05/11/2011 02:39 pm ET Updated Jul 11, 2011

Close Shaves in Cuba

As Cuba takes its first tentative steps to open up its economy, I am reminded of some close shaves I have had in Cuba over the past few years.

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.

The first thing you learn is something about the level of hospitality. If locals insist that you jump the line, the country is very hospitable. (By the way, it is impolite to not refuse the first offer and insensitive to refuse the second.)

If it is a barbershop, you can also get a good indication of the level of development. If they still shave with a straight razor, the country is very undeveloped.

So my first day in Cuba before I even sat in the chair, I had learned that Cuba was very hospitable and very undeveloped.

The real learning started when I asked the barber what I owed.

"Whatever you want."

I hate when people do that. You give me the service; you set the price.

"How much do Cubans pay?"

"They don't pay; they have tickets."

For the first time in my life, I was in a country where private enterprise hardly existed. Speechless, I groped in my pocket and gave him $3 CUC, the equivalent of about $3 U.S. I learned later that a Cuban can eat for the better part of a week on $3 CUC.

When I read that in April 2010 the Cuban government was legalizing barbershops and beauty parlors with three or fewer seats, I was anxious to try one.

This March, on our first full day in Havana, we set forth to find a private barbershop. We found Hector.

His shop was under a stairwell, sharing the space with a private pizzeria and shoe-repair shop. Instead of a barber chair, he had a bar stool.


Photo: Yolanda Amaya

In my previous visits to Cuban barbershops, I had missed the frank conversations of the affairs of the day that you usually here in such establishments. Not a problem with Hector. He warned Yolanda that he was going to make me so attractive that a Cuban women would steal me. He warned me that Yolanda was so beautiful already that a Cuban man would steal her.

He asked us how long than we had been together.

"More than 30 years."

"Than you have nothing to worry about. The force of habit is much stronger than love."

I asked him how it was different working for himself then working for the state. He said he had never worked for the state. I asked him how he'd managed that. He answered with one word,



Photo: Yolanda Amaya

It was the worst and most uncomfortable barber shave I have ever had -- and worth it!

Click here to read more about the "new" vs. the "old favorite" paradox, how Yolanda and I got to Cuba the first time by way of Prince Edward Island, Canada, and what we found when we got there.