My foray into the world of Cuban health and beauty

5 Feb

Most all commerce and services in Cuba have a government run component, although there is an increasing number of legal private businesses and enterprises complementing (and competing with) them, thanks to reforms made by Raul in 2010. Banks: Government-run. Gas stations: Government-run. Grocery stores: Government-run. Laundry facilities: Government-run. Restaurants: Government-run.

The quality of the government-run institutions varies, but what it lacks in quality it makes up for in how inexpensive the goods and services are. (Side note: Can you imagine a government-run restaurant in the United States? What would it be, a room where you walk in and get an MRE?)

One example of a government-run institution that I recently fell in love with is a place called the Instituto de Salud y Belleza. It’s in a run-down, but still majestic, two-story mansion in the Vedado neighborhood, just a few blocks up from the malecon (the sea wall that encircles part of Havana city). In the Instituto, all of the prices are in moneda nacional, which roughly translates to “extremely cheap.” There, I got my hair cut for 11 national pesos, which is about $0.50. I got a mani/pedi for 27 national pesos, which is a little more than a dollar. I went to an invigorating (and highly entertaining) hour-long dance aerobics class in the small gym/weight room in the back for 3.50 national pesos, which is something like $0.05 or $0.10.

The class was in a room that made high school weight rooms look state of the art, with 15 or so ladies in spandex crammed in a 20’x20’ space, surrounded by water bottles filled with sand (which I think function as 5 lb weights). A few men were bench pressing rusty bars in between ogling the class, and at one point, the instructor played a salsa song and one or two of the guys jumped into the fray, grabbing a lady and twirling her around while sweat flew onto the probably already MRSA-ridden equipment.

Though the Instituto has most every service imaginable, from hair-dyeing to massages, they don’t wax anything besides the face. When I asked for waxing services there, I was directed to a lady who worked in the facials room named Enersi, who gave me her card and said she did what I wanted in her house. After about a week of back and forth texting to find a day that worked for all of us, my friend Berit and I ventured to her home to get what I suppose should be called a Cuban wax. We walked the streets of Vedado at eight o’clock in the evening, looking for her building. Across from Enersi’s apartment, against the dark night sky (Havana doesn’t have too many street lamps), we saw a meat-processing factory, a creepy brick building with a smoke stack and hazy orange lighting.

“Oh great,” I thought to myself, “This is going to be like Sweeny Todd. Enersi is the demon esthetician of 13th Street and we are going to be turned into ropa vieja and sold for 15 pesos.”

My fears of being a protagonist in a horror film continued when Enersi showed me into the room where she worked. There was a long chair/table that looked like someone had taken an ironing board and added armrests too it. A fluorescent bulb threw a sickly light on the room while Enersi spread an old hotel towel that had little brown dots caked on it on the glorified ironing board.

“Don’t worry, it’s clean,” she assured me, “It’s just the wax that dried and wouldn’t come off.”

As she heated up the bricks of caramel-colored wax, I asked her why she didn’t do waxing in the Instituto.

“It’s because there’s no wax,” she said, “The government can’t get wax to give us.”

“So where do you get it from?”

“I have a client who goes to Mexico and gets it for me,” she said, as she started working. I was relieved that she had professional grade wax, because I wouldn’t have been surprised if, in Cuba, they just poured on some candle wax and ripped it off with an old copy of the national newspaper, Granma.

“How did you learn how to do this?”

“I went to the national school and took a two year course, and we learned international beauty techniques,” she told me. I wondered if the government had any wax at the school, or if her training was all theoretical, like it is for medical students here who don’t have the necessary tools and medications to learn with.

“Do most of the people who work at the Instituto also work out of their homes?”

“Of course,” Enersi replied, “The money is better.” I wondered then, why she didn’t work exclusively out of her home or at a private salon in Havana. I’m sure the Instituto pays her the usual Cuban salary of about $20 a month, and it’s not like she needs a government job to get health and dental. I can’t imagine that the tips are that great, unless she gets a lot of foreigners coming in from the five-star hotel just three blocks away. Regardless of her reasons for working in the Instituto, her home business is a way for her to make ends meet so she doesn’t have to rely solely on her government salary and ration booklet for herself and her two children.

As I left, she scribbled her e-mail address on the back of her card, asking me to look for wax for her next time I left and came back, and to let her know how much it cost. Hopefully I’ll be able to add international wax mule to my list of accomplishments…


One Response to “My foray into the world of Cuban health and beauty”

  1. Jacob Lynn April 2, 2013 at 12:55 pm #

    Ha this is pretty great, really felt the gov institution one answer fits all solutions. How did it play out?

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