I’ve been to Cuba twice now. Both occasions I was there to learn and write about the Cuban people and to familiarize myself with the islands 4,000 year old story. If you’re a history buff you will find it doesn’t take long to fall in love with the land that pre-dates the Pyramids of Egypt. In 1492 it was the Arawak and Taino people that inhabited Cuba to which Christopher Columbus took back to Spain, calling the Taino people Indians for the first time to the Queen. I find that avid sports fans like ourselves flock to antiquity because we understand the value it plays on future results. I fell in love with Cuba like most of us fall in love with our favorite sports teams. Since then, I’ve been on a mission for deeper understanding to a culture that has largely been off limits to Americans for over 50 years.
I left Havana the day before President Trump was set to speak about the administration's Cuba Policy in Miami. I made legitimate friends with a handful of Cuban people the first time I went to the island. I scheduled this trip so I could learn more about their way of life, meet their families, and have dinner in their homes. The mood of the Cuban people regarding Trump is one of nonchalant nervousness. There’s not much the people of Cuba haven’t seen but the influx of American dollars is noticeable, even to them. Most important is the meaning of those American dollars to the Cuban people. Since President Trump’s announcement regarding Cuba. The theme that’s been looping in the media is “The Cuban people will suffer the most.” I’m not here to play politics or travel agent, I just want to offer a few solutions to you that will directly help the Cuban people if you’ve already booked a stay in Cuba, or are planning on visiting the island.
AirBnB is the way to go when planning a trip to Cuba. It is a great way to interact with the people of Cuba. Your stay also directly helps the person you’re staying with and at a fraction of the cost compared to staying in a state run hotel. Most of the homes are absolutely breathtaking, with architecture rarely witnessed outside of the island. As an added bonus, some of the AirBnBs in Cuba, the host offers breakfast and coffee. I. Love. Coffee. Seriously though, homemade scrambled eggs, fresh cut fruit, Cuban avocados and a fresh pot of coffee ready 10 minutes after you wake up, served while still in your PJ’s. All for $5? How can you go wrong? Most of the time, the family you’re staying with knows a private cab driver who will take you around to all the major sites for a better deal than what’s offered by the state run yellow cabs. That’s how I met Miguel.
Private Taxi drivers are usually the ones who sport the 1950’s American driving machines. Miguel drives a ’54 Ford, with a Honda engine. To drive private, cabbies pay the state roughly $600 a month for the right to be entrepreneurial. Street signs in Cuba are hard to find to say the least, so having someone who knows large parts of the island is highly recommended. $20 gets you around anywhere in Havana. Unlike New York where cabbies kill each other, in Cuba the cabbie circuit is more of a team effort. The first time I went to Cuba, Miguel’s cab broke down outside of Vinales, about two hours away from Havana. Miguel the driver, my friend who was with me, also appropriately named Miguel, and two other cabs stopped to help. They got out and pushed a 1954 Ford up a hill. If that was New York, the cabbies who drove up would have rolled down their windows and said “Where you going? I take you.” There is a certain comaradery between the people, a bond of sorts that quietly acknowledges “we’re all on the same side.”
If you do venture up to Vinales in a private taxi ask your driver to take you to a local farm. The only difference between a local farm and one the tour company takes you to is the price. Same experience, half the cost, plus what you paid goes straight into the pockets of the people. The 13% exchange rate of converting American Dollars in Cuban CUC’s goes a lot further when you spend it amongst the people of Cuba. The number one talking point that’s been overshadowed the last three years is the Cuban Government's decision to allow its citizens the ability to own and operate small businesses. Before the Raul, Obama, Pope Francis dialogue, there was none of that on the island. The last three years has given birth to independent restaurants, woodworking shops, freedom of the arts, cell phone repair stores and countless other small business ventures.
What about crime? The one stat we hear is the rise in dissident arrests on the island. While there has been a rise in arrests within Cuba since 2014, there has also been an unprecedented rise in entrepreneurialism to coincide with it. Look no further than Cuba’s culinary scene where 90% of the Paladars are privately owned. Besides the bars where Hemingway frequented, which are both state owned, most of where you decide to eat in Havana is cooked by the people, for the people. Cuban soul is marinated into every dish which has lent itself to the creation of some phenomenal culinary expertise on the island.
An Irishmen at heart, it takes some damn good mashed potatoes to win me over. Let’s just say, since I got back from Cuba, I’ve been trying to replicate their papas recipe for weeks. They make the mashed potatoes with olive oil, but it’s not a puree, it still holds a dense creamy texture. I’m a sucker for the Carne Fritas, which is a fried shredded lamb. Give me that with a side of mashed potatoes, roasted red peppers and an order of flan and espresso for dessert and I’m in Cuban food coma. The way travelers and locals recommend restaurants in Cuba reminds me of how it is in New York. Everyone has a different favorite spot that’s can’t miss and is out of this world fantastic. Food is a form of individual expression, self-identity and creative freedom. The Cuban people are taking full advantage of that and in return they’ve sparked a culinary renaissance on the island. My top two restaurant picks are: Paladar Dona Eutemia and El Canonazo.
El Canonazo makes some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever tasted. What’s more American than fried chicken, mashed potatoes and a cold beer? What also makes El Canonazo unique is its name. The restaurant draws on inspiration from Cuba’s Firing of the 9 O’clock Cannon. Every night at 9 pm, overlooking the harbor of Old Havana, soldiers dressed in 18th century uniforms fire a cannon round into the harbor to signify the closing of the city for the evening. The event takes place every night, rain or shine, at the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana which was built in 1774 by the Spaniards to control the port. The fort is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. A saying goes among the Cuban people that if you’re a real Cuban, you must have attended the firing of the cannon at least once in your lifetime. Ask your AirBnB family to take you to see it. I had the pleasure of watching the ceremony accompanied with my Cuban friends and can attest, the cannon offers an unforgettable bonding experience rooted in pride and passion. I’m from the land of George Washington, cannons mean something to me. They get it.
Modern Cuba is over 500 years old. The island has passed through Spanish, British, French, American, and Russian hands. Most Cubans have blue eyes and quite a few have blonde hair. A lot of Cuban music is produced over American beats. I heard what I thought was a Katy Perry song only to be fooled into Cuban reggaeton. The job front was explained to me like this. Students take two standardized tests. One is administered at age 9, and again at age 16. A student’s score is then used to categorize them into certain career paths. Specified higher education is offered to those that qualify. All males must serve in the military by their 18th birthday and are required to commit to two years of service. From my observations, the people of Cuba go out of their way to not touch anything that has already been touched by the state. The Cuban people prefer to do business amongst themselves, it’s a soft boycott against government capitalism. Even lighting a match from a matchbook purchased at a state run store is frowned upon.
(Cuba: The Language of Sport) http://www.dailyspread.com/blog/2017/05/17/the-language-of-sport/ )
The first time I wrote about Cuba, I mentioned the old man selling baseball gloves. Feria Artesanal Almacenes San Jose is the market outside of old Revolucion Plaza filled with entrepreneurial Cuban’s selling one of a kind goods. What looks like a giant trade expo or indoor flea market, it’s exactly that. Independent merchants rent a booth and sell their goods to tourists. I strongly recommend stopping by and loading up on gifts for friends and family. While the intent is to sell to tourists, this is by no means a tourist trap. Some vendors will sell the same things but as a whole, it’s a sea of individuality and capitalistic freedom. From baseball gloves to humidors. Panama hats to one of a kind hand painted masterpieces done using either oils or acrylics. This place has it all. I bought two paintings from the artist himself, Saul Fidel Toranza Castro, who included his business card along with my purchase. We hear it stateside all the time, “Shop Local.” That message should be all the more clear when spending money in Cuba.
When I came to the island the first time, I was amazed how soccer was taking over. Cuba recently competed in the Toulon Tournament in France. An annual U-20 competition where squads play two 40 minute halves. England won this year but simply seeing Cuba on the world stage competing at a high level in a prestigious soccer tournament is a mark for progress in the sport. I made good on a promise I made to Miguel, my taxi driver and friend, and brought him a new Barcelona jersey. Internet is still kind of limited down there and I don’t think he was aware of the new Barcelona kit yet. So for the first few hours I’m pretty sure Miguel thought I got him a knock off Barca jersey because the new home kit looks completely different than the 2016/2017 version. So he was just politely thankful at first. It wasn’t until the next morning when he came to pick me up that I saw his reactions overpowered by joy and utter disbelief. “Que Bola mi hermano? Yo soy Messi.”
The Glory of Cuba is kept within its people. Get to know her.
Article by Christian Cianci
Contributor: Monica Benitez