Poor for a Day

The evening after my friend left Vinales, a restaurant rejected my 100CUC note. They took everything else I had rather than break it. I was frustrated, but not surprised. It had been hard enough to find people to break a 50CUC note. I tried a few more places before someone pointed out that it wasn’t even Cuban money. It was a 100 Quetzales note, left over from Guatemala. When I returned to my casa particular to get more money, I found that all the cash I assumed was CUC was actually unusable currency. How had I managed to spend 350CUC (US$350) in four days? I ran the numbers through my head and stopped when I reached 230CUC in the middle of the third day. It was true. I had used it all. The next morning I tracked down some ATMs, tried a couple of cards in both banks and came up with nothing. I then took all five of my cards from St George and Westpac in to the branch and found that all were rejected. Nor would they change my remaining Australian dollars. I’d done my research and knew that US cards weren’t accepted, but Australian cards should be fine. I connected to the internet to get in touch with my bank to see what was wrong and found an article from Westpac stating that they followed US policy regarding money laundering etc, so cards could not be used in a few countries including Cuba. Being owned by Westpac, St George would have the same policy. Western Union, then, but according to their website they only had branches as far west as Havana. My panic began in earnest. I owed 30CUC to my

By |July 18th, 2018|Categories: Cuba|0 Comments

Cuban Micro-economics

In my limited understanding of socialism, everyone is meant to be equal. Everyone pulls their weight and the government ensures that everyone is housed and fed. With that in mind, I couldn’t understand why people mobbed the tourists getting off the bus in Vinales, pushing their casa particular as the best. Or why doctors only get paid 40CUC (US$40) per month but the driver of the vintage car charged 50CUC for an hour drive. Did this money all go to the government? Through numerous discussions with locals, I pieced together a rough view of how their lives work financially. The government takes most of what each person produces or earns—somewhere in the order of 90%--and lets them do them do what they like with the rest. One person wrote out the microeconomics of an average household for me. A family with two children, where Dad is an electrician and Mum is a nurse, has an income of about 50CUC per month. Utilities come to about 35CUC and a basic diet of beans and rice comes to about 17CUC, which leaves them short by 2CUC. When I suggested that cancelling the internet was the obvious solution, he pointed out that 15CUC was still not going to buy much in the way of vegetables and meat for 4 people for a month. So both parents end up taking additional jobs, usually in some form of tourism, which takes them up to, say, 110CUC. It’s still a very basic standard of living. This still doesn’t answer questions of house ownership or how people choose / are assigned careers or whether to live in the city or the country, but my trip to Cuba was cut short as

By |July 4th, 2018|Categories: Cuba|0 Comments

Contact Improvisation

Before I left Australia, I went on a date with a woman who did a form of dance called Contact Improvisation. She was particularly interested in the consensual aspect, and how people agreed what was and was not allowed during the dance. Otherwise, I’ve never come across this art form before my first night in Cuba. It was a performance at the Fabrica de Art Cubano (Cultural Centre) on a Friday night. My friend had invited me along to a night of enjoying art, music and mojitos. The art was impressive and often confronting, displaying a lot of nudity and what I imagined was commentary on socialism, but I’m no art critic. For me,  the highlight was the Contact Improvisation performance. From the descriptions I’d seen, I imagined it would be sensual, but I had no idea it would be so erotic – and it wasn’t the occasional hand-on-breast that made it erotic. It began with four men and five women sitting on stools at the back of the stage, each slowly moving to the rhythm of the electronic mood music playing through the speakers. Over the space of a few minutes, each stepped or rolled off their stool and began their own individual dance, that was essentially peacocking to get the attention of the other dancers. When one person saw some moves they could engage with, they approached the other dancer, who may or may not respond to the first dancer’s advances. It was this seduction, the times of non-contact, that made the dance so erotic. Throughout the hour they kept it up, I saw couples and threesomes form and disperse. I saw one man approach a lone woman dancing half into the

By |June 29th, 2018|Categories: Cuba|2 Comments

Cuban Cigars

Even the most hardened non-smoker can’t help but take an interest in cigars whilst visiting Cuba. I arrived in Viñales, a rural town at the western end of the island in the early afternoon and my casa particular host arranged for her brother-in-law to give me a walking tour of the area the same afternoon. He took me through some spectacular scenery to a coffee plantation, a cave and to pick mangos fresh off the tree, but the highlight was the tobacco farm. My guide handed me over to the owner of the farm, who showed me the shed where the leaves were dried before taking me to a shaded table where he explained the process of making cigars. Each leaf on the tobacco plant has different properties, providing flavour, smell or combustibility. He then showed me how to roll a cigar, magically transforming a bunch of leaves into the famous tubular shape, and explained the drying process which takes a further month or so. I assumed I’d be able to confirm the details online, but haven’t had any success, so if anyone can find a reference to this online, please let me know. Taking out a couple of cigars he’d prepared earlier, he showed me how to cut the end off, then dipped it in honey. He assured me that the leaves, and hence the cigar, was nicotine free, and bade me suck on the cigar while he lit it. I struggled to do that without inhaling the smoke, but in the end, I was puffing ungracefully on a genuine Cuban cigar. He explained that you could tell a quality cigar by how long the ash stayed in place, and after mine had

By |June 28th, 2018|Categories: Cuba|0 Comments

Culture Shock in Cuba

Havana had me feeling completely lost for the first time since visiting Hong Kong in 1995, where I couldn’t navigate myself out of the maze of clothes, electronics and luggage stores. Despite booking a casa particular before arriving in Cuba and exchanging multiple emails with the booking agency, my host seemed to have no idea I was coming. This turned out to be because he couldn’t match the way I said my name with the spelling he’d been given (I pronounce Murray as in Mario without the 'o', but Spanish speakers read it as moo-rah-y). His accent was really thick, which made any kind of conversation difficult. I was on my own. I hadn’t eaten properly since lunch 24 hours before, and Cuban tap water isn’t safe to drink, so finding food and water were priorities. I also had a whole set of wet clothes from a tour I did in Mexico the day before. Finally, I needed to catch a friend before she left for Vinales, which meant getting internet access. My mind was foggy from the humid heat as I ventured outside to begin my search. The many people standing around in the park at the end of my street looking at their phones and tablets marked it as a wi-fi hotspot, but I knew I would need a card to be able to log in. The first person I asked spoke so fast that I had to ask him to repeat a few times before I understood that I could buy a card from a hotel down the road. Because my tour in Cancun hadn’t finished until 10pm the night before, I hadn’t been alert enough to download a map of

By |June 25th, 2018|Categories: Cuba|1 Comment