Cuba pt. 1
There is really only one way I can write my post about our experiences in Havana and it has everything to do with a man named Alexey.
We met Alexey by the fort on the bay during our first full day in Cuba. We had already been stopped twice by nice older men wanting to chat and we had been tying to get home this whole time to get our passports. Of course we were not perturbed and it is always a wonderful learning experience when a native wants to chat, but we reeeeaaally had to go exchange money. So when Alexey came up I was already ready to shut down the conversation. But he quickly started to be honest with us and give us good advice for the day and evening so we continued the chat.
He started with a piece of honesty we had begun to pick up on: The people here have a strong urge to talk to you as foreigners. Let's be clear, they will always want something. And unlike Telluride nothing will be free. But they are a poor communist country without means of changing their social class so sadly the black market is their best means of income, whether that be fruit carts, selling knick knacks or offering taxi rides in their personal car. He offered to give us a walking tour of Habana, and of course this kind of tour would be counted as a part of the black market since it cannot be regulated by the government. We got a mojito with him and decided to say yes to his offer. I was still slightly wary but let him take the reigns of the day and guide us-- turns out he took us to some amazing places all in one day! Por ejemplo: the Jesus statue comparable to the one in Rio, the santoria area called Callejon de Jahmel, the fort across the bay, into a house that sold the cheapest Cuban cigars, to the best pizza joint in the area, to a bank with a black market section to exchange our money and into a friend's house when I had to pee. But the events were only one small part of the day. He taught us the Cuban way for many things and offered us insight to his country as well.
Early on, he gave us the rules de Havana if you want to survive:
1. Never drink the tap water
2. Don't buy from the streets, go in people's houses for things
3. If you want alcohol, buy the bottle and mixer separately and pregame.
AKA don't even buy street sodas unless they are canned in de lata, learn how to listen and feel cigars before buying y casetas are delicious and easy to make yourself.
He also said that the only crime in Cuba is not knowing how to salsa! So by tonight we will be set. And honestly, Alexey is truthful. Yes, people will talk to you because they are hungry or need money. But other than that small annoyance I've never felt safer faster while simultaneously not being comfortable with a language than in Cuba. People just want to talk to you most of the time and see where you're from. Granted there are a high number of annoying men that holler at you on the street via kissy noises but it is harmless if you ignore the feeling of disrespect. To them it is only appreciation.
I've also started to realize that this adventure will progress one person and relationship at a time. We talked to 3 groups of people before trying to get back to our hostel and eventually were convinced to go dance instead of going home for a siesta. Most people just have ins and outs they want to share and they know that you think they want something, so most are transparent and go along their merry way if you deny them. If they want to teach you to dance, sell you wifi or play you music they will do so right there and then. And because so much of it revolves around their love of the arts and music (and women) I embrace the forwardness as it throws you right into the culture. In fact, my favorite lesson so far has been in patience. I've never been so called out for my "impatience" so much than I have in Cuba and in small situations that I didn't initially think twice about. Brooke and I downed our drinks while half standing and checking our watches. We also ran across the street and stood in the middle of high traffic to cross the other lanes. Alexey couldn't understand what the rush was always for, and in that way he's already taught us a lot. Cubans have been patient for decades so now it just comes naturally and they live slower. I think there is beauty in this slowness.
On that note though, be prepared to spend a lot of money. It is comparable to cheap American prices, not like Southeast Asia or anything. Though they are decades behind and live in crumbling concrete houses they are still communist which drives the prices up. This undermines everyone and empowers no one which i see as one of the biggest issues with Cuba. For example, Alexey used to be a full-time teacher and was paid the equivalent of $17 a month. This is why he switched over to giving tours where he can pocket all the money himself. But even after becoming friends we ended up paying for all the drinks that night due to intentional miscommunication on his part. We were not offended though because by then we understood that no matter what, the Cuban people are survivalists. "Try to enjoy my country, don't try to understand it. It is fucking crazy."
As one of the top countries with the highest ratio of natives to immigrants Cuba really does know what it itself is all about. They know dancing and music are life. They know pizza is delicious. They know how to make things work. And more than anything they know how to be patient and wait, especially when conditions don't cater towards comfort.
Now for some Cuban clarifications:
Cuban rum: the Bacardi owner used to be in Cuba and moved to America to make billions
Cuban cigar cutter: bite the end off.
Cuban beer: Cristal.
Cuban breakfast: involves bread, definitely save the rice for lunch.
Cuban dinner: either spaghetti or pizza but definitely something hot since the heat of the day has subsided.
Cuban baby Jesus: white in figurines but God is always black. No one knows how that one happened.
Cuban snakebite: cigar fumes in, take a shot of rum and a sip of beer, blow out. (Ok actually this one was mine. They didn't love it.)
Anyways, if you find yourself in Havana and want to take a walking tour with this charismatic realistic kind cubano, call this number once in Cuba and say we sent ya: 052734209