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Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Brian & Deya met in Vancouver Canada. After a few years together we were married and made choices. One was not to have children the other was not to take life for granted. The rest is yet to come.

January 19, 2012

Viva Cuba Libre – First Blush

(Due to slow and expensive internet, pictures and video will be added once we are off the island, Thanks)

A good American friend wrote in response to our email about the cost of Internet services in Cuba saying that for a country that values its people it’s interesting that only the privileged can afford to use the Internet. I recognized the sarcasm right away since this friend has been doing deep calculations on how to best afford medical insurance in the USA. I mentioned what he already knew about the fact that only the privileged get medical in the US and that there are more Americans without any medical than there are Cubans in total. Of course the US blockade makes developing infrastructure and telecommunications extremely difficult in Cuba, which means high demand and low supply, resulting in very high prices. This issue is soon to be resolved by mid next year with a fibre-optic cable to Venezuela. Thanks to a ridiculous 50 year blockade the US has managed to push Cuba closer to the pool of anti US countries, good job eh? Despite this, several US telecommunications companies are currently bidding on contracts in Cuba and its lucrative and mostly untouched market, likely hoping to capitalize on a massive roaming charge market in the meantime. Ultimately I’d rather have low cost medical than cheap Internet.

What we discovered when we got here and began researching the Cuban industry was that the USA is Cuba’s 6th largest trading partner. Cuba spends about double the amount of its very hard earned money in the USA than it does with its oldest diplomatic partner, Canada. In Cuba, many families we have stayed with own their homes and while this is a fairly new development, the Cubans who do not yet own a home live in many cases in very beautiful homes anyways. It’s not unusual to see a flat screen TV, X-BOX ready, with the appropriate video game gear attached. Some things are difficult to get here because of the political situation and after all it is still, after 50 years, an island under siege.

“No es facil” and I would agree, “It’s not easy”. This is a pretty common statement in Cuba but it’s the same kind of statement a Canadian might make about trying to pay the taxes, living paycheque to paycheque or slipping and sliding their way to a 10-12 hour day at work in the middle of winter. The fact is life can be tough anywhere and I know a lot of people from Canada who might seem rich here but are actually two paycheques from loosing their place of dwelling. It’s not easy, but the difference here is that Cubans, in my opinion, have little frame of reference and might think, because they would like to have a trip to Disneyland, an iPod or Bill Gate’s yacht, they are missing out on something.

Well, some are missing out but then so am I. Cubans seem to compare their existence to that of North Americans and Europeans. This is good because they have a pretty high standard but what they should be doing is recognizing that they are a Caribbean island and at best they should compare themselves to the other Caribbean islands and Central America which might help to realize that they are so much better off than their neighbours. What gives them the freedom to be concerned about their plight is just that, freedom. A place to live, good education, good health care, enough food and other social initiatives. You hear that the average wage is 30 dollars a month but when all the other things are covered then the worst a Cuban can do is: enjoy the weather, beach, relaxing, food, comfortable home, time with friends, learning, music, art, etc. I think you get the idea but Cubans take this for granted. Next time you’re paying your rent or mortgage and your boss is yelling at you about performance and wondering what you would lose if you quit your job, think about the poor Cubans sitting on their porch wondering about a new cell phone. I may have just simplified a complicated problem but the two truths are that Cubans generally have less opportunity compared to Canadians but also don’t have the same risk of total loss. I guess I’m glad to be able to choose.

For us, this is one of the safest and most civilized countries we have been in. With two million people in Havana I can walk with my wife around at night, no hard core drugs, no knives, no guns, no problem. Some one might try to get you to buy something you don’t need because you have more money than them. Try strolling in any big cities through the Americas, just try it and tell me if you don’t get a little sketched out. One of the biggest things that Deya and I have faced as we travel through the Americas is safety. This has been an incredible oversight coming from a very safe country but now we understand that safety should come first because without it nothing else really matters. In Afghanistan, there isn’t much use in building a school when your children will be blown up by attending it, security first.

I started this chapter with a rant because Cuba is truly an amazing and interesting place, piece of history, social experiment and a gem. This is one country that, if it is very careful and intelligent, will be an island of excellence and being Cuban will be seen as a privilege. One cautious observation we’ve noticed is that Cubans don’t know how to handle money, like a regular Joe winning the lottery, all money can be lost in a season. Those who think Cuba should just open up to the free market like a turkey on Thanksgiving obviously couldn’t care less about the Cuban people. If Cuba is greedy it will end up like any other drug infested socially disrupted piece of the supply and demand matrix. Let’s hope Cubans can move forward down a path of premeditation and caution for all our sakes.

Entering Cuba by boat
You would think it would be hard to do but in reality “It’s not easy”. The Cuban government has very organized and established systems which are not unlike any other organized government. But like many other governments we have dealt with, as well as companies, the system is plagued with inefficiencies and waste. It has been our opinion that it has less to do with the government and more to do with the complacent and lazy attitude of the highly educated people doing the jobs. This is a very interesting and complicated problem but of course realigning systems to create better performance is clearly needed here.

We docked at a nice little port in Cienfuegos and waited for the officials to clear us and our bikes, it would take days and the Captain was kind enough to host us during the wait. The search of the boat involves dogs and many officers. They dig through everything, open every bag and sniff about. Finally a real search! I thought for sure we would get a thorough go about at some border but it was finally Cuba that cared enough about us to open my water bottle to take a sniff. It was a good experience and later that night the Cuban security guys came back to have some beers on the boat with us.

Turns out, as the dog handler told us, that in Santa Clara there is a show and shine for Motorbikes and the Harley Davidson Club would be there. They asked how fast our bikes would go, I told them with the right tyres and unloaded I could probably get up to 180-200 kilometres per hour. Well, they started jumping up and down saying they want to bet on us for the 1 km sprint because there are no bikes on the island that can do over 150! I had a good laugh but they were dead serious with dollar signs and the big win on their minds. Good times.

Cienfuegos is a beautiful city with a relaxed pace. We’ll go back and spend some time near there as it seemed like a nice place to hang out. As soon as we could leave we wasted no time getting out and heading towards La Habana. I was smiling and happy, struggling to keep myself calm as it had been over 6 weeks since I had last ridden Chuleta. I wasn’t sure how much strength I’d have to ride or what I’d encounter on this island and with my busted bones. We followed Frank and Petra through sun and heavy rain stopping a few times for a picture or a snack. I’m impressed with how checked out those two are. They really have their gear sorted out and look much more organized than Deya and I.

On the route we stopped for some lunch of rice and chicken with a beverage for about $1.2 CND for two, nice. We noticed that as we traveled we pretty much disrupted everything and people and cars stopped to stare; motorcycles like ours are extremely rare here, this was going to be interesting. We saw military convoys and they saw us, waving and swerving slightly to get a look as we rode by. We were pulled over by the police so the guy could look at us and say, “Wow” and comment on our cool helmets. Roli had told us that the best places in Cuba are in between the cities. I’m tending to agree with his assessment, though the cities are very nice.

Generally the road conditions are average to good. In the cities you have to watch out for missing manhole covers and a lot of oil at intersections, especially when it rains. This makes navigating cautious but fortunately we’re used to that kind of thing in Latin America. Havana (La Habana) is pretty easy to get around and the traffic is always pretty light. I’ve heard it might be one of the nicest cities in the Americas and I’m inclined to agree, it is a beautiful city, Deya and I enjoy just walking around it.

We followed our friends to where they were staying, we ended up nearby at a residential home. Cubans get business licenses to rent rooms or suites in their homes and this is a good experience for the most part. Typical cost for a room is 20-30 CUC a night. One CUC is roughly equivalent to 1 Canadian dollar. It seems high but the owner needs to pay the monthly licensing fee of 150 CUC so if you stay a month the price goes down because their cost is covered. The best thing about this kind of lodging is you get to know the Cuban families and learn about their lives. You also get to know a little about the culture and mindset of people and that’s really something. Perspective and perception is a very subtle yet strong influence. Ironically, Cubans are well educated and can speak to you at any level but because of their environment or maybe because they live on an island they tend to speak at you and really don’t make much attempt to listen to what you are saying.

Our first few days were very interesting, we stayed with an artist who travels to Germany for a few months every year to exhibit his work. He says if he wants he could stay to work and live in Europe but then started to explain the wages in Germany, the cost of living and had a clear understanding of the difficulties of living in a ‘Western’ country. He said simply that he prefers the ease and security of living in Cuba and the surety of his daily life and lifestyle. Touché friend, I’m very proud of Canada and would prefer it over anything but I can see how you might be content here. By the way, nice video game consol and 30” flat screen LCD. I’m jealous.

Deya and I had in our mission to visit the hospital to get information about my busted bones. Day one in the International Hospital (Cira Garcia) was loaded with smart people with poor attitudes. After an hour of the run around Deya was done and when the final lady at the reception, with pen in the right hand and note pad in the left, told Deya she didn’t have time to right down the prices of the three x-rays we needed, Deya blew up. Some yelling and the boss came in to sort it out. The boss ended up helping us out and we ended up staying another two hours to help out a young American guy named Mike who was in pain. While I’m sure the hospital is very good, as the reputation suggests, it was again the people who would literally ignore you or say, “I’m too busy, go wait somewhere until I’m done.” Since they are never done you go ask someone else who says, “That’s not my job go somewhere else” or “I finish work in an hour, come back tomorrow.” You can imagine how that doesn’t work well with us.

Of course it’s not the first time we have had to start jacking people up in Cuba and I imagine it will not be the last. The idea that this is how it works is crap because this is not how it works and with a little research you find quickly that the systems are robust but lazy people seem to be sitting on the ‘GO’ buttons. There seems to be a huge contrast between people on the street and people at work. On their own time people are fantastic, on the company’s time they are noisy, uneducated and rude, generally speaking of course. Don’t mean to rant again but we’ll eventually visit the Ministry of Tourism to discuss why they don’t like tourists much, see how that goes.

Another thing we did, which I want to briefly mention was to visit the Canadian Embassy and then attended a BBQ and Beer event. Before you enter the Embassy they check your passport, once verified they let you in the gate, no questions asked. Then they search for contraband, once you are done and ready to go inside they might say something like, “Welcome Home.” I’ve heard this before and I can’t quite describe what that feels like but it sets a tone for the visit and helps one to be fiercely proud of your country’s efforts. Deya decided we should stop by the Mexican Embassy to see if they have any Taco and Tequila events. We got there and they treated her more like a criminal than a citizen, she’s probably the first actual Mexican to visit the Embassy in years since the rest were Cubans trying to get visas and everything seemed to be about problems. She had a little cry outside and said she felt like tearing up her passport and throwing it at them. I know she’s proud to be Canadian but I think deep down she wishes she could be more proud of her native land, tough luck I guess. I’m a cold hearted bastard because I can be and for that I’m grateful to be Canadian.

Finally the results of the visit to the International Hospital, three X-rays and a consultation = 100 CUC. I haven’t made a decision yet but If I choose to get surgery done to replace the absent ligament connecting the collar bone to the shoulder, it will cost about 3800 CUC including 10 days in a private room with full support, spare bed for the wife at an extra cost, three meals a day and check ups.

One of the difficult things to do in Cuba is finding cash. Any credit cards or debit cards that route into or through the USA will not work. There are not an abundance of places to get cash either so when you find it you need to get a wad.
We also had an experience with the difference between being a tourist and a Cuban. We had ice cream in the Cuban side of the fence, they made Deya show her Cuban pesos before we could enter to have a bowl, it cost about 0.20 CUC. Then we went over the fence to the tourist side to see what the same bowl of ice cream costs, 3.9 CUC. Wow!
The toll road en route to Varadero was the same thing, 0.09 CUC for a Cuban or 2.0 CUC for a tourist, which only helped us to find really cool back roads. The markets are about the same but less distinction since tourists never really go there. The cost of food, however limited the variety, is incredibly cheap and we can get a few days of groceries for a couple of bucks. Cubans here have not yet learned how to overcharge a tourist though some might try.

After a week in La Habana we headed to Varadero where we will meet my parents for the Christmas season, returning to Havana in the New Year or heading West to explore, we’ll see.

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