Getting to know Havana locals, making friends and dodging scams

by thewokabout
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May 2015

Havana streets are the best bang for your tourist buck – so much happening here an its FREE. Just…go wander around! So much action – at 5am when fishermen are casting lures at the Malecon while yawning teens head home from clubs; 7am when kids are heading off to school, markets are setting up and deliveries of massive bunches of bananas and slaughtered pigs; at 8am when bakeries team with children buying bags of sandwich rolls as old men chat on the sidewalk, neighbors on crumbling balconies call to each other looking like pirates on deck of ships as drying bedsheets on clotheslines resemble with billowing sails. When Cubans are a fascinating people – kind, funny, pragmatic despite their struggles. Peering into their lives takes patience and lots of walking but you’ll be rewarded a hundred-fold.

Hustlers and Jineteros

“Ayyyy, Cheee-no!” catcalls followed me from as I photographed graffiti on side streets. Jineteros proved to be my biggest headache as a solo female visitor. Slang for hustler, the term means “jockey” – one who rides the tourist dollar. Jineteros begin their hustle by asking “Where are you from?” in several languages to engage the unwary, before selling you substandard cigars or recommending mediocre restaurants.
Most Habaneros despise them as opportunists who’ll prey on anyone, not just tourists.
A roaming four-man band got uncomfortably physical – shoving maracas into my hand then surrounded and herding me unwillingly along its merry-making way and demanded money for my supposed fun.
The ultimate offense was an older gent who leaped into the taxi I was boarding, who refused to leave until the driver paid him fiveCUPs.
Jineteros’ high-pressured sales pitches might include visiting a “great” bar or restaurant, renting a cheap room at someone’s home, unofficial tours or shops selling “authentic” cigars and rum. One of the offers came with – to put it politely – side benefits. I was subtly propositioned twice and witnessed another tourist being approached on the street, although officially it’s illegal and police can stop and check IDs of any foreign-local mixed couples for a previous record of prostitution.
These hustlers are quick to pretend offense at a quick brushoff: “Hey, you not like Cubans? You not talk to Cubans?” one growled as he moved even closer. Okaaaay – you wanna play the racial card? I started speaking Canto-gibberish accompanied with manic grins leaving the hustlers scratching their heads.
Even when they weren’t scammers, I was a target as a solo traveler, pestered by bicitaxi operators, classic car drivers, salsa dance coaches (at street corners!). And heckled “Chino” several times a day but racism wasn’t involved- a friend told me later it’s slang for anyone with slanted eyes, no matter the skin color. Wilfredo Lam, one of the most accomplished modern Cuban artists, bore that nickname.
After days of being pestered, I couldn’t tell what was genuine. A charming and well-dressed Cuban gentleman, approached me as I sat dining alone at a cafe. We had delightful one-hour conversation about what there was to see outside the city ending with his offering a week-long tour driven in a private car around the island. Errr, no thanks, I replied. He took the refusal cheerfully, left with a grin and I found out he’d saddled me with the bill for his drinks.

Humor and Kindess

At the other extreme, I met warmhearted and generous Habaneros. Amara, who helped run the casa particular I stayed at while the owner was on holiday, had tears in her eyes when she found me heading out alone on Mother’s Day. She found it inconceivable that my children weren’t pampering me for a celebration all Cubans hold dear.
Gesturing for me to wait, she ran to her room, returning with a lovely carved wooden rose, a hug and a kiss. And when I returned that evening, she insisted I join the family for a chicken and rice dinner. I know they didn’t have a whole lot despite her lovely house as her 5 and 10 year-old boys had the bare minimum of toys – a soccer ball and several pieces of knockoff Lego.
Many Habaneros I ran into had a great sense of fun. When I was busted sneaking shots of them, the victims – a driver of a pork delivery truck and a beer-guzzling muscleman draped in ridiculous amounts of bling – grinned and hammed it up, forcing me to keep taking their photos until I was worn out.
Their welcome is warmer, and tolerance for the ugly tourist (me) greater than most places I’ve visited. It’s amazing that just by asking, strangers let me walk right into their homes, businesses and even a private event at a cultural center.
A young man bearing a fishing rod ran into me taking closeups of the gorgeous Spanish tiling outside his Centro Havana apartment, and invited me into his flat to take more photos of the floors, even posing good-naturedly with his family who were itching to begin their morning’s fishing.

Nosing around as usual, I wandered into a gorgeous Casa del Alba Cultural Building building painted in mango yellow, with elegant white pillars and porticoes. Posters announced a closed photo exhibition of Castro’s meeting with Hoh Chi Minh (the Communist leader, not the city).
An elderly guard caught sight of me trying to sneak in and I thought he was was throwing me out of for sure, but with a naughty grin and wagging eyebrows, he beckoned to the side entrance. The rusty gate led to a cassiopeia tree-shaded hushed, deserted garden where he sweetly posed beside a garish statue of Simon Bolivar with his wife.

Here, I poked my camera into more strangers’ faces in ten days than in a decade in Asia. A grouchy butcher – cigarette hanging out his mouth- held out oozing meat, a bartender draped himself in a Cuban flag, a lovely gentleman with a proud mustache took a break from pushing a heavy load on a dusty street, a shy fisherman cast his lure at dawn – some posed with good humor, others with grim tolerance. The women are more wary of strangers – few would allow me to to take photo, unless they were dancing.

Havana Have Nots make do with Ingenuity

Cubans deal with deprivation with an irrepressible spirit. And lots of ingenuity. Jury-rigging genius is everywhere, from multi-jobbing, namely the collection officer-cum-salsa coach, or making do with a wheelbarrow in place of shopping cart to load a mountain of pork ribs into the boot of a car outside the Calle Egido market. The best story I heard, but can’t verify, of making do spirit is motorists who plug leaks in their classic cars’ engines and hoses with a local superglue of cane syrup!
And a strong sense of community seems to be the other form of superglue. Social and family ties are obvious from small groups in deep conversation at all hours, gathered in every street corner or friends calling to each other from crumbling balconies across derelict streets.  It’s clear why Cubans hold such attraction for some Westerners less open and casual societies.
Also, The dark side to the failed socialist society is handled with darker humor.
“Where’s the steak?” I asked a butcher and he pointed to several cuts of gristly pork laid carelessly on a stained chopping board, “Here-here-here,” he said with a cheeky grin.
“We Cubans laugh to hide our sorrow in jokes or we cry in our songs,” chef Acela said when I recounted the story. She didn’t pause as she pragmatically chopped up pungent onions – without shedding a tear.

Dressed to Thrill

Cubans of all ages have this superpower – attractiveness. Not just good looks – and some are stunning mix of Spanish, Hispanic, African. Cool confidence oozes from every pore. Many men and women young and old wear body hugging tops. They’re not shy flaunting their bodies in tropical colors – an Ecuadorian girlfriend says she can spot a Cuban a mile away from their dress. And boy do they love to dress in American knockoff brands – American Eagle, Aeropostale, Abercrombie, Gap. And if they can get them – Polos, Gucci, D& G and Pradas.

Even schoolgirls and female customs officers get away with shortening and tightening their outfits – if I dared to sneak a shot you’d see a post of the buxom hottie with fishnet tights who searched my bags. She got mad, keeping me an extra 30 minutes, at my snigger which was not aimed at her, rather, a comparison to the headscarfed, buttoned up Malaysian customs officer from another trip. She let me through in disgust when I mimed what a jarful of foam earplugs were for.

Back to the brands – how the heck do Cubans lay hands on, and afford, imported clothing on the government’s reported average salaries? Castro and withdrawn imported clothing licenses in 2013 to prevent stodgy , overpriced local clothing stores from being driven out of business. (To give you an idea of the oddities of government clothing, Havana’s traffic police uniforms look purple – how tough is it to be tough in violet?)

My friend Jorge revealed that smuggling and back alley shops in “secret locations” are the source of foreign wear. Well, the smuggling is pretty open if you ask me. The guy in front of me wasn’t stopped or fined for his massive suitcase brimful of multi hued bras “for his girlfriend” he claimed.

Jorge also told me Cuban youths develop a sense of sexual awareness and confidence early – he had to watch the bathrooms of his primary school like a hawk to prevent couple sneaking in. I totally got it, witnessing a jaw-dropping hundred-strong crowd of twelve to sixteen year olds grinding to the thumping beat of Pitbull and J.Lo blasting out of club-sized speakers. “Exercise Day!” a teacher chaperone shouted when I wondered if this was a dance contest one wild Havana style – “Good exercise!” Huh? Where I grew up that meant passing the baton races on a dusty field.

Sports Day in Havana – with DJ and massive speakers but not a soccer ball in sight

This comfort and confidence in their bodies underlies a progressive, modern attitude to family planning and contraception – many Cubans I chatted with had one or two kids. The flip side is a high rate of infidelity and divorce. Several couples I met were other second or third marriage. My salsa coach explained that financial stress was the main reason for this while another friend scoffed. “It’s so easy to get married then to get a divorce! Just US $5! The rules are pretty straightforward- assets are split equally”.
And getting married is often done on an impulse, he said. He added wryly, “Young people sometimes get married just to get the free party room, car ride and cases of beer the government doles out for weddings.”
A warning posted by the Canadian immigration authority warns against marriage fraud features a woman cheated and abandoned by her Cuban husband. I guess there ‘s a significant number of Canadians risking broken hearts – and ruined finances, to the officials’ horror.

But hey – if romance is a means for Cubans to escape their country, well, live and let live…

Roasting a pig and frying yam puffs in Havana
I provoked an explosion by complaining to Alex, the manager of my casa particular, about Tripadvisor -inspired restaurant choices. I never knew when Alex’s laid back demeanor would erupt into the macho Guajiros temperament of his native eastern province. A term he claims is slang for tough guy, corrupted from “war hero”, what Americans called Cuban fighters. 


“Forget it! I never eat at a restaurant,” he thundered, dark Hispanic eyes flashing, nostrils aquiver and lips drawn into a sneer. 

“It’s all boo-sh%* ! And expensive! Go to a paladar…Wait…okay, I’ll make you the real stuff for dinner.”

Anyhoo, I weathered the storm and scored a cooking lesson. This particular war hero tackled the stove, bare-chested and armed with grater and battered pot. In half an hour, he whipped up frituras de malanga. The luscious, crisp and golden shredded-taro-and-egg deep fried puffs are flavored with onions, bell peppers and bits of local ham that tasted vaguely like Spam. (For a version you can cook, see this recipe.)
No boo-s@**!!! It was the most addictive snack I’d had in years. His two kids, wife Amara and I polished off two dozen, to Alex’s smug satisfaction, yelping with pleasure-pain as the steaming nuggets burnt fingers and tongues. I’ve made the frituras once a week, without the Spam, for my vegetarian girlfriends in Hong Kong who swear they taste like meat.
Okaaaaay, the frituras were crazy good so how ‘bout attempting a blow-your-socks-off roast pig, I challenged him. And just like that, the heat was on. Over the next five days of gesticulating, negotiating over costs jotted on scraps and wild Spanish guesswork on my part, we planned the roast.

Gorgeous family insiders out – Alex, Amara and their children made my stay simply wonderful

Alex scouted a market for a whole pig and a butcher who’d dress (or undress?) it. Then he jury-rigged a charcoal pit and aspit made of metal water pipes from building materials at his brother’s half completed house. Yay! More examples of Cuban ingenuity!
Finally, a cleaned and gutted 35-pound pig (I happily paid USD $80 for it) was delivered 8 am on a Friday, lightly seasoned and wired tightly to a simple metal pipe, by Alex, who propped it over pre-lit coals at noon sharp. (In hindsight I hope the pipe was lead-free!)
Then we hand-turned that beastie for three and a half hours, all the while inhaling acrid charcoal smoke and rubbing our hands raw on the rough metal of the pipe.

Invisible but nasty fumes blind me but the aroma is good enough to signal when the raost is ready!

Yup – that’s me, turning the spit at Alex’s house
The roasting itself turned into a social event with Alex and Amara’s closest friends sitting and chatting for hours on upturned cement buckets and drinking straight out of a bottomless bottle of brown rum passed ‘round.
It seemed that wiping off the mouth of the bottle before you take a sip isn’t polite since nobody did it. One taste and and I was convinced the alcohol content would wipe out a swath of Ebola virus along with a herd of elephants.
Wearing a jaunty straw panama, Alex did most of the hard work, raking and adding to the coals tirelessly while two of his guests and I spelled him at the crank. We all developed callouses, a small price to pay for the spectacular result. It was one of the best roasted pigs I’ve ever had.
The porker yielded golden-crisp yet delicate skin – as most of the fat was sweated out by the slow roasting –  and juicy, sweet flesh.

The guys in charge of removing the carcass from the spit – a backbreaking easy job as it had welded onto the hot metal – and carving – done on a cardboard sheet- couldn’t help snacking on bits of crispy skin and buttery fat, to our deep envy.

Amara’s fragrant arroz con gris (rice and beans), frijoles negros (black bean stew) and a simple salad (along with more brown rum in glass tumblers) rounded out a perfect dinner.
Later, she took me under her wing and showed me how to make a fragrant dinner of arroz con pollo, a seasoned chicken thigh and rice dish slow cooked with onions, garlic, bell pepper, cumin and bay leaf. Most of the recipes I learned from Amara, as well as in a cooking course from lovely chef Acela Matomoros, used this base. (You can find recipes for my versions of their dishes here).

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