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Getting in touch with my inner Cuban

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image A richly adorned example of the neo-baroque architectural style, this nearly over the top solid mass of building materials is home of Havana’s Gran Teatro. Melody Jameson Photo

Part two in a month-long series


Some souvenirs are guaranteed to sail through customs.

Take the mastery of kissing, for example, or the art of the deal.

I was lounging in what on many American university campuses would be called “the Quad,” relishing the University of Havana’s Greek columns and Roman arches that grace the surrounding buildings, idly watching a group of students nearby. Ten to 12 of them, young men and women, sat side by side on a long, low wall, chattering like college students anywhere about what is important in their worlds, animating their rapid fire Cuban.

Gradually, the group began to disband. One by one, each taking leave bent to kiss on both cheeks each of those remaining, moving along the line from end to end, receiving from those still seated the same double-cheeked kisses in return. Not like female air kissing U.S. entertainment media and comedians love to parody, this was unhurried, unself-conscious, deliberate and genuine.

Later, over lunch with a new Cuban friend, I asked with Norte Americano directness “What’s with all the kissing among the natives all over the place all the time?”

“Ah,” he replied, with a note of pleasure, “you notice. It’s our gesture of respect, of friendship. We kiss when we leave to say ‘I will miss you’ and we kiss when we meet again to say ‘I’m so glad to see you’. Here, I teach you.”

Cuba with a twist

Cubans, like most Caribbean islanders in my experience, are by nature a warm, friendly, hospitable people. The difference in Cuba, it seems to me, is the variance between those met on the streets and those involved most directly in the hospitality and security industries – hotel staff, money changers, restaurant and night club waiters, police.

Cuba, of course, is a communist police state, controlled and operated under its communist party dictates. All Cubans with whom most visitors come in contact are employees of the state. Yet, I found the natives I met on Havana’s streets, talked with, ate with, visited at home with, to be more ready to smile, more helpful, more willing to listen, much easier to engage. Hotel, currency exchange and restaurant staff, on the other hand, were aloof, doing the job, unsmiling in the process.

And while all of them work at the will of the state, it is those in hospitality, along with the tour guides, which also are most widely considered reporting agents of the state.

A group of Cuba tourists listen as a native Cuban guide, employed by the state, (dark blue city pants suit, back to camera) gives them the state’s versions of the facts concerning the landmark they are visiting. Melody Jameson PhotoHavana is for tourists

Regardless of outlooks in different venues, though, Cuba generally welcomes its tourists, although Americans going to Cuba are not yet classified here that way. Tourism there has boomed since the Castro regime began opening the doors in the mid-90s. They come now in droves from Japan and Australia, from across Europe and South America, from parts of North America excluding the U.S. Tourism, all Cubans seem to recognize, is a major and necessary component of their economy.

Visitors pack the broad central lobby of the beloved seven-story Hotel Nacional de Cuba – known far and wide simply as “Nacional” – and fill the rooms of a dozen other comfortable hostelries in Havana . They belly up to the conveniently located currency exchange windows, where a U.S. hundred dollar bill this spring was getting about 87.30 Cuban, then they pocket Cuban CUCs and pesos in place of the bills from their nations. They scramble aboard the thousands of cushy “Havanatur” and “Transtur” busses, supplied courtesy of Cuba’s communist Chinese partner, to see the city and surrounding countryside, as directed by Cuban tour guides.

They also may have occasion to engage a pedicab or take a ride in a now-classic American made convertible or enjoy a leisurely jaunt in a horse-drawn carriage – all of which await the spending tourist eager to see the old city or its environs close up. And, here the haggling begins – at least for those who indulge. Cubans, in my experience, are as into bargaining as the savviest auctioneer; they understand the art of the deal and are quick to play. Personal transportation is prime for the haggle; the practice in the purveyor’s best interests.

Being an inveterate haggler, I happily negotiated every purchase. But Cubans themselves instructed me; putting me into cabs for returns to Nacional at night, giving drivers directions in Cuban, telling me in English “pay no more than three pesos, a tip if you like.”

Wandering down the avenue from Nacional toward the city, for instance, I would encounter several modes of transport at my disposal. Picking a brightly colored pedicab, a bicycle with an umbrella covered back seat, I get a price for being pedaled perhaps a dozen blocks into the old city of 10 Cuban pesos. I offer six, instead; it is accepted. Upon arrival at the destination, I give the cyclist six pesos for the trip and four for the tip. The six is the reportable charge he ostensibly was able to wrangle, the four he can claim as his own. The cost to me is no more than the original 10. In Cuba’s staggering, complex economy, where the working class is assessed each month by the state for the privilege of a job, for the privilege of shelter overhead, I suspect this is how they have learned to get by.

Star attraction

Most of Cuba’s visitors are drawn first to Old Havana, settled in 1519, observing its 500th anniversary in eight years. Sited at the island’s northwest shoreline, looking toward the Gulf of Mexico, the city that grew during the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries from that settlement would become known as “the Paris of the Caribbean,” her sophisticated world capital flavor much appreciated over the centuries by those far from home.

The Spanish, the French, the Dutch, all of whom at one time or another took conquering interest in the islands of the “ Caribbean necklace” stretching southward from what now is the Dominican Republic to the leeward and the windward specs in the blue green sea off Venezuela , certainly left their imprints on Havana. Their ships laid over for repairs, their expeditionary forces took breaks, their territorial ambitions took root. From Havana, conquistadors plotted assaults on La Florida.

Today in Havana the history is relived, through the centuries old buildings, many crumbling, some being restored, through the narrow cobblestone streets where the hooves of horses pulling carriages still echo, through the squares that were a popular – and lasting - means of organizing a city’s design in days past.

There’s more to Havana, however, than her architecturally delicious center and her historically rich layers.

Part One: Cuba: Fifty years and one embargo later, what did I miss?

Next: Some Surprising Similarities.

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson

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