Friday, January 29, 2010

Life at casa Luis y Luisa

The man who we had hired to pick us up at the airport and drive us to Havana, stopped to ask some people on the street about the address we were going to. As they pointed back to the direction we had just come from he put the old Russian Lada in reverse and backed up 3 blocks. Why bother to turn around when you can just back up, it's not like there is any traffic anyway. Another lesson in Cuban living.

We knocked at the tall wooden doors at number 28 in Central Havana. The street was dark, really dark. All the other streets were too. No one answered so we rang the bell. Our driver made noises, he didn't speak any English and I could tell he wondered if we knew where we were suppose to be. I showed him the phone number, he called the house and finally Luisa opened the door- unfortunately we could tell she was not expecting us. Her husband Luis came and spoke to us, I showed him our name on his reservation book and we figured out he had mistakenly expected us the next night.

"It's no problem!" We would hear this over and over again. People here seem to expect the unexpected and just deal with it.

Cubans are allowed to rent out rooms in their house to tourists in order to make money if they get the proper license and pay special taxes. Luis handed each of us each a plastic drinking cup, poured us a glass of Havana Club and invited us to sit in the living room while they made up our room. We were to pay $25 per night and would be living in the family's home for 8 days. For $4 each we could have breakfast in the morning.

This large pork leg was with us in the living room, rubbed down with garlic and salt. We didn't know anything about the meat and pork situation yet but still found it funny that it was just hanging out. The next morning it was gone and we were sitting at the same table having breakfast (fruit, eggs, bread, juice and coffee) and talking to Luis about our plans for the day. He told us they were having a big party at the house at 3pm and we should come, yeah! we love a party! After doing a bit of sightseeing and enjoying a ridiculously cheap lunch of brochettes and beers we went to the dollar store for our host gift, 7 year old Havana Club rum. Our next stop was a convenience store near our neighborhood for some ice but the freezers were empty. We asked the clerk and he gave us a plastic bag and directed us next door to the hotel. Feeling a bit weird about just asking for a bag of ice we ordered a round of mojitos and enjoyed some music on the patio at the Hotel Seville.

Ice in hand we headed back to the casa around 3:30- fashionably late even in a 3rd world country. Luis and Luisa greeted us, graciously took the rum and made room in the freezer for our ice. The house was full of friends and relatives, the courtyard decorated with balloons and streamers. There was a huge table loaded with homemade tamales, croquettes, potato salad, rice, beans and roasted pork! The leg from last night was now center stage at the party. Luisa served us up on large Styrofoam trays like you find under your supermarket poultry and meat. You could tell they were very proud to be able to provide all this.

As Dayne mixed up martini's for everyone, Luis passed out plastic drinking cups and I passed out ginger snap cookies that my mother in law had sent along for us. The cookies were good and gobbled up but the gin martini's were a BIG hit! From then on out every day we came home from sightseeing Luis would call out "Dayne, my friend! Is it time for martini's?"

Everyone at the party was having a blast drinking and dancing. One of Luis' friends gave both Forest and me a salsa lesson and as the day turned to night everyone did the Electric Slide! We felt really lucky to be invited to see such a "real" slice of Cuban life (the other renters in the house were not invited).
Since we do have a tradition of having aperos before going out at night while on vacation and we knew that snack foods were going to be scarce we all packed some things and brought them with us. We purchased a set of 6 glasses (real glass!) for $5 (quite a splurge for your average Cuban) and each night as Dayne mixed gin, French vermouth and bitters Forest and I laid out snacks that we found in town or in our suitcases - pepperoni sticks, canned almonds, Goldfish crackers, Pringles, cheese & crackers, etc. We invited Luis and Luisa to join us and we chatted about the day, their life, happenings in the neighborhood, etc.


On New Years eve we gathered as usual and invited the family to share champagne with us. Our friends Matt & Violaine had brought a few bottles of Veuve Clicquot (as well as plastic champagne flutes) and I had brought a California sparkling from J Vineyards. Luisa especially enjoyed the champagne and was asking me about the different bottles. I'll bet these are on display in their house now.

And finally on our last night at Casa Luis and Luisa we came home from our daily outings to find the family in the kitchen, singing to songs being played on the computer and drinking beers out of the plastic flutes we had left them after new years eve. Immediately they hugged and kissed us, handed us cold beers and introduced us to their friend who was visiting from Canada, he was also Cuban. We all laughed at the mix of Cuban, French and American that stood in the kitchen.
Luis and Luisa have definitely found ways to make more money which allows them to have many more "luxuries" than most but it is still very hard as Luis told us. The government is always watching. The family gathers mainly in the back of the house where the kitchen is, 60 feet from listening ears that could be outside the front door. They worry about getting fined for renting out too many rooms, not reporting all income, having computers, internet, etc. They share with their friends and build a referral network for room renters, private drivers, dinners in homes, etc. And at the end of the day, no matter how much money you have there is still a huge shortage of basics available for sale so they take care of what they have and try to celebrate the little things in life.

When we checked out we gave them the glasses we had bought, Tupperware we had brought, a bag of things like Advil, toothpaste, toothbrushes, crayons, newspapers, etc. I would be lying if I said I didn't feel a bit sad as I hugged them both goodbye. They are very nice people.

Salud to you Luis, Luisa and your family! Thanks for letting us into your home and into your lives, even if it was just for a week. And if you ever get the chance to have Luisa's homemade tamales you will count yourself lucky as they were so good Forest and I talked about them the entire time in Havana.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Farmers Markets, Cuban Style

Since we visited our local farmers market today it got me thinking about the farmers market we happened upon in Havana Vieja. There are a few 'agros' around the city, generally they are in a permanent location and are run daily. There was even one right on the corner by our casa particular, it was very sad looking. But it is only at these agros that vendors can set their own prices, an experiment in capitalism that was started in 1980. Peeking into them whenever we passed by, we would see a few tables with some taro, potatoes and cabbage. Notice I didn't say "piled high". There isn't enough of anything to be piled high.

But this market was different. Set up on the busy Prado in front of the Capitolio there were signs saying this was a special holiday market. And just like here in Ballard there were many street food vendors selling croquettes, pan con lechón, and ice cream.

There was also a long line of old trucks full of unripe bananas, yuca, rice, malanga, cabbage & plantains. A very limited selection to say the least but more than at the agros. Each farmer just sold one thing. Customers lined up and had their vegetables weighed on old fashion scales, paying in pesos and adding things to the plastic bag they had brought with them.

One or two tents had tables set up and are selling pork. This really is a special holiday market as very few Cubans have the opportunity to buy pork. Lines are long, very long. It's the first time I am realizing that the Cuban people stand in line for a lot of things, it is a part of life here.

I'm sure that just like Dayne and I, when we left our farmers market today, people need to run into the grocery store for a few odds and ends. Only here it's quite a different situation as you can see...

This is how every shop looks. And to call these grocery stores is a bit of a reach since there is no produce section, freezer section, etc. There is little variety and little in general. Can you imagine if a Cuban citizen walked into a Costco in the states? Uh, wow!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Intro to Cuba

Sometimes you go somewhere that is so foreign to your senses that you can't help but to stare at everything around. You can't ask enough questions or get enough answers to fill the voids of knowledge that confront you. As someone who has a pretty easy life you think "how can people live like this?" yet they do and you wonder if they even know how different it is. I'm talking about Cuba, Havana to be specific as that is where we spent most of our time. A city with almost 2.5 million people living amidst incredible architecture, although it's crumbling around their feet. Electricity is scarce here so the city at night sits in darkness for the most part. Store shelves are filled with the same thing over and over and over if they are filled at all. Music streams out of hotels and bars as locals sit outside to listen, they aren't allowed in most places and even if they were they don't have money for a drink. Ration lines for bread snake 3 blocks long. Neighbors sit in their doorways and call out to each other, behind them their homes are dark and empty.

I've never been to a communist country before. I've never been to a country with so many rules, one set for tourists and the other for the nationals. Different currencies, different shops, different taxis. Different.

If this all sounds a bit depressing, it can be. Some people are poor and hungry and dirty and without resources. But others are prospering. They wear designer clothes, they have laptops, digital cameras and pork. They are trying to run businesses and make money for their families and friends. They share everything they have- even with us. We experienced this time and time again. It's a classic case of the "haves" and the "have nots" brought on by a government who decided that two currencies- the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) and the CUP (Cuban Peso) would somehow be a great idea.

You need CUCs to buy the better things- nice clothes, meat, better groceries, housewares, etc. The only way to get them is to work where you will come in contact with tourists. CUPs are used in the post office, with street vendors, in state run grocery stores. The average monthly wage in Cuba is $25, the average price of necessities- food, toilet paper, rum- is very similar to what it is here in the states. You figure out the math.


But there is so much more to Havana than crumbling buildings and grocery store shortages. There is so much history, pride and belief in a better tomorrow. All you have to do is ask and people will tell you about their families, their education and who they know who lives in the States.

Team Cuba (made up of 2 French and 4 Americans) spent 10 days in Havana and still didn't see everything. But what we saw, heard and experienced has made a lasting impression and I hope to share a bit of that here with you, stay tuned!

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