Cuba a mix of corruption, impressive beauty, people
By Amelia Rayno / Minneapolis Star Tribune
The uniformed woman's eyes narrowed as she looked me up and down, assessing.
Seconds earlier, she had told me that the currency exchange was one
floor up at the Havana airport. Now, after processing my poor Spanish,
blond hair and unaccompanied state, her tune quickly changed.
"He will take you," she offered, in the tone of a command.
Who? What? My questions hung in the air, unanswered.
A uniformed man had me by the arm, leading me not upstairs to the
exchange but into a room barely bigger than a cubicle. In it was a small
desk and two men sitting with arms folded, staring at me.
Click. The door shut.
This was not the Cuban experience I'd seen advertised by tour companies.
I'd shunned those.
Instead, looking for a more affordable and authentic experience, I'd
planned my own solo people-to-people exchange, taking advantage of the
eased sanctions that opened doors to a world on the precipice of change.
Free of tour guides and defined schedules, I encountered a different
angle on the postcard view. Beyond the white-sand beaches, colorful old
cars and pastel houses was an unscripted beauty on dusty streets, where
hope for progress edges up against reality.
In the small airport room, the sweat glands on my forehead leapt into
action, but I saw no way out.
I handed over my cash. The officials took 13 percent, skimming 3 percent
on top of the 10 percent fee I later learned the exchange center charged
Forty-five minutes into my journey to Cuba, I felt robbed.
Soon, the country would steal my heart.
How to be Cuban
Luy looked at me, lifted his espresso and raised an eyebrow.
"If you're going to hang with me," he said, "you have to learn how to be
It was my second day in Cuba. After getting swindled for a $200 taxi
ride from the Havana airport to Santa Clara (my new acquaintances later
said it should have cost $70, tops), I'd awakened to thick ribbons of
tobacco smoke rising from the courtyards below my casa particular, a
private room I was renting.
I'd met Luy, a Cuban American, while wandering around the historic
city's modest center on Day 1, trying to get my bearings amid a pastel
row of buildings. At first glance, they all looked like houses — until I
discovered that behind the grated metal doors, barber shears buzzed and
people congregated in hidden cafeterias for coffee and plates of rice
Few of the businesses announced themselves with signs — but many had
another message broadcast on their facades: "Gracias Fidel" in hastily
constructed lettering, a complicated ode to the former dictator. With
Fidel Castro's death only a couple of weeks previous, drinking had been
banned for 10 days. Dancing, meanwhile, was banned for a year.
Luy had pegged my sorry state then. "You look lost," he said, as I
walked. Suddenly, I was adopted.
Now at the cafe, he eyed my short, chewed, natural nails and mulled how
un-Cuban I was.
"We'll have to start with those," he said.
Inside the small salon where he took me, about a dozen people clustered
around five beauticians at work, hair dryers whirring. At a small table
by the door, a woman painted my nails bright blue as she swatted away
"OK, you're 15 percent Cuban," Luy said as we walked out.
Next on our mission was the museum across the street, a coffee
shop/historical treasure duo dubbed the Revolucion and housed in a space
even smaller than the salon. The tour guide showed me original
photographs, documents and uniforms from the Cuban revolution that hung
above the cafe tables, sweeping her arms dramatically as Luy
interpreted. None of it was under glass. She touched the clothing as she
At the end, she offered me one of a handful of war medals for $5.
'I'm not sad'
On another night at El Mejunje, Santa Clara's popular club set in the
bare bones of a brick building, branches spilled through the windows and
kept climbing. At the top, they joined to form a canopy where a roof
might have been and, with stars piercing through the leaves, they swayed
with the warm breeze.
That night had begun as most nights do in Santa Clara: at the beautiful,
grass-covered central square.
Boasting the city's only Wi-Fi and regular cultural events, Parque Vidal
draws young and old who come to meet friends, check their phones and
listen to the municipal orchestra while sipping rum from juice boxlike
But the night was ending, as do most nights in Santa Clara, at El
Mejunje, a vibrant, open-air venue where the edgy vibe serves as a
notice to the government's censorship police.
Once a year, it hosts a beauty pageant for transvestites. On the
weekends, El Mejunje transforms into a gay club — Cuba's only, and a
tangible point of pride for many, whatever their sexual orientation.
Luy, who works as a server there, had earlier pulled a tube of mascara
from his bag when explaining what his job entailed on Saturdays.
"Guys will come and ffffpt," he said, grinning and mimicking someone
patting his bum. He winked. "I just smile and carry the drinks."
The programming on this night was tame — singer-songwriters, armed with
guitars, crooning on the stage as Spanish harmonies filled the indoor
Young people, intently listening, gathered on thin metal bleachers. I
sat with Yuniel, another new friend, among the trees on a stone balcony.
Later, Cuba Libre cocktails in hand, my adopted crew and I spilled over
into the art gallery, which doubles as a tattoo shop, on El Mejunje's
upper level. With Yuniel acting as salsa instructor, we danced, against
government wishes, our sandals shuffling to the soft guitar beats below.
"We're supposed to be sad," Yuniel had said earlier, nodding at one of
the Fidel signs. He grinned. "But I'm not sad."
'It has to change'
In the taxi, that first day, I had to repeat myself.
"Yes, Santa Clara," I said.
The driver muttered.
"Not many tourists there," he said.
That's why I was going — far away from the Havana airport and its money
"There are two Cubas," Luy's friend KK had told me. "The government, and
"It's best to avoid the people in suits."
Smack in the country's middle, Santa Clara has no beaches, no cerulean
waters. Unlike other cities on Cuba's handsome coasts, it boasts no
ritzy resorts or travel guide lore. Tourists tend to go elsewhere.
But the tide is shifting.
With the political padlock removed, the gate is cracked open. Starting
last winter, airlines began adding direct flights from the U.S.,
including to cities beyond Havana such as Santa Clara. Cuba sits just
100 miles from Miami Beach. The dollar, even when exploited, goes far.
There is no doubt: The surge of tourists is coming.
Will Santa Clara change? Will Cuba change?
Luy mulled the questions as we sat on the steps of La Marquesina,
He knows the untouched beauty, the stunning culture, the warmth.
But he knows the challenges, too.
Though widely and impressively educated, the Cuban people's wages are
low. The shelves at the stores in Santa Clara, much like the rest of the
country, are often lacking — one day, they'll be out of milk, another
day, eggs — and the black market is used as a necessity, supplying
everything from razor blades to good shampoo.
"It will change," Luy said. "It has to change."
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