Monday, May 15, 2017

grub first, then ethics

I'm world's most boring traveller. Because I'm interested in so many things that are happening by day - like watching everyday people shopping at everyday supermarkets and drug stores, walking down streets in average cities, but also spending hours and hours at exhibitions - I hardly get to know the places by night. Plus, like I already explained in an earlier post, there is also the indisputable disadvantage when travelling alone especially as a woman: A woman alone at a bar at night is rather conceived as very needy than very thirsty.

The Casa de la Música in Trinidad becomes especially at night a Club of the Lonely Hearts.


So the flock of proverbial sheep is trampling me into a sort of coma at around 9 p. m. which saves me from many displeasing situations particularly Cuba is known for.

People in Cuba are friendly, open and fun. They come to you on the street, all chatty, ask you where you're from, how long you've been to Cuba, what you're up to. Then they invite you to come with them to a restaurant or bar. And of course you answer all their questions, you're openminded and openhearted, and yes, what a great idea to go to this local bar, how nice of their third grade cousin and their co-brother-in-law to join you lot - and at the end mysteriously everybody is gone or has no money, but hey, that's no problem, people here have so little and you had such a great time, of course you pick up the tab.

If you're sharp, you realize that this is a business in Cuba as soon as it happens to you for the first time. Some people need to pay a couple of expensive rounds before they realize that this is a popular scam. And some people find it doesn't matter if they pay, what's a couple of beers after all? Yes, I could also afford to pay someone a beer, but that's not the point. I don't like to be tricked into a situation where I have no choice but paying. It's not a matter of money, it's a matter of respect.

In Cuba, no favour let alone service is free. For nobody, nor for you neither for Cubans. When someone recommends or arranges something, a commission fee is due, and that goes without saying. Remember: Most people in Cuba have next to nothing and there is no improvement on the horizon. So they grab whatever they can get. On my flight from Baracoa I saw a lady on the plane taking this little seat cover that's under your head, this little piece of cheap fabric they put on the seats. She'll probably never use the thing, but that's not the point. When you have nothing, everything seems to be valuable. You or your neighbor or your third grade cousin might need it one day.

Of course Cubans are Latinos so they stare, whistle and holler in this very seldom flattering, mostly unnerving fashion. Plus there is the phenomenon of the 'jineteras' and 'jineteros'. Jineteros can supply you with all sort of service: they are often touts and take you to bars and restaurants or arrange a casa particular for you (for a tip that you don't even realize since it's descretely added to your bill). They can provide you with more or less real Cohibas at a more or less good price. They can hook you up with a lady or a man - or even function as your special lady or man. So the trade of a jinetero is very diverse and never very decent. Jineteros and jineteras break rules; and unfortunately they also break hearts.

Often the lines between prostitution, 'jineterism' and genuine affection are blurred. People meet, people get involved, people are happy, people fall in love. Then one of them leaves, the other can't - and doesn't know whether they will ever meet again. Then there are old parents and siblings with very low income, there are kids to provide for, so why not take a little something from your special someone who allegedly has so much? Most of the time it's not plain cheating, determined exploitation, ruthless lies. There can be genuine feelings, and still there is the desire or need for material things. What makes these situations so complex is the irreconcilable economic imbalance.

Hence it's evident why these phenomenons, that are also found on other Caribbean islands like for instance Jamaica, are so distinctive in Cuba: Tourists have money and local people don't. Tourists want a good time and possibly a romantic illusion and local people have that in abundance. It's the law of the market, the balance of supply and demand; a very capitalist thing in a very socialist country. Only that there are feelings and dignity involved, and that makes the deal more complex than other trades.

"Grub first, then ethics" (Bertolt Brecht)

Interestingly I've met mostly guys travelling by themselves who were disappointed and hurt by Cuban women because after months or even years they have found out that their girlfriends were involved with other men - foreign or local. That they haven't told the truth regarding their job, marital status or number of children. These guys never showed the minimum understanding of the situation these women were in. I don't even expect understanding let alone excuses for the women's behavior. I think if they had acknowledged the circumstances and the different standards, they wouldn't feel so betrayed by the woman on a personal level but understand that it's the life conditions that hardly leave choices. Right choices.

This behavior is not nice and not honest and not fair. But it derives from the fact that life is not nice and not fair - especially for Cubans. Even here in the industrialized countries there is this saying that it's as easy to fall in love with a rich man as it is with a poor. What can be expected from someone who sees her or his only chance for change in getting involved with some passing foreigner? And this attitude, forwarded from generation to generation, leaves traces and determines relationships from the beginning on.
I dislike it as much as you do, and I particularly don't like the fact that it makes me distrustful and cynical.

I've heard from people who were coming to Cuba time and time again and had build up friendships over the years. And then they were extremely disappointed and frustrated by their friends who supposedly let them down when it came to negotiations with vendors or drivers. They took the vendor's side or accepted the driver's overpriced fare. Yes, this is frustrating, yes, friendship is a nice and important thing. But imagine you live there, you see no way to ever leave, you live around these vendors and drivers, you might depend on them next week - because the scarcity makes people extremely dependable one on another - would you stand up for this - in your eyes - super rich gringo coming to your country for a certain time? Maybe you would, and there are many Cubans who do and who dislike any form of cheating. Because they are honest. Or because they don't want a bad rap in the world. Or both. But I can't blame those who pick their neighbor's side.

People should not blame Cubans in the first place for being like this, they should blame the circumstances, the unfairness, the enormous imbalance of economic power, the struggle that's going on for decades. The offenders were the victims - and still are.

"It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness" (Karl Marx)

My personal solution? I don't get involved. I do spend time with people talking, laughing, being nice and friendly, but I don't expect them to see in me more than a passing visitor, more than a tourist, they don't disappoint me by not making me their personal friend. I don't ask them for commitment.

While I show indulgence regarding the stories of defeated love or desired friendship, I've heard stories that made me sick to my stomach. I met this guy Andy from Germany who is a dedicated Salsa dancer and came for the first time to the motherland of his passion - exclusively to dance the time away. My very last evening in Havana I went out with him - first to the inevitable Floridita, eventually he wanted to dance at the hotel Inglaterra.

We were sitting on the verandah fenced by boxtrees, overlooking the Parque Central. The hotel's policy seems to be that they do promote only female prostitution, since there were very uncomplicated ladies sitting around or shaking their proverbial money maker while two young man who had come to dance with female tourist were immediately kicked out.

What was shocking were the young girls - some of them in the company of their mothers - standing behind the fence peeping between the boxtrees at the people on the verandah. Pointing this out to Andy, he laughed bitterly. "That's nothing. Yesterday I was dancing with a girl that claimed to be 18 although she looked much younger. She was at the casa de la musica with her father who immediately started to interrogate me if I had a girlfriend, if I didn't want another, a Cuban one. The girls was just sitting there saying nothing, waiting to be paired off."

byemyselftravels
Buy one, get one free? No way - there is another person taking the picture of me at my only night out in Havana.

He had it with Cuba, he was completely disenchanted. And when I tell you the story that happened to him on one of his first days in Havana, you won't blame him: Some guy approached him on the street inviting him to his daughter's birthday. Of course Andy denied, but the guy insisted, having a foreigner at her party would make the daughter's day. So after a while Andy though, what the heck and gave in. As they reached the guys house which must have been a total dump, there was no party. The guy called a girl that according to Andy must have been about 15 years old and told him he could get it on with her for a good price.
Ok, neither Brecht's nor Marx' quote can be an excuse for that!

At the end of this post I'd like to stress the fact that although almost every Cuban is facing economic hardship, there are many, many people who do not cheat, who do not take advantage, who do not sleep with tourist for their gain. I just didn't write a post about them. So go to Cuba, meet the people, have a good time, but don't expect the place to be perfect for you when it's far from that for its own inhabitants.

Because something has gone very wrong that in 2017, I can cite two communist visionaries to describe the mischief in Cuba.


This by no means should hold you back from travelling to Cuba!

Read my inspiring description and extended information on interesting places in Cuba - that I've travelled bye:myself.

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