Since the US relaxed travel restrictions to my homeland, it’s become the hot new travel destination for Americans. Everyone is lounging in Varadero and snapping pics of the vintage cars in Havana. But a filmmaker friend of mine, Christopher Lopez, went to check out the Cuba most people don’t want to visit – the Cuba I haven’t seen since I left when I was 7. So I had to drink a bottle of wine and ask him all about it.
GnomeTrotting: So tell me a little bit about your trip. What inspired you to go to Cuba?
Christopher Lopez: Well I had just gotten my passport because I needed to go to Mexico City for work. And then, I think I caught a little bit of the travel bug. I was inspired. And I thought Cuba would be a great place to go. My parents are from there, even though I was born in the US.
GT: But you didn’t take the average Cuban vacation. What made you deviate from the standard tourist path?
CL: Well, I went to “support the Cuban people” and I had a full time schedule doing that. But I decided to do some filming for my documentary on the side. I had a few missions: The first one was to capture Santeria. Then there was cockfighting. I just wanted to get some stuff in Cuba to show how Miami became culturally the way it is.
And the other thing… do you know what “el paquete semanal” (weekly packet) is?
GT: No, what is it?
CL: Well, Cuba being Cuba, they have their own internet. Do you know how the internet works?
GT: Yeah, people have to use it in parks, right?
CL: Yeah the official internet, it’s called ETECSA… you buy this card which costs from $1 to $5, and you have to go to a parque Wi-Fi (Wi-Fi park). But the Cubans invented an internet on USB drives. It’s called “el paquete semanal.” There’s JPEGs of the New York Times and rips of new videos or Game of Thrones. Usually a guy has a TV antenna with a water tank over it to hide it ‘cause you can’t have that. And for $1, you bring your USB drive to him, and he’ll give you Rihanna, apps, and viral videos. So I wanted to talk to these guys to see what they could give me. I was looking for the kind of stuff Cubans film on their phones.
GT: So did you get what you were looking for?
CL: Well, I did not get cockfighting. Cause it’s not indigenous to Havana. I’d have to go to el campo (the countryside). It’s something that Cuban hillbillies do. I had a lead to go to a cockfighting thing that’s like an hour out of Havana. It’s more of a tourist attraction, and not like cockfighting to the death. But when I showed up to meet the guy arranging it, he wasn’t there. So I spent my last two days going up to strangers asking, “Pelea de gallo? (cock fight)” But nothing.
GT: What about the Santeria. Did you get to see it in person?
CL: The Santeria stuff was beautiful. I made a connection and went to see them. It was a Santeria house filled with people. I arrived Wednesday, found them on Thursday, did the [chicken] sacrifice on Saturday. They channeled my dead grandmother, gave me prophecies. And it was pretty cheap compared to what someone in Miami would charge me.
GT: So overall it was a worthwhile trip?
CL: By the end, I was hating Cuba. The people are vicious and everything sucks. But I got some amazing footage.
GT: You’re from Miami and you’re Cuban, so you’re surrounded by Cuban culture. So what did you see in Cuba that made you think, “oh yeah, this is familiar”?
CL: It’s interesting having a slightly adult perspective. There’s things that my family does that make me think, “You people are idiots. Why are you so stupid?” Like my dad is a mechanic but he’s always inventando (inventing). I’m like “Why don’t you just learn the proper way to do things?” Then I get to Cuba and everyone is “inventing” something. They’re all making shit up. There was this one taxi driver who had a USB drive and it was soldered to his car, and that’s how he invented radio.
GT: How would you describe the Cuban people overall?
CL: There are three things that come to mind about Cuban people: stupid, tacky, prideful. Even the smart ones are kind of stupid because they’re brainwashed. I saw young guys that look like Miami dudes, and the way they dress is ridiculous. And then pride because everyone has a stupid pride about Cuba.
For example, I was in a taxi, with a driver who tried to rob me later. And when you tell people you’re from the US but have Cuban parents, you can see their face split into two. Like they hate you but also think it’s awesome. So he goes, “That’s how you do it. You have a Cuban family and you have Cuban game but you have the rights of Americans.” And then he turns around and says, “Actually the best way to do it is to be born here, so you know el chisme (the gossip) and then you go to Miami.” Like he thinks he’s better than me because I wasn’t born there.
GT: Wait, so how did the taxi driver try to rob you?
CL: Well he dropped me off in my neighborhood and it was $15. But when I got there, he tried to get another $15 from me. So we were arguing. He was built and it was 4 am. I thought he was gonna jump me. Eventually I had to say, “I just don’t have any more money. $15 is enough.” And I walked away tensed up, thinking he’s about to hit me. But I just hear *clicks tongue* and the car driving away. You gotta be careful, it’s a vicious place.
GT: What was the most surprising thing about it?
CL: There was a lot. It was a 7 day trip. I have friends that were born there, and they can’t stand being there more than a few days. By the halfway point, I was hating it.
The smell in the air is of gasoline and feces mixed together. That’s what Havana smells like. The other thing is that the Cubans are vicious. In Miami, you don’t have to be vicious, because you have a job and go about your life. But in Cuba, they see a dollar sign on your forehead. Every conversation is an attempt to figure out who you are and how they can extract money from you.
So I found that surprising. I expected to be able to talk to everybody. But everybody had their headphones on, everyone was rude. If anyone helps you, it’s because they want money. If you’re by yourself, it’s very lonely. And just having a moment where someone shakes your hand or says “Hola” without asking for anything stays with you. And that’s weird. You have to be skeptical about everything.
GT: So it sounds like it’s very different than what travel articles paint this untouched beautiful happy Havana to be.
CL: Yeah, with tourist packages, you have a smiling guy welcome you with a sign. And everything is mediated. You’re never going out into the real Havana. He tells you the tour in English. You eat at the officially sanctioned restaurants, have a mojito at the Hotel Nacional. And everyone you talk to is like a cartoon character, whistling and wearing suits. And you come back and you tell everyone you had a great time in Havana.
GT: Would you recommend Cuba as a travel destination?
CL: Only if you do the tourist thing. Everybody that’s done the tourist thing… they have a great time. But I got out of that car and I walked out a few blocks, and that was whole different world. If you do that, you’re not gonna have a good time.
GT: Would go back as a tourist?
CL: I don’t know because that kind of shit annoys me. I don’t give a fuck about the tourist circuit. I would get an apartment in La Rampa, which is the most exciting part of Havana. That’s where people go to party, that’s where you find gay people, prostitutes. And if you get freaked out, you walk a block and you’re in El Malecon.
This time I stayed in Vedado, which looks like Coral Gables in a dystopian world. Everything is crumbling and there’s roosters eating trash on the street. You look around and there’s a swarm of flies coming off of a turd. And that was the nice part of Havana. I may have to go back to back in December to film a cockfight, take a bus to Ciego from Havana. It’s gonna be awful.
GT: How do people perceive you? Do people treat you differently knowing that you have Cuban parents?
CL: They see you very differently. They make assumptions. Everyone thought I was gay because I wasn’t wearing a tacky shirt with frosted tips in my hair.
I had dinner with the people I was staying with, at a casa particular, an Airbnb basically. They make food for $5. I have to say that was really good. She would make flan and congri (rice and beans). So I ate with the family and they were pretty curious about my background – asking me what part of Cuba my parents were from, when they came to the US. But they still called me “el Americano.”
Which is funny, because when I go back to America, the white dudes ask me the same kind of questions I get asked in Havana. I went to Publix in Fort Lauderdale wearing a shirt I got there, and the kid working goes, “Welcome to America. How are you enjoying your stay?”
GT: Is there anything you liked or that you would recommend? Any hidden gems?
CL: One restaurant where I ate a few times in Vedado. It’s called El Vampirito. The food is good and it was super cheap. At some point, they knew me so they had my stuff ready. I would go there and get a pizza with gouda cheese and a water and go eat it in Parque Lennon.
I also recommend Callejon de Hamel. It’s a little bit touristy, but it’s out the way by the university. It’s an area between buildings. It has all these murals and galleries. It’s a fun place to get a beer and look at art. And of course, La Rampa if you like greasy places. It’s gross, but it’s awesome.
Havana is also weirdly beautiful if you can catch it during the sunrise. The day before I was gonna leave, I dropped my agenda for filming but I wanted to see the sunrise, so I took a taxi to central Havana. And you see people street sweeping, you see the little kids going to school, clouds of birds going over you as the sun rises. And in that moment, you’re like it is kind of a nice place… until everything opens.
GT: Is Cuban food better in Cuba than it is in Miami?
CL: Fuck no. Cuban food is AWFUL. The thing is they don’t have anything. So everything is bad. I was talking to this chick by El Malecon and she was eating croquetas. So I tried one. I took one bite and it looked like raw picadillo (ground beef). And it was supposed to be chicken! You order a pizza and it’s mostly bread with little bubbles that I guess is cheese.
Restaurants that cater to tourists are pretty good but it’s not Cuban cuisine. They make Cuban spaghetti and pizza. I realized a lot of our Cuban food is Americanized. For example, a lot of people in Havana haven’t even heard of croqueta preparada (croquette sandwich). That’s a Miami Cuban thing.
GT: Did you pay for a lot of things with US dollars?
CL: No. And you have to convert it there, because you can’t convert it here. So I converted it to Canadian dollars. Because they have like a “fuck you America tax.” It’s like 10% of the conversion. So I changed to Canadian here and to CUCs, the Cuban currency, there. It saved me like $200.
GT: What advice would you give people traveling to Cuba so they don’t get scammed?
CL: You have to be street smart. If you’re not, get a tourist package. If you like to shop, it’s a good place to go. Everything is cheap, but everything’s got Che on it. You just have to haggle. A good way to negotiate is to pit 2 salespeople against each other. If you go one on one, they try to scam you. But if you pit two of them against each other, they bring the price down themselves.
If you ever visit Havana, there’s a method of getting around called taxi directo. You go up to them and tell them where you wanna go and then negotiate a price. You should never pay more than $5. Everyone told me to take the bus or just walk. It took me a while to figure out that I’m rich there. I don’t need to get into a shared taxi that’s bulging with people like a clown car. It’s cool to go somewhere where you’re rich. You can bribe government officials with that amount of money.
GT: Speaking of government, what do Cubans think of Trump?
CL: Oh, they hate him. Everyone hates him. Tourism is down ’cause everyone is scared to travel. And they’re laughing at the US. They say, “You guys have major problems. We don’t have school shootings in Cuba.”
I predict Cuba is gonna turn into a smaller version Russia. Semi-capitalist with fake elections and a lot of intelligence operations against the US. There’s probably some minister who is gonna be the next Putin when Raul dies.
GT: Isn’t it funny that Cuban leaders are the only ones in the world referred to by their first names? So the last time we talked, you told me you wanted to move there. Do you still want to live in Cuba?
CL: No. I mean… I would maybe go if I had money. But only for like a month to take Spanish classes or something. When you come back to the US, you appreciate the little things you take for granted. When I was going through customs, I thought they were gonna grill me. I walked up, and I’m wearing a suit just in case. And she asks me: “Where are you coming from? Why were you there? Did you travel by yourself? Welcome to the US.” I was so happy to be back. I actually shed a little tear. It’s weird because I see the little kids there and I’m like… that could have been me.
GT: That could have been you with the frosted tips in your hair.
But it isn’t. He’s the kid behind the camera. And I’m the girl getting the second-hand account of the grim reality we both narrowly escaped. The reality that so many tourists willfully ignore when they buy into the fake picturesque vision of Havana that’s built on the backs of the hungry and oppressed. It’s not a story that’s told very often in travel magazines. But maybe it should be.