Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Calmer and Less Stressful Time

Going to Cuba is like stepping into a way back machine, beaming back to the time before cell phones and computers and the internet.

To be sure, those things exist in Cuba, but they don't dominate life to the extent that they do in other parts of the world. I was told going in, that my cell phone and my ATM card wouldn't work nor would my credit cards be honored. Everything was cash and carry. Their cash, the CUC. Back in the day, Cuba worked on the dollar, but not anymore. The reason for this is the US' ongoing embargo against Cuba. Nothing USA works in Cuba, not even money, and it didn't used to be like that. For the first time in a great while, I traveled with all the cash I would need, in my pocket. The trick was to budget well enough to get off the Island before the money ran out, because money transfers were also shaky, I was told.

During our tour of ISLA, which is the University of Art, one of my friends remarked at seeing laptops for the first time since our arrival in Havana, nearly a week prior. We were walking down a hallway where some students were seated on the floor, working on their computers. It seemed to be a wifi hotspot. No big deal for a university, except that we hadn't seen it before, except among the tourists in the lobby of our hotel. Wifi is not free. It costs to hook up for even a half hour. And that half hour or hour can be very expensive. 

The same with cell phones. No need to worry about bumping into some fool in their own world walking down the street and not paying attention to what is going on around them, as they shout into the receiver, seeming oblivious to the fact that others don't give a damn about their personal business. You can actually hold a conversation, a real conversation around a dinner table in a Paladar without being interrupted by a cell phone ringer. Our tour guides were constantly using their phones, but only to deal with our ever changing itinerary, or Abel to talk with his wife. Even though he lives in Havana, he lives with his tour group when working, so he touches base like a good husband should. We were able to meet his wife and his daughter, both beautiful women for a beautiful man.

Pay phones were everywhere, unlike in the US where the public phones have disappeared off the streets to discourage drug dealers. Of course, by taking away public phones, poor people were also disenfranchised, but nobody seemed to care.  Like the United States, drug dealing is illegal in Cuba. In fact, so is drug use and it is not tolerated. We were even told by a doctor at a state run clinic that there was no alcoholism in Cuba. We were skeptical until we were accosted by a friendly drunk in the street, while on one of our walking tours. Eliminating public phones is not viewed as a way to fight alcoholism or drug use in Cuba. so public phones were along the roads, some in the hallways outside the toilets.

 Nobody calls them restrooms in Cuba, that is in fact an Americanism. You don't “rest” in a toilet. You are there to do your business, period. You sometimes don't even have a toilet seat covering the porcelain throne. Marie remarked on more than one occasion that the way to make a fortune in Havana was to become a plumber. Toilet paper was also a luxury and if you didn't have tissue in your pocket, you could buy some from the Senora sitting outside the door.

Havana is a city where the stoplights come with a countdown. You actually know how many seconds remain til you can go or stop or have to get through the intersection before the light turns. The roads are very narrow, 18th century narrow, and sometimes cobble stoned. The highway to Santiago was fairly modern while near the city, but became less well paved as we left civilization, so to speak. The speed limit between cities was 100 mph, I'm told, but our bus driver chose to drive under that. His speed was dictated by the condition of the roadway, good in some spots, not so good in others. Traffic signs in the neighborhoods placed the speed limit at 60mph as opposed to the 35 or 25 mile zones in American residential areas.

And no, the pedestrian is not always right in Havana. We were warned not to ever step into the street and walk like an American, as if you own the place. You don't. Failure to yield to the bike, horse, car, goat or two wheeled taxi bearing down on you, could turn you into roadkill.

Regardless of the differences, we adapted to the rhythm of the streets very quickly, which amounted to slowing down and seeing what and who surrounded us. People still look you in the eye and speak to you, here. Men and some women still flirt. Another exhale moment under the afternoon sun.

More to come....

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