While we were in Cuba for the holidays, an Associated Press piece following the fates of nine small business owners in Havana hit U.S. newspapers. It wasn’t particularly inspiring with dashed hopes for four individuals who lost everything in less than two years.  The remaining ones are those who cater to the tourist market.

I didn’t read the article until we were back, but there I was doing a small survey of my own.  The doors for entrepreneurs opened four years ago, but I had not been there in five. I was curious to see what was going on around the city.

First stop, Abuela Ana’s hair stylist, Juan Carlos, who has owned a private salon for about three years, after transforming an abandoned garage unit of a building nearby into an unassuming, but quaint and professional setting.

Luis, baby Ana and I trucked it over by foot (and stroller) to check it out.  JC was busy, but we made an appointment for me to get a cut a couple hours later.

JC’S assistant works on a client

Juan Carlos is a highly charismatic guy and looks two decades younger than he is. He’s been cutting hair for 30 years and from the second he took hold of my thick tassel I knew he knew what he was doing. He told me there is very little training in Cuba for what he does so he’s mostly self-taught by way of studying magazines, television and movies.

Professional styling products are hard to come by with access only to goods in the normal Cuban markets.  Clients are referred mostly by word of mouth, though he does do some Internet marketing. I looked for it once back in Savannah, but couldn’t find anything.

His assistant offered me a beer to toast the New Year and the air was light, fun. JC got a call while I was there from someone in his building to say that the water pump had broken and tenants were going to have to pay a collective 18 Cuban convertible pesos or CUC, which is the more valuable of the two Cuban currencies in existence and largely used by tourists and foreign trade. The Cuban pesos, or CUP, is the less valuable one tied to Cuban residents.

There was a joke about it, a few pesos to fix the machinery and the rest would buy pigs for the comite– the communist party – for New Year’s roasting. This is something I absolutely love about Cubans – they use humor in place of anger. Nothing they can do about it so they make fun of it.

My haircut, which was fantastic, cost roughly $10 USD, a fraction of what I pay here.  

Over the next few days I saw several small set-ups by individuals, little bright stars through the crumpled destruction that still makes up most of residential Havana, that I never have before. On Abuela Ana’s floor, a family friend runs a mani/pedi business from a small room in her home and there are a handful of ‘shops’ in front of houses close by, which sell clothing, accessories and other bits of living. 

Driving through Central Havana, one of the more devastated areas that still hits me hard anytime I see it, a shiny, new sign for what looked like a boutique hotel, shot out like a light.  A pop of happiness and more, of hope.

After reading a number of reviews of Café Laurent, a trending, sophisticated and relatively new paladar – restaurant set up in someone’s home – hyped by Condé Nast Traveller and other big media outlets, I was eager to go.

Set in the penthouse of a sea-green, mid-century Art Deco building in Vedado, our neighborhood, we were greeted at the front door and led to an elevator, which took us to the fifth floor.

Inside it’s a pairing of retro and sleek with indoor walls covered in newsprint from the 50s, offset by minimalist, modern settings. It was a beautiful night and Luis and I asked to sit on the terrace under billowing curtains with a spectacular view of the city. We could have been at any restaurant in any international city. Exciting.

The menu has a large Spanish influence with fresh seafood as its staple. Following dinner we moved to the window-drenched side bar and ate a creamy, puffy pastry, the profiterole, with a shared espresso and the last couple sips of wine from dinner. 

While it was a good overall experience for us, it is not one that most Cubans can afford, evident by the division of patrons – two American groups and various Europeans – in the nearly packed house on Friday night. The cost of our meal was more than three months of a local’s salary.

Our final day in Havana was spent partly near Old Havana at a feria, an outdoor market. There are many all over the city, but this one used to be a warehouse of some sort, lined along the port, and uniquely, hundreds of independent vendors sell artisan goods, including instruments, humidors, T-shirts, crocheted dresses and mini car replicas, among other items, from their slivered stalls.

They crack coconuts open and fill them with Cuba’s rum, Havana Club 

After buying a number of items and talking to a young, cool female owner who speaks very good English, we trailed out to the back of the space, overlooking Havana’s Bay. It’s an unimpressive, dull gray walkway with shoddy seating, but reconfigured in diligent hands, it could be stunning.

Marcos + Abuela Ana in front of the Havana Bay

I walked next to Abuela Ana, who never talks politics with me, so she surprised me in her hushed tone: “I wish I had been born 20 years later.”

I stayed quiet.

Can you imagine if they had done this 25 years ago?” she asked. “All of the millions that would have come through here.” And then she pointed out the neighboring two warehouses, empty and both in need of a hefty power wash, but prepped to take on more vendors.

You can smell magic brewing and it’s simple to see what’s possible.  If politics can stay out of the way and a certain family of dinosaurs will go extinct, Havana is going to be thrilling.

LOVE THIS NEW SONG/VIDEO by Descemer Bueno and Gente de Zona. 
Luis grew up with a couple of these guys, who have hit it big.

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