For Ariel, with, still, a twinge of regret.
Today’s text and audio postcard, Cuban Math, is brought to you by the fabulous Janine Morigeau of Tarot By Janine. Janine is one of the longest practicing Tarot card readers in the Calgary area–she takes phone and Skype readings too, by the way–and an absolute inspiration to me in the way she lives her fabulous life.
She thinks most of you are going to listen to today’s postcard…
as you read it… Is she right? Let me know…
This really happens:
Cinder: “When we have our next chill day, can we do some math, Mom? I don’t want to forget everything.”
Jane: “Um… OK.”
I know you don’t believe me. But it happened. And that, boys and girls, is how unschoolers learn math… in Cuba.
So, let’s do some Cuban math:
The exchange rate sucks. One hundred Canadian dollars buys me $66 Cuban conv pesos (one time, in an air conditioned bank that also had couches and an orderly take a number system, almost $70 conv pesos, I swoon). The kids and I call the convertible pesos CUCs, as do most Cubans… unlike most Cubans, we routinely confuse CUCs with CUPs, the other Cuban peso, also known as moneda nacional. One CUC peso—that’s c-u-c—is worth about 25 CUP pesos—c-u-p.
Yes, Cubans refer to both currencies as pesos. Infuriating? Fuck, yes.
Often, they call the CUC peso a dollar, a nod to the fact that this fake currency is tied by the Cuban government to the American dollar. Originally, one CUC equaled one US dollar, but the Cubans have been doing some funky things to it, so now, the US dollar is discounted against the CUC by 10 to 13 per cent.
Confused? We’re just getting started…
There is a myth, still prevalent in Cuba, that foreigners cannot use moneda nacional. It dates back to the Special Period, when Cuba first introduced the Convertible Peso, and back then, it was true.
An interlude for oversimplified history: The Special Period—full name “Special Period in Time of Peace” —is what the Cubans call the economic ruin and effective famine that Cuba experienced in the 1990s as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union—when the Russians left, yanking all the trade and subsidy programs that supported Cuba during the Cold War.
(If you’re too young to remember what the Cold War was, google it. It was stupid, it sucked, and people around the world are still paying for it. In Cuba, in many other places.)
Among the ways Fidel Castro dealt with the disaster was to let in Western tourism—for the cold hard cash it would bring in. And he wanted to make sure the tourists brought in as much cold hard cash as he could possibly squeeze out of them—hence, in 1994, the arrival of the Cuban Convertible Peso—the CUC—a new currency and entirely new set of prices—also hotels, shops and restaurants—just for tourists.
The CUC had a dual purpose—to squeeze money out of tourists, of course—and also to keep foreigners and locals as separate as possible.
It half-succeeded. I think… like socialism and Communism both, the CUC was a good idea in theory. It got money flowing into the country, while keeping many things affordable for the cash-poor Cubans. And, it kept inflation under control—well, sort of.
In practice, it dismantled Cuban socialism more effectively than the American trade embargo. Think about it.
Still thinking? Think some more… You might think Cuba’s still socialist. Some Cubans think so too. Apparently, the not-quite dead Fidel—never actually a socialist—believes it too in his less lucid moments.
And any pretence that it was ended with the introduction of the CUC. Think about it. No–you’re not done yet, think more. We can argue about it in a few weeks.
The CUC is in the process of being phased out, and the CUP, the moneda nacional, will be the one currency. Castro the second has been preparing his subjects for that wave of chaos for some time. In most places, you can pay for most things with either CUC or CUP.
Most shops give out change in some mixture of both currencies.
All Cubans carry and use CUC as well as moneda nacional.
All Cubans also spend a great deal of time lining up at banks and Cadecas exchanging CUCs into CUPs, possibly exchanging CUPs into CUCs, I don’t know, or into… well, this I do know: any real world currency they can get their hands on.
The plan was—perhaps still is—for the CUC to die in 2016. I guess it could happen. Cuba has some practice at cancelling old currency quickly—it killed the pre-revolutionary peso back in 1961, and did so overnight.
In the meantime, however, Cubans and foreigners alike can use CUCs and moneda nacional.
As a result, most Cubans are extremely good at math… and most foreigners are very confused.
Which is sort of what Castro intended, maybe?
More Cuban math:
The prices here are fucked up. Like, totally. Look:
Taking the public bus costs $0.20CUP. That’s twenty moneda nacional centavos. That means that when I pay for the four of us with a CUC coin that’s worth about a US nickel—I’m overpaying.
The first bottle of rum I buy costs me $2CUC (granted, it’s a small bottle of rum—the big ones are $8CUC). That’s cheaper than pop or water. Really.
Three ice cream cones cost me $9CUP—which means I give the ice cream seller $1CUC and I get a bunch of change—enough to buy three more ice cream cones, and a tiny fake brownie. (It’s not made with cocoa; don’t ask what’s in it instead—I don’t.)
One day, the vegetable guy wants a peso for two nice, fat tomatoes. He doesn’t specify which currency, so I hand him a $10CUP bill. He laughs, holds out his hand. I start piling CUC dimes into it… finally hit $1CUC… but then he gives me a nickel back.
Vegetable guy: “I must teach you math.”
Jane: “Just don’t call them both pesos!”
Taking the “fixed route” taxi—1950s vintage, belting clouds of smoke, capacious enough to sit six including the driver comfortably, more if some of them are children, thin, or willing to sit in one another’s laps—costs $10CUP a head.
Jane: “So if I give you $3CUC for the four of us?”
Cab driver: “I ought to give you change, but I won’t.”
A taxi ride from any point to any other point within Havana Vieja or Havana Centro costs $5CUC. (Do not pay more.) A taxi ride from Havana Vieja to the Kohly/Almanderes suburb where I’m staying is $10CUC—for about a 10 km route.
Cinder: “So… is that expensive?”
Jane: “Not once. But if we did it there and back every day for 30 days…”
Cinder: “Fuck. Even without doing the math I can see where this is going. You’re going to make us take the bus back, aren’t you?”
Well… not today.
We’ve been taking the buses everywhere since we’ve gotten here, for two reasons. First—they’re essentially free. Second—this is why I’m here. To ride the public bus, not the extortionate tourist bus ($10CUC a head for a day pass) or the tourist taxi.
And I love the bus rides. They’re insane. People are packed in like sardines, and you think there’s no fucking way they’ll fit one more body on the bus, but at the next stop… nobody gets off and twenty more people get on. And they say, “Permiso!” and squish in and past and around each other and are amazingly polite and forebearing about it all.
There are no bus route maps or any information about where the buses actually go or at what times in any of the guide books or on the Transtur website, so you ask the people at the bus stop or on the street, and…
…and the bus eventually comes…
…and amazingly we get on, every time…
…and eventually, arrive at someplace interesting—sometimes, even the place I intended to go…
I love it.
The children are less enamoured. Flora comes closest to sharing my spirit. Ender loves the first 10 minutes of every bus ride and then becomes a royal pain in the ass, until he exhausts himself and sits on my feet if we’re standing—or settles down to sitting on my lap if we’ve snagged a seat. Cinder endures. The crowds kill him, and he’d rather walk for 30 minutes, an hour, than ride for 10.
The buses to Havana Centro and Havana Vieja are the worst—crazy crowded by the time they hit our stop, swelling with more and more people the closer we get to Centro—offering a breath of relief only for the final few stops before Parque de la Fraternidad. And the ride is a solid 40 minutes, sometimes more. Lots of turns, sways, sudden stops.
Today’s ride is particularly rough, and when we get off, and I look at my son’s unhappy face, I promise: “Taxi ride back.”
Cinder: “For real? Not like the taxi ride back from the market that turned into a bus ride?”
Jane: “For real.”
Hey—I didn’t lie. We spent the taxi money on food. They could have put the pop back… A can of orange soda—Cuba’s version of Fanta—is about half a CUC at the supermarket. Multiply that by three and thrown in the can of Tu-Cola I need for my Cuba Libre, and we’ve drunk almost half our taxi fare.
Well, and then I bought rum…
Anyway. This time, I promise a taxi and we don’t spend our money on frivolities like drinks and food. So, after a fabulously intense day wandering through Old Havana, we start wandering in the direction where we saw all the taxis. A block away I pause. Look around undecided.
There’s about 20, more taxis around the corner and ugh, I don’t want to deal with getting one…
I know it makes no sense, really. Except. OK, see, there’s 20 of them. One of me. And they swarm me. And I need to pick one. And I need to negotiate the price. And it’s so fucking exhausting, and I’m so tired…
Jane: “Let’s find a place to sit and get a drink before we get the taxi.”
Cinder: “But we are definitely taking a taxi?”
I promised. Sigh.
And, suddenly, there’s a man in front of me, and he says:
Dude on the street: “Taxi?”
It’s a sign from the gods, right?
The time to find out what taxis ought to cost, by the way, is before you get into the taxi—preferably when you don’t need a taxi—so when I’m walking past the Hotel Kohly—one of the two hotels in my neck of the woods—I swing by the huddle of cab drivers, who always greet me with a chorus of “Taxi? Taxi? Taxi?”
Jane: “I don’t need one today, but how much should a taxi from here to Old Havana cost?”
They tell me, $10CUC. Other stuff too. One of them adds, in English, “And don’t ask at the hotel. Come here, and say, ‘Who’s next?’”
The hotel will call Cuba Taxi, one of the drivers explains, the national taxi agency that runs licensed taxis. The huddle of drivers outside are all privateers. Some of them might have private taxi licenses. Most probably do not. They report to no dispatcher. They don’t have to share their take with anyone… except the police. But that’s a story for another postcard.
Driver: “We make sure things are fair here, you know? We rotate, make sure the guy who’s been waiting the longest goes next.”
Very socialist of them, don’t you think?
Meanwhile, today, I’m negotiating for a taxi ride with a man who does not actually own a car. He makes his living… hooking up taxi drivers with marks like me.
Dude on the street: “Four people? To where?”
Jane: “Near Hotel Kohly.”
DOTS: “That will be $15CUC.”
Jane: “That will be $7CUC.”
DOTS: “All the way over there? No. Maybe I can find someone for $10CUC.”
That’s what it’s supposed to cost.
Jane: “$10 is okay.”
He smiles. We’re friends now.
DOTS: “I’ll be right back. Oh… what kind of car do you want?”
Before I tell you what I tell him… I just have to say… It’s hot. I’m very, very tired. And, dehydrated.
Jane: “I have no preference. But get me a beautiful driver.”
DOTS: “Stay. Right. There. I’ll be right back.”
He does all right.
Note to self: so it seems really funny to “order” a beautiful taxi driver in this culture of constant whistling, lip-smacking and a chorus of “Beautiful-beautiful-beautiful” as I walk down the street but it does make the taxi ride… awkward.
Jane: “No, I just wanted a taxi. Really.”
Driver: “I understand. The children make it difficult.”
Jane: “Um, no, I just… I was being funny. I just wanted a taxi. Really.”
Driver: “I will give you my cell.”
Jane: “That’s really not nec…”
Driver: “Call me. Anytime.”
Jane: “If I need a taxi.”
Driver: “For anything. Anytime. You call, and I will be there.”
I decide to get him to drop us off a couple of blocks away from our house.
Jane: “Next right… and yes, stop right here. Thank you so much.”
Driver: “Here. My cell. My name. Can you read all the numbers?”
Jane: “Um. Yes. Thank you.”
Driver: “So. You’ll call me?”
The children make it difficult.
Sigh. He was so very beautiful.
Virtue seems vaguely unrewarding.
Cinder: “So how much money did we spend today?”
We tally up the CUCs spent on museum entrances and the cab–$36CUC all told, so about $50 Canucks. Then we add up the moneda nacional spent on the bus, the ice cream and the pizza. Which comes to about $2.50 Canadian—no, three full bucks—because each of the kids ordered two full size pizzas so they’d have snacks for later, because the bakery was out of bread…
Cinder: “This makes no sense. But you know what this means?”
Cinder: “We should stop going to museums, and eat more ice cream.”
Jane: “And take fewer taxis?”
Cinder: “No. Taxis home from Old Havana are a non-negotiable necessity.”
My spoiled Canadian child.
I know you want to know, so I’ll tell you this: his name was Ariel, and I kept the business card with the cell number in my pile of papers throughout the trip. I might still have it. But I never called it.
Havana is thick with beautiful young black-and-brown men escorting not-so-beautiful middle aged white women around. (Ditto beautiful young black-and-brown-and-barely-painted-by-the-sun women escorting not-so-beautiful white men of all ages.)
I’d rather not be a cliché.
Do you understand?
If you’d like to better understand Cuban math, read Cuba’s New Money by Patrick Symms, in the April 1, 2015 edition of Bloomberg Online. It’s one of the most illuminating pieces on Cuba’s monetary situation I’ve come across.
A huge thank you, again, to Janine Morigeau of Tarot By Janine, for supporting today’s postcard. Even if you’re not in yyc, remember, she takes phone and Skype readings too, and she is amazing… even (especially) with the utterly sceptical.
Visual Postcards from Cuba from Cuba will continue to flow over the weekend, with the next audio postcard arriving on Monday.
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