Home of the $3 note
08.12.2017 - 15.12.2017 25 °C
Travelers on Central American airlines have two custom that create anxiety. Firstly, they arrive at the airport and block all the toilets – although, this may be a cunning control mechanism instigated by their rulers. One is less focused on highjacking an aircraft when concentrating on bowel control. The more concerning is their practice of clapping after a successful landing. It causes me to wonder what they do after an unsuccessful landing – and what the ratio of success to failure is. Our flight into Panama City added to my awareness. I suspect the new first officer was at the controls as he came in a bit fast and high, then made some late ‘S’ turns in an effort to slow. As the terminal midway along the runway flashed by the boss took over and made a full power go around – followed by an announcement there had been a ‘weather’ condition. Having suffered this ignominy myself as a trainee pilot many years ago, I believe the captains announcement was grammatically incorrect. He used the wrong ‘weather’. He should have been said, “I’m trying to decide ‘whether’ my assistant should be allowed to continue risking our lives in future”.
I was dismayed when Flypaper handed over my ‘emergency’ funds – sufficient notes to purchase a little sustenance and a taxi back to the hotel and sufficient coins to gain entry to a public toilet and perhaps even persuade the lady attendant to part with a few leaves of paper. My dismay triggered the question, “Where did you get this $3 note?” She in turn looked a bit bewildered. I suspect many gems of knowledge gleaned from these writings are valuable when playing trivia. Here’s another. What country provides a $3 note? The answer is Cuba. If the question is, ‘Why would a country provide a $3 note’ the answer is, “Its cheaper to print notes than mint coins”. This was the rare occasion Fidel Castro exercised fiscal frugality. Cubans however, would rather have the comforting weight of coin in their threadbare trousers as it provides useful ballast during a hurricane.
Cuba and particularly Havana is just as I imagined – third world tatty and depreciating steadily. There are glimpse of its heyday in the early 1900’s but these only add to the air of despair. I’m happy, as are most tourists. That’s why they come. However, the younger Cubans are fed up with being locked into the 1960’s and going backward. They have poor internet access and have figured out the tourists coming here are not all lucky lotto winners. They also understand communism has failed to develop any good examples of successful economies anywhere in the world.
Our guide, who, in defiance of the Cuban secret police, will remain nameless, told us he’s booked us into the best hotel in Cuba. He lied. But we soon forgave him as he’s a smart, ambitious, 25-year-old running his own business – and doing it well. He did attend university and trained as an electrical technician. He then did his 2 years working free for the state to repay his education. However, he clearly understands a 1960’s era electrical technician would not survive in the rest of the world that moves forward each year - and he knows Cuban tradesman don’t become wealthy. He also managed to develop a medical condition at the very time he was due to undertake his 2 year military service and was delighted it cleared up immediately after his callup period ended. I told you he was smart. We had assistance for a couple of days from a guy called Fidel. Any parent that names their son Fidel will not accept any reason to skip military service. While Fidel and his mates would not be willing to invade any other country, they accepted their training was important to defend their own country. Unfortunately, their tourist clients are all unanimous is saying, with the possible exception of North Korea, nobody else wants a 1960’s country even if lobster is cheaper than chicken.
Havana has many Russian designed high-rise buildings of which our hotel is an example. It has 1950s furniture and, in an effort to attract tourists, 2017 fixtures. eg. The latest shower plumbing and flat screen TV’s. Unfortunately the water pressure is inadequate to realise the potential of the hardware. When it gets stressed, the lift stops at random floors without reason and the architect forgot to include lights in the rooms. This omission is overcome by plugging 1960’s lamps into the few power-points. Management hasn’t quite understood that should a client wish to use the power-points for other reasons they do so in darkness. However, the breakfast makes up for all idiosyncrasies. Breakfast is right up there with the Mexican mega-resorts. The green bread does have me wondering and has not proved popular with guests. Tomorrow I intend to ask Flypaper to taste it.
We were clearly instructed not to try to change US currency or use US based credit cards in Cuba. This is the ‘Guvmints’ policy, however banks will accept Visa & Mastercard and everyone is delighted with the opportunity to gain US hard currency – at a 10% surcharge. We were unable to fly from the US to Cuba, but Americans do arrive here via Canada and Mexico. They can even show up on cruise ships. As a result, the major tourist population is American. Officially they are here for a conference (allowable). It seems these conferences are held on tour buses and in bars. Things are not as cheap here as expected unless shopping in markets and where the locals obtain their necessities. A Cuban Peso is worth US1.13. Unlike NZ where economic wisdom creates a low value dollar to assist exporters, the Cubans make selected imports cheaper and force the population to buy local.
One of the ironies of Cuban economics is Che Guevara souvenirs. It seems most tourist at least purchase a tee shirt or a picture. Che spent his life fighting capitalism … and is now the principle icon of emerging Cuban capitalism. In the city of Santa Clara, Che has a monstrous mausoleum where his remains are allegedly interred and virtually everything he touched throughout his life is on display. Given the few bones were found in a mass Bolivian grave and the clothing, guns, etc, all look just like everyone else’s, you’ll forgive me for being a little skeptical. It is however, an excellent earner for the city and the propaganda value among Cubans is important. The signage all over the country urges them to be grateful to the ‘heroes’ who gave their lives for socialist principals. The older people accept their lives have been no better than under Batista (the dictator before the revolution) but the younger ones would prefer an Apple iPhone and a regular bus service. However, the reason for the revolution has been distorted and much forgotten in favour of promoting heroism’s. The well known ‘Bay of Pigs’ invasion failure was not a CIA fiasco – the invaders were wealthy Cubans trying to get their own country back.
Its been explained to me that the ‘guvmint’ owns or controls all serious commerce. The Cuban economy virtually collapsed following the Soviet Union demise in 1991. There’s lots of evidence of unfinished projects. Bridges across motorways that go nowhere, half completed buildings and deteriorating infrastructure. Evidently Russia had been hugely subsidising its little communist partner. In return Cuba sent them tobacco, rum, sugar, bongo drum players and invited the party nomenklatura to decadent frolics in the Caribbean resorts. Today tobacco and rum are the states biggest earners. Tourism is probably a bigger industry but private enterprise is finding ways of reducing the ‘guvmint’ rake-off. We visited a small private tobacco farm run the most congenial gentleman imaginable. He explained in Spanglish, “The ‘guvmint’ compulsory purchases 90% of our crop at a barely sustainable price. We sell the other 20% to tourists.”
After a superb breakfast we faced the first day – in the rain. Its not supposed to rain in November. The morning was a walking tour of old Havana. We were soaked but the temperature was warm. The Cubans were nonplussed so we sploshed along in their wake. Its clearly apparent Havana was a magnificent city before the revolution. Its very sad now. Once fabulous mansions are now decayed tenement buildings in appalling condition. There remains some grand hotels, churches and Commercial buildings but, in spite of tenant’s efforts, they are dilapidated. Side and back streets are slums. Roads are potholed and sinking. Traffic crawls. For all that, it’s worth seeing. This is not just an historic city in disarray, it’s a monument to Communism that can’t be replicated.
Over lunch on the roof of an old private apartment which required climbing 5 floors by rickety internal and external stairways, we heard first hand report of the recent hurricane. From our vantage point we could see waves crashing over the seawall onto the road and could easily envisage a situation 10 times worse just a few weeks previous. Surprisingly, our hosts said the media reports were greatly exaggerated. Sure, much of the city was flooded by surface water and many trees were blown down but there was little substantial structural damage. Our host told of something we never saw on TV. He advanced from his backstreet apartment by wading through the flooded streets to be with his friend about 3 blocks from the seawall. As the huge waves receded they were able to scurry out and pick up stranded fish in the streets. “Best days fishing in my life.” he said. “Bring on another hurricane”.
Our lunch was typically huge. We may have been the only diners and the guests of honour, but the stars of the banquet were the huge (200mm) lobster tails probably weighing well over half a kilo - on each plate. This was supplemented by the ubiquitous ‘rice & beans’, salad, sweet potato and a selection of sauces. Everything fresh and delicious. Accompanied by Mint tea laced with rum and followed by fresh local coffee. Cuban’s may not have unlimited trivial gadgetry, but they eat well. Every meal in Cuba is an opportunity to start the process and be part of natures cycle to return the digested nutrients back to the fields. I’m told there are no sewage plants – just sewage collection places.
We were stuffed. The afternoon required a sit-down activity so we toured greater Havana by car. Revolution Square, Hotel Nacional de Cuba, ‘guvmint’ H/Q and other renowned attractions but even better, we snuck around the various neighbourhoods other visitors seldom see. Suburban Havanans live in conditions just as poor as their city friends. Everywhere is strewn with smelly discarded rubbish. Most surprising of all was the ride through the ‘exclusive’ suburbs inhabited by the politicians and senior military personal. There, conditions are almost as bad. Their houses are detached 50’s style bungalows suffering obvious decay with overgrown gardens and shockingly potholed streets. Our guide saw nothing amiss and admitted that he would like an address in this neighbourhood. I suggested the poor street conditions were to ensure thieves couldn’t speed away. I have no idea of legal city speed limits. Practical limits are around 10kph.
The best district in Havana is securely walled, quiet, has good roads, no rubbish, over 1,000,000 well behaved residents and artworks everywhere – but a high price. It’s the area known as Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón. This is the largest cemetery in the America’s covering 56 hectares (140 acres). Founded in 1876 its become one of the principle tourist attractions. Unfortunately, its full. But Havanan’s wishing to be buried here can be – but only for 3 years after which they are moved somewhere else.
An hour was spent in ‘El Floridita’. This is the bar where Ernest Hemingway hung out with his rich and famous friends. During my teenage years an elderly mentor loaned me all Hemmingway’s books – For Whom The Bell Tolls, Old Man & the Sea, Death in the Afternoon, etc. I loved them. Hemmingway was an adventurous ‘Errol Flynn’ sort of guy who lived life to the full. I hoped I could follow in his footsteps, but Flypaper had other goals and asperations. At least I sat in his chair, experienced his Tequila recipe and listened to the best Cuban band – but it still leaves a few other experiences waiting.
The evening was at the world acclaimed cabaret show ‘Tropicana Club’ – running nightly since 1939. Capitalistic Decadence in the midst of socialist poverty. Shameless semi-clad Cuban maidens wriggling their assets in front of lecherous old men with complicit partners wearing their ‘jewel of the day’. I loved it. You can see it on the internet. I’ve bookmarked it for further study in my old age.
Our guide must have seen me slipping a few of my unused toilet facilitation coins to some beggars and probably thought my generosity knew no bounds. He arranged a 1988 Mercedes mafia car to be our transport for the following week around Cuba. Long wheelbase, black with tinted windows – and well past retirement age. The exterior looks great from about 100 meters. Up close its like the rest of Cuba, and indeed, myself, showing its age and blemishes. Stretched out in the back posing as a ‘mob’ boss I hear some worrying sounds. All suspension bushes are sloppy, the gearbox ‘wheezes’ between shifts and I fear is well overdue for both service and repair. The rear passenger door windows no longer operate and one door won’t open from the inside while the other defies entry from outside … and the driveshaft universal joints are worryingly sloppy. Some of the gauges work and there are warning lights on the dashboard. The air conditioning is, umm, manually modulated. The driver acts as a human thermostat and flicks the switch on or off every few minutes to regulate our comfort. I’ve found ways of mentioning some of these matters in conversation. The owner driver confidently explained his mechanic advised that if he didn’t accelerate too quickly, everything should hold together for so time yet. After all, its German – it has tenacity. Cuba has no AA recovery service – but our minders do appear resourceful. This was demonstrated when we swerved from the fast lane on a bumpy 4-lane highway, across the grass center strip, across the other two opposing lanes and into a rough dirt farm track. I wondered if the passing police in their Lada had shot at us. We bounced slowly up the dirt road for about 200 meters until well out of sight from the highway and stopped in a flat area near a decomposing farm house surrounded by a moat of cattle manure. A toot on the horn bought a boy on a bicycle carrying a large funnel. An elderly guy sidled around and disappeared into an overgrown field from where he emerged a few minutes later carrying 2 x 20 litre drums. These proved to be full of fuel which was emptied via the funnel, into our elderly limo. Money was exchanged. (I have a photo which does portray a surreptitious event.) When safely back on the highway it was explained that black-market trading saves over 40% in fuel costs. Well worth scaring the hell out of ones’ clients. It seems that farmers purchase fuel from the ‘guvmint’ for agricultural purposes at extremely low prices. In the communist inspired capitalistic practice we can easily understand, they share their advantage with grateful comrades.
We can now understand why Cuba does not feature among the Olympic medalists for cycle racing. On a journey to view some crumbling attractions and yet another huge meal, we encountered a 200km cycle race – part of the Tour de Cuba. It became apparent, Cuban cycling rules differ from the Olympic standard. We continually observed competitors holding onto their support vehicles (and, on 2 occasions, the ambulance), support personnel hanging out their car window with a hand on the competitors back pushing him along, and even being towed on a short rope by attending motorcyclists. There was some excitement in our car when we could hardly believe our eyes. We saw a cyclist towing the 125cc motorcycle (complete with rider and pillion) up a hill. We wondered what sort of contract he had signed with his sponsors. Another remarkable sight was a one-legged rider doing very well in the peloton without assistance. At a coffee stop (50c per cup) we spoke to a competitor who was topping up his ‘water bottle’ with coffee and rum. He explained he would say he had a flat tyre and his crew would whisk him back to the peloton. The cyclists and their attendants completely blocked the 3 lane highway so traffic had to follow at around 40 – 45kph until a motorist with either a high level of frustration or a low level of intelligence, bounced across the grass center divide and raced past on the other side of the road into the face of oncoming traffic. This immediately enthused others including our driver to follow knowing they stood a good chance of survival if they remained lower than 2nd in the line. It’s an anxious experience – especially when a large articulated Russian truck appears on the front horizon. You know it has imperfect brakes and steering – not to mention a driver giving most attention to his glass of rum so as not to spill a drop. On occasions this highway became 5 lanes. The centre grass strip was also tar sealed. Our guide was surprised by my question and countered with one of his own. “Don’t you have emergency military runways in your country?” I couldn’t resist responding, “The US doesn’t want to invade New Zealand when, closer to home, they can have Cuba.”
Another observation, probably as a result of being brainwashed into the ‘cotton-wool, safety always’ ethos prevalent in New Zealand, was the involuntary joy experienced when I saw many of the horse drawn carts on the motorways at night were displaying a battery powered tail-light. It’s obvious civilization is catching up fast in Cuba. I asked our guide about road rules. He confirmed that, like New Zealand and other advanced nations, there were a many rules designed to collect additional tax from the underprivileged. I especially asked why some drivers stopped at railway crossings while other sped through. He said there was no rule. This, like the ability to drive on the wrong side of the road, (whichever has fewer potholes) was a self-imposed discipline. Some drivers calculated the cost/benefit of saving time and pleasure gained overtaking slower vehicles while others, more pessimistic, calculated the unlikely event of a train stopping for them. He logically pointed out that the dead ones would probably change their attitude in future. (His words – not mine.)
No observations in Cuba are complete without comment about the old American cars. Until about 10 years ago when international steel prices were high, there were about 150,000 pre-1960’s US cars. (Mostly abandoned by fleeing westerners or taken from vehicle dealerships at the time of the revolution.) The Cuban ‘guvmint’ offered the owners a deal on a 5 year old Chinese car if they traded in the old clangers. This was a huge mistake by both parties. A clapped-out Chinese car will never be a tourist attraction. (Indeed, the owners of these substandard cars are already realizing there is a motorcycle or even a horse in their future.) The remaining 60,000 Chryslers, Buicks, Pontiacs, Chevs, etc, are all extensively modified. All have diesel tractor engines (because agricultural equipment spares are cheaper), Russian truck suspension components and countless home-made parts. They are eye-catching but shockingly polluting and disappointing in every respect. However, their values are astonishing. US$50,000 plus. Our ailing Mercedes is much more exclusive and is worth US$80,000 (NZ$100,000)!!! More than many houses. The ‘guvmint’ imports new Chinese cars for their own use (but drivers are compelled to pick up hitch-hikers) which after 5 years are sold as ‘guvmint’ controlled taxi’s which 5 years later are offered on the market to the peasants. Throughout, the value remains about $25,000. ,
The cars are mostly in the larger cities but they do share the roads with hundreds of peddle powered rickshaws, 3 wheeled Chinese small trucks together with horse and carts. In small towns and rural areas, the horse reigns supreme. They do most of the work as trade and delivery vehicles, family transport and taxi’s. Indeed, if I knew how to do the ‘tweeting’ thing I would let Don Trump know that his CIA could easily overthrow the Cuban ‘guvmint’ by simply releasing some ‘horse virus’. The country would grind to a halt in a few days. However, I do have one reservation. There may be a secret weapon lurking about. At a gas station I saw a horse being topped up with petrol.
Farmers still plough their fields with oxen. Oxen are very slow – but not as slow as old Russian and Chinese tractors that spend much of their time being repaired. This does tend to set the pace for production and, historians may conclude, was the reason for Communism to fail. The country is overrun with dogs. The breed is uniquely Cuban and they are all ardent communists. Like the human population there were originally may breeds and ethnicities. Over time this has intermingled into a mélange that is Cuba. I know the dogs are communist because they do absolutely nothing except lay around sleeping until kicked.
As is the way with cars, our Merc used all the black-market fuel and required more. Fortunately, our driver was in home territory and a solution was at hand. He pointed at a small square hovel and said, “My house”, them swerved down a dirt track beside a seedy looking ‘Cantina’ at the back of which was a blacksmith shop and an illegal liquor distillery. I believe they made a unique brew from sugar cane, coconut milk and fruit. It smelt shocking – but not as bad as the kitchen on the back of the truckers’ café. I begged Flypaper to refuse hospitality as I snuck off to take photographs. It became apparent this roadside collection of commercial enterprise was the family business. Also hidden beside us were 3 large blue ‘guvmint’ trucks - each feeding a syphon from their fuel tanks into the 20lt drums that eventually transferred to our car. The truck drivers were probably enjoying the ‘endless’ cup of coffee inside the café. As I watched I clearly understood modern Cuba. This transaction was an example of Social Security managed by Private Enterprise.
Our final couple of nights were spent at the best Cuba has to offer; an all-inclusive resort at Varadero … Cuba’s answer to the Mexican Riviera. The best in Cuba doesn’t shine. Our resort was one of the newest and finest – but makes a mockery of the ‘stars’ system. It shares the Caribbean beach with others but has only 2 pools, 3 restaurants and expensive slow internet service. The dominant guest faction is German – to be specific and accurate, East German. They are probably missing the whiff of Communist inefficiency and dilapidation. They will return home well refreshed. I knew the Germans were from the east as they were neither impressed or even pleased as when we wheezed up the driveway in our 80,000 Euro Mercedes. They are probably trying to get away from that sort of thing. No doubt they are well satisfied when other guests arrive in a Lada or better still, a broken down American Classic as that surely confirms the imperfection of the west. There are some British Socialists here too. You know them because they walk on the wrong side of the footpaths.
The final word is from Flypaper who applied her international standard. “Cuba will never emerge into the first world or even the 21st century until it acknowledges the needs of women. By this I mean, until it provides perforated absorbent paper in the bathrooms”.