The story of Calimero, or how a travelling girl managed to get by in macho land

When I got on the plane direction Cuba in August 2015, I knew this trip was going to be a tough one. I had been warned that men would constantly flirt with me in the next few weeks – something I am really uncomfortable with.

I was ready for it; not that I would ever accept this behaviour, but at least I was ready to keep cool about it, recognise it was local culture, and let it happen without fighting too much.

I am one to think genders are equal, and I hate receiving a different treatment because of being a girl. But I’ve always thought that, as long as men will treat me differently, it should be right for me to exploit any little advantages being a female gives me. As a mere compensation for the inconvenience.

What I did not expect, is how much Cuba would give me the opportunity to take advantage of men’s macho attitude, and how easy it would be.

Upon arrival in Havana, my major preoccupation was to find my own wheels. I really wanted freedom to visit the island as please. The problem was that it was high touristic season, and there were hundreds of foreign visitors hoping the same.

Having your own wheels is indispensable in Cuba to get out of the beaten track and explore.

Most had pre-booked their rental cars months in advance. And even with that precious voucher, they had no guarantee to actually be provided, as there was a real shortage of cars.

But I’m pretty stubborn, and an experienced traveller. My intuition was telling me I should be able to find a vehicle. I ran from hotel to hotel, agency to agency, and asked around, making advantage of my very good command of the Spanish language.

Most agencies couldn’t help, but I soon realised that showing disappointment and begging for help did turn on empathy from the car rental employees – which were all male. They simply couldn’t let a girl be sad.

After half a day of frantic research, I finally met someone who was pretty sure a car was available at a rental agency in the Museo de la Revolución. Quite bemused at the idea to rent a car in the Museum of Revolution, I left my non-Spanish speaking friend queue at another agency (just in case) and ran there.

And indeed there was a small Peyo (that’s how they called that Peugeot) waiting for a tourist to pick it up. I initiated discussions.

It took some time to negotiate the rental agreements. Local culture wanted me to sit down, have a friendly chat, wait for some admin, very slowly introduce my terms, negotiate them in the middle of random friendly chat; and being flirted out by macho men.

The man in charge of the negotiations was called Carmelo. Tall, tanned, in his twenties, probably unaware I was certainly 5-10 years older than him.

I hated his flirtatious attitude, but I needed the car. And a better price. I had to play the game.

Oh no I was not flirting back, I’m not such a good comedian. But I did let things happen without fighting them, without closing doors, being mischievousness as I can be, and letting him interpret this as flirtatious if he wanted.

I was very proud when the deal was closed; I had the car, the price was acceptable to me (still very expensive, but lower than what other travellers had told me they paid), and Carmelo agreed to let me “test drive” the car – an excuse to go pick up my poor friend who was still standing in a never-ending queue elsewhere in town.

I knew there was a potential catch; my guide book mentioned something about rental cars having to go for a technical check every 10.000 km; a check that costs 50 dollars and is very time-consuming. And our car’s meter indicated over 67.000 KM.

But I was feeling brave because of my successes over the Cuban male sex so far, and decided to try that one too. Playing “girl” again, I told Carmelo I was concerned about getting a fine; what if I would exceed 70.000 km?

But Carmelo was a macho: he didn’t expect a girl would drive so many kilometers. And he was keen to reassure me, poor worried thing of the weak sex that I am. So he claimed there wouldn’t be a problem, and his colleagues confirmed.

They were misjudging. I am a traveller, and I was planning a proper roadtrip in Cuba. I was sure I’d exceed the 70.000 km threshold. But I let them insist I shouldn’t worry about the technical check, and they did repeat it, very clearly.

It was my first day in Cuba, and I was already using my charm to manipulate Cuban men. Something I would never do elsewhere in the world; but there in Cuba, this was a mere compensation for the annoyance their macho attitude to me was causing.

When we came back to Havana, after a +3000 kilometer roadtrip in Cuba, Carmelo was very pleased to see me again. But he was also surprised to see how much we’d actually been driving.

The meter had gone above 70.000 km, the technical check should have been performed. I was eligible for a fine.

Rental agreement: salida 67.173 kilometers.
Returning the car: 70.174 kilometers. We’ve been driving exactly 3.001 kilometers in about 10-12 days.

So I “played girl” again. Was little and cute. Reminded them of their promises.

I heard Carmelo’s older boss tell him: “You see, Carmelo: you fall in love, and you make mistakes”.

When we left the agency, Carmelo followed us. He still had not understood the rules of the games, and was still hoping to score. He wanted to invite me for a drink.

But I was done “playing girl”. I politely but firmly declined. Carmelo was not Carmelo anymore, but truly Calimero.

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Why Cubans are so ready for Americanisación 2.0

Life was so miserable in americanised Cuba that the starting point of the Cuban revolution was not just ideological: it was mostly nationalist, and aimed at getting rid of the North American occupation and all its negative consequences.

What did Cubans dislike about the North American occupation? Oh, all of it. The exploitation of the whole country to enrich just a few fat asses. The corruption that went along with it. The lack of possibilities of development for the Cuban people. The fact that rich U.S. citizens were using Cuba as a playground for short but wild debauchery breaks.

Americanisation was worth fighting against.  It was worth all these years of deprivation preceding and following the revolution. Worth these violent fights and casualties. Worth these long decades of poverty imposed by Uncle Sam by means of an utterly unfair blockade.

But whilst the world is now wondering what will happen with Castro dead and Trump in charge, there are very obvious signs that the poor Cuban people are more than ready to be colonised again.

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I’ve seen many people wear US flag coloured clothes across all Cuba during my visit in August 2015.

Don’t imagine that it hasn’t started already anyway. Western goods circulate a lot in Cuba: clothes of course, as Fidel’s well-known Adidas outfits, but much more than that, smuggled more or less openly from family established overseas or other non government sponsored channels. For example I found remarkable that many teenagers had smartphones from a much more recent model than mine.

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I was wondering how a tent from the French make Quechua ended up on a beach in remote Eastern Cuba…

The inhabitants of the cities are all gathering on public squares where public WiFi has been installed; and whilst access is granted against a fee and by using a unique code, so the government knows what you are doing on the Internet, this is very unlikely to prevent the flow of ideas from the rest of the world to permeate into the Cuban society.

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At all times of the day, Cubans gather on the public squares to connect to the WiFi using electronic devices that can’t be purchased in Cuba.

What surprised me most, when I visited Cuba in August 2015 and had good discussions with the local population at several occasions, was that people felt really ready for a greater openness of their country.

There is this widespread belief in Cuban society that the blockade should be blamed for the immense majority of the difficulties Cuba is facing today – this is what propaganda says and I think Cubans are probably right to believe it is true. And what’s most: friendly talks with Obama meant that the end of the blockade, and of the problems, was probably nearby.

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This poster found on the side of the road in Cuba depicts the blockade as the worse genocide of history. Notice the hangman’s knot shape for the letter O!

I visited Cuba in August 2015, before the country was opened to visits from U.S.A. citizens again; and the main form of worries I heard locally were related to the crowds management rather than ideological: how were we going to be able to host masses of additional tourists when the country was already hardly able to put up with the large current number of visitors?

But I also heard some locals who feared that the country would be pulled back to its pre-revolution situation of dependence and almost slavery to its Northern neighbour.

Alas, we live in a post-democratic society where owning an iPhone that can connect to the Internet is much more important than the right to vote for an idiot unlikely to do a good job anyway, so I doubt Cubans will massively fight against Americanisation 2.0 in the coming years.

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I came across this graffiti on a Cuban street. Cuba doesn’t need help?

How well off Cuba will be in this new era of economic colonisation will depend on how the U.S.A. will treat them; and with such leadership as Trump, there is a lot to fear. But history has shown it: every time the U.S.A. treat a country like shit, it ends up bouncing back against them. Can’t wait to see Revolución 2.0 in the years 2040….

 

Visa applications as a preview of what a country is like

I have a friend who says: “You have not really travelled to a country until you’ve visited its administration”. As annoying as they are (I would rather travel everywhere visa-free), visa applications are a good way to get a little overview of what a country is like.

A few examples:

Many countries with Soviet heritage still suffer from bureaucracy inefficiencies and require an incredible amount of papers. This is why I often use the help of agencies for those countries.

Once at the Russian embassy, where they require me to give proof of travel insurance, they suddenly decided to reject any proof that would not be an original with the original stamp on it; my visa support agency luckily could quickly issue a second travel insurance for me to get my visa.

I went through equally bureaucratic procedures in the likes of Belarus, Uzbekistan, etc but the winner was Azerbaijan which, at the times, was requiring so many documents that I did not even bother to try and just lost my plane ticket.

Recently, the Russian embassy has decided that, as a French citizen, I would have to give three months of bank statements. So here I am, printing three months of statements – that’s many pages. Got to the visa application centre, handed in my pile of print outs to hear the officer sigh and tell me there were too many!

In Cuba’s visa application centre, it was complete chaos, we were waiting without knowing who was next, people were being called without any logical order.

In the embassy of Burkina Faso, I was asked to come Tuesday to collect the passport. But Tuesday, they said the man who stamps the visa was not there and I should come back Thursday.

In the tiny embassy of Surinam in Brussels, an officer asked me if they could take advantage of me flying there to bring a package to their family.

But my favourite remains the U.S. embassy in Brussels: you had to call to make an appointment and this was not free of charge. So even before you could talk to anyone on the phone, you had to give your credit card details!

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I love the US Embassy in London where I went for my visa earlier this year. A massive, very symbolic building!

Humour where you may not expect it

Three examples of jokes heard during recent travels:

In dictator Ceaușescu’s Romania

After a visit to North Korea, Nicolae Ceaușescu’s delusions of grandeur went out of proportions and he decided to erase a whole part of Bucharest to build the world’s largest avenue to lead to the world’s largest building.

A joke says that Ceaușescu was in his office, a large map of the city on a table, using a metal stick to show the architects which neighbourhoods were to be destroyed.

Then a fly entered through the window… Ceaușescu chased it with his metal stick… to the left… to the right… and that’s how Bucharest ended up completely demolished!

In Cuba

Summer holiday, I am sitting on the beach with a few beers and chatting with locals. They ask me to explain why I live in England whereas I’m French. I tell them: “In the European Union, we are free to live where we want”.

Someone laughs and answers: “In Cuba, too! We live where we want: in the street, under a bridge…”

In North Korea

Two soldiers are having a break, smoking a cigarette. One notices that what the other is smoking is an American brand! He asks: “Aren’t you ashamed that you smoke a cigarette from the enemy?”

“It’s American; I’m not smoking it, I’m burning it!”

Propaganda at its best (5): leaving the destroyed untouched

Leaving the destroyed intact as a proof of how much we suffered from the cruelty of an enemy: a classic propaganda trick. Four examples from around the world:

In Belarus, some damage is still visible on the Brest Fortress, where the Nazis launched the Barbarossa operation in June 1941 and violated the non-mutual aggression treaty with the Soviet Union:

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In Volgograd (ex-Stalingrad), the ruins of the Grudinina Mill, the only building left in Stalingrad after the bombings, were left untouched “as a monument to courage and heroism of the Soviet Union“.

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In Cuba, the Museo de la Revolución used to be Batista’s presidential palace that a group of young revolutionaries assaulted in 1957. The marks of the bullets in the stairs have been kept since then.DSCN6739

And finally in Ireland, who is celebrating this spring the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising against British occupation, you can still witness the scars of the fight on the Royal College of Surgeons.

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The Monday travel song: Siempre en mi corazón by Omara Portuondo

I propose to start every new week with a song that takes us somewhere in the world.

Today I’m taking you to Cuba where I did a road trip last year in August. I was travelling with a non-Spanish speaking friend, who is not the greatest fan of latino culture so feared a bit to get bored easily during our trip.

One of the things she claimed to dislike is that “every single song has the word “corazón” in it”. “You’re exaggerating!” I told her.

Weeks later, after driving more than three thousands kilometers on Cuban soil listening to local radio, I must admit my friend was right!

So let’s listen to one of these millions of songs with the word “corazón” in it – and I’ve selected a beautiful one from Omara Portuondo, a member of the Buena Vista Social Club project that I am seeing live this week in London.

Have a great week!

This post is part of a weekly event called The Monday Travel song. You can participate, too, by doing the following:

  • Create your own post every Monday and title it The Monday travel song: xxx by xxx
  • Include a link to a song (YouTube link or other)
  • It must be a song which is linked to a geography. For example, a Russian song, a Chinese song, a Scottish song… (it can be from your own country every now and then, but remember the purpose is to get others to virtually travel!)
  • Your post doesn’t have to be long, but do tell us a little bit about the song… for example by telling about the lyrics, about the composer, about the style…
  • Include a link to my own Monday travel song in your post tag it “Monday-travel-song” so others can find it too