Cuba Dos

Day 3

The next morning we did another glorious Malecón run, this time running east toward Vieja. About a mile and a half out, we reached a series of incredible statues for the Bienal. It made the run feel more like a game, the statues being checkmarks. We ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the graffiti art, sweating and smiling.

The morning turned sour, unfortunately, when we went to get brunch. We walked all the way out to 6 to go to Casanoba, as mentioned. Our eyes were definitely bigger than our stomachs, as we ordered two orders of eggs that each came with three sides, an omelette, tostones, a coffee, two juices, and two fruit cocktails. The place has great food and a nice ambiance (meaning actual seating and shade). And the portions were awesome. However, when we asked for the check, the waitress flatly wrote 15 CUC (dollars). Our meal could not have cost more than 7.

Even though we had spoken courteously with her in Spanish, the waitress took us for tourists to rip off. Mitra explained to her that she works for the Cuban government and is making the same small state salary, and for her it’s very upsetting to be overcharged when she had had such a positive experience there and was planning to leave a tip anyway. The waitress tried to excuse the rip-off by saying, “Well I provided you this plastic cutlery with napkins and salt and pepper and toilettes, which costs more,” (and undoubtedly that stuff is very expensive in Cuba, but we didn’t ask for it…and didn’t know we’d be charged) and “we’re raising all the prices. Everything is more expensive — look!” On the large menu outside, a man was indeed changing the prices that second. But when we arrived, we were staring at the same menu and the waitress presented us with small ones, saying the listings matched exactly.

Mitra eventually got the waitress to redo the check after we made somewhat of a scene. She still somewhat overcharged us, but we were past it. Mitra was bummed, having struggled to find a quality cafetería near her house or work, and now uncomfortable at this one, the best she’d encountered.

It’s moments like this where you are reminded how much Cuba is a paradox. Most interactions are so great; then one instance in which a Cuban tries to “aprovechar,” or “take advantage of,” you can ruin your day. The positive interactions outweigh the negative ones, but they do happen. The hardest part is acknowledging that yes, that $15 means way more to that waitress at Casanoba than it does to us. And I would happily give her more money than what we owed — but not because I was tricked into doing so.

We tried to brush off the frustration, prepping for our afternoon in Los Pocitos, a poor neighborhood in west Havana that Mitra and Evyn have worked extensively in. First, we stopped to exchange currency at the Hotel Nacional. When you walk along the Malecón, it looks very regal, almost like a tropical version of the Grand Budapest Hotel. It sits on top of a promontory with flags and cannons. I had actually never been inside, and was quite impressed by how well-maintained and luxurious it was. You could tell, like so much of Cuba, that it had once been a glitzy resort during the 20s. As usual, I got a little disheartened thinking how expensive it must be to stay here, due to all the resources Cubans must pour into the tourists that come.

Getting to Los Pocitos was a bit of a mess, which tripled my respect for Mitra and Evyn going there every day for a month, in the scorching summer, no less. We brought bags loaded with art supplies for the children to do workshops. Taking two buses absolutely jammed with people, we eventually arrived about an hour later than expected.

Mitra and Evyn casually led me to Deborah and Michael’s (pronounced Mee-shell) house. The couple runs Proyecto Akokán, the community programming in Los Pocitos. I had met Michael with Evyn two years ago while studying in Cuba, and he’s quite an intelligent, passionate, and chatty guy.

Deborah and Michael were ecstatic to see us, immediately taking us into their lovely home and preparing us a cafecito. We showed them the supplies we had brought and discussed the workshop we’d do with the kids, how our families were, what we’d been up to. Evyn and I also sat down with Michael to give him a 10 minute interview — which turned into over 20, as expected.

Michael doesn’t think there’s a specific code of ethics that tourists need to follow; like anywhere, the culture you are visiting deserves respect. Many tourists view Cuba as an exotic, unknown place on the margins of the world. Information about it is manipulated; Cuba has a history of being a Latin American Las Vegas, featuring beaches and tobacco and sex. In fact, Cuba has been hyper-sexualized through history.

Tourism is a way, in Michael’s opinion, to combat this warped perspective and show respect, because tourism allows people to bring help to communities such as Los Pocitos that lack resources. Students, in particular, are great tourists because their education helps them see the experience more broadly. The difficulty is that when it comes to tourism, money is power. Paying someone for anything means you expect something in return, but in Los Pocitos, there is nothing material to give — just a visit. There is always an element of inequality when it comes to tourists visiting Cuba.

In relation to Proyecto Akokán, Michael has struggled to access publicity for the work being done. Publicity for Cuba in general has struggled. Until the Special Period, Cuba lived in basically isolation, and then people discovered that it was suffering.

Tourism has the power to increase publicity, as it is a kind of interchange of ideas. It seems, however, that tourists are bringing their culture to Cuba and not learning of Cuba’s culture. For example, Cubans have started cooking foods they never ate to satisfy tourists, such as hummus. The environment has suffered due to investment in tourist accommodations and entertainment. Tourism is supposed to develop a community, believes Michael, but often, Cubans are changing how they conduct their daily lives to put on a show for tourists.

That said, Michael wishes more tourists would come to Los Pocitos. They would bring lots of resources to the community and would actually experience a more authentic version of Havana. However, the issue is finding a practical way to take them through the space. For instance, tourists could come see the classroom, but then they might interrupt the students’ concentration, which is no good for anyone. It needs some work.

Michael spoke a good deal more than this, but that’s the gist. After finally putting a bow on it, we walked down to the soccer fields, where there is stadium seating. Under the seating are several rooms, including the Akokán classroom that Mitra and Evyn established. In no time, kids flooded in, and we ended up having 26 kids, from age 3 to roughly 12. It was chaos. Mitra did a great job explaining the collage workshop, carefully giving each child a photograph that they had taken in a previous workshop, and encouraging them to add drawings, glitter, paper, and newspaper to create a scene. Some of the pictures turned out spectacularly. I was of little help; about 5 kids at any time would yell “Profe, profe!” Asking for this pair of scissors or that color marker. It did not help that I know very few art supply words in Spanish. However, I survived, más o menos, and the kids had an excellent time.

This little guy was my favorite. Very polite when asking for help, and innovative with his collage.
Clearly enjoying the “taller.”

We bid farewell to Michael and Deborah, taking time to visit some other friends of Evyn and Mitra’s. Many people live along a river in houses with little infrastructure, subjecting them to damage in bad weather. As the houses have been improved bit by bit, people have painted beautiful murals on their walls, adding some vitality to the community. It’s still hard seeing the conditions that many live in, but they’re all such positive people beside the fact, generous and warm.

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Day 4

April 21, 2019

Day 2

April 21, 2019

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