Insights on Travel from Costa Rica Expeditions’ Founder Michael Kaye and his Expert Friends.

What is the first place to visit to find out about a new country? Back to Cuba Again. Part #3

In last weeks post I promised to tell you how an ex downhill racer from Canada ended up marrying an ex international road bike racer from Cuba and how I got from talking to Mirley Macqueen and her mother in the Bike Shop parking lot in PEI to lying in a barber chair with a straight razor on my Adam’s apple in Santiago, Cuba.

To do so I have to introduce another character, Danny’s father, Gordon Macqueen. And I use the word character, advisedly. Gordon is an intrepid entrepreneur.  I have been accused of the same disease, but compared to Gordon I’m timid.

Over our five-week stay in PEI the story slowly come out about how in the early 90’s Gordon heard the Chinese had donated a million Flying Pigeon Bicycles to Cuba. He set off to Cuba, his children in tow to set up a bicycle parts importing business.

As a result of that and subsequent trips Gordon found that Cubans make parts; they do not import them; Danny found Mirley; his sister, Kristen found her Cuban, husband, Abel; and the MacQueen family founded WOWCuba, the premier upscale tour operator in Cuba.

WOWCuba’s signature trip is “La Vuelta de Cuba,” a bus supported bicycle trip that goes from Santiago in the Southeast not to far from Guantanamo to Havana some 470 miles to the Northwest, which explains what I was doing in that barber chair in Santiago with a straight razor on my Adam’s Apple.


Gordon being intrepid.

The first place you should visit to find out about a new country is a local barbershop or beauty salon.  The operative word is local.  In shops that cater to tourists you may learn about the other tourists but you will probably not learn much about the place you are visiting.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The first thing you learn when you go to a local barber or beauty shop is where the country stands on Michael’s Comprehensive Hospitality Index (CHI), which has only one parameter.

1.   Do they invite you to jump the line and get served ahead of the locals.  (It is impolite and insensitive to refuse.)

So far Cuba scores a perfect three out of three on the CHI. They shave good too.

What astounded me at the barbershop was the barber’s reply when I asked him how much I owed. He said, “Whatever you want.”

“How much do Cubans pay?”  I asked.

“They don’t pay,” he answered. “They have tickets.”

I can date my fascination with Cuba to that moment. I had read all my good friend’s Chris Baker’s books about Cuba, but now for the first time in my life I was in a place where private enterprise hardly existed.

I remarked on it to Yolanda.  She said, “Cuban’s are ambitious.  I won’t last.”

I replied that it had lasted for some forty years. (Fidel Castro nationalized small businesses in 1968.

She looked doubtful.

Afterwards we sat on a bench in El Parque Cespedes in the center of Santiago and watched the world go by.

A couple of art students and furtively offered us drawings for sale.  We bought three.  It seemed like capitalism was not completely dead in Cuba.

“¡See!”  Yolanda said triumphantly.

In April 2010 Cuba privatized barbershops and beauty parlors with three or fewer seats.

Here are the three drawings. I can’t remember the artists’ names and would not want to use them any way.

In my next weeks post on Cuba I’ll tell you about what was so neat about getting bumped out the Casa Granda Hotel in Santiago.

Trivia Question Contest:

Years ago when barbers in the states still shaved I asked a barber how they practiced.  He told me they practiced on peaches.  If they could shave off the fuzz without cutting the skin, they are ready for people.  In Cuba and other tropical countries peaches are too rare to be used for shaving practice.

What did the Cuban barber tell me he used for practice?

I’ll send a bag of gourmet Costa Rican Coffee to the first three persons who write a comment with the correct answer.

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