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On Catcalling and Currency in Cuba

I hope this article will be the first of many as I record my trip to Cuba this past January. I joined a friend who sails there every winter with her father on their 41′ sloop. We sailed from Florida to Havana then around the western tip to Cienfuegos over the course of three weeks. It was the trip of a lifetime.

Havana, Cuba.

The catcalling in Cuba was mostly your run-of-the-mill growling and lip smacking. There were those moments when I thought, “Does that man realize I’m a living breathing human being and not a giant steak? The guidebook didn’t say anything about cannibals in Cuba…” If you think it strange of me to immediately free-associate to cannibalism, do recall that we were traveling by sailboat around the island, and sea sagas are rife with accounts of hungry sailors eating one another, or getting eaten by hungry islanders for that matter.

More often than not, the unwanted male attention came in the form of long, approving gazes, as if to say, “beeeoooootiful babieeees” – an actual epithet my friend Marina and I received from the harbormaster in Cayo Largo, which was at least somewhat amusing for its strangeness. To the men who insisted on making animal noises at us, Marina and I took to sneering and slowly dragging our thumbs across our throats as we mouthed “I keeeel you!” This usually earned us a few laughs and a fresh onslaught of air smooches and marriage proposals. At least they weren’t calling after us like livestock anymore.

On occasion we encountered a real smooth operator. Take our friend Tony for instance, a waiter and bartender at the restaurant Castillo de Farnes in old Havana. Just around the corner from Hemingway’s favorite El Floridita, the restaurant attracts a sizable tourist population for its swaggering waiters, its famous photos of Fidel and Che dining there, and its delicious food, the best we had in Havana: rice pudding in a Madmen-era martini glass (when martini glasses were civilized) and flaky fish in buttery cilantro-infused broth. We popped in to visit Tony a few times while we were in the city. The guy was affable, spoke perfect English, and could whip up a seriously minty mojito. Tony would greet us womenfolk with audacious claims like “That smile! That’s a face I could wake up next to every morning.” In America I’d have no problem snarling at such a comment, but I let it slide with Tony. Call it cultural sensitivity, or, you know, a touch of ego.

We really got to see Tony in action when he helped us exchange money. Over the course of the trip, we discovered that asking locals for help was far more effective than going through the system. Instead of changing money at the bank (an ordeal which can take hours standing in line to meet a single, impassive bank teller) we usually opted to change money with whomever happened to be around: a taxi drive, waiter, you name it. Everyone seemed to have a mother’s cousin’s stepson with a connection to Miami and bundles of USD. And so was the case with Tony. He told us he had a friend who could get us a rate of 90 CUC cents to the dollar, 3% better than the standard rate provided by big hotels and banks. It was a no-brainer.

Marina and I followed Tony up the Avenida Bélgica, taking stock of the sites: laundry drying from the windows of beautiful broke-down buildings, pastel-colored Chevrolets wheezing along, sidewalks cracked and caved. Every time an attractive woman passed us, Tony would level his gaze and stare at her intently. Like a heat-seeking missile he would twist his neck and torso to follow her until she was well behind us and the next woman entered his peripheral vision. He never once broke his stride or our conversation.

After a few blocks of intense rubbernecking, we arrived at a dark building whose entrance was shaded by a wraparound colonnade. Inside, the stench of unrefrigerated meats greeted us. We breezed past the little old ladies with humped backs and down-turned heads as they shuffled about their shopping, to a little desk against the back wall across from a butcher’s stall. We couldn’t tell if the butcher only sold tongues or if that was all he had left for the day. At the desk we handed over our wad of American greenbacks and received a pile of CUCs. We counted them (perhaps this was rude?) and were pleased to find the black market exchange rate had been honored.

Back at the restaurant we gulped down another round of tasty mojitos. (I’m convinced that Havana Club rum is weaker than the stuff they pour in the States, but more on that later.) Then Marina and I tipped Tony a few bucks for all his help, to which he seemed genuinely surprised. Had he really not expected some sort of compensation for his assistance? Moves, manners, and connections. Tony had it all.

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