A fine example of who Cuba isn't for

Posted: 16-May-16 13:11

Reflecting upon his 10-day visit to Cuba, a bestselling author and blogger recounts his personal experience of travelling throughout Havana. Peppered with humorous stories and personal narratives of two particular days, he shares his journal entries regarding restaurants, transportation and other unique Cuban tales.

A fine example of who Cuba isn't for

Following a recent 10-day trip to Cuba, an award-winning writer shares his first-hand account of Havana. Perry Brass published his personal journal entries and poems, referencing two particular days, on Huffpost Arts & Culture.

His rather negative outlook on the island and his experience reflects the kind of traveller Cuba clearly isn´t for: the one seeking world-class cuisine standards (they do exist but they´re not found everywhere), the one that intends to haggle with poor Spanish-speaking skills or the one who is uncomfortable with the sight of poverty in some areas. Cuba has it all aplenty: the good and the bad. It´s everyone´s choice how to take it, with a pinch of salt, or downright outrage. It clearly was the latter for Mr. Brass in most cases.

We go over what he found in Cuba and how it made him feel with the use of different sub-headers to address the kind of traveller Cuba isn´t for. If you follow under any of the following categories, Cuba is not prepared for you or you´re not prepared to enjoy Cuba, at least not yet.

1. Travellers who can´t face the "we ran out", "not available" inconvenience

On the first of those mornings Brass recalls the dinner he and a companion ate the evening before. Dining outside at Calle 24, he recalls a friendly waitress convincing him to order roast beef, vegetables and salad. While fish was on the menu he was told “no” and that the only chicken was fried. Later he describes the roast beef as “an awful stew” and the salad as “shaved cabbage with a few onions”. While he says they were promised sweet plantains they were later told “We sorry. Not now.” He also writes about tasting Crystal, an inexpensive Cuban beer he equates as a better version of Budweiser.

Perhaps he was unlucky that day when the restaurant had run out of certain ingredients (not uncommon at all in Cuba) or perhaps he should have followed the advice of savvy locals by asking for recommendations before heading out on his own to eat or could have read up on where fellow past travellers and bloggers have dined at in Cuba´s capital. In true honesty there´s a wealth of quality private restaurants and paladares in Cuba, where ingredients are seldom lacking and the quality is truly outstanding, if not, just ask President Obama and his family about the exquisite dinner they enjoyed at San Cristobal, a popular private restaurant in Centro Habana specialising in top-notch, authentic Cuban cuisine with a splash of originality in its unique décor and ambience. Numerous other celebrities have enjoyed delicious Cuban meals with international flair at the likes of La Guarida, El Cocinero and La Fontana. We could go on with the list of restaurants but we have written other blogs and news about the most unique and quirky places to dine in Havana as well as the most popular eating joints in the city.

2. Those who want the Cuban way but are not prepared to deal with the complexity of locals´ peculiar ways

Brass then writes about returning from an afternoon in the old section of the city, Habana Vieja, (Old Havana) and references the poverty he found there. He writes about taking the advice of an American friend to use a communal cab, an old American car that carries many people at once, an "almendron". The author says you pay a set rate of 10 Cuban pesos or CUP (a.k.a. moneda nacional), the currency that locals use rather than the CUCs used by visitors. He inaccurately equates 10 CUP to roughly $1.

Before embarking, he writes his friend confirmed the price but once they arrived the driver told them he wanted convertible pesos (CUC) instead at the equivalent of a dollar each. He suggests that perhaps they should have been more alert cause they were the only passengers. We agree there, maybe they thought they were getting a communal cab (a.k.a. "almendron" or “carro de 10 pesos”) but instead they had inadvertently hopped on a private taxi. We can´t vouch for what happened here as we don´t know how good the traveller´s negotiating skills in Spanish was (or the driver´ understanding of English) and therefore we can´t judge whether they were genuinely scammed or simply misunderstood. In any case, Cuba´s dual currency system is confusing and tricky to deal with. It´s an important day-to-day issue you must come prepared to deal with.

3. Travellers expecting all Cubans to address them (or be able to speak) in English

Next, he writes about taking a pedicab (a.k.a "bicitaxi") 20 blocks to a music school where his companion once taught. He recalls the receptionist speaking in Spanish. While he thought she wanted to peek inside his backpack she really wanted him to put his sweater over his tank top. What´s the problem here? Translation issues again we suspect and here it´s the author who is clearly in the wrong to expect Cubans to speak English everywhere, especially at a local music school, which is most definitely not a tourist site. Remember, you´re in Cuba, the official language is Spanish and while many Cubans can (and at most times will) attempt to put together a few words in English, not all are able to.

After locating the musician they were searching for, Brass uses the opportunity to describe the U.S. embargo as “stupid”, saying it prevents many Cuban musicians from gaining affordable access to Early Music instruments. We couldn´t agree more there!

4. Those expecting to find order and development

Next, he describes dining at Café Mercurio and the uniqueness of watching women smoke cigars. He recounts the waiter bringing out an ashtray before even supplying tableware. He also writes about being short-changed by the waiter when paying in cash, something he claims is commonplace. Sadly, this is true and does happen, so be extra cautious when handing in bills at restaurants (particularly government-owned ones) and remember the exact amount to avoid nasty surprises.

Travelling back to his “casa particular”, Brass writes about his other experience with pedicabs. While he recalls a driver originally wanted 5 CUCS before settling for 3, he claims when they arrived the driver demanded 3 CUCS from each of them. After arguing he says they walked away. He says they then caught another pedicab, passing through poverty-ridden Chinatown. Here, he points out, while people aren’t officially allowed to beg it does happen. Yet another negative side to Cuba that we won´t try to embellish, there is poverty in the island, no one denies it, and the sight of beggars, like in many other places of the world, is a heart-breaking and uncomfortable thing to witness yet one that most of us travellers has endured at least once.

Instead of taking them to their destination, Brass writes this driver dropped them off about 20 blocks away. He says the driver demanded 5 CUCS each, despite agreeing to that total amount previously. After paying him they found what Brass describes as a “real cab driver” for another 5 CUCs. He writes this cab was “held together with duct tape and layers of plastic wrap”. Well, this is Cuba, part of the vintage charm includes not so charming aspects, you have to take everything with a pinch of salt here, else this is not the destination for you.

Brass begins the morning of the next day sharing childhood memories of the Books of Knowledge with a man named Raul. That man says he received his own set of encyclopaedias from his father before the revolution. Brass then writes about how the man went to an English school and worked in Argentina. The author questions what brought Raul back to Cuba. Well, perhaps the island´s unique charms work in mysterious ways and what it lacks in material goods it makes up for in oodles of authenticity and warmth. Or, the case could simply be that while Cuba may feel a paradise to many, it isn´t so for all.


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