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Eventually the restless Italian on the bus from Cienfuegos to Havana slumped into the seat across from mine. There he sprawled out and fell asleep, unaware that one pink testicle had wriggled free of his tiny swimming shorts. As I tried to avoid eye contact with the errant gonad I realised that this guy, with his swagger and dangle, understood Cuba far better than I did. I was the one struggling to make sense of the place. He got it, and he was loving it.
I had a bunch of questions about how Cuba worked which for years had been nagging at me. None of those questions, however, had much to do with getting laid. They were stale, older questions about revolutions and socialism and bearded men in berets. By day the Cuban girls batted their eyes, smiled and waved at me or blew kisses to me. By night they hissed from the shadows or yowled out from street corners. Museum attendants flirted with me. Street vendors teased me.
If I sat on a bench, a girl quickly appeared at the other end of it. Shabbily dressed, eating peso pizzas, and altogether too wrapt up in my camera: compared to a middle class, middle aged Italian man with his scrotum hanging out, I was nobody. But even nobodies can get laid in Cuba. The collapse of the Soviet Union in spelt serious problems for Cuba. People still talk about the time as a kind of mystical disappearance; one day Cuba had an economy, the next day it had vanished.
While the people were improvising and finding some pretty radical ways to get by Cuba was becoming sustainable decades before doing so came into vogue , the government was substituting one sugar daddy for another by opening the country wide for tourism. For a time there was a kind of tourist apartheid going on. The tourists flew in, stayed in all-inclusive compounds on beaches that were off-limits to locals.
They used foreign currency and never really saw just how tough life on a Special Period ration card could be. The CUC or convertible peso became the currency of the tourist. With CUC you could buy pretty much anything.