POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: rip off

For Janine. Who loves to haggle.

As always, listen:

& read:

My first day in Old Havana, a street vendor sells me for $5CUC what a local would think expensive at $5 local pesos (that is, $0.20CUC). She’s a damn clever hustler: she gives Ender a bite of it to taste and he thinks it’s heaven, and she knows I won’t say no—she crams a paper full of chikitos into his hands.

Jane: “How much?”

Vendor: “$5CUC.”

Jane: “Seriously?”

Ender is already eating—but I’m staring at her so incredulously, she presses a second envelope in Flora’s hand.

Vendor: “Two for $5CUC.”

Jane: “That’s still extortionate.”

But, the deal’s done—now Flora’s eating, and I’ve got to get away from the witch before she presses a third package into Cinder’s hands and tells me that one is $5CUC all but itself.

Flora: “Why are you so mad, Mom? Is $5CUC a lot of money?”

So. Here’s the thing. It is and it isn’t, right? At the current conversion rate, $5CUC is about $8 Canadian dollars.

It won’t break me today—and it’s made her day.

But…

OK, the thing is—not even in Paris, Tokyo or Hong Kong, what she sold me would cost $5CUC.

I’m kind of pissed about it for three days before I move. Confirm the price always before reaching for something. Generally practice the act of asking locals from whom I’m not trying to buy something—hey, how much should that cost?

Occasionally, I’ll overpay. Make someone’s day.

For the first couple of weeks, anyway.

By month two? I don’t care about making anyone’s day.

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The street vendors around Parque Fraternidad cater to both Cubans and tourists, and the one with the cart full of cookies and “pastels”—sweets—zeroes in on me and Ender immediately as an easy mark—Ender saying “I’m hungry!” and pulling on my bag being a dead give away.

Vendor: “Treats? Treats? Really delicious. Do you want to try these, sweetie?”

He presses two colourful little bags full of coloured marshmallow like candy into Ender’s hand, and the six-year-old starts to rip them open.

Jane: “Stop!”

I put my hand on the bags—engage in a tug-of-war with Ender—win—put them back.

Jane: “How much?”

Vendor: “One peso.”

Cool. I take out a peso in moneda nacional.

Vendor: “No, no, no–$1CUC.”

Jane: “You’re fucking kidding me.”

Vendor: “What?”

Jane: “I don’t know how to say that in Spanish. You’re fucking kidding me. No fucking way.”

Vendor: “In CUP, $10 per one.”

A CUC is 25 CUP, so he’s not exactly cutting me the real deal here.

Jane: “Here’s $5 CUP. For two. And that’s still extortionate.”

He scowls. Takes the money. Gives me one packet of dime store candy.

Jane: “One?”

Vendor: “For $5CUP? One.”

Jane: “Fine. Thank you.”

Ender grabs the bag from me and tears into it, elated.

Vendor (in Spanish): “Cheap whore.”

Jane (in English): “Motherfucking cocksucker.”

We glower at each other. Not with respect, mind you, just with anger and resentment.

I can hear what he’s thinking. “It’s one fucking dollar to you. Would it kill you to give me one fucking dollar?”

He can’t hear what I’m thinking. Which is, “I am so fucking tired of being ripped off. And yes. It would kill me to give you one fucking dollar. At this point, I think none of you, no one should ever be given anything. It rots and corrupts and I. AM. SO. SICK. OF. ALL. OF. YOU. THINKING. I’M. YOUR. CASH COW!”

Flora: “Mom? Can you please stop staring at him? I’m getting scared.”

We move on, through Parque Central, towards Zuleta. Through a crowd of people trying to sell me tours, taxi rides, and directions to “a great family restaurant.” Through a chorus of “Do you speak English?”

Jane: “Nie, przepraszam, przepraszam. Ani slowa—ani po angielsku, ani po hiszpansku.”

It backfires only once.

Dude: “Russian? You speak Russian?”

But the look I give him in response makes him take two steps back, so it’s all good.

Flora: “Mom? You’re being really rude to all the people today.”

Jane: “I know, sweetheart. I just don’t have any more ‘No, thank you’ left in me today.”

Ok, except maybe for him, wow, eye candy, happiness.

Jane: “No, thank you. And there’s four of us. We wouldn’t fit.”

Bici-cab driver: “My love, you and your beautiful children, I will drive around for free. They’ll fit in the back and you can sit on my lap.”

Jane: “No, thank you. We’re almost where we’re going.”

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We’re going to the Museum of the Revolution. Like most tourist attractions in Cuba, it has two prices—a CUP price for Cubans, which makes it almost free, and a CUC price for tourists. Which is extortionate.

No, really.

Paris and London prices for cut-rate attractions. The equivalent of $15 Canadian to look at a frying pan stolen from a Battista camp and used by the revolutionaries in one of their camps in 1959?

I shamelessly lie about Cinder’s age.

Jane: “Slouch.”

Cinder: “What?”

Jane: “Slouch. I am not paying $8CUC for you. You are 12 and Flora’s 10.”

Cinder: “You are a terrible, terrible role model. We are going to grow up to be morally bankrupt.”

Jane: “Shut up and look short.”

The teller charges me for him anyway. “You need to pay for the eldest if he’s 12,” she says. I nod, fork over $16CUC. Feel ripped off before even going in.

I’ve been to the Museum of the Revolution before, so I know what I’m going to see—and I want to show it to my children. Debrief them a little, but not too much—mostly, this is an experience I want them to have that, at some point in the future, maybe we will go back to. “Remember when we were at the Museum of the Revolution and you saw…” As we move through the rooms, I explain a little about Battista. Castro. Che Guevara. Flora’s already a little in love with ole’ baby face, and who can blame her?

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Cinder loves the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Missile Crisis stories.

We spend a great deal of time looking at four hideous caricatures of Battista, Reagan, and the Bushes in what is officially called—I kid you not—the Cretin’s Corner.

“Thank you, cretin, for causing our revolution,” says the caption under Battista. Regan and Bush the First get, “Thank you, cretin, for helping to strengthen our revolution” and “for helping consolidate our revolution.” Ole W. apparently made the revolution inevitable…

It’s important to be here. I’m willing to pay to be here. And I think it is fair that here—and at every other cultural attraction—I pay more than the Cubans. That’s fair. Absolutely.

But the prices I’m being charged are outrageous. They are a grotesque money grab, and they make me angry.

And I’m sort of a socialist.

I’m not sure I will be a socialist by the end of this trip. It’s wearing on me.

We come out of the Museum with me desperately needing an antidote to propaganda. The Museum of Fine Arts, the Cuban section is literally next door. We walk over—“Taxi?” “No, thank you,” “Restaurant?” “No, thanks,” “Mom, I’m hungry, can we go to a restaurant?” “Baby, we can’t afford to eat in any of the restaurants these guys would take us to.”

We go look at art.

Two things happen. First, the entry to the art museum is $5CUC—which isn’t that much less than $8CUC, is it? Yet, psychologically, that three makes all the difference. I’m perfectly willing to pay $7.50 Canadian to look at art; in fact, I think it’s a great deal. Second, the cashier doesn’t charge me for “12 year old” Cinder. “You don’t have to pay for him,” she says. Adds, “It’s so good of you to bring your children here.”

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The art museum is structurally stunning—modern, bright, beautiful—and we all react to it expansively. Cinder, who doesn’t care much for paintings or sculpture, but who loves buildings, looks at the walls, the ramp, the courtyard. He opts to spend all his time outside. Flora and I move through the galleries in tandem, occasionally losing each other—always drawn back together by Ender. Who’s kind of bored…and then interested: “That is one creepy painting!” I love the mix of… social realism grafted onto pre-revolutionary European aesthetic combined with Afro-Caribbean imagery—and, hey, I bet my favourite Havana graffiti artist, I bet he was influenced by that artist over there, “Flora, come look!”

There’s some revolutionary propaganda art too. We study it in silence.

We all have to pee, but Flora refuses to use the first toilets, on the second floor, we go into. They have no toilet seats, she reports, the door doesn’t lock, and there’s no toilet paper. “I’ll hold it,” she declares, “You know I’m a camel.” Her mother and brothers are not, and I finally convince her to give the ground floor washrooms a try. “There are toilet seats,” I cajole; she succumbs.

The ground floor museum toilet, like most public toilets in Cuba, is operated by a toilet lady. This is a Communist invention, although I understand they can sometimes be found in Paris as well. Whenever I see one, I am 14 years old again and in Communist Poland, shocked to find an elderly woman sitting inside every washroom—doling out a square of toilet paper—and then expecting to be paid for the task.

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Interlude:

It’s 1988. The Berlin Wall hasn’t fallen yet, and using a public toilet in Communist Poland is no easy task for a Canadian child. My eleven-year-old brother spends 20 minutes outside a public toilet trying to figure out whether it is the circle or the triangle that defines the male. Decides to wait to see who goes in or out of which toilet, but as a long-haired headbanger—heavy metal is very big in 1980s Poland—comes into one and out the other—he’s still at a loss. Decides to try the triangle—at 11, he’s already figured out women are curvier than men. Opens the door… comes to face with an old woman… freezes… is about to turn back… when she says:

Guardian of the Pissoir: “Are you shitting or pissing?”

My 11 year-old brother: “What?”

Guardian of the Pissoir: “Are you shitting or pissing?”

M11YOB: “I don’t think that’s any of your business!”

He takes her words as an indication that he is indeed in the right men’s toilet (“If it was the women’s she’d tell me to get out, right?” he explains when he tells the story later) and goes into a stall.

Does his thing.

Gropes around for…

M11YOB: “Hey! There’s no toilet paper here!”

Guardian of the Pissoir: “I asked, are you shitting or pissing, didn’t I?”

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Back to our story:

Cinder looks at the two doors. They’re both unmarked, but he sees a urinal within one, makes for it boldly. The toilet lady yells something after him.

Cinder: “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish. I really have to pee. That’s my Mom.”

I smile. “Mujeres?” I ask.

Guardian of the Pissoir: “Wait, wait, someone just used it, I will get it ready. For two?”

I look at Flora. She flushes. I nod. Two minutes later, she beckons us into the washroom. Hands each of us a napkin folded into a triangle. I send Flora into the first stall. “I’ll guard you,” I promise. “It locks!” she announces, elated. “And there’s a toilet seat!”

The toilet lady points to the other stall. “That one’s ready too,” she says. I go in. Pee. Use my toilet paper. Try to flush. No, of course not—“getting the stall ready” means that this toilet lady needs to fill a bucket with water and manually flush the toilet. Yes, it does.

Ugh.

“I couldn’t flush the toilet,” Flora whispers, and I reassure her that it’s ok, the toilets don’t flush—the attendant will do it. Her eyes go big and round. “That’s disgusting,” she says.

The sink doesn’t work either. The attendant points us to the soap, and then pours water from a bottle over our hands. Dispenses another napkin.

I give her a CUC, don’t question it. I’m not making her day—I’m paying for work I am appalled that a human has to do in 2016.

She was our sink, and she has to flush our urine, my blood, down Havana’s ill-working plumbing.

We make our way back to the Parque Fraternidad area, where we will catch our bus home, in silence. Ender’s tired, Cinder’s hungry, Flora’s processing I’m not sure what. We pass by the candy vendor who’s day I didn’t make.

Vendor: “Hey, sweetie, would you like… oh. It’s you.”

Jane: “Still feel ripped off.”

Vendor: “Bitch.”

Jane: “Hustler.”

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Get on the bus (less than a $1 CUP—I’m overpaying at $0.10 CUC—for the four of us). Go “home” to our non-tourist area, where I buy the children ice cream for $3 CUP a cone, and four mini cheese pizzas for $1.40 CUC.

Pizza girl: “I’m so glad you like these.”

Jane: “This is my favourite place to feed the kids. They love these pizzas. I think it’s your sauce.”

I make her day.

*

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Next week, there will be… ghosts…

“Jane”

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