First Impressions

After a total of 11 hours of flight, I arrived monday at 20.15 o’ clock local time in La Habana. It had had heavy tropical rain showers shortly before we arrived and the humidity and heat of the tropical climate hit me like a slap in the face when I got out of the plane. Some 20 minutes of waiting for my luggage, many heavily armed airport policemen with dogs and 5 minutes of extremely detailed passport controls later, I got out of the security zone and found myself in the entrance area of the airport. If it hadn’t been so unreal I probably would have started laughing out loud- it seemed soo exactly the way one would imagine the cuban main airport to be! Cigar smoking youngsters in muscle shirts (no smoking prohibited anywhere here!), Rum bottles passing around, loud shouting going on everywhere.
I sat down in one of the airport bars to take a refreshing drink while I waited for my welcome comitee.
On couchsurfing I had learned to know Jesús, a cuban filmmaker who had helped me out with a lot of information. Turns out Jesús has two friends, Maygred and Legna, who have a spare room and would gladly host me in their home for the time of my stay. This way I would be able to save a lot of money (hotels and hostels are at european price levels here) and the girls could very well need the extra cash.
After some 30 minutes of waiting Jesús arrived with the two girls and we took off in an old Fiat Panda, direction downtown.

1) The apartment
The flat Maygred and Legna are sharing with me lies southern of Plaza de la Revolución in a barrio called Nuevo Vedado and is just one bus stop away from my working place. It’s a neat little apartment with a nice bathroom, a small kitchen and two big rooms, the bigger one of which I had been given by my friendly hosts. Oh, and there is a dog called Sumaque (which supposedly is the name of some kind of tree) but I prefer to call him Schumacher, much to the girls amusement. Maygred and Legna work as a guitar player (Maygred) and writer (Legna) a turned out to be a really charming lesbian couple. I get along very well with them, the apartment is far above cuban standards and both girls are really trying to make my stay as comfortable as possible. A couple of days before I arrived they even started painting the entire apartment, investing some of the money I would bring in.

2) Work
My workplace, the Instituto Cubano de Investigación Cultural Juan Marinello, is located just next to Plaza de Revolución and therefore quite central. It’s not quite IN the romantic, beautiful old town which I hoped it would be but from Google Maps it’s always hard to judge the geography of a town. But – and this is what counts – it is a really serious work place where people take what they do seriously. In fact, that does not seem to be very much the case in 99% of work places here. In my institute everybody works quite hard and is very wiling to help me out with any question I have. During the next days I will try to get as many information as possible to get to know exactly what is going on and then interview some researchers on my master thesis subject: Cuban Culture Politics.
We dispose of a small library which seems to be pretty well-equiped, a “computer room” with 4 dinosaurs of informatics history and an internet connection that is practically non-existent.

3) Internet.
Internet connection here is more then scarse. Please don’t expect me to post to this blog regularly, I just wouldn’t know how to do it. To find an internet connection somewhere is really, really difficult. The only possibility is to go to a hotel where sometimes a connection is offered and pay about 10 CUC which would me around €7,50 for one hour. Once you paid that money to connect to the “red” then the connection is so slow that you get about twenty internet pages for your money. Usually we’re taking about a 56k dial-up connection which is then being shared by up to 10 people. 90% of all Cubans have never navigated the internet and even in my research centre where I’m sitting at the moment internet works one day and the other not. Please do understand that I’m not going to spend that money again on internet, I’m just gonna see if and when I can connect in my research centre. But: also here we only have a dial up connection and there is a total of around 15 computers connected to that line. At the very moment I am sitting in my office, typing this email and in the background a gmail page has been loading since around 10 minutes. I repeat: One page.

4) Prices.
Prices in Cuba are an extremely difficult subject. As some of you might know there are 2 different currencies in Cuba. There is the CUC (real name: Peso Convertible) and there is the MN (Moneda Nacioal, Pesos Nacionales).
1 US$ equals 1 CUC equals 25 Pesos Nacionales. 1 Peso Nacional therefore equals 4 Cents of a US Dollar.
While for example you can buy a bus ticket for 50 Peso-Cents (therefore 2 US Cents!!!), ride taxis for 10 Pesos Nacionales (40 US Cents), buy break, milk, sugar, rice and some cheap meat with Pesos Nacionales EVERYTHING must be payed in CUC and cannot be payed in another currency.
Let’s say you need a shampoo, a refreshing drink, paint, paper, pencils, a beer, spices – whatever: Forget to find it in Persos Nacionales and prepare to spend CUC. Lots of them. A CUC-Taxi costs around 4-5 CUC and therefore 4-5 dollars. A bottle of Coke 1,50 Pesos nacionales and therefore 1 Dollar 50 and so on… Therefore CUC prices are almost at european levels and in many cases even higher.
But: Even a fully educated cuban doctor makes only about 40 CUC a month which corresponds more or less to 30 Euros.
Now, if you think of these paychecks and the exchange rates I mentioned earlier and apply them to our Coca Cola that means that this “luxury product” would cost as much as 37 Pesos nacionales or the 30th part of a month’s pay.
All this leads to that small but important products almost inaccessible to the biggest part of the Cuban population. Most cubans can’t permit themselves deodorante, shampoo, pencils or even enough clothes or such basic things as toothpaste or insurances.
Another effect of this system is that people working with tourists always have access to CUCs and can live like kings. The Cuban society therefore is divided into those who have access to CUC and those who don’t while those who usually have CUCs are the least educated people. A very, very sad reality that is depressing and annoying at the same time. I can’t go down a street without that 13526 people want to sell me something (cigars, food, cigarettes, sex etc.).
In general though I feel really safe, Havana seems not only to be a really safe but also really tourist-friendly (or CUC-friendly??) place. You can always ask people in the streets for information and if you don’t mind keep saying “no” a hundred times to youngsters asking you for a dollar you’re off pretty well.

5) The city.
Habana is a place to see, that’s for sure. If I had to describe it with two words that would be “morbid beauty”. I will hopefully be able to upload some pictures one day to let them speak for themselves. For now you can google “La Habana” in Google Maps and imagine everything you see just the way it is and even more extreme.
Antique american car’s from the 50’s are the normal kind of transportation and really cheap as taxis. Busses are usually packed with up to 100-150 people and oftenly have loud music on. Beautiful houses from the beginning of the century the normal kind of housing, for architectural purposes alone the city is more then worth a visit! Everything is dirty and run down, paint is coming down literally everywhere, entire houses collapse and all this, together with the incredible beauty of the people and their characters form an impression which is hard to put into words. “Morbid Beauty” is my best try.
Temperatures are very high but it’s especially the humidity and the smog that makes breathing hard sometimes. Since the few days that I’m here I’ve been sweating in places I didn’t even know I could sweat! But who cares when you live in the caribbean!

6) Food
Is great, I’m living on delicious fish with rice and beans, bananas in all imaginable forms (cooked, baked, scrabbled, fried etc.) and other cheap stuff. Technically it’s possible to survive with around 50 MN a day which would be around two euros. Breakfast usually consists of some fresh yoghurt (2MN), a coffee (1MN), some sweet bread (6MN) and some fruit (2MN). For lunch I’ve been shown some great pizza places where you can get a fluffy pizza with cheese and something on it for around 20 MN, snacks during the afternoon and a beer round up the package and usually don’t cost more then a handful of MN more. So, yes, it’s possible to live quite cheaply but
In general I’m trying to live as cheaply as possible in order not to spend too much money on normal living expenses.
But of course this is not always easy, today for example I found myself craving for a coffee and found myself in a beautiful coffee place next to the sea, spending 1 Euro for a cup of Espresso.

7) Plans for the next months.
Well, for the moment I’m staying in La Habana, working here in the centro on my master thesis. I’m going to be here in Habana until October 25 and will then go for a 2 week round trip around Cuba with Celia, a very dear friend of mine from Valencia. Then back to La Habana for a couple of days. November 8 I’m taking off to Cancún, Mexico, from where I will start a 4 month backpacking trip through Central America.
The rough idea is:
Cuba –> Mexico –> Guatemala –> El Salvador –> Honduras –> Nicaragua –> Costa Rica –> Panama –> Colombia.
In Colombia I will be spending Christmas and New Year’s Eve with Camila, my dearest master colleague
Let’s see how things work out, as I said: This is the rough plan!

OK, now I have to go, my stomach is starting to grumble.
Please keep in mind that if you want to write me that I can probably not answer very soon. And, please don’t send me pictures – they would block my inbox!
Please also note that I cannot check my Facebook account, Facebook is taking forever to load here so ALL MY COMUNICATION IS GOING THROUGH THIS BLOG. Thank you, keep in touch and muchos abrazos bien fuertes!
Benno

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2 thoughts on “First Impressions

  1. Lieber Benno, wie schön, von dir zu hören! Du schreibst mal wieder sehr schön, so farbenreich und interessant. Ich genieße es, deine Texte zu lesen. Ich bin sehr froh und erleichtert, dass du dich so wohl fühlst und dass soweit alles gut läuft.. 🙂 Ich denke sehr an dich und freu mich schon auf den nächsten Eintrag – Bussi, Susi

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