"We're here for just two and a half weeks, and then I have to go back to the Netherlands for a battle of the bands. My band qualified for a competition, and I play bass," Ophir beamed.
"Jealous!" I announced. I turned to the other tall blonde guy sitting next to Ophir on the bunk opposite me. The doors were closed for the night and the AC had been switched on, and we were becoming dry for the first time that day. "Are you guys traveling together?"
"Yeah, we're brothers. This is our first trip together without our parents," he said. "I'm Amos."
"Brandon. Nice to meet you. Is this your first stop?"
"I was working at a hotel in the Netherlands, and then I was volunteering in Israel--" he laughed as my jaw dropped, "--yeah, it was really amazing."
"We just got here today," Ophir finished.
"Same. It's been really interesting so far," I said.
"Do you know very much about Cuba?" Ophir asked. I shook my head. "There's a Dutch guy that's been living here a long time, and he wrote a book. We both read it before we came here. It's really informative."
"Yeah," Amos started, "like no one here is poor, they have everything they need from the government. They have free healthcare, free school, and the food they need. And taxi drivers--"
"You have to be really careful about them because there are set prices for tourists, but there's people that will take you that aren't taxi drivers and you can get a better price," Ophir finished. "And the internet..."
The brothers turned out to be veritable experts on travel in Cuba. Though I have to say that, tempting as it is to assume no one in Cuba is poor because of the socialist state, is not an accurate description of life there. In the United States and other capitalistic industrialized countries, there's generally a stratification of socioeconomic brackets that can be split up into the poor, the middle class, and the upper class (to simplify a bit). In a true communistic society (which Cuba is not-- it's socialist, but I'll touch on that later), there is no such socioeconomic stratification. A graph showing the median income of various demographics should, in theory, be a straight line. Cubans still need to pay for housing, though this cost is incredibly low thanks to enormous government subsidies, and entire families will usually take up residence together so that three or four generations are all living under the same roof.
Out of all the places we would stay over the next week, only one of them housed a single-generation family. As mentioned in my earlier post, nutrition in Cuba is based on a rationing system, also heavily subsidized, meaning that no one in Cuba really starves or is left homeless. Beyond that, medicine and doctor visits and health care in general are free, or next to free. This does not mean they have an easy life. Entire cities have been heavily damaged by Caribbean storms and hurricanes and a stifled economy, and the minimum monthly wage sits at around $8, so living in Cuba denotes a very limited number of luxuries, a housing shortage, and various other issues. It's just that housing, education, and healthcare aren't seen as luxuries in Cuba the way they are in the USA and other western countries.
Before going to bed, I tried to connect to the internet outside in the park, giving up eventually after I'd been kicked off four or five times. I resolved not to worry about connecting with people for the next two weeks and rough it out. Amos, Ophir and I went into the convenience store near our hostel to get some food. There were some locals hanging out inside having a good time and discussing the neighborhood drama.
"Don't be stupid," one woman yelled at her friend, "he's been looking for a girlfriend forever. And that sweet girl down the street is perfect for him."
"But she's so lazy!" he yelled back.
"What are they talking about?" Amos asked me.
"Drama," I replied. "Nothing important." Doesn't matter how far you are from home, doesn't matter what language people are speaking, they're usually talking about the same thing everywhere, I thought, smiling. The woman behind the counter wiped the smile off my face.
"What do you want?" she asked with a scowl.
"Can I get the... bocadito with ham and cheese?" As I would come to find out during my time in Cuba, the only ingredients for food widely available were spam, mild yellow cheese, tomato sauce, and bread. A bocadito is just a sandwich (bocadillo, in some Spanish-speaking countries). She gave me the sandwhich, which was in a styrofoam tray and shrink-wrapped in clear plastic. I handed her 14 local pesos and she held out her hand, rolling her eyes.
"28? It says 14 right there," I said, pointing to the printed label on the shrink wrap.
"Ay, but that's for one portion. You see there are two pieces in there. You need to pay 14 more."
"It's a sandwich that's cut in half," I replied. "That's not two portions."
"You have to pay 28 pesos!" She rolled her eyes again and huffed, still holding out her hand. When I translated for the twins, they were as incredulous as I was.
"Fine. I'll take a pizza instead." I put the sandwich down and got a pizza (which was not cut up into portions) for the same price. One of the locals in line waiting behind us caught my eye and apologized.
Back at the hostel, we ran into the rest of the gang who were staying in the hostel; two Filipinos, an Aussie, a Kiwi, and a Brit. I don't remember who suggested it, but two of them were traveling together and asked if we wanted to tag along the next day to Varadero. In search of adventure and friends, I said yes.
The following morning, we stopped for coffee downstairs. A man was serving Cuba style coffee (tons of sugar, no milk) in tiny toy cups poured from a thermos. One glass was 1 local peso ($0.04 US). He noticed I spoke Spanish, and called me behind his desk while the others went to sit down and enjoy their coffee.
"Closer," he said as I walk to the edge of the desk. "Closer! Come back here!" I inched toward him, confused about what was happening and wondering why he needed me to be so close to talk.
"What I'm about to ask you, you have to forget I asked, you understand?" I blinked, hard.
"Okay? I understand."
"You speak Spanish?" he asked.
"Uh... what language are we speaking now?" I asked, confused. He started laughing and patted me on the back.
"I like you, man!" he yelled, and then immediately lowered his voice to a whisper and leaned in close to me. "Do you like drugs?"
"Drugs? Like cocaine drugs?"
"Yeah. Or weed, or others. I have all kinds. Do you like them?"
"I'm sorry, I don't take them," I said, before realizing I'd just apologized for not snorting cocaine. The man pulled out his phone, whose screen looked like it'd gone through a blender.
"Here's a picture of my girlfriend," he said, swiping through various pictures I couldn't make heads or tails of. "And my son, he's three." I looked around nervously; my friends were smoking cigarettes and sipping on their coffees some 20 feet away. I wasn't afraid for my life or safety; Cuba is known for being very safe. But I knew the harsh penalties the government inflicted on its citizens for drug trafficking, theft, and other crimes. How that translated to punishments on foreigners, I wasn't sure.
"He's adorable," I said, admiring the asymmetrical pattern of cracks on the screen. "Do you live here in Havana?"
"Yeah," he said. "I've been here my whole life. This is my girlfriend," he repeated. "She works at a restaurant in another borough."
"Do your friends want something?"
"Those blonde guys over there. Where are they from, Sweden?" He turned his phone off and shoved it back in his pocket.
"Oh, they probably already have weed then. Do you think your friends want something?"
"I don't know, but I can ask," I offered politely.
"Okay, friend. That would be great. Thanks, man. Working here is difficult work," he said. "And my boss--" he put his first and middle finger up and touched them to his opposite shoulder twice, "--is hard to work for."
"Your boss?" I asked.
"My boss." Again he made the gesture with his hand. It was the same gesture a deaf man had used when I tried to give him a tip for cutting up a pineapple for me earlier that morning. "You understand?"
"I understand. I'll ask them. It was nice to meet you. My name is Brandon."
"Nice to meet you too, man. Thank you. Don't forget, ask your friends! But then forget." We shook hands and I walked away with my cup of coffee.
"What was he asking?" Ophir wanted to know.
"Uh... do you guys want drugs?"
We were on our way to find a taxi to Varadero!
With six of us, it would end up being cheaper to a take a taxi two hours to the next city than to pay separately for bus tickets for a four-hour trip. We grabbed some lunch, a few Cokes, and made our way to the bus station, where what we believed to be legitimate taxi services would be waiting.
"Hola, friends! Taxis! Where are you going! Taxis!" I'd become the de facto interpreter for our group, being the only Spanish speaker, so I walked up to the taxi drivers and introduced myself and the group.
"We're going to Varadero, and there are six of us. They want one car."
"Okay, okay, it's possible. You can take a car like this," he said, pointing to a bit seafoam green car. I'd use a more specific word, but I'm too gay to know literally anything about automobiles.
After an additional twenty minutes of negotiating price and people threatening to walk away and me trying to make everyone happy, we settled on a price of 10 CUC per person for a taxi to Varadero. That's not what we got. All of us waited in the heat for 15 minutes before members of the group started asking, "What's going on?" "Where's our taxi?" I asked the man who had promised us a car.
"My friend is going to get the car. Please, walk to the end of the street here, that corner there, and wait for him there. Okay? 10 minutes. You pay half now," he said. I interpreted for the group.
"No, we pay when we get there," Jonathan, one of the Filipinos, said. He was the voice of reason in our group and spoke a bit of Spanish, having backpacked in South America for several months leading up to Cuba.
"We pay when we get there," I said. Reluctantly, and after much yelling back and forth, the man agreed. We walked to the end of the road and waited another 20 minutes. Again, discontent from the group.
"There he is! He's coming!" I said, pointing him out as he jogged down the street toward us.
"There are police everywhere, you need to keep walking down the street," he said, half out of breath. I looked at the others and back at the man.
"Why does it matter if there are police everywhere? We just need a taxi," I said.
"It doesn't matter, just keep walking. Everything is fine, man. Everything is fine. Just keep walking that direction."
"He says we need to keep walking," I relayed, glancing nervously at all the luggage the others were walking with. Nevertheless, we kept walking. And walking. And walking. And then the man caught up to us again.
"My friend, he is coming. It's just a bit further. There are a lot of police, you understand."
"I don't understand," I replied.
And finally, when we were all just about to stop walking and look for another option, we heard a loud HOOOOONK from behind us. I turned around, and a whole bus sped passed us and parked further up the road.
"Are we... is that our taxi?" I asked the man.
"That's my friend! Let's go, let's go!" Now, he was running, and we were running, and the bus was running, the whole world was running.
We piled into the empty bus, laughing with relief to be out of the heat and inside an air-conditioned bus. The driver wrote us all tickets and gave me instructions to translate for the group.
"All of you sit in the back! Don't leave empty seats in the back! Yes, that's it. Okay, now..." he pulled all the blinds shut. "If anyone asks you questions, do not say anything."
"Who's going to ask me questions?" I asked.
"Don't open the curtains and don't answer questions," he repeated. The man who had helped us wouldn't leave, and continued to ask for half the pay before we left.
"The bus driver, he will leave and I won't get any money!" he said. "Half now, half when you get there," he repeated. "It's no problem, it's no problem." I handed him cash and he left before I collected money from the rest of the group, not wanting to deal with the stress anymore.
In the back, the twins had thought to bring a bottle of rum ($3.50 for a bottle of good Cuban rum, by the way) and poured it into our Coke cans.
We were on our way to Varadero. "Cheers! To Cuba!" we shouted.