8 May, 2006

Vans like this drive down narrow streets picking up money from the various shops. They always come with a heavily armed gang and a police car following them.

A line at one of the more popular snack bars.

These little motorcycle sidecars are found all over.

Posters about The Cuban Five can be found throughout the city. These are five Cuban men serving life sentences in the United States after being accused of spying in 2001. Their defenders claim they were simply monitoring the actions of Miami-based terrorist groups who have killed over 3,000 Cubans in the last 40 years.

The preferred method of dealing with the heat.

This televised geometry lesson went on for what seemed like hours on one of the two educational channels.

One of the more popular (or at least more widely publicized) programs is "Mesa Redonda," a daily roundtable discussion. The breaking news of Bush's nominee to the CIA was of particular interest.

The studio audience is absolutely captivated by the lengthy discussion.

And then at 8:00 pm, all four channels simulcast the national news program, known as "NTV." (Logo designed by the geometry lesson program.)

A collage of images put together to make you feel safe and patriotic.

The collage and graphics go on for about a minute before finally getting down to business.

And here is my favorite Cuban newscaster, Rafael Serrano. I really want to start some kind of a cult fan club for him. Maybe even a second one for his mustache.

During the news and throughout other programs, the latest words of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez (who hosts his own television program in his country) are always given serious attention.

Over at the Floridita bar, a statue of Ernest Hemingway is positioned presumably where (and how) the author himself used to stand. Note the picture of Hemingway with a young Fidel in the background.

8 May, 2006

It's only May but it's still pretty hot down here. I can't imagine what it will be like in the real summer, like July or August. Some people just deal with heat a whole lot better than others and in this case I'm definitely one of the others. Fortunately, the lack of air conditioning didn't keep me from sleeping. There is a very loud fan in the room which kind of lulls you to sleep. We both made up for the lack of rest we got during the Florida shenanigans. Of course that meant we missed our complimentary breakfast. At some point I'll check it out and compare it to the "continental" fiasco.

Today we were supposed to research the Internet availability in this part of Havana. And while most hotels claim to offer it, almost none actually do. Our hotel had a big sign advertising Internet access for $6 an hour and in U.S. funds too. The dollar is no longer officially accepted in Cuba and hasn't been since 2004. But that didn't really matter as the Internet was "broken" and we were directed to the nearby Florida Hotel. Well, it wasn't working there either. We were pointed to yet another hotel and this one actually had three terminals inside a bar upstairs where various tourists were coming and going to check their email. I set up a temporary Hotmail account to keep in touch with some people back home. We did a few experiments on the system and connection they had here. In short, it didn't take very long to ascertain that what we were using was not what the average Cuban citizen could use.

We checked into another way of connecting to the Internet. This time it was through a phone store run by the state owned phone company. For about the same rate, we had access through a proxy to the phone company network. (This rate, incidentally, was fine for us but would have been well outside the reach of someone native to the area. So even if somebody were to get to the point of gaining access to such an establishment, it's unlikely they could ever afford to actually use it.)

We met up with some local people a little later in the day. From them we were able to find out how things actually worked for the average Cuban. Internet access was not a possibility. All they could get was an email address. The guy telling me this was visibly frustrated. I was actually surprised when he told me without any kind of prompting how they really needed a new president in this country. I told him many Americans felt the same way about their president which led him to the inevitable conclusion that the problem was never with the people but with the "stupid politics." I was glad to see how quickly people seemed to see this. What I noticed walking through the streets was how quickly the locals realized we were from somewhere else and their sometimes aggressive curiosity in finding out just where we called home. When we said we were from New York, just about everyone was fascinated. Many had family there and longed for the day when it would be possible to move freely in either direction.

I mentioned to one guy named Rafael that I was interested in seeing a baseball game while I was here and the guy said there was actually a game later tonight and we could get tickets. Not only was it a game but it was the championship series. In the States, you most certainly would not be able to get tickets as easily or as cheaply as it was apparently possible to do here. I told Rafael I'd meet him back at the park where I had run into him.

Both Mike and I were a bit dubious. Being New Yorkers we tend to always be suspicious of strangers offering us things. And I'm certain we're being taken advantage of, at least a little. But so what? This is a very safe city and if the guy wants to make a few pesos off us, that's OK by me, especially if he helps us find more information on the topics we're researching.

We wound up in the Cafe Paris for lunch. I can't say the food was great but it was adequate. They had the old-fashioned non-smoking section where one half of the room had a red sign and the other had a green one while fans helped to circulate the air and smoke all around. A band started to play in the back (that tends to happen a lot here) and I wound up buying a CD from them. While U.S. law forbids us from bringing stuff from Cuba back into the States, this doesn't apply to publications and information, and CDs are specifically defined as information. Works for me.

We picked up a copy of the state newspaper, Granma. (That's what it's called; I'm not addressing anyone's grandmother.) Apart from the fact that it was in a language I couldn't read, the whole thing seemed incredibly dry and dull. Almost no pictures at all and no advertising. A special supplement with the latest Castro speech took up another eight pages, each with text filling 100 percent of the page. Layout 101 would forbid such a travesty back home. But we were able to find a small bit of baseball news which, along with some help from a local tourist agent, confirmed that there was in fact no game tonight. I wasn't sure if the guy we talked to was just confused or if he had been plotting something nefarious. Either way, it didn't make sense to meet up with him so we decided to do something else instead.

We went back to the room and started to investigate the television system. Initially it seemed as if we were only receiving stations from the United States! How utterly bizarre. But upon further investigation (and tampering with the frayed cable) I was able to find the four state-run stations. Two of them were designated as educational. According to the listing in the newspaper, they all aired something called NTV at 8 pm. We stuck around to see what that was all about. It turned out to be the national newscast. Sure enough, it was on every channel at the same time. No escape.

There was lots of news about Castro, Hugo Chavez, and Evo Morales, the three most left-leaning leaders in this part of the world. Like the newspaper, the newscast seemed a bit dry and dull. The fantastically huge mustache of the anchorman (Rafael Serrano), however, was cause for much amusement. I wonder if this guy has a fan club.

Television, like most everything else, is used as a tool, not so much for entertainment but for education, information, and indoctrination. Judging from the facial expressions of some of the audiences of the shows we found, the people here could really use a bit more in the way of entertainment.

It was evening and we decided to take a look at a famous bar known as the Floridita, which allegedly had a table reserved for Ernest Hemingway. It was a short walk but we soon found the place. Sure enough, in the corner of the bar there was not only space reserved for the famous dead writer but there was a huge statue of him leaning at the bar, supposedly in just such a pose as he exhibited when he actually came to this place. It was a big tourist attraction naturally. And it was yet another indication of how this place is sort of frozen in time, with cars from the 50s and memories of those luminaries - the authors, movie stars, and leaders - who used to spend so much time in the streets of Havana back in its heyday. And of course, the buildings themselves, sturdy but not very well maintained over the years. (I'm told that around 300 buildings collapse in Havana every year - almost one a day. Odds were good that we'd get to witness one.) The only thing that really seemed to not be focused on the past was the spirit of the people themselves. This was about as lively and as spirited a place as anyone could imagine. Music was always breaking out in various places. While visiting the bar, another band started up where there was no sign of one only moments earlier.

And, on the subject of the bar, we had a distinctive Cuban moment. Well, a bunch of them actually. You see, it's a big waste of time if you go into Havana expecting American-style service. Most every establishment is government controlled and there really isn't a whole lot of incentive for people to hop to your commands. They get to you when they get to you. And in this bar, the guy who was supposed to get to us had a bunch of paperwork he wanted to get to first. So for about ten minutes we sat there while he quietly penciled in various things. We weren't in a hurry (Havana is really not the place to be if you are), so we just drank in the atmosphere since it wasn't possible to drink in anything else. And then, as if some sort of timer had gone off, the guy hopped off his chair and came over to us to find out what we wanted. That's the Cuban way.

Wouldn't you know it but the moment we left the bar we ran into the very guy who was going to get us baseball tickets. He seemed a bit put out because we hadn't shown up earlier. I told him that we found out there wasn't actually a game tonight but he said he had gotten tickets for tomorrow night's game and that he had spent $20 for us. Well, I hadn't really asked him to do that and I knew damn well the tickets must have cost quite a bit less than that but I decided to put it all into perspective. Assuming these were real tickets, they were quite a bargain from our perspective as this was for the semifinal round of their championship series. And the Cuban national team was number two in the entire world, second only to Japan. (Sorry, USA, those are the breaks.) Anyway, I told the guy I didn't have $20 right now (lie) but that I would meet him here tomorrow at 7 pm with the money and we would all go together. It took a bit of persuading but he agreed to it. This way I at least had a better chance of getting real tickets as well as not getting ripped off in another taxi. Yeah, I know, I'm suspicious of everyone. But Mike thought I was being way too trusting of this guy in the first place. The way I see it, this is all part of the experience and if I get taken advantage of a little bit, it's not the end of the world and it's an opportunity to learn quite a bit. I'm hoping this guy will tell me all sorts of things about Cuban life that I wouldn't be able to find out about from a tourist book or a hotel guide.

We left the guy in the spot where apparently he could always be found and sought food in another part of town. Most of the places we were looking for either didn't exist or were closed, like the giant Lebanese place we were looking forward to. So we wound up at a 24 hour outdoor cafe which seemed quite popular. There was actually a large crowd of Dutch tourists there. No matter where I go, there are Dutch tourists. It made me wish Hanneke and Sasja had made it over here. But then we'd once again be the only people who couldn't understand what those around us were saying. Which is actually not such a bad thing.