment to step between the buses and cars before getting run over. It wasn’t even a heavy song. But Cuban rock & roll lovers are over the top when it comes to their preferred genre. I wanted to take a picture of all the long-haired people in front of the stage as their locks rose into the air along with the beat, but as soon as I stepped cautiously onto my plastic chair with my camera to get an elevated view, I was promptly extended a hand by the gracious security staff, caught breaking the no standing on the chairs rule. Darn! So I just kept ogling the costumes and funny dancers. Skinny jeans with an oversized belt buckle tucked into cowboy boots on a man. Just Don’t Do It. Guys overindulging in whisky dancing all by themselves like no one was watching in the middle of the room. Me thinking that this is a time warp, but even in the ‘80s when this music was popular people in Canada didn’t dress with that much leather, much less in the year 2014. And our dear photographer friend turned out to be a regular rock & roll encyclopedia. While in high school, I was the only girl in a rock band and at the time I thought those guys (all older than me) knew all kinds of rock history, but they pale in comparison to Jorge the Rock Dictionary. The bass player of a group I used to dabble with here once told me that since when he was growing up they didn’t play rock & roll on the radio in Cuba the only time they could listen to it would be on certain radio frequencies when weather would carry the transmissions from southern Florida to Cuba. As Jorge was rattling off facts to us about different musicians and groups, I was thinking to myself that being deprived of rock & roll at some point in their youth probably only served to fuel his passion. You always want what you don’t have. And I’m glad you’re sitting beside my husband, not me, because I’m trying to take in these videos I haven’t seen since the days of the Canadian show Video Hits.

How’s the weather this summer? Freaking hot. 30 degrees before the sun comes up practically. And when it rains, it pours. Some sections of town quickly flood due to clogged drains. I purchased a filter for collecting rainwater at our house for the garden (little Ms. Ecological me) but we still haven’t gotten around to finding the right materials to custom-build the gutters since no store here sells pre-fabricated gutters. But I am committed to completing that project before the next rainy season rolls around. I’m really looking forward to the cooler fall weather. We generally avoid the beach in the peak part of the Cuban summer. Too many people, too much noise, too much rum. But at least there’s some wind today which makes life a bit more bearable. And I am completely aware and ever-thankful for a/c in our bedroom and main vehicle. Last year we purchased an a/c unit for our main living area but only rarely turn it on for a short while in the morning to refresh the temperature in the house if it’s especially stuffy, then turn on the fans, open all windows and let the breeze blow through. We’re hoping to take at least 4 or 5 days off in September to get away and explore a bit. There are some great new boutique properties that have opened in Camaguey which I’m eager to see with my own eyes, and checking out a few hostels and restaurants in Cienfuegos is also on my list of things to do. Diving will definitely be tossed in there – my Cuban husband has his navigation authorization all signed/stamped by the Cuban Coast Guard so we’re ready to take the plunge back into the underwater world.

One of the best things that happened to me here all summer so far was the speed of re-registering a vehicle. I normally wake up in the wee hours of the morning to go get in the lineup of cars at motor vehicles when the registration is set to expire each August. Last year I sat for hours with a friend who was on his fourth visit/attempt, and he finally gave up around noon when the system still hadn’t come up. This year when I stopped in mid-morning to verify the amount of stamps I’d require for the renewal they asked why I didn’t just come back before 1 pm and get it over with the same day. Excited at that prospect, I immediately hot-tailed it to the nearest bank to buy the stamps. When I got there I realized it wasn’t my day. The old age pensioners were collecting that day, so the single lineup to get into the bank was at least 2 hours long by my estimation. I marked my place in the line anyway, but decided to check out another branch. The branch by the Tropical had 2 lineups, one for credit applications and another for the counter. I figured the lineup for the counter there would be just about 1 hour, so I marked my place in the line, found out who was in front of the lady before me, called my husband and told him to bring in the work car that I had to have registered since as long as it was there before 1 pm they’d promised same-day service. And then I hauled my trusty abanico (fan) out of my purse and pulled up some shade. The conversation in the lineup focused a lot on complaints about how they talk about all the problems in Cuba on local tv, but nobody gets around to solving them. When the bank staff member assigned to crowd control at the door stepped out for a few minutes to buy snacks, more than a few people snuck in to try their luck at sweetening up somebody in side to make the line shorter. That incenses sweating and elderly Cubans to no end. When you are finally lucky enough to get your foot in the door, it’s to take one of the 20 seats and wait your turn. But at least there’s air conditioning in there. People inside are even smiling and joking around. Until the lady at the door tells all the pensioners in there that she hoped they’d read the sign on the door indicating that they were only doling out pensions of up to 200 Cuban pesos that day. Anyone with a pension larger than that was assigned a different day to collect their money. Uproar by the elderly. What?!?! All this time waiting and NOW you tell us?!?! One man walked out, but came back a few minutes later when he realized he’s misunderstood what she said. None of them had a pension in excess of 200 Cuban pesos, so they were all good to go. One lady with amputated legs was carried to a waiting car (driven presumably a family member) to return home. My husband used to have an authorization to charge his grandmother’s pension on her behalf, but not all of the elderly have/trust someone to do that for them. I don’t know why they don’t just do it by direct deposit, but that might be too easy. In Cuba they like their bureaucracy. There was a big kerfuffle when one grandmother who was surely over 90 fainted outside in the lineup. Everyone inside started yelling for the woman who guarded the door to unlock it, the bank manager came out to tell everyone to quiet down while they seated the abuela inside in the a/c to wait her turn, but in more comfortable conditions. It was a bit of a circus. After 90 minutes I had my $40 in stamps and made a beeline back to the car registry office where I emerged an hour later, good to go for yet another year. This year it took longer to buy the stamps than to get the car’s specs printed by the authorities, have its serial #s and lights inspected, photos of the motor/plates taken, paperwork signed, stamped & verified in the system, and registration issued. It appears that most vehicle owners have already had the new white license plates issued and for the first time ever this tramite was super easy. There are some things to give thanks for, and this is one of them. That’s how it should work every year. But I’m glad that for once in two decades I had a positive experience registering a vehicle here. I even took a picture of the empty waiting room because I’ve never, ever seen it like that before.

Enough rambling for today though. Over and out probably until after we get to actually take a few days of well-earned vacation for ourselves.

My Latest Pet

Lucky2“Lucky” walked into my life a few months back, skittish with sad-looking eyes and dermatitis. We don’t know if he was abandoned by his owners or just got lost, but after a month of us and our closest neighbors all tossing this sickly mutt of a dog food scraps every day (which only made him want to stay around longer), I finally caved in and decided to take him in. I started by shampooing him down which didn’t seem to bother him a bit. On the contrary, I think he loved the attention. That went well, so I picked him clean of fleas and set him out in the sun to dry. My neighbor recommended a very reasonable and competent local veterinarian where we took him for an injection and some blue anti-flea liquid she massaged into his neck. She suggested some anti-itch tablets and we took him down into Guanabo for a total of 3 shots over 3 weeks. He got to take rides in the car which he wasn’t so sure about, but he was very cooperative with the shots and barely even flinched. He also basked in the daily brushing in the opposite direction of his hair growth, which lifted out all his dry flaky skin. For a total cost of under $10 and in just a few weeks of treatment his hair had all grown back in and he was a shiny new boy feeling much more confident in himself.

I call him Lucky because he’s darned lucky we took him in when I definitely wasn’t looking for or wanting the duties a dog requires. We had a dog when we first married, a Belgian Shepherd. Who died of “moquillo”. That dog loved my husband but was a little crazy and would repeatedly throw itself against the metal door in the hallway when we’d leave in the morning, so much did he not like being left alone. After a couple of weeks of treating it with shots and “sueros” the neighborhood veterinarian concluded that the dog was past the point of no return, that even if he recovered he would have suffered irreparable neurological damage and it was time to put him down. I still remember the poor thing looking at us as it died, trying to hang on and the vet telling us to move out of his vision so he would just go to sleep. And then having to figure out where to get rid of the corpse. When you live in the city and back then we were traveling mostly by motorcycle. Only more recently have I discovered an improvised pet cemetery on the outskirts of Alamar, but I’m sure disposal of dead pet is an issue for many city dwellers.

We didn’t have a dog for awhile after that but my husband’s elderly grandmother had a small white dog called Canela. She loved that dog, and it was her constant companion. While I was visiting family in Canada my husband once took Canela home with him to stay at our house for a couple of days for one reason or another. Canela also hated to be left home alone during the day; she howled and howled all day long. Until she figured out how to escape and we never saw her again. We felt so bad for his grandmother’s loss that one day when we were at the beach and an evidently lost dog approached us, we decided to take him home. We bathed and perfumed him, tied a red bow on his ears and brought him to his grandmother as a present. But by then she (or perhaps more so her primary care-giver at the time) had decided that she didn’t want the work of a dog. Oh, crap. What did we do? We brought it back to the beach close to where we found it, convinced that he was quite healthy (probably not because of the abundance of beach scraps) and must have a home near there somewhere and if not somebody else would take him in.

Before Lucky arrived, I’d acted like a surrogate mother to our neighbors’ dogs for years without having the obligation of having to ensure their daily food. But those stupid sad eyes. I just couldn’t say no. He looooooves me. I assigned him a food and water dish out back in the patio. He knows they’re his, although the next door neighbor dog Dora would like some of the action since she was always the scrap recipient before Lucky. Dora the Explorer I call her, because she spends more time roaming around in our patio than her own, even though she has a guaranteed meal next door every night. She knows how to get through our wrought iron/brick fence but none of the other mangy neighborhood dogs have caught on yet. So being his most frequent visitor, Dora’s Lucky’s best friend. Dora’s the dominant female in the relationship. When they play-fight, Lucky more often than not rolls over and gives in to Dora the Boss at the first sign of trouble.

He has good habits such as doing his duty in the garden so I don’t have to clean turds off the patio. I can’t complain there. Early on during his first month living in our yard, one day at dusk I noticed his belly was swollen up like a balloon and I asked my neighbor if she’d happen to notice what he’d gotten into. She’d given him congris (rice & black beans), nothing out of the ordinary, but as we were talking he and Dora started fighting over the “frasada de piso” (Cuban mop cloth) I’d placed under the beach chair in our covered patio where Lucky used to sleep. They’d ripped it to shreds and quite a few of the pieces were missing, so we figure he ate it. My neighbor said we could take him down for an enema. But the vet was sick, and I wasn’t about to give the dog an enema, seriously. I have my limits. And my husband? Don’t even go there. My dog, my responsibility. By the next morning he was back to his regular size and apparently he’d passed the frasada in the garden. He now sleeps in an area he’s dug out in the dirt under the cover of a trailer in our garden. No more frasada de piso, sorry buddy.

He’s recently developed a bad tendency to nip at the heels or calves of strangers as they’re walking. He sneaks up behind them and catches them unaware, not quite so brave (or stupid?) as to confront them head-on. He’s nipped my stepson and my brother, and a few other people have sent in their reports. The utilities people who come to the house usually circumspectly eye him up before coming in to see if they can trust him or not. Best that they think he can only be trusted when we’re around, according to my neighbor. I wasn’t so sure about that and the other morning when my husband opened the gate to take out the car, unbeknownst to me Lucky escaped to roam around the block and mark his territory. We live on probably one of the quietest blocks in Havana and I can usually count the people who stroll by in the course of the day on one hand. Absorbed in the computer, all of a sudden a woman across the street starting yelling and I ran out to see what was amok. All puffed up with his new confidence, Lucky thought he was doing his job protecting the block, of which thinks he’s now the boss, and he’d nicked her calf with one of his sharp little teeth. The woman turned out to be my neighbor’s doctor cousin who has blood coagulation issues. She is not a dog person and was not terribly understanding about the whole situation, but fortunately my neighbor was able to smooth things over with her and explain some of his history before I sheepishly slipped over there to apologize after I thought she’d had some time to calm down after her initial fright.

I’m not about to take him to obedience classes but I am probably going to be paying a little closer attention to Cesar Milian the Dog Whisperer on Multivision. In the meantime, Lucky’s not going to be one of those dogs who has to be tied up all the time, but he’s definitely going to have to be confined to the perimeter of our property until he learns how to behave around strangers. You can bark all you want, but the biting has got to go if I’m to stay in the good graces of the neighbors.

Keeping Busy

We’re smack dab in the middle of high season but I’m taking a breather. Besides having our fourth cycle tour of the season (a 2-weeker) underway, we’ve also hosted a group of young baseball players from the USA, and we’re anxiously anticipating the arrival of a container full of motorcycles from Panama at the end of this month. The owners are sending their bikes to take part in the annual gathering of the Harlistas Cubanos and other motorcycles from Cuba & abroad in Varadero from Feb. 6-10. We’re anxious because the ship’s expected to arrive from Panama on Jan. 31 (a Friday, right before the blasted weekend). The group is scheduled to arrive in Cuba on Feb. 4 (Tuesday) and registration of their bikes is supposed to be taking place on Feb. 5 if all goes according to plan. Wait, that should say IF all goes according to plan. Because this is Cuba, and despite the best-laid plans something can always go wrong when you least expect it. But so far everything seems to be running smoothly and all the paperwork’s been delivered to the corresponding authorities, permission letters issued by our ground handler, reservations confirmed, suppliers paid. Now it’s just up to the weather, Cuban Customs, the import agency and the Department of Motor Vehicles. Is it too much to ask that they all come together to make this come off without a wrinkle for Feb. 5? I must remember to light some candles and send up my wishes for positive things to happen. Especially for the occasion I had a seamstress neighbor of mine make a new orange canvas cover made for our old event tent last week (I provided 12 meters of canvas fabric that we found in Havana for $66, and when she finished and told me she wanted to charge me less than $5 for her work, I almost fell off my chair). On the weekend I drew and cut out all the lettering for our logo (a painstaking job, by hand for all 4 sides of the tent). These are the things you do when they don’t sell event tents in Cuba. Repair, reuse.

We have 5 cycle tour groups left to go before we wrap up the group tour season the end of March. So far it’s been a good season. We had a young videographer friend of ours put together a video clip from the first three cycle tours of the season. She told me yesterday that it was the first time she’d been to Cienfuegos and loved the city. I’m hoping to get the files to PEI via a willing client for uploading the end of this month. Our dial-up connection speed here in Cuba doesn’t support video. We had a custom group of male friends do a Central Cuba trip in November and they stayed at the luxurious Iberostar Trinidad for 1 night of their tour. I secured one of only 2 dates available for them in November and planned the rest of the trip around that. We love the hotel, but man it’s hard to get group space there. And while it drives up tour costs, for some the luxury is well worth it. We had a couple of families on a smaller tour in December, and another family & friends group do the Western Cuba cycle tour for New Year’s week and we were able to treat them to a night at La Moka as part of that tour. La Moka’s another one that’s hard to secure for groups no matter how far ahead you plan. That group left some exceptionally generous tips which were much appreciated by the tour team. So far Jagua’s come through with quite a few of my waitlist requests for space in Cienfuegos which puts a smile on my face (and the tour leader’s too). We prefer to stay 2 nights in the city of Cienfuegos whenever possible on the cycle tours rather than the beach.

We sold 1913 car rental days for rentals beginning Dec. 1 to Jan. 21 (applause, applause). Rent Car VIA’s rates are much lower than the competition’s in extreme high season, and 73% of our car rentals for this period were booked with VIA followed by Cubacar, Havanautos and REX in descending order. I had to field quite a few troubleshooting calls for VIA car rentals, but I guess that’s to be expected when almost 3 out of 4 clients have chosen them as their car rental provider.

So far in January we have a 12% return rate on customer feedback. While much of it is positive and we like that, complaints for car rental services are somewhat more frequent during extreme high season due to limited availability of vehicles, glitches with maintenance, and delays in delivery. We’ve had a few people report (after the fact, note to alert clients that you should always notify us immediately if things aren’t as described in our invoice) that the rental counter functionaries charged them a mysterious $5 CUC/day damage waiver supplement for high season. It seems the rental counter functionaries are the only ones privy to this fee as it’s not in our ground handler’s contracts. One functionary returned the $50 CUC he “inadvertently” charged our client to us in cash and now it’s our problem to see how we can reimburse the client for something not paid to our agency. The other claims are pending analysis by the respective rental companies. Note to smart clients: If you’re in doubt, make sure it’s written on your rental contract and save the contract to send us at the end of the rental. Cubans love their signed & stamped paperwork. The more stamps and signatures, the better.

Overall the travel feedback we’ve received this season from clients who’ve chosen Cubacar, Havanautos & REX has been much more positive than for VIA. I attribute that to a combination of factors including newer vehicles, larger fleets, and better supply of replacement parts. I seems to me that most of VIA’s problems are concentrated in a few vehicle categories including the Peugeot 207 SW automatic and the Peugeot 3008 automatic as two that stand out most in my mind. The latter hybrid vehicle has a very attractive price and most of the models in their fleet should have less than a year of use, but nevertheless we’ve had a couple of clients comment about technical difficulties. For those of you who only drive an automatic car and don’t want to shell out for the Havanautos or REX automatic vehicle prices, be duly warned that selecting the above vehicles from VIA can be a “cajita de sorpresas”. If the one assigned you has any technical difficulty prior to or during the rental period, securing a replacement within the VIA fleet is no easy feat.

We have quite a few fishing packages coming up over the next months for Cayo Paredon & the Zapata Peninsula. And diving, which continues to grow in popularity. Just remember that we don’t recommend overbooking diving on Cuba’s north shore in the winter. Those darned cold fronts make it unpredictable. Other places to consider pre-booking diving in the Cuban winter: Maria la Gorda (whose transfer prices were raised to fairly astronomical levels this year, so think rental car as a less expensive alternative to get to Cuba’s westernmost tip), the Isle of Youth (who changed their minimum dive boat departure policy this year to 8 divers which I think is going to kill their dive product), Trinidad, Guajimico, Cienfuegos, Jardines de la Reina, or Santiago de Cuba. Varadero is another destination which has a good guarantee for divers when there’s inclement weather. The dive center transfers clients to the south shore to the Zapata Peninsula if diving on the north shore is cancelled. No extra charge for the transfer. We like diving in the Zapata Peninsula better than Varadero anyway.

So as the wind picks up and another cold front rolls in to Havana, I’m signing off and unless I’m feeling super-inspired, I may not be back to check in until this pace and season slows down.

Kristen’s Cubania Quiz

My sister in law once did the Cuban test on me to check my knowledge of all things Cuban. Easy stuff such as:
Where did the Engañadora walk?
What time did Lola die?
Tom is a boy…..
Little things like that that everybody knows. After all these years, it’s hard to get anything by me. I had a rough day today and was thinking that one of my potential clients might not really be ready for some of the realities of Cuba. I was considering passing on some key questions to her and that got me to inventing a test of my own, to see how some of you visitors to Cuba might react in different situations. Do share your answers, I’d love to hear!!!

1. You’re going to a baseball game at the local stadium. What’s the very last thing you do before you leave your hotel room?
A) Put on perfume
B) Stash a flask of rum in your purse/back pocket
C) Lock your valuables in the safe
D) Pee
E) Call the front desk to let them know where you’ll be and when you expect to return

2. You’re at the Islazul Mar del Sur hotel in Varadero and the Cuban family at the table next to you has taken 3 heaping plates of bread from the breakfast buffet and you’re afraid there might not be any left for the other guests. Oh, and you think the wife is also pocketing the silverware. You:
A) Kindly ask them to return some of the excess food to the buffet table, appealing to their sense of decency
B) Throw them a dirty look
C) Tell the restaurant manager what’s going on
D) Ignore them and mind your own business
E) Contact the local police department to report their deviant behavior
F) Think there must be a bread shortage in Cuba and ask them if you can help them to stock up by similarly raiding the buffet

3. While visiting Havana’s Eastern Beaches, you’re appalled by the 75-year old Italian man cavorting around with the 18?-year old Cuban thong-attired girl at the Tropicoco Beach. You:
A) Try to avoid looking at them
B) Leave and go somewhere else
C) Point your finger, call him a pervert, and take pictures, promising to post them on the internet
D) Ask the police to check her identification
E) Go for a swim and later take a catamaran ride
F) Think “Way to be man” and hope you can be like him when you’re old

4. You’re strolling around Old Havana and really trying to soak up the atmosphere and architecture but buddy keeps popping up and saying “Lady, you wanna buy cigar?” or when you get to the main thoroughfares 10 different people have approached you saying “Taxi, man?”. You:
A) Tell them to bug off
B) Run the other way
C) Start pulling your hair out or doing something freaky which makes them keep their distance
D) Firmly say “No gracias” without smiling or frowning and continue on your way, with purpose
E) Don’t say anything and just ignore them and stand around hoping they’ll go away eventually

5. You’re in a public bathroom at the baseball stadium (sorry, if you already filled out your answer to # 1 you’re not allowed to cheat and go back to change your mind at this point). When you walk in none of the toilets are working and there’s a Cuban girl just standing there peeing on the floor which is already covered in a suspiciously yellow-colored fluid. You:
A) Walk out and tell your full bladder to shut up and wait
B) Open one of the stalls, stand over the throne, close your eyes and hope for the best
C) Leave the stadium and knock on a stranger’s door to see if some kind soul will let you in to use their bathroom
D) Join the party, pee on the floor and then make a run for it
E) Stand there for a second with your mouth agape and consider your options, then decide that you will totally remember to empty your bladder in the future before leaving your hotel room and risking a public washroom

6. You’re a heterosexual man and you’re driving alone along Via Blanca at night and see a hot Cuban girl standing under a lamppost just before the traffic lights by the grocery store in Barrio Obrero. She looks like she wants a ride. You:
A) Stop the car and ask her where she’s headed
B) Pass her, stop at the traffic lights and then hear a strange hissing sound. You wonder if you’ve punctured your tire, but then realize it’s the girl Pssst-ing you.
C) Put the car in reverse, roll down the window and notice that her Adam’s apple is suspiciously large. And that she has great legs but very square hips.
D) High-tail it out of there
E) Give her a ride to the Guanabacoa Cupet, just 15 minutes away if you take the long way

7. You’re staying at the Parque Central and are planning on taking a romantic stroll down the Malecon in Havana with your spouse, from Old Havana all the way to Vedado at night. You:
A) Take your camera, put on your favorite gold chain, tuck an extra $100 into your back pocket for dinner and drinks and go on your carefree way, your wife swinging her pretty Gucci purse as you stroll down the Prado hand in hand as happy as clams
B) Step outside the air conditioned hotel lobby into 30+ degree heat, see a 1955 Buick Special Convertible outside whose owner is smiling at you saying taxi, taxi, and decide to do the walk the next morning instead
C) Step outside and as you round the corner, there’s buddy again wanting to sell you cigars, a taxi, or take you to a good private restaurant. He stays on your tail, speaking broken English, and calling you fren, amigo, consorte. You try to ditch him, but my he’s persistent and he joins you on your romantic walk on the Malecon until you stop and buy him a beer.
D) Lock your valuables in the safe, take only what you need, and carry your purse snugly under your arm.
E) None of the above; strolling and mingling with the locals isn’t your thing.

8. You’re in a parking lot in broad daylight and some Cuban guy flashes you. You:
A) Are startled and embarrassed and walk/run as fast as you can the other way
B) Stand there and check him out
C) Scream and call Help!!!!!! to which noone responds and then you desperately find yourself wishing you’d studied Spanish more and knew how to say Auxilio!!!!!
D) Scream and run towards him which freaks him out and he catches a key piece of skin in his zipper in his rush to get out of there.
E) Contact the local police department to report his deviant behavior

9. You are driving along the highway and see someone with a stand selling all of your favorite Cuban fruits and you are very hungry. You:
A) Hope the grocery store has an even better selection when you get there later that afternoon
B) Slam on the brakes, hand over $5 CUC for 8 mangoes, 4 tangerines, and 2 pineapples and squeal out of there Ikea-style, certain you’ve just gotten the deal of the century
C) Stop the car, ask how much, wonder where you’re going to put all that stuff, and what you’re going to do since you don’t have any national money, and decide to wait and see what they have at the hotel buffet rather than get involved in changing currency with strangers
D) Pull over, inquire about prices, select your favorite fruits, pull a plastic bag out of your purse and accept change from your $3 CUC bill in national money
E) Have diarreah from overdoing the fresh fruit and vegetables already and decide to see if the next gas station doesn’t have some soda crackers and immodium.

10. You’re a mature woman at the Hotel Ancon beach and the lifeguard keeps staring at you and adjusting his crotch. You:
A) Think he has the hots for you and sidle on over
B) Think he’s gross and should be minding the swimmers more
C) Think he needs a lesson in decent public behavior and indignantly proceed to explain why to the hotel’s public relations girl at the first opportunity
D) Think he must have crabs
E) Think he’s just likes to keep his jewels in place and don’t pay him any mind

11. You’re at the Las Terrazas restaurant in Cojimar for lunch. You open the menu and see “Rice to the vapor” and “Lobster is used plunger”. You:
A) Knit your eyebrows together and wonder what will arrive at the table if you point to those items when the waitress comes around
B) Get grossed out, walk out the door and try the paladar restaurant in front
C) Order a drink at the bar and ask the bartender where the best place to grab a bite in Cojimar is.
D) Crack up laughing, take a picture of the menu and post it on Facebook
E) Figure out that they’re offering steamed rice and fresh lobster, and then order their paella

12. You’re heading down the national highway enroute to Cienfuegos and when you pull over at the gas station there’s a lady sitting outside the public washroom handing out squares of toilet paper and you realize she wants to charge you money to use the bathroom. You:
A) Grab the toilet paper she’s handing you, go in and relieve yourself in the bathroom which smells like disinfectant, wash your hands with running water, and then walk right on past her without putting any coins into her basket when you leave. After all, who pays for a public washroom, right?
B) Accept the toilet paper, are surprised at how clean the bathroom is compared to that baseball stadium the other night, do your job, and then leave her a $1 CUC tip on your way out
C) Smile and say gracias to the t.p., pee but realize the flusher isn’t working, wash your hands, leave 5 cents in the basket and turn around to see her heading into the bathroom after you with a bucket of water to manually flush the toilet. You wonder if you shouldn’t have left 25 cents instead.
D) Remember that baseball stadium from the night before and think, holy crap am I glad I went to the bathroom before I left the hotel this morning because NEVER AGAIN am I stepping foot into a public Cuban bathroom, no way, no how.
E) Look for the nearest bush and haul the toilet paper roll you took from your hotel room out of your purse

Correct answers to Kristen’s Cubania Quiz follow soon!!!

Cuban Generosity

Have you ever noticed that the less people have, the more generous and less materialistic they are? I can think of a host of adjectives for the Cubans in my social circle such as gregarious, innovative, hard-working, family-oriented, and selfless. But more often than not it’s their generous solidarity that strikes me as one of the most commendable traits of their culture.

I first noticed this phenomenon over 2 decades ago when I was traveling alone on a bus in eastern Cuba. I was the only foreigner on the bus. It being my first season living here, I was still very unfamiliar with the local national monetary system and when the bus stopped and everyone got off to purchase local refreshments, I just stayed on board since I had almost non-existent language skills and no local currency with me, which it seemed that everyone was using. As the Cubans were re-boarding the bus a young mother traveling with her toddler must have noticed that I didn’t get off like everyone else and as she passed my seat she handed me a cold Cuban malt and continued on back to her seat. She expected nothing in return, she was only being kind. I was astounded that a total stranger whose resources were surely so much more limited than mine would be so generous and thoughtful.

Since then I’ve had countless opportunities where I’ve been on the receiving end of Cuban generosity and each time I think that it’s one of the best things that’s come out of this socialist revolution. I sometimes need to remind myself to be more generous and understanding, like my Cuban friends.

A lot of people consider it their duty to pick up hitchhikers here. Those who drive state vehicles are often in the obligation to do so. My husband is occasionally asked by friends and neighbors to drive them to the airport (which is over an hour from our house) and he always happily obliges. Sometimes my ugly selfish self comes out and asks him why he would do that for the sister of someone he knows (not even a family member) when there are other alternatives, such as our entrepreneurial neighbor who operates his own taxi. He knows that most of the people who ask him to do this have very limited incomes, can’t afford a taxi and probably would have to take several buses or hours out of their day if he didn’t offer to help out with the transportation. There have been a few occasions where I’m pretty sure a couple of people have taken advantage of my husband’s generous nature, but he still doesn’t let that stop him. Once when he was unable to help out due to other obligations, he offered to give a man who lives on the street behind us money to take our other neighbor’s taxi to drive a family member to a medical appointment, but then the taxi-driving neighbor wouldn’t accept the money and did the favor for free anyway. It sometimes miffs me when the same people call my husband up twice in a week to ask for drives here or there, when it’s clear to me that they could have taken the bus instead of inconveniencing us. But it doesn’t seem to bother him too much, so I usually let it ride.

Yesterday while visiting a friend outside of Havana I was talking to his 80+ year old mother and her sister who recently had a fall and fractured her hip. They are both widows, and the sister has no children. She said she was very lucky that a former neighbor and friend of hers who now lives in Miami found out about her condition and forwarded a care package and money which helped her through a very difficult period. The huge majority of the elderly in Cuba are looked after by family members until their death, despite the fact that this duty sometimes comes at a great economic sacrifice. Most Cubans I know consider sending their elderly family members to nursing homes to be akin to abandonment. Only in extreme cases would they consider a nursing home in lieu of home care for an elderly family member. Before we left our friend’s house, we couldn’t get away without a bag full of avocadoes from their tree that they insisted we accept. We stopped at the Casa del Pintor, a paladar we like in Bauta, for dinner on the way home. As the meal was ending our friend ducked into the bathroom for a moment, and I advised my husband that he should quickly settle the tab with our server since I knew our friend would try to pick it up if we didn’t first. The two of them ended up trying to shove money at each other, fighting over who was going to pick up the $23 CUC bill for our shrimp/lobster/beef dinners and drinks as I laughed my way out of the restaurant. While our friend is very lucky and has a well-paying job I don’t like taking advantage of his generosity, hard as it sometimes is to convince him otherwise. I joked on the way out that he could pick up the tab the next time, when we pick a more expensive restaurant for dinner.

Cuba sent almost 400,000 soldiers to fight apartheid in Angola and will always hold a special place in history, right alongside Nelson Mandela, for being on the right side of that battle. I was watching the July 26th speeches in Santiago de Cuba today, a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the battle that began the Cuban Revolution. My father in law was one of the young guerrilla fighters from that failed attack on the Moncada Garrison who was amazingly lucky to come out of the hospital from where he was stationed to fight alive, and his just-off-the-press book “El Unico Sobreviviente” about his epic escape journey back home is being launched during the festivities. As I watched all of the foreign leaders deliver moving speeches about solidarity and contemplated just how many countries had come here to express their sincere thanks for Cuba’s selfless support, despite all of the economic obstacles this country faces, I was touched by the fraternal spirit of the current Latin American leaders and their struggle to empower the middle class. Many are trying to follow Cuba’s lead in free education and health care for all. The thousands of Cuban doctors who have been sent to the rescue during some of the most serious crises in this and other parts of the world is simply unprecedented. One leader said that while Cuba may not have money, it has people and the very fact that they are so willing to share their precious human resources so freely with other nations in need is commendable.

The generosity of those less fortunate should be an example that each and every one of us follows. It’s definitely humbling when someone much poorer than you opens their home, wallet, or shares their meager possessions. So pay it forward as often as you can. It’s a hard thing to remember sometimes but the more you do it, the better a place this world will be.

Staying in Touch in Cuba

While communication in Cuba is admittedly sometimes a challenge, it’s not impossible these days to stay connected with friends, family and even your business while traveling in Cuba. Growing up in PEI, our family home had a party line and if you were so inclined, you could listen in on all your neighbors’ conversations – rural life can be boring if you’re not keeping abreast of the gossip. So moving to Cuba wasn’t necessarily such a big step backwards in terms of technology for me. In our first year of operations in an ecological property located somewhat off the beaten path in Santiago de Cuba, my brothers had to get out the shovels and dig a very deep hole so that they could install a radio phone (with the phone company’s blessing) just to remain in contact with our office in Canada. The villa relied exclusively on walkie-talkies for all contact with other areas in Cuba. There was no international phone at the property. During the two decades I’ve been living here, I’ve gone from dialing on a rotary phone and struggling to send/receive faxes from the post office to having relatively inexpensive phone and mediocre internet service at home. Granted, it’s sometimes maddeningly slow, but eventually most of the messages get through. Following is a summary of current options for staying in touch while you’re traveling in Cuba.

ETECSA is Cuba’s national communications company. Through Etecsa and their partners, visitors can acquire domestic and international telephone service, cellular service in Cuba, and internet.

LAND LINES
All hotels in Cuba have international  telephone access.  Rates for calls are fixed depending on the hotel’s star rating (the higher the star rating, the more they can charge you, up to a maximum posted rate). Charges for telephone calls in hotels are processed by the minute, not portions thereof.
An alternative to using your hotel’s telephone service is to purchase a pre-paid international calling card in Cuba (from $10 CUC), which you can use from any public or private telephone and your card will automatically be discounted according to usage (by the second). The cards can also be used for national telephone calls in Cuba. There is a separate card (Tarjeta Propia) sold in national money for domestic use only which is by far the most economical option for calls within Cuba, and usually more convenient than public coin telephones. The card can also be used in public telephones (rather than using coins) or from private homes. Current international rates for phone cards/international cellular calls are as follows:

Destination Residential Commercial
USA/Canada

$1.40 USD/min

$2.45

Central America, Mexico & the Caribbean

$1.40

$3.40

Venezuela

$1.00

$3.40

Rest of South America

$1.40

$4.45

Rest of the world

$1.50

$5.85


CELL PHONES
Some cell companies (now including Verizon from the USA) offer roaming/data plans that include Cuba. Check with your provider for details. If not using a roaming plan in Cuba, you will want to remember to keep your phone in airplane mode to avoid excessive charges. Cuba operates on the GSM system, using the 900 MHz band. If your cell phone operates on the same system/band, it will have widespread coverage in Cuba. Even though they are equipped with GPS (which, according to Cuban customs, is not permissible), iPhones are accepted for entry. For cheaper calling within Cuba, visitors can activate a temporary line/SIM card from an ETECSA airport/city office on an unlocked 900-MHz GSM phone , the current rate is $3.00 CUC/day plus $6.00 CUC/day for optional equipment rental. A minimum $10.00 CUC recharge (prepaid call credit) and passport presentation are required.

Cuban SIM card call rates:
RATES FOR CUBAN CELL PHONE CALLS IN CUBA (CUC/minute)
Between prepaid cell phones
07:00 – 22:59 (Normal Rate) – Outgoing call $0.35/minute / Incoming call from landline $0.35/minute
23:00 – 06:59 (Reduced Rate) – Outgoing call $0.10/minute / Incoming call from landline $0.10/minute

INTERNATIONAL CALLS (CUC/minute)
Price/Region:
$1.60/minute: North America, South America, Central America (except Venezuela), the Caribbean
$1.40/minute: Venezuela
$1.80/minute: Rest of the world

SMS
Send a text in Cuba $0.09 (free to receive)
Send an international text from Cuba $1.00 (free to receive)

INTERNET: Warning: connection times are typically much slower than what you are probably used to. Skype doesn’t work here except from some wifi connections, and if sending attachments reduce their size prior to sending, unless you have alot of time and money to burn. Just checking my daily email and bank accounts in the morning can sometimes take me more than an hour and several attempts on a dial-up account. You tend to forget about these things when you live in the developed world where broadband is the norm.
ETECSA Multiservice Centers:
ETECSA has a network of public computers across the country where you can purchase 30 minute or 1 hour internet access cards from $1CUC/30 minutes. Use is normally limited to daytime connections when an attendant is present and you sometimes have to wait your turn in a lineup of locals/visitors.
Cybercafes: Found in many hotels, airports and convention centers primarily in tourism poles. Internet access cards can be purchased in 30 minute or 1 hour increments from $4-$12 CUC.
Wifi Access in Cuba: is expanding rapidly in Cuba in many public locations. Identification is sometimes required to purchase the $2 CUC/hour Nauta access codes/cards for access at WIFI_ETECSA hotspots. The bandwidth is often saturated during daytime/early evening hours. View rates for temporary & permanent connections.

Important Telephone Numbers:
Ambulance: 104, Fire Station: 105, National Police: 106, Information: 113

To make an international call from a public, cellular or residential phone in Cuba: Dial 119 + country code/área code/telephone #

With the opening of private businesses in Cuba, the Yellow Pages are also becoming an increasingly interesting source of information. Their party, room rental, photography, furniture, and cafeteria/restaurants sections have expanded. There’s even pickup/delivery laundry service listed there now.

For alot of people, coming to Cuba is almost like going off the grid. Depending on where you go, it’s very possible that’s what it’ll feel like. It’s in stark contrast to the hyper-connected direction that developed countries have taken, where people have their eyes constantly glued on their smart phones/tablets, and text instead of talk. It’s not necessarily a bad thing when you’re on vacation. You might just even have a chance to truly reconnect with yourself and those around you.

Cuban Lost & Found

Cubans are known for their friendliness. And, in many rural areas, for their honest and hard-working natures. These aren’t always a given, however in the Capital, where, as in any large urban centers in a third world country, there are a certain amount of opportunists out there waiting for you to slip up. Growing up in Prince Edward Island Canada, I lost my wallet countless times at a certain bar I frequented with friends while in university. I’d sheepishly show up there on Monday morning, and time after time they turned it over to me with my $20 weekend outing fund fully intact. When I was younger my father once lost his daily cash box off the back of his truck on the drive home. An Island man found it and turned it in, and my father was so surprised that he called the man’s employer to tell him how lucky he was to have such an honest man working for him. Coming from that kind of idyllic place (where we didn’t even have a key to our house growing up), Havana’s been a bit of adjustment in learning how to carry my purse, where not to leave it, and about being aware of my surroundings.

An older woman called Encarnacion was the maid assigned to my rental apartment in my early years in Havana and she was a shining example of socialist morals. She faithfully delivered our daily quota of soap and toilet paper without ever thinking about keeping the surplus for her own family, since we rarely used the amount that was assigned to us. Maybe not as sensitive as I should have been back then, I would sometimes take the extras with me when we visited rural areas on tour and donate them to families there instead of turning them back into my honest chambermaid for her own use. As time went on we often shared stories, and I found out that she had once found a considerable sum of cash that had fallen behind a bed’s headboard when making up the room. The owner had believed the cash had been misplaced, and Encarnacion turned it in to her superiors who were able to track down the woman and return the money. The honest deed was even reported in the newspaper. Only after she retired and was replaced by someone who was more opportunistic with the supply chain did I fully realize what a gem she was.

My sister and I were once the victims of a daytime robbery/assault scam a couple of months before New Years when they crime rate purportedly goes up in Cuba. Although neither of us were hurt, the experience has made me much more wary and careful about how I operate. The police ended up catching the culprits, but the law here requires that they pay back the sum they stole in national money at a rate of 1:1. That was a bit of a surprise, but they did get time for their crime, so hopefully that would be enough of a deterrent for them not to consider trying it again on someone else.

I’ve had clients with varying degrees of luck over the years with lost & found items. I’ve had someone leave their winter coat behind in a hotel, only to have housekeeping claim that they didn’t find anything in the room when cleaned it. Particularly maddening since a winter coat is not of much use in this climate. Another client left a pair of expensive Oakley prescription sunglasses in the Havana airport upon her international departure. She was insulted when I advised her to put the incident behind her, that she should forget about them being turned in to lost & found. She threw up such a fuss about it that I indulged her and was able to personally speak to the airport’s lost & found department. Which confirmed it was holding only one winter scarf among their lost items. I’m quite sure a lot more than that gets misplaced by visitors to the Havana international airport, but that’s all that ended up being officially registered in their lost & found department. Not a big surprise to me.

Upon returning from Cayo Largo once with my husband, we caught a cab from Old Havana to our home. Immediately after taking my suitcase upstairs I realized that my cell phone was still in the cab. Despite having all the phone numbers for the cab company and immediately contacting their dispatch office to report the loss, I never did get that phone back because it’s basically my word against the driver’s and back then a Motorola Razr phone was worth $100 on the street in Cuba, a considerable sum and easy money. If you call your cell number and it’s turned off or out of service, you can be sure someone’s already thrown out your sim card and is trying to hawk the phone somewhere.

My husband once found a tourist’s cell phone in the airport and he left it turned on until they called, then he personally delivered it to a tour guide who was in Havana to be returned to its owner who was vacationing in Varadero. Until today I thought he was the only person left in Havana who was that honest. We were visiting my niece and while we were there she realized she had lost her expensive new Iphone 4. We figured it had been when she got out of her car in front of her house, so we began calling her cellular number to see if we could hear the phone ringing. No such luck. But the faint hope we had was that the phone was still ringing when we called the number. It was intermittently giving the message that it was turned off or out of the service area, dashing our hopes that a nice person had found it. After awhile we gave up, and my husband & I left for home. When we arrived we received a message from her with great news. A blind man had stumbled upon her phone with his cane, picked it up and brought it home. Since he couldn’t see to know how to receive the incoming calls we were making, he waited for his wife to arrive, and she was able to answer and return the phone to my anxious niece.

Honesty’s the best policy. Karma. Pay it forward. I just wish sometimes that this were a universal policy. You never know when you’ll be on the receiving end of a good deed, so why not treat others as you’d like to be treated every single day.

King Size Dreams

My Cuban mattress woes are about to become a thing of the past. Now let me get one thing straight from the beginning: I’m no Princess and the Pea. After almost a dozen years of lumpy, hard, and sometimes painful horizontal sleeping experiences in Cuba this (Mac)Queen is about to get spoiled with a super duper deluxe king size memory foam mattress and I am on pins & needles trying to make the day go by faster so I can finally realize this long-time dream of mine.

When I first married my husband he had a double bed and a mattress that looked like it had gone through the war. It was so old that it probably did date back to some war in Cuba’s long struggle for independence. We had to be careful when frolicking on that thing because it had several springs that were sticking way out of place, held back ever so precariously by the fabric alone. I soon convinced him that for our long-term health we had to look for a new mattress. We scoured all the state stores around town with no luck. Finally, desperate for some z’s, outside of the Carlos III shopping mall a guy approached us with a photo album of furniture and claimed he was selling mattresses. Brand new, just like in the stores (that were all sold out), he promised, and at a slightly lower price to boot. We gladly accepted his offer and gave him the address to deliver the mattress. When the delivery car arrived with the spiffy new mattress encased in plastic we were ecstatic and excitedly donated our old mattress to the next door neighbor who was going to have it repaired for his own use. We handed over the cash and never saw the mattress guy again.

The improvement of having no springs digging into your back and no lumps the size of papayas in the new mattress was immediately noticeable. What we slowly began to wonder about, however, was why we were having trouble walking in the morning. Stiff as boards we were. One day I was at my brother’s place and his mother-in-law was having a couch reupholstered. The lady who was doing the work started telling stories about some of the scams that go on with the mattress resellers. They fill them with leaves, grass, just about anything they can find besides good quality foam or re-used stuffing. “Compro colchones”, the call of the street vendors offering to buy your old mattress, started ringing in my head. I started to suspect we’d been had and that our “new” mattress was a dud. The woman came by our house the following week and with a quick jab of her seamripper, exposed the dirty scam. Flour sacks. That’s what we were sleeping on. When she removed the fabric covering, she counted over 100 sacks. Unbelievable. She restuffed the mattress with “guata” rescued from somebody else’s couch or mattress and it was a considerable improvement, although the wire mesh boxspring substitute on our antique bed left us with a bit of a sag in the middle. So we rigged up some boards underneath which would occasionally slip out of place and jolt us out of bed.

When we moved to our new home, the situation in the Cuban stores had changed and by then Venezuela was sending mattresses to Cuba. We bought an orthopedic (a.k.a. hard) mattress and have been sleeping relatively easy for some years now. But it’s just a double and as much as I love spooning with my husband, sometimes I just want to stretch out and not have to fight him for elbow space. So last March I ordered a king size bed & memory foam mattress by internet and had it shipped to someone I know who was sending a container of goods to Cuba. Today, finally, the last day of August, it’s going to be released from the port. I’m scheming up ways to make sure it gets to my house today because I’m so excited that I don’t think I can’t wait even one more day for it to be set up.

After I sprung for the mattress I read a newspaper article claiming that while the memory foam mattresses are supposed to be terrific for sleeping, sex on them is another story. I warned my husband about this, but told him I didn’t really care about the sex part. What I need is a good night’s sleep. If this new mattress ends up being as tricky as they say and we end up having to do it in the shower, on the floor, in the spare room….I honestly don’t care. After a few unexpected events leading to our cancelled vacation plans this summer, this bed is going to make up for that disappointment. In fact, I may never have to leave home again once I get this bed set up…Stay tuned. If you don’t hear from me again for awhile you can be assured that I’ll have fallen into a blissful much-needed sleep. Princess and the Pea BEGONE! Sleeping Beauty has arrived.

Cross Your Legs, and Roll Your Eyes

As loyal as a faithful dog, I’d never consider betraying my Cuban husband. So it irks me sometimes when he likes to give his input on how I dress when we leave the house. Here we are in the middle of a stifling hot Havana summer, and on Saturday I put on a sundress, the hem of which ended about mid-thigh. Hardly indecent considering the shockingly short hemlines of some Cuban damsels I know. When my husband caught an eyeful of me walking out of the closet he demanded, “Is THAT how you’re planning on leaving the house?” I retorted, “Well, yes, it was exactly how I was planning on leaving he house since we’re traveling by car and not motorcycle today, and it’s freaking hot out there!” He reminded me that there was a fair wind blowing and I would surely be showing my bloomers to half of Havana’s Carnival-goers at the Piragua where we were heading to meet friends. Without another word he headed outside to talk to the bricklayers in the back yard. And I turned on my heel, back to the closet to put on a pair of trusty lycra shorts under my outfit. Once outside I made sure noone else was in sight and I flashed my husband so he could see that I’d compromised just to make him happy. As I laughed up a storm, sadly he didn’t think it was as funny as I did. He didn’t even smile. Undeterred, I took up my post sitting on a cinderblock in the garage to watch the work progress, carefully tucking my skirt between my legs before I sat down. As I caught a dirty look from my ever-watchful husband I incredulously asked, “What now??? I have on shorts under this dress you know!” He pretended not to know what I was talking about, apparently not wanting the workers to know about the intimacies of our little spat. But I definitely knew I had seen the evil eye.

Once we left the house I took up the issue once again. His position was that 99.99% of Cuban men are cave men and if you give them an opportunity to catch a glance of a thigh, a piece of your rear end, or anything else in that general vicinity of a woman’s anatomy they will seize it. And talk about it later amongst themselves. And he doesn’t want me to be the object of anyone else’s lusty conversations. If a Cuban man is not looking at a woman, then he’s most likely gay. It’s not the first time I’d had to learn a lesson like this by embarrassment. Many years ago a neighbor commented to my husband that I was sitting with my knees too far apart while wearing shorts. Cripes, I’d never had to deal with this before in my Canadian circle of friends. We’re a pretty relaxed bunch and if you’re a girl and you sit down with your knees apart it just doesn’t have the same connotation in Canada as it does here in Cuba. We had a couple of friends visit for the weekend, and I asked their opinion, and discovered that they pretty much concurred 100%. The man’s opinion so perfectly matched that of my husband, it was as if it were a recording. The woman said it’s not attractive to sit with your knees apart. And that Cuban men tend to be overly jealous, but it’s because they know how other Cuban men think all too well. She says sometimes when she’s riding on the back of her husband’s motorcycle and they stop at a red light, she’ll catch him looking all around just to ensure noone’s staring at her. But she also reports having been subjected to bold Cuban males sticking their lascivious tongues out at her while he’s not looking. To maintain your dignity here as a woman you’re just supposed to ignore them, pretend you can’t hear the catcalls, and basically act like you’re deaf and/or blind when presented with acts of lewdness by a Cuban man.

My sister has been flashed here a couple of times. The first time she was shocked, but the second time she was prepared for it and did a banshee scream and ran at the man who promptly disappeared. She’s also had some Cuban man actually touch her butt as she bicycled across a bridge in Guanabacoa. Scared the bejeezus out of her, actually. I remember flying up to Toronto to meet her right after 9/11. We ended up getting stuck there together for several days since Cuban planes were temporarily restricted from flying over U.S. airspace. We took advantage of the extra time in the big city and went shopping. I remember as we walked past a group of construction workers who were buying snacks from a truck, noone said a word. They looked, but didn’t dare comment. After we passed them I burst out laughing because it was such a contrast to the behavior of the men I’d mostly become accustomed to in Cuba. Civilized Canadian construction workers. What a refreshing change.

The other day as we were walking on the beach I made my way up close to a dune to collect some beach glass that had caught my eye. As my eyes were mostly downcast as I searched for treasures in the sand, I didn’t notice the Cuban man lurking in the sand dunes. When I caught up to my husband who had his eagle eyes focused on the guy, he told me I’d almost bumped into a tirador/pervertido, a guy who gets his thrills from watching women and will publically masturbate. Gross.

I once had a client who was indignant about a lifeguard at the Ancon beach who she perceived had been coming on to her. She reported that he repeatedly manhandled his package right in front of her. While I didn’t want to tell her that I doubted her version of the events, in reality I figure he was just adjusting it. The Canadian woman was not used to seeing a man so unabashedly and unashamedly scratching or moving his male parts around in public. Kind of like the nose-picking thing here. The first time I saw a Cuban woman happily picking boogers out of her nose in my office, my jaw dropped. When she noted my reaction she apologized, but this was clearly a cultural misunderstanding. What’s acceptable and “normal” here may be a totally different story in another country. It’s taken me a long time to learn this, but the best thing you can do is bite your tongue and just roll with it.