I had planned to head to the beach today but since I’m not much of a beach guy and the beaches near Vinales would be so much nicer and I still had so much more of Havana to see I decided to continue to explore the insanity of the city.
I started in the massive Colon cemetery, where I quietly dodged paying the admission fee for tourists. If you’re gonna sleep on the job, I’m certainly not going to wake you up to take my money. In Cuba they have the stone graves above ground and in typical Cuban fashion, everything is falling apart. Many graves are crumbling and some are collapsed. When the wind blow in the right (wrong?) direction you can smell the decay and so can the stray dogs that trot around and the vultures that circle above looking to get an easy meal from a scrap of flesh. In some of the aisles, the rotted and broken coffins are filled with scraps of clothing flapping in the breeze. When I look at the strange mulchy dirt within, I wonder if those are the ashes and dust that we all become. If so, that’s really fucked up.
The only thing on the ‘must do’ list for the day was to hit a bank since I was down to about 10 CUC’s. The info in the guide book, although only a few years old, is already outdated with businesses apparently abandoning one shop and moving into another abandoned shop frequently. But I found a bank without too much trouble and exchanged 200. Or so I thought. When I got my receipt, it showed 180 CDN and when I asked the teller about this she went through a grand and very visual explanation of how much she received and how there were no extra 20’s on the counter, almost as if she had been accused of this before. Now, I’m not 100% sure if I gave her 9 20’s or 10, and I’m not going to worry about it since there is really no recourse anyway, but for all the travelers who have been ripped off by this common scam, chingas a tu puta madre.
Speaking of putas chingadas, sex tourism is an underground but growing diversion here. Travelers report being accosted by pimps, jinteros, left right and center and as a single young guy I expected some of this but I haven’t been propositioned officially once, except one chica on the Malecon who asked the time and then asked some other questions that I totally ignored. Maybe she wasn’t actually a hooker, I dunno. But that’s apparently how it works. The girls often don’t have pimps, and many of them consider this a side job or even something they do fun. You meet a girl, you take her to dinner, you take her dancing, and you take her back to your hotel for sex. Maybe you pay a nominal amount, or maybe she does it purely to eat in a restaurant that she can’t afford, to dance in a club that she wouldn’t be allowed into, and sleep in a hotel room that’s luxurious compared to her own home. It’s not that much different from going on a date at home except for the guarantee of sex. But again, the whole thing is really confusing and ambiguous and I can’t really be bothered to look into it any further. Now, had this been the case with the beautiful women of Iceland, I’d probably still be there.
I’ve mentioned the urban decay and the crazy old jalopies but they’re really a part of something bigger. Cuba is stuck in a time warp where time moves forward and everything else stands still. Perhaps there are merits to a communist dictatorship and I certainly don’t doubt that Castro is a benevolent dictator in the sense that he truly believes that he has done the best thing for his people, as opposed to a Kim Jong Il who abused his people to achieve his own political goals. But when you look around Cuba, it’s pretty obvious that most things ground to a halt or maybe a slow crawl at best in 1960, immediately after the revolucion.
A good example is the Havana Hilton. It was completed in 1959 and served wealthy travelers for a mere 6 months before Castro’s revolutionaries rolled into Havana, set up shop on the 24th floor, ousted the Batista regime, and changed the name to Hotel Havana Libre. It’s a big building, with a lobby that would have been considered modern and luxurious in the 60s. But now its dated and tacky and really showing its age. If it were in the US, it probably would have been demolished years ago. But in Havana, it’s still considered one of the top end hotels. This is what I mean – it’s like everything ground to a halt in 1960 and nothing in the country has seen any improvement since then.
And it’s not just hotels and tourist facilities, even some of the things that Castro has touted as victories for the people have stagnated massively. In the museo del revolucion they have pictures of sparkling new schools with happy students and facilities that rivaled any other in the world in 1960. Nowadays, when you walk past those same schools, the buildings look the same, just with broken window panes cracked cement. They still have the exact the desks and chairs, just looking more sad and broken now. Even the gyms and sports facilities, something Cuba poured money into in the 60s, are sad and rusty and just generally gross after absorbing 50 years of sweat.
There is really only one area in which it appears that Cuba may have possibly kept pace with the rest of the western world: health care. Every citizen receives free medical service and even things like laser eye surgery are available to the very poorest people. Sure it’ll be performed in an operating room that has intermittent power and broken windows, but its performed nonetheless. In fact, there was a crazy old man on my flight who spends his winters at his place in Havana. He needs kidney dialysis every few days and he says that the care he gets in Cuba is on par with what he gets in Canada. And he went on to mumble something about senoritas before breaking out into hysterical toothless laughter.