CUBA and the hunt for black market lobster
January 1, 1970
by Ali Swidler
Over the years I would Revel in my friends adventures in Cuba. They would rave about the people, the beaches, the music and the rich Cubano culture. I indulged in their stories of salsa parties, music festivals, and roaming the streets full of vintage Chevys and Art Deco architecture. But what they failed to include in their review was what I found to be the most interesting about the country. Communism.
My friend and I flew to Cuba from Honduras in February 2016 and were extremely curious to explore a country that has endured such strict limitations.
With a wad of Euros in our wallets (no credit cards allowed) and a stamp on a piece of paper shoved between our passports, we navigated our way to Havana for our first night at a Casa Particular in Vedado. This neighborhood is dope as the streets are lined with artsy bars and creepy, majestic, abandoned crumbling neo-classical mansions.
After a few mojitos with some random gringos at Kings Bar, we craved local company and stumbled our way into Café Madrigal, a funky gay bar they kept open for us after hours. By day the bar tender is a gynecologist, but his measly $40 a month salary plus food rations isn’t enough to live on. Bartenders and Cab Drivers make more money than doctors and white collared professionals, so the combination is prosperous. And, we tip 20%.
If you want to live like a Cubano, live with a Cubano. Casa Particulars are private homes for rent similar to a B&B or even just a guest room for an authentic Cuban homestay. Our Vedado Casa felt more like a Parisian Boutique Hotel, but in Habana Vieja we had a room with a bath in our host’s apartment. Lucky for us he was a party boy, so we went out with him and his friends on Friday night to a jazzy piano bar and had an after party back at our Casa with Havana Club and some black market Jameson. Our host Joao, is a professional ballet dancer, and proud owner of Café Arcangel. Previously the living room of his parents home, they transformed the Café after the law passed in1997 that allowed Cubans to turn their home into a business. This additional income allowed him to buy and renovate his 2 bedroom apartment and turn into another Casa.
Bravo to Joao, Café Arcangel was the only delicious and affordable food we could find in all of Havana. It took 2 days and 2 mildy pricey meals ($15/person) for us to smarten up and save our money on the liquid diet. When two gringa meals cost the same as the monthly salary of doctor, no wonder tourism is the preferred industry to sustain a lifestyle.
Cuban food is “super rica”, just not in Cuba. When you walk into a “grocery” store you can see why restaurants struggle to provide decent meals. There is a glass showcase of food to select with one brand of tomato paste, a few cans of mystery fruits, some pasta options, chicken stock, a few condiments (to drown out the taste) and rows upon rows of Havana Club Rum and Crystal Beer. I am still looking for eggs. No spices, no cheese, no flour, no hummus! All this fun stuff is a black market purchase. One day we walked for 2 hours looking for a bottle of water (no joke), but all we found were beer and pringles! So many pringles in so many flavors!? How did pringles slip through the embargo crack? I became fascinated with the absence of selections that filtered into the all areas of commerce. Pharmacy, retail, ferreterias. The stores in Old Havana were either desolate, provided scarce opti ons or strangely specific. One store had us baffled as it was the size of a 2 car garage and sold aisles of piles of one brand of cleaning detergent. No excuses for dirty dishes or clothes!
When we got to Trinidad, (the perfectly located historic beach town surrounded by mountains and lined with cobblestone streets, horse n buggies and colorful one story homes), we met adorable local boys at a literal underground club in a cave (Disco Ayala) who treated us to a homemade lobster dinner the following night. Since lobster is a specialty for most cultures, in Cuba this meal prep provided us with a bit of a goose chase. Black market shopping in the neighborhoods surrounding Trinidad was exhilarating. With our cab packed full of 3 Cubanos, 2 gringas and a dutch girl, we parked the car and waited for our Cuban friend to pop out behind a random home. Nope no lobster. Next spot. Nope. And again. Nope. This was a 2 hour game and the possibility of getting arrested was not off the table. Finally we won. Lobster, Shrimp, Bucanero, Havana Club, boom!
The night provided not only a delicious homemade meal prepped and procured by sexy Cubanos, but a stimulating debate conducted by our tres amigos over their dichotomies on Cuban government, economy and cultural pride. Then we partied.
I was eager to share my adventures with friends back home while I was still feeling the Cuban Beats. This led me to my next journey, finding internet.
THE WIFI DEAL
If you have money you can set up a black market internet feed, but it’s dial up and brings me back to my Hewlett Packard circa 1998. Otherwise you can sit like a phone zombie in one of the few hotspot locations in the park or standing on a side street and pay a shady wifi dealer 5CUC ($5) for one hour of access. The one bonus to this absurdity is that no one is attached to the phone outside the park! It took me a couple days to quit the obsession of trying to connect because you simply cannot. Not even at the fancy resorts. Cuban culture must be so rich because everyone is living in the present and not for the next Instagram post (guilty!).
Art, music, dance and the creative spirit are thriving in Havana and all of Cuba. Walk along the Malecon and listen to the taxis blasting Jacob Fever. Hit up a jazz club and dance salsa with a local. Smush yourself into La Bedeguita Del Medio amongst other tourists and enjoy drinking a mojito one of the oldest bars in Old Havana. You may not be able to purchase any books other than the history of Fidel or Che, but local artists (using black market supplies), have galleries all over the city for your memorabilia. Or walk through the market and purchase a “magic box” and watch your friends try to open it.
Cuba is so much more beautiful and interesting than I could have imagined it to be, and the people are so lovely. I recommend a trip before capitalism occupies the Cuban soul.