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Cuba: fascinating land of no worries and ‘no hay’

Together with our good friends we travel around Cuba. And spend about a month exploring the Caribbean island (and it’s history). Of which most travelers seem to have a somewhat romanticized idea: retro Buick cars and mojito’s everywhere, old men smoking sigars and salsa on every streetcorner. But did you also know that the Cubans are fond of games?

Classic taxi car on Cuba

From Mexico we hop on a plane to Havana. Although we won’t be staying in the lively capital for too long. It’s the unknown, less touristy areas that we’re after. Meaning we have to fix a local taxi. Let the games begin! Everybody knows the concept of bargaining, I guess. Something catches your attention (meaning a thing not a person), so you make your offer, the other person gives theirs, this goes on for some time and often both of you reach an agreement, easy-peasy. On Cuba this process can best be described as let’s say, a popular social occasion. 

And whether it’s a souvenir or transport in this case, all bystanders love to give their unsolicited opinion. Colleagues of the driver suddenly turn into referees. The old ladies on the nearby bench follow every move. And the next door neighbour would like to add some words of wisdom as well. Add to that the often raw acting talent of the salesman and voilà you got yourself a game of poker on the set of a Spanish soap opera (telenovela). Luckily we have our friends who speak Spanish. Tom’s ‘intimidating height’. And my female charmes (or if needed fake tears). Plus we can actually see the humour of this absurd situation. Almost two hours later we drive off in the classic car of another drivers’ friend, who’s more than happy with this price. And so are we.

Eventually we arrive in the east, Camaguey. Our friends take a stroll around the city. While we, as always, wind up at a coffeespot pretty quickly. The terrace of a more luxurious hotel. Where a rather impatient waitress with a let’s say ‘out there attire’ writes down our order. Forget about the whole black-trousers-white-blouse hospitality look. Instead, think: high heels, fishnet stockings, miniskirt and dito shirt. In other words a typical Cuban uniform. We kid you not! Even the female douaniers dress in a similar way.

Here it’s time for a national favourite. The famous ‘Si hay, no hay-game’. Literally: there is or there is not. Which can also mean it is not available for you specifically, as a tourist (yes, life isn’t always fair). Of course the game has a story to it: because of the American embargo and a recent hurricane, Cuba is left with extreme shortages. And so things simply aren’t available. Or they are, if you have the right connections. Sounds a little crazy right? Unfortunately it’s just the way it goes. And not only at the supermarket (like back at home sometimes), but also hotels, restaurants, bakeries, banks, your casa particular, cafes, internet offices, embassies, stationary shops, bus terminals and so on. Don’t worry too much about it though: a creative other solution will always be found.

Market on Cuba

Back at the restaurant I see an avo sandwich somewhere on the 15 pages (obviously not si hay) long menu. Now keep in mind: that doesn’t have to mean it’s there. Tom chooses the fried eggs ‘Serranoham’. Including an okay instant coffee and fruit juice (jugo). Hooray for desayuno completo (set breakfast menu).

A few minutes later our feisty waitress returns. Remember the games’ rules? ‘No hay aguacate’ aka no avocado today. So I decide to switch my previous sandwich for one with grilled chicken, mozzarella and fresh pesto.

I’m a bit doubtful about that pesto. Since I haven’t seen basil anywhere so far. But that won’t be a problem. The mozzarella however is ‘no hay’ today and she is pretty sure they ran out of chicken. At 1pm on an off season Tuesday. My third option is also ‘no hay’. And when I ask if they could make a sandwich with only fresh pesto and tomatoes she looks even more worried. Imagine this happening back at home or in The Netherlands for example. It would be bad for business. In fact, you would probably get a drink on the house to make up for any inconvenience. On Cuba it’s best to forget about these and other Western expectations. Our advise would be to just leave them in the drawer of your Ikea bedside table. Go with the flow. Check out what is ‘si hay’ today. And most of all: try to see the humour in Cuba’s ways. Some say life itself is just a game after all. Might probably be a Cuban phrase.

And so this morning we participate in a game of ‘si hay-no hay’ mixed with brain trainer. To find out what we will have for breakfast today. Plus how well the waitress remembers the kitchens’ ingredients.

‘Yogurt con frutas?’ ‘Hamburguesa?’ ‘Sandwich de queso?’ ‘Croissant con mantequilla?’ ‘Panqueques?’ ‘Huevos con frijoles?’ ‘Choripan?’ ‘Sandwich de tocino y mostaza?’

Wah wah waaah. Eight times no hay! Eggs ‘Serranoham’ for me too then I guess.

She returns with two plates of fried eggs, toast and our ‘Serranoham’: a tiny salami sausage. ‘Both are from a pig right?’ You gotta love that mindset by now. 

The check is part of a game as well: good old memory. Only after we send it back three times, she grins and gives us the right one. Adding we have a good memory (in Spanish). (Tip: try to remember the exact prices of each item to prevent scams while traveling).

Street vendors on Cuba
Street vendors are constantly shouting out loud what they are selling (si hay yuca)

Later that week in Baracoa we end up in a similar situation. No hay pan (bread). Until Tom, jokingly, urges the woman to check again ‘because he is really extremely hungry’ (dramatic sigh). That does the trick, check mate. Suddenly four perfect sandwiches appear from under the counter. If we would like them toasted or plain?