Gilberto Valladares Reina in his hairdressing salon and museum in Old Havana
Gilberto Valladares Reina in his hairdressing salon and museum in Old Havana

By Eileen Ogintz

HAVANA, Cuba (Day 2) — Gilberto Valladares Reina has always been a barber—and a dreamer. That’s not always been easy in Cuba, where the government controlled so many aspects of your life.

Since he was 16, “Papito,” as everyone calls him, has been a barber and a hairdresser. But he wanted more than to work in a government-run shop. He wanted his own business. In 1999, he was able to get one of the first licenses to open a business in his home — up 52 steep steps on a narrow street in Old Havana. Aguiar is known as the “alley of barbers” because once there were many barbers here a few blocks from the wonderful Museo National de Bellas Artes and the Museo de la Revolucion.

Papito started with one old refurbished barber chair and a mirror; today he has a profitable business and his salon has become a museum of sorts to the barber trade, the walls covered with original art and lots of old artifacts.

“I had an Afro then and now I’m bald,” he joked, through an interpreter. “I gave my hair to my dream.”

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But Papito has built more than a successful business. He started ArteCorte to encourage other business on his street—four privately run restaurants, including El Figaro where we enjoyed a delicious lobster lunch for less than $15, a shop making clothes and a free school to teach young people—including those who are deaf—to become hairdressers and barbers. Anyone can get a haircut there free, said Camilo Condis, of AteCorte. We had walked by the free playground themed around hairdressing (think a scissor themed see saw or a giant blow drier climbing play structure.) There is also a school for young bartenders and after school programs for elementary and middle schoolers in everything from art to archeology. Seniors can get three meals daily for 10 cents – 150 are fed a day. “This is exactly what I hoped to do,” he said.

We met Papito and heard his story under the auspices of the People-to-People program that was organized by Carnival’s new brand Fathom, the first to win approval to sail into Cuba from the United States. The U.S. government mandates that all American visitors to Cuba participate in these people-to-people programs. You can arrange them yourself or rely on an organization or tour company, like Cuba Educational Services or Road Scholar. But navigating Cuba for Americans still isn’t easy. That’s where Fathom comes in, organizing the required tourist cards and people to people experiences.

Today’s was a winner. Yesterday we toured Old Havana and honestly, I didn’t see any difference between that tour and lunch and city tours I’ve taken around the world.

Fathom hopes to attract more travelers like Sandeep Rao, a physician in his 30s from Texas and his wife Swathi. They had never cruised. “I like to explore on my own, “ Sandeep said. “I’m not the kind of person who would go on a cruise but coming to Cuba, this is a lot easier. Coming here isn’t like coming to Jamaica. You need someone to facilitate for you.”

So far, the recently married couple gives the ship experience a thumbs up—“a good way to get introduced to the country,” they agreed, though two days in Havana was not nearly enough.

Aguilar Street in Old Havana, aka "Barber Alley"
Aguilar Street in Old Havana, aka “Barber Alley”

Joan (Johnny) Blanco, the manager of the 70-seat Figaro where we had lunch, is excited to see us arriving by cruise ship. He expects a lot more tourists once the segment of the Food Channel series “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” that will feature his restaurant airs in a few months. People here are really impressed by the 700-passenger ship, he says, taking pictures. Visitors may not realize it, he adds, but all the food in Cuba is organic, grown naturally.

As for Papito, he too is glad to welcome new tourists. “Tourism is an industry that will help small businesses, he explains.

But the tourists he most hopes to see are children. “Children are our future,” he said. “I would like to see enterprise between the United States and Cuba and children have the possibility of changing things. We have very different cultures. In the future, maybe today’s children can tighten the ties.”