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Diving headfirst into Cuba...

Photo by Mauricio Aguilar

On my first day in Cuba, I told my friend Maurcio that it was surreal to be walking around Habana. Growing up in the US, I never even considered the possibility that I might one day visit Cuba; it was simply not on my radar in terms of possible travel destinations. I went without the intention of publishing anything, instead planning for it to be merely my first exposure to the country. I knew Cuba would be incredibly tough for a newcomer to process and decipher, particularly since people have such differing perspectives on their reality. I was eager to hear the Cuban people's opinions and see the streets of Havana without the biased filters that normally exist between us.

I'm certainly not yet capable of conveying Cuba’s complexity. The article I ultimately wrote about the access to authentic Cuban life provided by staying in “casas particulares” covered a few of my most enjoyable experiences with the Cuban people.  There were others, which I'll get to, but first I want to share some of the more raw interactions. 



Tourists sometimes have run-ins with “jineteros” (con-artists), as Mau and I experienced on our first night in Habana. The sun was setting as we walked past the National Capital Building and we doubtless had been cast from the perfect tourist mold: wearing shorts, smoking cigars, admiring architecture. The jinetero who asked us for the time saw us coming a mile away.

Right before running into Orlando

His name was Orlando, and his girlfriend stayed quiet as we bantered about baseball. He eventually mentioned they were on their way to a nearby bar. He said it was the anniversary of  musician Compay Segundo’s death and casually invited us to join the party. The bar was designed, strangely, to look like the inside of a submarine. We sat down and ordered drinks. Orlando soon went out to the street, and returned with two girls. They were trying their best to cozy up to Mau and I, but we weren't looking for ladies. Not a big deal, we thought, we'll buy the girls a drink or two and then leave them all behind.

In the meantime, they taught us Cuban slang and recommended some salsa clubs that I duly recorded in my notebook, along with Orlando's email. We got comfortable. Our rum and cokes were strong, but when Orlandos's drink was accidentally delivered to Mauricio he discovered it had no alcohol whatsoever. Then Mauricio accepted a wrinkled cigarrette that left him feeling drugged. We saw the writing on the wall and asked for the bill; it totalled more than 150 dollars for less than 15 minutes. We grudgingly took money out of our wallets to pay for just our drinks, but were told by Orlando that that's not the way it's done in Cuba. Cubans don't have any cash, so wouldn’t have been able to come here without us; in short, we had to pay for everyone's drinks. When we told him we weren’t going to pay for his drinks, he called the waiter over. It became readily apparent they were working together.

Orlando, the jinetero This turned into an ugly confrontation with both our waiter and the bar's muscle, and intimidation was their game. They issued veiled threats and slammed their fists onto the table. In the end, we told them we would have to go back to our hotel to get the cash and one of them could accompany us. Right before getting into the cab with him, though, we ducked into a hotel and called the police. The police didn't make arrests nor rescue us from the situation, but their arrival gave us some time to think. The bar's waiter and the bouncer waited for us outside, but the hotel was safe territory. The waiter finally came in and sat down to reach an agreement. We wound up agreeing to pay 60 dollars. It was still more than we owed, but a relatively cheap expense to grant us peace of mind. The way we saw it, we could now be sure no one would be on the lookout for us during the rest of our trip.




That bar wasn't the only time we crossed paths with someone trying to get at our cash. Not by a long shot. Prostitution was rampant, though different than anything I'd ever seen.  We went to the jazz club Gato Tuerto our first night, and a girl getting out of a taxi asked if we'd pay her five-dollar cover. Inside, we started chatting.  She was quick-witted, very intelligent, and a nurse at the nearby hospital. She also told us the price to have sex with her was 50 dollars. This happened more or less non-stop during the trip.  Girls whistled at us, tried to get our attention, and if we spoke to them they inevitably tried to sell us their bodies.

At one salsa joint we went to, Casa de la Musica, I probably danced with 10 girls. Not one finished the full song without telling me her price. When I said I just wanted to dance, they would immediately leave me standing alone. Considering a large part of what I had imagined would be my Cuban experience involved improving my salsa, this was a constant disappointment. I worked around this, though, the night I took a local taxi.

I flagged down a 1958 Ford and, after dropping off the other passengers, I told the driver – Rey – that I wanted him to give me a private tour before he left me at the Tropicana cabaret.  Taking local taxis as a tourist is illegal, since they only accept national pesos. (This is part of what amounts to tourism apartheid in Cuba; tourists pay dollars, aka Cuban Convertible Pesos or CUC, and Cubans pay national pesos that is essentially monopoly money.) So while the pre-revolution cars contribute to Cuba’s nostalgic, lost-in-time ambience, tourists can only travel in modern taxis or Coco taxis that accept CUC. This just wouldn’t do. 

Tourists riding in the Coco taxis along the Malecón. Photo by Mauricio Aguilar

Rey and I outside the Tropicana. He couldn't drive me into the cabaret for fear (substantiated) of getting in trouble with the cops for taking a tourist fare

Rey drove me around the area of Miramar and let me steer.  Every time we drove past someone waving on the sidewalk, he said, "There goes more money." It was his less-than-subtle hint that he expected a solid tip. At one point we passed a beautiful girl flagging down the taxi, and I told him I wanted him to pick her up. I'll call her "Daniela". She was a culinary student in university, but before that had studied dance. She was sweet and a bit guarded, but I got her phone number in the hopes of finally dancing with a girl for more than half a song.

A couple nights later I invited her out to dance, and paid her cab fare to my neighborhood (10 dollars). I wanted to walk to a restaurant a few blocks away, but she was scared to be seen with me in public. A few years earlier, she had been out with her older sister's boyfriend, a Spaniard, buying her sister a birthday present. The cops stopped them and, because ordinary Cubans aren't supposed to associate with tourists, they gave her what she called an "enormous fine": 20 dollars.

So we went into a restaurant right where the cab had left her, but Daniela didn't order anything. She was nervous, preoccupied with something. Finally, she cleared the air.  “I want to say something to you,” she started, “I’m not a whore.  And I’m not going to have sex with you.” She continued that she wouldn’t ask me for anything, nor did she expect anything from me.  "Good," I said. "I wouldn't've asked you out if I thought you were a whore."

Daniela nodded, but wasn't finished.  She said that although she wasn’t a prostitute, if I wanted to give her a "gift" she would accept it due to her circumstances.  Then she told me her story. Two years earlier, Hurricane Gustav knocked down her family's house. Her mother, the principal of a middle school, went to live with her boyfriend and requested that the school let Daniela live in a small room until the government finished building them another house.  Two years later, they were still waiting for the government to even start. Her mom's salary was 15 dollars a month.

I told her I understood and we started to relax, but still she kept her guard up. She had the reservation of a woman ten years older, and who's seen more hardship than she should've. It was incongruous with her positive attitude. It was like she refused to allow herself to be crushed under the bootheels of defeat, and instead marched on with her chin lifted high and wearing a gleaming smile that looks delicate enough to shatter, but which never would. 

I asked her at one point if she enjoyed living in Cuba, and her answer surprised me. "This is my country," she said.  Was that affection or resignation?  I wasn't sure, but she said she wouldn't choose to live elsewhere, not even for five years.
After dinner, we took the elevator up to the penthouse club in the Habana Libre hotel (the Hilton in pre-revolution years.) The club had a panoramic view of the city, and the roof was wide open to the starry sky. People sat and listened at their tables as the band played, then the musicians checked out and the dance floor filled up.

Turquino, the dance club on the penthouse floor of what was the Hilton prior to the revolutionI’ve got decent salsa moves, but Daniela danced circles around me.  Mojitos went down easy, salsa turned to reggaeton, hands explored bodies, tongues explored mouths, then she smiled and told me she wanted to come home with me. Afterward, I walked her to the taxi stand and gave her 25 dollars "in case you want to take the long way home. If not, just keep it." Daniela asked me with a smile if I wouldn’t mind paying the cab fare too, and I agreed without hesitation. A sucker for that smile.  

Or maybe just a sucker. And was it still prostitution if I would've given her money regardless? Did this qualify as some perverse form of international aid?  I'm still not sure, but at the time I didn't have any problem with our arrangement. Cuba is a place rich in culture, but scarcity is the law of the land. A measly 25 dollars had the power to make a significant difference in her world. I imagine Daniela in her cramped room with the sound of pre-teens filtering in from the school's hallways. Maybe she has the money squirrelled away in the toe of a shoe. Maybe she used it to buy food. Maybe she splurged on a nice dress that shows off her thighs when she's spun by her salsa partner. And maybe that salsa partner is a foreigner she picked up after I showed her an easy way to score some cash.



We met some friends of friends, Alejandro and Eunice, at their house in Vedado. Alejandro worked in a fairly high position for government tobaco company Tabacuba. We went to a nearby beach with him, and also visited the Morro fort. Eunice stayed home when we went on these excursions, as she was nine-months pregnant... and actually gave birth the day before we left. 

We brought maracas and a pint-size guayabera to the hospital. 


I'll never forget walking up to the hospital room's doorway as Alejandro looked down at his new boy, then looking up at us right as I snapped the photo

Eunice, her mom and baby Octavio. That night, while Eunice was resting in the hospital, we went out with Alejandro to celebrate with some fine cigars.


The musicians at Bar Montserrate used their set break to sit down with me and teach me how to play dominos. 


Los Hernandez, a family we met at a photography exhibit who joined us for a lunch, despite the fact that their bill totalled three months of the father's earnings as an electrician and mechanic.


A lithographer, Alejandro Sainz, who happened to be at the studio when I bought his print. We got to talking, and we've exchanged a few emails since then. He also dedicated the lithograph, and it's now hanging on my bedroom wall.

 A sugar cane farmer who made us coffee from scratch, played music and told us about his life growing up in the countryside outside Trinidad


With Ramiro, a security guard we met at a pizzeria, who invited us to lunch at his house. Mau and Ramiro went out on bikes to buy beers to save us from the tropical heat, then we were served chicken the family had slaughtered just for us, along with rice and fresh vegetables. It was probably the best meal we had the whole trip.Once we'd taken some nice group photos with the family, they asked us if we could send them medicine for a family member's ailment… as well as a stylish pair of high-top sneakers. We had no doubts their hospitality had been sincere, but was this tit-for-tat? Were we now expected to repay them? Had this been their intention all along? Maybe to some extent.



This is the the only other story I'll share here. I had brought a baseball from Mexico and was waiting the entire trip for the right moment to give it away. In the countryside between Trinidad and Habana we passed a baseball field right next to the road.  The boys were playing with rubber balls wrapped in rags that hit shallow outfield at most.  I'd found the perfect spot, I thought, for my small gesture of goodwill.

One of the teams was made up of boys from town and the other with boys from a neighboring town. We talked for a few minutes, then I gave them the ball and said whichever team won could keep it. All the pitcher’s throws were off target as he got used to the new weight, but finally he got one over the plate.  The batter smacked the ball deep into centerfield, way over the head of the outfielder who turned and sprinted after it.  The throw came in to the cutoff man after the batter had already rounded second base. He slid headfirst into third base, but the throw to the third baseman bounced in the dirt and rolled past. The batter stood up and strutted home: the first play with the new ball was a homerun.

I was washed over with emotion. Mostly it was joy for the way in which the game would now be changed, but it was also sadness because of how little it took -- a seven dollar baseball -- to do that.  I felt a warmth in my chest, but tears welled in my eyes.  I also couldn't help but acknowledge the nagging truth that in trying to help I probably only succeeded in generating jealousy; two baseballs could've left both teams happy.

Throughout my trip I tried to engage Cuba rather than passively standing on its sidelines. Missteps were not infrequent, and I certainly wouldn't claim I can now smoothly navigate that world. But I've had my first tastes, and they were both bitter and sweet. My inability to reconcile the two is the reason Cuba has stayed with me.

A scene down a sidestreet in Vedado, in the backyard of homes with beautiful facades. Those who are pro-Castro will blame the blockade for Cuba’s shortages or deny them altogether, while those who are anti-Castro will blame the oppressive system. What's certain is that the Cuban model is not working, as Castro himself recently admitted to Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic (though later denied having said). I knew during my trip that Cubans received little meat under the ration system, for example, but hadn't fully understood the extent to which Ramiro and Edith serving us chicken went far beyond the standard bounds of hospitality until reading this Harper's article (behind a pay wall). In it,  Patrick Symmes lives for 30 days in Cuba on their rations and accomplishes something rare: a first-hand revelation of the poverty the Cuban people face. The Cubans' aren't just missing protein their diet; they're missing food, period.

I remember as a senior in highschool when my dad was explaining that the Cuban communism just hadn't worked. I responded smugly that I'd like to see it under operation without the existence of the US blockade. Even though I wouldn't admit it at the time, I was well-aware of my general ignorance. I've now seen with my own eyes that, indeed, my dad was right (as usual).  As for the causes or solutions, those are questions for which I feel I'm only now in a place to begin searching for answers.



Cienfuegos. Photo by Mauricio Aguilar

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  • Response
    Response: Jair Lai
    Muchos Gracias for your blog. Awesome.
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    Response: Joseph Chinnock
    David L. Biller, Journalist - On Assignment - Diving headfirst into Cuba...
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    Response: Saleh Stevens
    David L. Biller, Journalist - On Assignment - Diving headfirst into Cuba...

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