With the recent changes in U.S.–Cuban diplomatic relations, Cuba will likely see an influx of American tourists in the coming years. A new Cuba is on the horizon, one that is different from the country writer and longtime NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu visited back in 1998.
Codrescu connected with people on the fringes, artists, hustlers, prostitutes, as well as the common worker, to reveal a society deeply in conflict with itself, all of which he writes about in Ay, Cuba! (available on Amazon, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble) in a style that is both irreverent and empathetic, painting an intimate portrait of a rarely seen Cuba.
But there’s none of that here. What follows is a cheeky mix of travel tips and street smarts, curated by Codrescu himself, resulting in a Cuba newbie’s checklist worthy of a first-class spot in every tourist’s fanny pack.
1. Memorize the names for money: dollars (American), divisa (hard currency), pesos (toilet paper), and the 10 new words for moolah they learned since I left (including moneda, baro, chavito, pasta, and melon).
2. Don’t refer to Fidel Castro by name; just make a long beard sign with two fingers.
3. On that same note, the best commodity in Cuba are jokes about Fidel. They are free and very funny.
4. If the electricity goes out in the middle of your dinner, leave the fish and eat the rice and beans. All Cuban fish have bones. The restaurant owner will eventually bring out candles.
5. If you see people making music in a park or street corner, join them if you have a harmonica or can play a leaf. It’s spontaneous fun.
6. If someone offers to take you to a santeria ceremony, go with a friend but don’t buy the sacrifice goat. Stay with the chicken. The goat’s too expensive.
7. Have no more than two mojitos at the Nacional. If you stay longer, the band will put the Che Guevara song in your head and you’ll never sleep again. It’s infectious.
8. If you’re at the beach, watch out for former boxers who did time in jail in Miami and are now pimping surfers. The surfers may be theirs or innocent, but your money belt can snake away.
9. Everyone you meet is a historian, an architect, a writer, and a philosopher, despite whatever else they do for a living.
10. Hotel lobbies are full of handsome spies who watch you through holes in a newspaper. Check the date in the newspaper: It’s two years old. But the cameras in the ceiling are new.
11. If you get picked up by two hustlers you won’t be getting twice the fun for one price: One of them will put you in a headlock squeeze between her/his thighs, while the other empties your pocket, starting with your money belt (the one you bought on the street in New York, handmade in Mexico for suckers).
12. Go to the ballet instead if the Copacabana.
13. Everybody has a brother/sister or parents in Miami or Atlanta, and you have to visit them, because “They are incredible!”
14. Don’t mention God, or they’ll hit you up for whatever church you mention.
15. Fill your pockets with travel-size aspirin and Hershey bars to give kids. Pack 50 baseball caps from any Major League team, especially the Yankees, and wear one out every day to hand it to the nicest person you meet. When you’re out of caps, leave Cuba.