Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all political or sombre on you, but the news lately is putting me in a reminiscing kind of mood about my time in Mexico City. The mayor while I was there, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is now contesting his loss in the recent presidential election. I’m currently reading Saturday by Ian McEwan, about day in the life of a man who sees how the world has changed since 9/11; my own memories of that day are affected by the unusual circumstances of my life at the time, working with many Americans at a newspaper where we were glued to the newswires. And news that Fidel Castro has temporarily (maybe) handed over power to his brother has brought back memories of my weekend in Havana. Not that I met the man himself, but it’s put me in the mood to revisit that visit.
I’d only been in Mexico for six months at that point, and pretty much the only Spanish I knew when I’d arrived was “where are the bathrooms” and “how much does this cost.” I figured I was doing pretty well, given my lack of facility for languages, and starting to understand a fair bit, so I was dismayed to discover how different – that is, incomprehensible – the Cuban accent is. It wounded my pride a bit that I had to rely on my traveling companion, the guy I was dating at the time, to be my interpreter most of the time, but I felt better knowing that even he, a native Spanish speaker, had trouble.
The Cubans were extremely, sometimes overly, friendly, and everyone who approached us tried to peg our nationality as a couple. Tall, fair-skinned Carlos didn’t fit the Mexican stereotype. I’m tall, glow-in-the-dark skinned and … well, normally blonde, but on a pre-holiday whim I’d dyed my hair for the first time, but it was still an un-Latina red. When they asked where we were from, they refused to believe Carlos’s answer of “Mexico,” first turning to me in disbelief until I answered “soy canadiense” in my tragic and obviously non-Mexican accent, then turning to Carlos again in disbelief because, though his accent was right, he didn’t “look Mexican.” I found it funny, but by the end of the three days, he was annoyed at having to justify his Mexican-ness. He also ended up suffering from sunstroke after three days of mocking my liberal use of sunscreen and unnatural attachment to my hat, so I was not as sympathetic to his annoyances as I could have been.
People would follow us to continue the conversation, and one couple tried persistently to dissuade us from visiting the museum we were going to, because they didn’t want to go. We finally had to be blunt and tell them we were going to just continue on our own, then. We found out later that Cubans weren’t allowed in, only tourists, and felt guilty.
We lined up at an ice cream place that had been featured in the movie Strawberry & Chocolate, which had separate lineups for separate currencies, effectively dividing tourists (short lineup, more expensive ice cream) from locals (long lineup, cheap ice cream).
We never did figure out the currency situation. There were three — American dollars, Cuban pesos, and convertible pesos — one of which tourists weren’t supposed to use, so we stuck with American dollars. That meant things were far more expensive, but also that we could go to the many places that only took American dollars, and could find places willing to change our money, and didn’t have to ponder the mysteries of currency in the short time we had there.
Despite the ubiquitousness of American money, it was a little like entering the Twilight Zone to be in a country virtually untouched by American influence. I know it’s not exactly by choice, but after seeing McDonalds and Blockbusters in Peru the year before, it was comforting to see that a part of the world exists where the golden arches don’t. You’d see Coke sometimes, but rarely, and it was Hecho en Mexico (Made in…). There were American cars, but they were from the 1950s, and only added to the otherworld, othertime charm of the country.
The ornate colonial buildings were both majestic and heartbreaking, in various states of disrepair, some acting as slum housing, and no money to repair them. Old Havana has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site, but it’s a crumbling heritage. One beautiful and well-maintained building was the possibly slighly history-altering Museum of the Revolution, which told of the heroics of Fidel and Che and their cohorts, and described the social utopia that is Cuba today.
There was some free enterprise, both legal and illegal. We stayed in a legal, private guest house – an apartment created out of the top floor of a couple’s home – and they explained that there were strict rules, heavy competition, and extremely high taxes.
We didn’t make great use of the kitchen because we couldn’t find anywhere to buy food. The locals got free rations from government stores, though our hosts told us the black market thrives because the government-supplied staples aren’t enough to live on. We also couldn’t find a bank machine. They exist, but people kept directing us to exchange houses that give advances on credit cards (unless they happen to be a Citibank Visa, even if it was issued in Canada).
Because of the high tax on free enterprise, some people operate illegal restaurants set up in their family apartment, with no signs on the outside to indicate the activity within. A young guy, maybe late teens, came up to us on the street saying basically “psst, wanna eat?” and led us to a paladar (as private restaurants, legal or illegal, are called) that had the most amazing, least expensive lobster stuffed with seafood dish. There were only a few items on the menu, including a couple of lobster dishes – which I discovered later is something only state-run restaurants are legally allowed to serve. The boy who’d enticed us in sat with us for part of the meal, chatting, first trying to figure out where we were from, of course, then trying (successfully) to sell us a box of cigars. It could have been annoying, except that I could tune out and let the boys talk, since I didn’t really understand anyway, and the greatest fun was the surreptitiousness of it all … until you remembered why it was surreptitious, and wondered at the consequences if they were discovered (turns out, mostly fines, though jail time is possible).
We sipped mojitos at Le Bodeguita del Medio, a bar where Ernest Hemingway, among other famous faces, used to hang out. In fact, pretty much everywhere we went was supposedly some place Hemingway used to hang out, which didn’t charm me nearly as much as it was supposed to, since I’m not a great Hemingway fan, but it was a pilgrimage the tourist has to take. Especially the tourist who for some inexplicable reason has a complete collection of Hemingway’s works despite not being a fan. The music and performers in a small street festival were more charming by far, and didn’t smack so much of putting on a show for the tourists and their American money.
That was all about 5 years ago, and it was only three days, so I’d love to go back and see more of the country. But with an 80 year old president in failing health and his 75 year old successor, it’s easy to wonder what kind of country it will be by the time that happens.