The following days were all spent on foot walking almost every block of Havana. Most days I had the wonderful company of my mom. I did spend one day by myself, which was by and far the least successful day of photography. Beyond enjoying the experience with my mom, she also acted as an insulator from all the locals trying to hustle as well as an ice breaker for all the people we talked to.
Cuba has recently allowed it’s citizens to own private property and run their own business, often out of their home. Coming from a capitalist country the idea that these people living in for generations in a home they don’t own is so incredibly mind-boggling. Anyway, the owner of this home was young. We’ll call her Elena for the sake of a name, I don’t intend to use her actual name. The home she owned was an entire floor of a large high rise building, about ten floors up. It was a large floor plan that she partitioned off. About a quarter of the space was her private domicile. She lived in this space with her mother, father, and child. I imagine it was a couple bedrooms, a small family room, and the kitchen. The rest of the space was separated into three other rooms with double occupancy or more, each with their own bathroom. The rooms went for about $35 a night. This seemed to be the going rate in Vedado. At some point we stayed in another families home for a night. The room was smaller, but the amenities the same. There was a maid during the morning hours that would prepare a small breakfast for us. Usually fruit, eggs, a cereal of some sort and coffee/tea. Just outside the common areas where we met with other tourists was a very large and very scenic balcony.
Each day started the same. We would wake up in the awesome home we were staying at, enjoy breakfast, decide on what equipment I was taking out for the day, and then go for a little stroll to El Malecon where the main rode ran along. We would hail a cab or a motorcycle cab to take us to Havana. It was a pretty 10min ride that costs about $5 or $6 each way. A few mornings I walked this, and a few evenings I walked it back.
Cuba is super safe and I never felt threatened with my camera on display. There are tourists everywhere, most commonly from Canada and South America. This made finding people to talk to easy, when I wanted to. Most countries I’ve been to have some sort of hustle. Some sort of game that the locals play to appeal to your sympathetic side so you donate some money to them. Generally it’s been, “my child is sick”, “we’re poor”, or they offer to sell me some trinket they’ve made for several dollars. Sometimes I cave, most often I won’t. I feel a little cold when I don’t give them money, I know that my american dollar is so much more influential for them than it is for me. But I also need to save my pennies, I don’t makes THAT much money at all.
Cuba’s game is totally different and caught me off guard all the time. They offer you help or guidance often, even if you say no, and they are very persistent. The first time this happened I didn’t even realize it. We met a Cuban man on the street who introduced himself as Uri (fake name for sake of protection), which was obviously a Russian name. He walked with us for some time sensing we were not from Cuba. He told us stories about where to go, where to eat, drink, see art. He took us to a small cobble stone street where all the artists gather to display their work on weekends. He explained to us how he came to have a Russian name, since so much of their imports comes from Russia. Everything from planes, to alcohol, to education. Children learn two or three languages in school: spanish, english, and russian. Uri then showed us MN, the national money that Cuban’s use, which is completely different than CUC, the money tourists use. It’s a different exchange rate and why so many Cubans in Havana like to be given CUC by tourists, it’s worth so much more than their MN. We made friends with Uri, he even gave me 5MN for me to keep. I was grateful, and then he dropped the hammer asking us for a couple bucks since he was so helpful in showing us around. He was really nice so we had no problem tipping him, it was a service which is slightly more appealing than begging. Now we were wise to it, no more blindly accepting tour guides.
This was the core of the Cuban hustle, some cold opening to talk to you, followed by aggressively trying to show you around. The day that I walked about by myself I must have been approached by at least seven or eight people trying to show me the sights. They would call out to me in spanish, “Hey! What time is it”? Seemingly harmless, could be a question that anyone asks. I’d look to my watch to answer and then BOOM, he’s walking with me down a half block asking me questions about where I’m from, their love for New York and the Yankees, and asking my where I’m trying to go. I’d tell them I’m not interested and after several times telling them I don’t have any need for a guide or money to give them they would leave. I can’t tell you how many Cubans don’t have watches and needed to know the time every time I walked past them. It got to a point where I thought I would solve the problem by taking my watch off. Nope. The game then became, let’s guess what kind of hispanic Diego is. “Oye! Mexico!”, “Oye, Guatemala!”, “Oye, Equador”. I got the full gamut of South America. They could tell that I wasn’t Cuban by my camera, and I guess I have an ambiguous ethnic look that they couldn’t nail down. This hustle sort of irked me, I’m not even sure why. I don’t think it’s insulting in anyway to be called Mexican or Colombian, I know many hispanics that are super proud of their nationality and hate to have it confused. All my life my ethnic background and upbringing has been convoluted to a point where I have a “go to” sentence to explain it quickly. Anyway, it got to a point where I started to play a new game. I would give them three tries to guess my nationality or ethnicity before I fully ignored them. Maybe that was rude, but after being constantly approached all day I was over it.
I walked around for a while but kept finding myself returning to the same central square. It must’ve been all the vintage cars parked outside. I walked up and down the aisles of cars, and eventually met another hustler. We’ll call him Marco. Marco was cool. He spoke very fluent English, and we understood right away that I wanted a ride in one of the classic cars and he wanted a couple books. We talked for a little while and then asked me if I had been to the Buena Vista Social Club. This is where the band with the same name had played, if you haven’t heard them go check them out. He took me there, we hung at the bar a few minutes and we got mojitos. I say we because he implied he wanted one as well. They weren’t cheap and he seemed to know the bartender. He probably gets a kick back from the $6 price. I was enjoying my time no problems. Then he asked if I have enjoyed the women, and this is where it got a little weird. There were 3 Cuban girls sitting at another table, dressed in those tight short dresses and high heels typically reserved for the club scene after dark. It’s 2pm. He invites one over to the table, she barely speaks any English and is trying to make awkward conversation. She eventually gets to asking me if I would like to take her out to a club and have a good time. Usually for Cubans the only way they get to go to the fancy night clubs is with a tourist counterpart, since the nightclub owners Prostitution is not rare in any poorer country either. I don’t judge her or belittle her, she’s doing what she can to feed her family, I guess. I turn her down as gently without being insulting. I then turn to my guide, who is obviously getting a piece of what everyone is getting, and ask him to take me to the cars.
We get back to the square, walks me around to a few cars and I show him which one I like. He hooks me up with an hour ride or maybe it was an hour and a half. I don’t remember. I believe it cost me $30 bucks. The driver got the brunt of the cash, I know he handed off some money to Marco. Marco and I shook hands, and as quickly as that he forgot about me.
The taxi driver was nice, but conversation was short. He didn’t speak much English and my Spanish isn’t fluent enough. He drove me around and showed me the sites. He even gave me some tips for other places to see that are outside of the city and he offered to take me there another day. His day rate was $80, which I thought was reasonable. He even offered to sleep in the car over night somewhere if I wanted to stay at any place too far. These people work for their money, and they are super humble about it. I don’t know any kind of driver who would offer to sleep in his cab. We drove around for my time allotted and returned back to the square. Marco was nowhere to be found, I’m sure he was guiding someone else around. I spend the late afternoon on foot, and waiting for dusk to hit. The city turns a beautiful orange.
After my solo adventure I continued to spend my days with the company of my mom. After all the whole reason was to travel to Cuba was to experience it together. Plus it helps that she speaks Spanish and people stop seeing us as a target when they want to hear about my mother’s experiences as a Cuban American!