Friday, August 10, 2012

Technology from the 1950s, or How I Learned to Play Angry Birds in Cuba

Both fans and foes of Cuba will tell you that going there is like time travel.  Communist policies and U.S. restrictions really have cut off much progress since the Revolution in the late 1950s, so they're not kidding when they say you'll feel whiplashed as if you've traveled through time.  Since I usually juggle two Blackberries, a Nook, a laptop and any number of daily newspapers, the travel back into 1960s disconnectedness was very welcome; coming home, however, was true culture shock from which I'm still trying to recover (that's my explanation for why I haven't called you back, if you're one of the people who left a voicemail for me while I was gone)!

The technological divide between the U.S. and our neighbors 90 minutes away provided for some great photographs and memories.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Salvador Gonzáles Escalona had this funny landmark in his office on Callejon de Hamel.  I'm not sure if the phone even worked.

Another item in Salvador's office.

Doorbells like these were connected to doorways all across Havana, each in a very different style with the owners' handwriting on the plastic.

I'm no electrical expert but I'm pretty sure a fuse box doesn't typically look like a barbed wire fence.

I already talked about the printing press but it's worth mentioning again because the labor-intensive technology was really amazing. 

This guy was responsible for working the huge paper cutter...without severing fingers.

Paper delivery, the old-fashioned way.

This style of print communication just made me want to sit down and write a handwritten letter on thick, just-made paper.

Farming technology wasn't mechanical, either.  This chicken was making sure the cart was in working order at the farm in Pinar del Rio.

The island isn't totally devoid of modern technology, but only those with connections to American supplies seemed to have it.  LG appliances made regular appearances across the island, from the TV in our hotel rooms:

to numerous window air conditionings across Havana:

It would be only a slight exaggeration to say there's no internet connection in Cuba.  Hospitals have it, some businesses have it and, if you're willing to pay astronomical amounts per minute, hotels have it.  But "it" is dial-up internet.  Despite promises of broadband capability from Venezuela, no progress toward faster, more frequent internet access has arrived.  Cuban optimists say it will take time to build technology needed for the broadband to help even the largest city; pessimists (and, in quiet moments even optimists) wonder about corruption or false promises of a more modern society.

The government says 85% of people in Cuba have cell phones but I only saw a few use them, all of them associated with tourism in some way.  Everyone else relied on pay phones (remember those, America?), which were regularly used in cities big and small.  They hung on hallway walls, half-emerged from apartment doorways and, if you were lucky, sat inside blue bubbles on side streets.

There were no blue bubble phones for tourists; our hotel offered private phone booths that significantly resembled clear-walled visiting rooms in prison.  You wrote the number on a paper, the nice woman at the counter interrupted her own phone conversation (seriously, she was always on the phone) to dial and connect you, you entered plastic-wrapped solitary confinement and had the kind of meaningful conversations you can have only when you’re paying $2.70 per minute to chat about the weather.

Thank you for the picture, Doreen!  I was too busy trying to escape those see-through walls that I forgot to memorialize the moment.

I found my favorite technological discovery on our long road trip from Havana to Cayo Santa Maria: an AT&T Samsung Galaxy smart phone that Erik used on a regular basis.  (The connection to tourism really does do wonders for Cuban access to things.)  It was a gift from America and it worked great, as evidenced by the fact that the two tour buses communicated regularly via cell phone – it was my favorite part of each day to hear a cell phone ring and know without a doubt that it was not mine.  No internet connection but it had all the important stuff (the Apple stickers were a big hit in Cuba - I saw them stuck to random non-modern things).

Cuban men seem to be the same as American men when it comes to phones and video games: they all turn into excited children.  So when I joked about playing Angry Birds in Cuba, my flippant wish became reality.  And that, my friends, is how after years of avoiding inexplicably addicting phone games I learned to play Angry Birds in the Cuban countryside.  I even set a new high score for the first level.

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