For the visitor to Cuba, perhaps the most telling example of the new economy is the emergence of the “paladars,” restaurants established in private homes by private citizens. These restaurants compete directly with the state operated cafeterias, without subsidies. The menus are inventive, the food is often completely delicious, and the service is sure and able.
You’ll note that this restaurant violates American fire safety regulations. This is the sole exit, and the dining room is on the third floor. Ah, but the dining room itself and everything in it are delicious.
Dinner, of course, begins with a trip to the morning market. This market accepts only Domestic Pesos, not the ‘CUCs,’ the pesos convertible to foreign currency.
On the way home from the market, you might be lured by the used book stalls which surround the pocket park across the street from the colonial Governor’s Palace. Leather bound Plato in Spanish; Che biographies in well-thumbed paperbacks; Shakespeare with 19th century marginal notes.
For readers who want a more modern take on the book world, you may cross the street from the booksellers’ stalls, take a seat under the portico of the Governor’s Palace, and listen to contemporary writers and critics.
One can take a friendly break from work or, in some cases, rather miss the point of the work at hand altogether.
The taxi trade is the most visible, most iconic Cuban service for tourists. Why ride in a new Hyundai when you can pile into a bright orange Buick from your great uncle’s day?
Keeping an early ’50s Chevy on the road takes more than a little effort and a little help from your friends.
Music is everywhere, indoors and out.
My favorite: This lady has set up shop on the the narrow pedestrian walkway that leads from St. Francis Square to the Old Square. She sits on the stoop directly opposite the perfumery where tourists may buy perfumes made on that very site. For some arcane reason, the perfumery cannot bottle your purchase since it does not make or buy containers for its wares. This lady, then, vivid entrepreneur that she is, has collected used shampoo bottles from Havana hotels; she sells them to perfume customers (and may have a little wholesale business on the side). In any case, as you can see, a sale makes her very happy, particularly since she has been more successful than her competition–the old geezer who sits right on the steps to the perfume shop, obstructing the door, the fool. (But doesn’t every customer go home smelling like Head and Shoulders?)
Speaking of profit margins: It is now legal to buy and sell property. This agent has set up his sales office on the Paseo del Prado, the broad pedestrian boulevard that runs two kilometers from the capitol to the Malecon and the sea.
The most prolific sales folk are the artists. Some galleries sell expensive and thoroughly professional work. Street vendors patiently display paintings, small sculptures, found and constructed objects, balloon animals, jewelry, black velvet voluptuaries. Got 50 CUCs?
Making a living in Cuba requires patience, creativity, inventiveness, and a essential password: “Waste Nothing. Ever.” The next picture comes from the Coincidence Farm out in the countryside between Havana and Varadero. The tractor pictured here is a Bulgarian model from 1950. It looks discarded, abandoned, useless. But next to it are the parts, freshly cleaned and oiled, ready to be re-assembled.