I had an epiphany yesterday.
While I was consuming my rum that was meant to be a gift back in the U.S. and feeling sorry for myself for again running out of money, the German girls we had met the previous night showed up at our rooftop hotel pool. The Germans are medical students on internships, working at Havana’s main hospital, and have been living in Cuba for about five months. Oh, and they speak flawless Spanish. This is important currency in Cuba.
I made them rum drinks too, and we sat for a while, chatting by the water. A German guy who is in Cuba studying economics was there too. I told them I was out of money. They said $16 was definitely not out of money, and if I was hungry we should go get some food. They knew the area very well, and around 6 we walked about 20 minutes into the true heart of central Havana, where the streets became very residential and poorer, and many street peddlers sell onions and pineapples and golf-ball sized lemons, and people sit on plastic stools outside their open doors smoking cigarettes and drinking tiny coffees.
We stopped at a cafeteria they had been to before – a square hole cut into a worn building with a small counter, and a handful of plastic tables, and graffiti that covered the walls. I ordered a chicken leg with a tangy, tomato-y sauce that came with rice and cucumbers and mashed plantains cooked with garlic and onions until they were almost like mashed potatoes. We all had bean soups and mango juices to drink, too, and when we were done and paid, I owed the equivalent of $1.70 for my share.
And it was delicious. I asked one of the girls what the place was called.
“I have no idea,” she said. “There are cafeterias like this everywhere, they don’t really have names, they just have food.”
She told me that the best food in Cuba comes from places like these, and from people’s houses. When they traveled to Santiago recently, when they were hungry they would stop by an open door with wafts of cooking meat drifting onto the street and ask if they could eat. That, apparently, is fairly normal. The owner of the house would then make them a plate of whatever she or he was fixing and they would in turn give her 1 CUC (a dollar).
“Cuba is complicated,” one of them told me. “It takes several weeks just to figure out.”
There is the fact that as many have told me, there are two official pricings for everything in the country: one for Cubans, and one for tourists. Cubans buy books for pennies and go to the theatre for 2 CUCs, while tourists see the same shows for often $200 or $300. Cubans take short taxis for 50 cents while tourists pay $5 or $10 and long taxis for $15 while tourists pay $100 or $200. That inside affordability in some ways accounts for Cuba being incredibly cultured. Even a street sweeper can have a conversation about literature and art. Food is the same in terms of the different pricing and drinks are the same. And to add to the confusion, tourists are given CUCs while Cubans used CUPs – about 25 of which are worth a dollar, I believe, and the CUP price is often not listed if it’s a place where many tourists go. It’s almost as if you need to know the words that act as passwords for entry into the secret world of cheap living.
Then there is the culture of bartering and haggling. If you take someone at their word, you can go ahead and assume you’re getting ripped off.
“Rule No. 1,” Luy told me in Santa Clara, “is ever accept the first price.”
Then there is the urge to pay a fair wage to people who badly need the money. The average Cuban makes less than 70 CUCs (dollars) a month – not enough to live on. They receive a booklet from the government at the beginning of the month which subsidizes staples like milk and meat and coffee and bread and rice. But it will last only maybe ten days, people have told me. The rest of the month, they have to scrap.
“No es facile” – it’s not easy – is a common phrase in Cuba, whether it refers to unavailability, dysfunction or simply not having enough money.
Still, the divide between the haves and have nots in a supposedly socialist state is growing, and rapidly. Those who are in the tourism business can make hundreds of CUCs a day. And with the surge in Americans bringing only cash, the obligation to report their income is released.
It’s hard to know how to help Cuba and how to be in Cuba and how to know Cuba.
After dinner, we stopped by a street vendor and split a bottle of $5 rum and went to the Germans’ apartment where they made us tiny coffees with sugar and then rum with limes. Tired from the long night the previous night, I left for my hotel when they prepared to go dancing.
One of the German girls put me in a cab, yelled at the taxi driver for a while and instructed me to only pay 10 pesos – the equivalent of about 40 cents. I’d had a pretty great day, and I’d spent less than $5. Maybe Cuba is as cheap as dirt after all. Maybe I’ve finally figured it out.
And of course, I’m leaving.
This morning, as last night, half the lights in our room – including the bathroom – decided to stop working. So I showered and packed in the dark and then went downstairs to catch the cab that David, our Cuban friend, had set up for me so that I would pay about $20 for the 45-minute trip to the airport and not $50. But after 15 minutes of waiting, he still wasn’t there. Another taxi pulled up, beckoning, and I asked him how much. Sixty, he said. I shook my head and told him he was loco. Fifty he said. I turned and walked away. “Mira, mira, mira,” he said. “Que quieres a pagare?” – What do you want to pay?
Twenty-five, I said, having been loaned exactly that much from Lindsey – poor soul, who is still puking her guts out. He nodded, and I got in.
At the airport, I spent $4.50 on another bottle of rum and $5 on two small bags of Cuban coffee, and then stood in line for 40 minutes for a café con leche with the last of my CUCs. When I boarded my plane, I was greeted with a glass of sparkling wine, suddenly rich again.