We sat outside and two of the waitresses sat and the table next to us. Eventually we all started talking. They asked where we were from, if we were students, etc. Eventually, the conversation turned to men. They asked us what type of men we like, specifically, in relation to race. The question itself started as they pointed to their skin, “te gustan los morenos, como el que les sirvió?” A group of musicians playing right next to the conversation took our nervous laughter to mean yes because I could hear them say “Si, les gustan lo prietitos!” It’s interesting to see how race is talked about here. In the U.S. this is not a question that is asked at all. In fact, for someone to say I only like white men or black men, to define someone so much in this way would be seen as racist. We say that race doesn’t really matter or isn’t a factor we particularly look for. Then we get to talking about their relationships and one of the girls shows us an image of her long-time boyfriend of eight years. “No es moreno,” she tells us.
On the trip back to the house, our group had a conversation with a person we met on the street. He said he is a natural science teacher in high school. We explained that we were all students from the United States, but he insisted on knowing each of our origins. It was as if it was impossible for me to be Asian and American. In many cases, the people we met on the street thought that I am Japanese or Chinese.
A man approached us and asked us where we were from, saying he wanted to take us on a small tour. I already suspected that he was looking for a tip, so I wanted to thank him and give him 5 CUCs when he took us to a cultural center near the National Library (I don’t remember the name), but my companions were not as interested in getting rid of him. He took us to a fairly expensive restaurant ($15 per plate), and stayed talking to us until our food came. He spoke critically of the government, saying that what he said was between us (what did he think, that we were going to report to him? To who?) I don’t know if what he said was genuine or just to gain our trust. However, he seemed relatively knowledgeable, and said that it was because he had a friend with a satellite television. He was an Afro-Cuban, and said he was a physical education teacher and his wife was a stomatologist, and that he had played soccer until he injured his foot and decided to become a physical education teacher. I asked him about racism and he said that he existed only in the mentality of the people, that he had had a white girlfriend and her grandmother had looked at him a little weirdly. Anyway, he left when our food arrived, and we tipped him. In the future I hope that my companions are a bit more skeptical of people who approach us like this.
The people we found on the street were very friendly. After visiting the Hemingway house we went to the capitol and walked through the neighborhoods, both tourist and genuine. I say genuine because we had a guide, a local man who introduced himself to us in the middle of the street and began to introduce us to cultural places that he said could represent the real Cuba and not the Cuba that tourists see. The man is named Orlando. He was a primary school teacher, he told us. He took us to a school where people sign up to learn how to dance or play instruments. I don’t know how, but our conversations with Orlando were spent talking about the situation in the country. Orlando showed an urgency in his words that I admired. He explained to us almost whispering that Cubans had no freedom of the press and that only those who are part of the party can enjoy certain benefits. For example, he stressed that one had to “be trusted” to have certain things. The “trusted” before the government, it seems, have the opportunity to send their children abroad to study. Orlando wanted us to understand that the country is going very badly now.
I asked Orlando about the naval blockade. He said that before 1990 he barely felt its effects. He explained that Cubans had everything they needed before 1990 because they always had the economic support of the communist bloc. Now that the communist bloc ceased to exist, Cuba is more exposed than ever to the effects of the blockade and people suffer. Orlando also told us critically that the Soviets failed Cuba because they never gave it the infrastructure and means for the country to develop independently. That is why he says that Cuba has not had development in decades.
However, there were also other people on campus who passed for students or people from the university. Their operation was quite intricate and very well concealed, so much so that we believed for a long time that they were what they seemed to be. I was surprised to see how ridiculous the scam could get. They had people positioned in certain positions and moving in sync. Knowing about these scamming operations is very worrying because it always makes you doubt if one really is that nice or just wants to get money.
Today after breakfast, we met our taxi driver Juan José out front of the building. He drove an old, blue Chevrolet car which he got three days ago. We talked to Juan about a lot of different things and he gave us very honest answers. Juan is 28 years old and has a 5-year-old daughter. He went to primary & secondary school and was offered the opportunity to go college, but he turned it down because his family needed him to work and earn money. Juan has 6 brothers and he is the 4th child.
We asked Juan his honest opinion about socialism. He said that he prefers capitalism and it is his dream to move to America. He talked a lot about the ‘black market’ within Cuban society. “Todo es el mercado negro. Si quieres algo, obtienes de un amigo de un amigo,” (Everything is the black market. If you want something, you get it from the friend of a friend.”) said Juan. He talked about the black market in the context of car parts. I asked how frequently he has to fix his car and he said about every ten days. “En Cuba, soy un mecánico. Afuera de Cuba, no soy un mecánico.” (“In Cuba, I am a mechanic. Outside of Cuba, I am not a mechanic”) Juan talked about how Cubans make things work no matter the limitations. He talked about how they are not be able to get the imported parts to fix their cars, but they are creative and utilize other things in order to fix the problem. Additionally, everyone takes amazing care of their cars to minimize the wear and tear. “Es completamente normal de ver alguien con un coche roto en la calle.” (“It’s completely normal to see someone with a broken car in the road”)
Juan also mentioned the incomprehensible laws regarding red meat and horse meat. Cow meat is very difficult to obtain in Cuba. Cows may not be slaughtered without a government license. Juan said, “if you are driving along and accidentally hit someone and kill them, you may go to jail for 2-4 years. If you are found with red meat in your fridge at home without a receipt, you’ll be imprisoned for 20 years.” Juan said he had no idea why this law was in place. He said, “it doesn’t make sense, it just is.”
The taxi drivers aren’t the only hustlers trying to make an extra buck or two. A museum worker at El Castillo tried convincing us to pay her for taking a photo of us. She asked three different times if Amy, Tori, and I wanted a picture. We said no the first two times, then finally gave in the third time. After taking this photo, she went all around the room taking random photos of the exhibit and even stuck Tori’s phone out of a barred window over the moat to take a picture of the drawbridge, which gave me a heart attack. She then went up to Tori with her hands together, as if in prayer, asking “¿un regalito por mí?”