Cycling Safely in Cuba

mark twain
Is your well-being paramount to the tour company you’re considering for your cycle trip in Cuba?  Should your eyebrows be raised if they are they promoting cycling experiences after dark, in the urban core of the city of Havana, or riding activities during the summer rainy season?

Yes, everyone knows that biking is coming back in vogue in Cuba (for us die-hard bike fanatics it never went out of style…), but as much as we love the sport, it’s not for everyone and it’s essential to be realistic when making your travel plan. Travelers engaging in short-duration bicycle excursions on a holiday are not always frequent riders, and may lack experience navigating urban traffic or otherwise underestimate some of the challenges of riding a bicycle in a foreign tropical country. WoWCuba / MacQueen’s Island Tours takes client safety very seriously and so urges anyone considering incorporating cycling into their travel itinerary in Cuba to keep in mind some of the red flags that are being raised at WoWCuba / MacQueen’s with several of the promos we’ve seen for new 2-wheeled adventures popping up around Cuba.
Biking in urban centers comes with certain risks.
Is the tour operator trying to sell you a Havana City Bike Tour focused only only gushing about the benefits…like appreciating the sights/sounds/smells of its busy streets from the seat of a bike? Are you picturing the wind running through your hair while your selfie stick sticks precariously out of the super-cute wicker basket on your beach cruiser’s handlebars and everything always turns out hunky-dory? If that’s the case, then they are probably sorely remiss in preparing you for the reality and risks of riding a bike in Havana.

One of them is traffic, especially in the urban center of Havana where designated bicycle lanes are practically non-existent. While Cuba’s capital was ahead of the times in the early 1990’s with its bike lanes and infrastructure, much of that has gone by the wayside. To get to/from Old Havana the bike (and passenger) boats still operate between Casablanca & Regla. When I see groups of tourists taking up the limited # of spots on these “shortcuts” originally intended for moving the local (not visiting) population, I sometimes feel that it’s unfair to locals who depend on these methods of transportation to conduct the essential activities of their daily lives. We also have the bike bus that connects Habana Vieja to Habana del Este, but the special bike lanes in the city core disappeared with the Special Period. So don’t let them kid you with clever travel copy. Yes, a trip designer can always try and pick some of the lesser-travelled streets when designing a cycling route without leaving Havana’s urban center. But if you ask anyone in Cuba with half a notion of what the term elevated liability means, they’ll agree that you almost need an extra set of eyes in the back of your head to safely navigate Havana streets by bicycle these days.
Havana drivers (and their sometimes rickety cars) are not particularly courteous to each other, much less to cyclists, and there are several areas where cycling is in fact prohibited. Even along the iconic Malecon seawall and 5th Avenue in Miramar, where the non-allowance of cycling activities is signaled by a sign with a bicycle in the middle and red circular band around the outside.

Noxious vehicle fumes (or the stench of garbage rotting in heat) are another negative for cyclists in Cuban cities. This remains a frequent report of detracting factors to city riding. Getting out of the city altogether and heading east or west are two of the best ways to avoid some of the above hazards. .

Helmets are not the law in Cuba, but if you value your head…
We’re not sure what self-respecting bicycle company would not provide helmets for their clients, or neglect to ensure that they use them while riding in Cuba, but as advocates for helmet use based on a lifetime of professional and retail experience, we suggest you don’t leave your safety up to chance. Just use a helmet while riding. Brain injuries happen when you’re least expecting them, and not protecting your non-returnable hard drive with one of today’s lightweight/vented helmets is simply not smart. A company that offers you a bike tour while claiming they look out for your safety, but then neglect to take responsibility for something as basic as committing to providing a helmet on a bicycle tour is probably not a true specialist in cycling activities.

Biking in the rain in Cuba can be hazardous.
With a high number of diesel-fuel vehicles on Cuban roads, a film often coats paved road surfaces, making them very slippery when wet. This is especially true at intersections where concrete is more common than asphalt. It can be a braking hazard for those unfamiliar with local road conditions. Rainy season in Cuba typically runs from May to October and rain is more common in the afternoon than morning.

WoWCuba’s tour leaders inform riders of what to expect in rainy conditions before they occur, and our support vehicle is always present when needed as back-up. The decision to ride is ultimately the client’s, but our team always makes participants aware of potential weather and road-related hazards in advance so that riders’ awareness is raised when riding conditions are less than ideal.

Summer temperatures in Cuba are not ideal for cycling.
Besides being rainy season, higher summer temperatures in Cuba can lead to an elevated risk of dehydration for cyclists in Cuba. If you choose to cycle in Cuba in the summer, be sure to always have an adequate supply of potable water. This may not be readily available in retail outlets. A bicycle tour company that suggest clients take care of their own water needs could be risking their dehydration.
WoWCuba’s guided group cycling programs shut down for the summer as we simply feel that the combination of heat and humidity make it a less than ideal time of the year for that type of trip in Cuba. Filtered water is provided for all rides with WoWCuba and immodium is not always available in Cuban pharmacies.

Bicycle repair shops are generally not well-stocked in Cuba.
There are few places where cyclists can purchase spare parts in Cuba, so independent cyclists must be prepared with basic toolkits and spare parts for their equipment. “Poncheras”, or tire repair outlets, do exist and getting a flat repaired is not usually difficult or expensive, providing the tube/tire damage is limited to a puncture (not a blowout).

Riding at night is not recommended.
Well-lit areas are few and far between in Cuba, and night riding is not recommended in Cuba. Even if you have lights and reflective gear, not all drivers will be looking out for cyclists, and with a general absence of designated cycling areas plus Cubans who continue to mix alcohol and driving (elevated risk for this after dark), then you (or the tour operator you choose for your adventure) could be taking your life into your hands by riding at night.

Does your guide team have first aid training?
WoWCuba’s tour leaders are trained to international standards as first aid responders and carry basic first aid supplies in the tour bus at all times, in addition to being in contact with the national public health system’s network for any emergencies that go beyond the scope of their training. Our team is certainly not immune from handling the occasional minor accident, but their accumulated knowledge and training has undeniably come in handy over the years when dealing with a variety of unexpected health complications on tour. If the cycling trip you’re considering :
-is accompanied by Cuban “tour guide” with no official government tour guide accreditation
-has no support vehicle or in-house back-up plan for transporting injured/incapacitated riders
-has no staff with first-aid training certification
then you should be prepared to accept the consequences of signing on for a tour that might be improvisational and carries higher than just the inherent risks of cycling in general.

WoWCuba advocates for a safe, sustainable bicycling experience in Cuba. Choose wisely when comparing tour operators for any active travel endeavours.


Is it time for a US Revolution?

When my father shipped me off to work in Cuba over half a lifetime ago, I recall being posed some political questions by a Canadian radio interviewer. Which I evaded, as I hardly considered myself an expert in the area of politics. I was only just beginning my adult life in this foreign land famous for its bearded leader and Communist party, in a world where only a handful of nations governed by a Communist Party remain. When Nixon was president and before we started elementary school, my parents uprooted their young family and moved us from Cape Cod to the birthplace of our paternal grandparents, the Canadian Maritimes. Growing up in rural Prince Edward Island in the era of Canadian television content, we were a CBC radio and TFC (two effin’ channels) household. My siblings & I fought for space in front of the family’s small black & white television (powered by our home’s windmill) to watch Mr. Dressup, The Friendly Giant, Fraggle Rock, The Edison Twins, Beachcombers, The Nature of Things with David Suzuki, Degrassi Junior High, The Littlest Hobo, Seeing Things, Danger Bay, Video Hits with Samantha Taylor, re-runs of Don Messer’s Jubilee, the John Allen Cameron Show, On the Road Again, The Kids in the Hall, You Can’t Do That on Television!, and who can forget Hockey Night in Canada, a ritual for at least half the country. We usually avoided Question Period because who wanted to listen to a bunch of politicians arguing back & forth and insulting each other in Ottawa? Peter Mansbridge was a better watch on The National, but we’d only appreciate his journalistic talents (and be able to stay up that late) as we grew older. Sure, we had Disney, Sesame Street, Archie Bunker or American soap operas like Dallas and All My Children. But we watched a lot of purely Canadian tv when we weren’t running around outside, biking to friends’ houses, playing board games, listening to 8 tracks/records/tapes, studying, practicing music, reading, doing chores or actually working (because in Canada, unlike our counterparts in Cuba, we almost always had part time jobs as kids). We didn’t have an Atari, but my brother did get a Commodore 64 when home computers were just coming out. We sometimes wiled away entire afternoons on that thing taking turns doing the powerlift game. How’s that for nostalgia? Sundays when Dad was home we were usually forced to listen to the Royal Canadian Air Farce followed by an hour of Gilmour’s Albums and Clyde’s classical musical selections, much to our chagrin, as our popular preference, more in line with those of our peers, would’ve been Casey Casem’s Top 40. Once I began studying at university and moved to larger urban centers, we had access to cable television to distract us. And American shows like Oprah Winfrey, The Price is Right, Seinfeld, Friends. All very entertaining and a great way to fill the time on your lunch hour or during those cold Canadian nights at home with your roommates.

I’d like to believe that the media we were exposed to in Canada didn’t result in our dumbing down. I know we all look back fondly on a lot of those programs we followed as kids and the core values they instilled in us as Canadians. And of course I realize that the way people access and view media today in Canada and most of the rest of the world is a whole other story. But when I arrived in Cuba in the early 1990’s, it was clear that I still had a vast amount to learn about how the rest of the world works. Little by little, my view of world politics and media in general has expanded. I’m still far from an expert, but I am grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to step outside of the bubble of the developed world and explore how things operate on the other side of the spectrum. The family I married into has undoubtedly influenced my thinking and knowledge of the political system. My Cuban husband studied international relations in Kiev. My father-in-law’s career focused largely in Cuban diplomacy, followed by a very long and distinguished career in Cuban Parliament. My mother-in-law is spending her retirement writing historical books. She taught philosophy for a time at the University of Havana, and later worked in Cuba’s foreign ministry until her retirement. Conversations sometimes get so heated at our family gatherings that we have had to ban the subject of politics. The ban isn’t always effective.

One of the things that I discovered early on (and at first, in my immaturity and naïveté, I had a hard time swallowing this) is that propaganda in the United States is spread by both government and media entities. You don’t want to believe a nation has been duped and so you first think whoever is telling you this must be paranoid. While Pope John Paul was making a historic visit to Cuba that was supposed to be reported on by Christiane Amanpour, all of a sudden all of the CNN coverage (which we were “privileged” to have at the time in our state aparthotel) that was to be directed to the papal visit to Cuba was suddenly diverted to the story on Monica Lewinski and where Bill Clinton was directing her to insert Cuban cigars. As if that were an event that merited the amount of media coverage and resources that it was assigned. For weeks we’d been anticipating an historic visit by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church with the leaders and people of Cuba. Posters were everywhere, even the non-religious were excited about this kind of a visit. But for the US media, it was long forgotten the minute the Lewinsky story was leaked. Illicit sexual liasons in the White House? Obviously a higher priority for American viewers. Some of the best documentaries by Oliver Stone have been censored in the US because it is not convenient to US authorities’ interests that unflattering (but accurate) information about their activities be distributed to the US population. Did you know that in the US, data on ownership and market share of media companies isn’t even held in the public domain? Doesn’t that sound fishy to you? You wouldn’t think information on who owns the media should be shielded from the public that consumes it. Unless, of course, there were some convert operations or ulterior motives someone (or something, like the CIA, perhaps) were trying to keep hidden. Such as brainwashing the US public with American heroes, GI Joe crap, and scare tactics about the supposed “enemy”. Free speech, hold it dear. Except (psst), who exactly controls the content that dominates all your feeds, channels and theaters? Do you know? Take Michael Moore, for example. He independently produces some compelling documentaries on some of the top issues that you would think should be addressed by the US government today, including gun control, the fast food industry, health care, conspiracies and more. He even correctly predicted that Trump would win office. Yet the mainstream US media consistently portrays him as a propagandist, a leftist (as if that were a crime), an alarmist, and even (gasp!) an a—hole. Someone pipes up and talks about some of the most alarming issues in his nation, but in order to keep the status quo (and satisfy the interests of the transnationals that really control the US government), their media channels immediately swoop in to discredit the source of the information not on their agenda. The current US cabinet with a collective net worth of $4.3 billion dollars (or roughly 1/3 of the wealth of the entire country) are probably slapping each other on their greedy backs and having a great laugh over being able to keep the country entertained as long as they already have already with The Donald’s multiple deficiencies and colossal flubs. Meanwhile, they’ve effectively managed to move very efficiently during his presidency so far to:
-get out of the Paris climate agreement. We all know that the US is one of the largest contributors to global warming. But their president (in 2017) is in denial of science and publically declares this with a straight face. Do we believe this is possible, or is Trump the buffoon at the helm just extremely convenient to the pockets of the companies of his administration bros?
-set back Obamacare and get out of those pesky obligations to improve health care access for Americans
-roll back diplomatic advances Obama worked hard to make with Cuba, after half a decade of estrangement.
Really the list is too long to go on. But even those closest to Trump have declared that he’s easily manipulated. He must be equivalent to a transnational’s wet dream.

The veto powers of a US president are clearly too great, and what exists today in the USA does not even closely resemble a democracy. You have just two parties that have controlled the US Congress since 1856, both with weak central organizations. And there’s not much that really differentiates one from the other in terms of ideology – the fact that some US organizations contribute to both parties’ campaign funds clearly suggests that they fundamentally represent the same (primarily economic, not social) interests. Over the past several decades US presidents have worked toward achieving undivided control of the executive branch, to the point where they are now operating like kings without the checks and balances that were intended to govern their democratic systems. With a questionably sane chump like Trump at the helm, controlling the world’s most expensive military and second largest nuclear arsenal, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I find it deeply concerning. I mean the man over-uses Twitter, a social media platform limiting its user to 140 characters or less, to get his puzzling and polarizing messages out to the world. Is this what the role of the President of the United States has been reduced to? Dumbed Down Personified?

Participation in US federal elections (comically portrayed as national race between the political parties – I say “portrayed” because this seems to me to be just another, albeit very expensive, US-funded entertainment program, not an actual exercise in democracy), requires huge amounts of money. For advertising, which benefits…..(yeah, you guessed it)…the US media, who else? As has long been a criticism of international election observers, and became all too clear with Trump’s win, the imbalanced way in which US congressional districts are set up means the conclusions are really foregone, and that competitiveness of these election contests doesn’t truly exist as it would in a genuine democracy where the majority vote wins. In the USA, only the wealthy or those with wealthy donors in their pockets can afford to postulate as candidates. We the people?! The Occupy movement? The majority crushed by the 1%.

Moving on to the country that I actually reside in most of the year, here are some facts that you may not be aware of… Municipal elections begin tonight in Cuba, where they don’t claim their system is perfect. But it’s their system. If there are things you don’t like about it, as a Cuban citizen there are outlets to voice your concern or file your complaint. Voting isn’t compulsory but it’s indeed popular here. The information slip my husband received to vote today Oct. 20 at 8 pm from the Electoral Commission reads quite simply that according to the Electoral Law, he has the right to vote in the Assembly for the Nomination of Delegates to the Municipal Assembly of the People’s Power. It gives him the time & place to go (within walking distance of our home, of course) should he choose to participate in the election as a Cuban citizen. He knows he should take his Cuban Identify Card (every single Cuban has one of these, with a unique #, their thumbprint and photograph attached). No one will rebuke him, consider him un-revolutionary, or threaten his job if he were to skip the vote. You laugh? I do too, as I’ve actually repeatedly read some of those theories in US media and I just can’t believe that anyone in Cuba (in their right mind) has actually reported that’s the case. So I can only assume it’s simply more disingenuous US propaganda.

Some of you out there don’t realize we have democratic elections in Cuba. Well, surprise, surprise, they exist, and they start from the bottom up. In the first phase, delegates are elected to the Municipal Assembly, and in the second phase, deputies are elected to the Provincial and National Assemblies. Surprisingly, no political parties (including the Communist Party of Cuba) are permitted to campaign. Which means we don’t have to put up with the stupid slander, lies or insulting behavior that you often see in elections in countries where big money is at stake for the power-grab. Or, better yet, waste a whole lot of money on that funny business when it could be put to better use improving the quality of life for the country’s citizens. It’s not to say a little more real debate at the grassroots and national levels wouldn’t be a bad thing. But the expensive media circus isn’t what I’d like to see, of that I’m sure.

So how do Cubans know who do vote for? Simply consult the candidates’ biographies/photos which are posted in public locations. Vote based on their merit – a choice of municipal candidates will be available, nominated by individual electors or grass-roots organizations in nomination assemblies rather than by small committees of political parties. Voter turnout in Cuba is exceptionally high (95% or higher) because not only Cubans but many other Latin Americans today know and accept that it’s their civic duty to participate in choosing their government leaders, and they fully recognize that every vote counts. Most Cubans actually care about politics. In the US, many ordinary citizens have given up, believing they are powerless to counteract the influences of the wealthy interests/corporations/unions/PAC’s on their political system. Fidel’s famous literacy campaign in the early years of the Revolution eradicated illiteracy in Cuba, meaning the peasants could no longer be kept in the dark. Especially those of the disenfranchised, the poorest citizens, those who want their voice heard. Our neighbors to the north would do well to learn that lesson when the 2020 US federal elections come around again – barely half of eligible voters in the US bother to cast their ballot. Many others (especially minorities) are prevented from doing so for a lack of transportation, resources, viable identification, economic inability to leave their workplace and a host of other issues impeding their voter registration. In countries like Australia you can actually face a fine for not voting. Of compulsory voting, Obama once said: “If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country.”

The President of Cuba (referred to as the President of the Council of State) is also the President of the Council of Ministers of Cuba, the head of government. The Council of Ministers (the Cabinet consisting of the President, Vice President, 7 Vice Presidents of the State Council, heads of national ministries, the Executive Committee Secretary and other lawfully-established members), is Cuba’s highest ranking executive and the administrative body of the nation’s government. The Executive Committee consists of the President and Vice Presidents of the Council of State, the Secretary and ministers chosen by the President. Policy agreements are authorized by the National Assembly, and the Council of Ministers is responsible for their implementation, designating that task to individual ministries. General plans for economic and social development are proposed by the council, which the National Assembly authorizes twice yearly. Cuba’s President, Raul Castro, will step down in 2018. If he is elected to the National Assembly, many assume that Miguez Diaz-Canel Bermudez could be Cuba’s next President.

Cuba’s foreign policy and its relations with other governments is directed by the Council of Ministers. It approves international treaties before they are passed to the Council of State for ratification (much like the Senate, in Canada). It oversees and directs the State budget and foreign trade. Laws authorized by the National Assembly are passed by the Council of State and enforced by the Council of Ministers. They can sometimes be almost maddeningly slow in their pace of implementation with certain national policies (for example, the perfection of the new non-agricultural cooperative systems). And sometimes it seems like they’re learning and adjusting as they go – Cuba’s ironing out a lot of wrinkles right now with their taxation and audit systems for the private sector, a recently expanded sector of the national economy. Cubans haven’t had to pay much in taxes until relatively recently, and on the overall scale, they’re still coming off fairly easily compared to Canadian income tax rates if truth be known. Being largely a cash economy, a considerable amount of tax evasion appears to be going on and the authorities are struggling with how to control that. Although they tout efficiency as one of their lofty ideals, bureaucracy is the real norm here. In Canada we’re somewhat used to things being bureaucratic, but admittedly, Cuba goes above & beyond.
However, Cuba certainly doesn’t end up with a cabinet with a collective net worth of $4.3 billion accepting bribes left & right and shielding their money in offshore accounts, of that you can be absolutely certain! In Cuba, with the exception of the President, politicians live in regular neighborhoods, in regular houses, and live many of the same day-to-day routines as working class Cubans, and largely they can still relate closely to the problems in Cuban society. In Cuba they’d have a cow if their system were that corrupt. I can recall the story of a lady selling black market cheese door-to-door, when she unknowingly knocked on Carlos Lage’s door some years back, seeing if he would be interested in purchasing some of the cheese she was selling made with milk diverted from the state’s supply. In the US you couldn’t get that close to someone that high in the government without having a security detail all over you. It probably shouldn’t have happened here either – something was obviously remiss, but you get the point. He wasn’t living in some gated/gilded mansion with a pool in Miramar, despite all of the responsibility he was assuming in his government position.

Although they disingenuously claim they want “democracy” restored to Cuba, our neighbors to the north have violated the United Nations charter through countless assassination attempts on Fidel Castro, and even in modern days continue to attempt to undermine Cuban democratic processes, often under the guise of “USAID”. But Cuban officials have been on to their underhanded tactics, which have largely been a colossal failure, for years. It’s almost part of their doctrine. They try and sneak in, then Cuba exposes them. Cubans don’t believe that the US is promoting their watered-down version of “democracy” to the rest of the world out of the goodness of their own hearts, rather they promote their own interests above all others, which has always been and continues to be America First. This concept was not invented by the Donald. The US is not out there to save the world, the environment, or all of a sudden interested in ensuring those who work in the garment trade in India are paid a fair working wage, or that desperately-needed vaccines are provided with affordable prices by US transnational pharmaceutical companies to those in dire need in Africa, in order to preserve lives. Is anyone really that naïve? Maybe, but in Cuba the wool was torn off Cubans’ eyes more than half a decade ago. The United States wants to retain their dominance of the world economy, and in order for a small segment of Americans to live a lifestyle of relative (and in some cases extreme) excess, then the overwhelming majority of citizens of the rest of the planet must sacrifice. This is the only doctrine the US insists on actively ensuring is followed. Many Cubans would like to see changes implemented in their system, and in a more efficient manner. They would like more transparency on government spending, on projects like Mariel. For youth to feel like their country has a promising economic future, to stem the flow of talented professionals out of Cuba. They want mechanisms to truly support the private sector, rather than in name only. And for a media that offers constructive criticism of their system and its leaders, not one that pats everyone on the back and neglects the real issues facing Cuba today. We’re in the midst of some important transformations and many Cubans want to see their vision of Cuba realized from the inside out. But some are getting tired of the bureaucratic wheels and their lack of grease / ability to adjust to today’s challenges at the rate at which they are being presented.

In Canada we can elect a Prime Minister to as many terms as we wish. We don’t limit ourselves to 8 years of good leadership if we have one that is doing a bang-up job and willing to continue to serve us. In July an unpopular tax reform was introduced in Canada and after public outcry and debate, in October the government stood down as the private sector is the backbone of Canada’s economy. It didn’t take them 8 years to come to their senses. It seems to me that this is a sensible way to keep one’s citizens content, with effective and admirable leadership and a sound moral compass to guide us through good and difficult times. It’s too bad that Obama couldn’t have run for another term because in his absence, and after Bernie Sanders very unfortunately loss to Hillary Clinton (do take another read through the link on his political positions – it might make you nostalgic like it did me, and wonder “what if”….), the US voting public was left with 2 unappealing choices and the unthinkable transpired. The US voting public elected an idiotic, pu—y-grabbing, lying, unqualified, egotistical, bullying, incompetent excuse for a man to be the leader of their “democratic” government. By allowing that to happen, the US government has chosen to abandon universal goals and their offensive choice for their nation’s world representative is isolating them abroad. They are not an ally to be trusted. As Winston Churchill once said, “There are no eternal friends or eternal enemies, only eternal interests”. In Cuba, as in Canada, on the other hand, the continuity of the nations’ long-term national and sustainable global development goals is ensured. Cuba is not abandoning its commitment to the planet, to supporting other nations in need and within its means. According to the WWF’s 2016 Living Planet Report, “Cuba has the most sustainable model of development on the planet”. That’s something to be proud of and to look to as an example of what to strive for in the future as a nation and as a planet. According to a Telesur article (our really great news source in the southern part of the Americas, conceived as a joint nations project to counteract the US propaganda machine): “Cuba…was found to have implemented a good — yet not perfect—combination of human development and environmental footprint, with a high level of alphabetization and a high level of life expectancy, while using little energy and natural resources.” In Cuba & Canada we have universal health care. Education is free up to Grade 12 in Canada, and through post-secondary institutions in Cuba. We are committed to global goals. It’s high time the  citizens of the country in the middle started standing up for their rights and demanding more humane, rational action from their government. Maybe they need a new political party to stir up some real change because it’s certainly not happening with the establishment. Maybe a Revolution is what they need.

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.