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A helpful tourist

A street in Matanzas

A street in Matanzas

 

Every time I return from a trip, however brief, I must take some time to decompress and process the experience. I am a person who ‘feels’ each place I go to very acutely, and I marinate in it and become a part of it, interacting with it on an almost cellular level. I never feel like I am a physical body who goes from place to place, but as a common event – my self and my environment arising together to as singular entity. Sound rather metaphysical, but it’s true. I think many people recognize this phenomenon, and it’s a large part of the appeal of traveling. Think of the last time you walked into an ancient cathedral and looked up at the domed ceiling feeling the weight of it’s age whispering from the stones. Or picture yourself having breakfast at a sunny local cafe, feeling like one of the lucky souls who can watch people go about their business as you play hooky on a weekday. As you look around and sip your coffee contentedly this is exactly the feeling that I get wherever I go.

This last minute trip was no different. Although going as a tourist and sitting on the beach at Varadero has its undeniable appeal, Cuba has a deeper significance to my family. During the days of the Soviet Union we spent three years living there, and for me it was a very vivid experience. We still have several friends on the island that we visit regularly and have made new ones on our travels that we see as well.

When the Soviet support dried up with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba hit very hard times. Not a wealthy island to begin with, in the nineties new and horrific shortages made their presence known in every home in the nation. From food to clothes to toiletries to bikes, cars, electronics and diapers, many consumer goods became so scarce and expensive that they remain completely out of reach for most people. To combat the shortages brought in by the Special Period, as it became known, Cuba slowly opened it’s doors to tourism. People whose government salary does not even come close to the cost of living, educated people, doctors, teachers and scientists rushed to work as bellmen, maids and gardeners so as to come into contact with the wealthy foreigners. For the first few years tipping was very hidden and officially discouraged, but now it enables the staff in the hotels to have access to the basic necessities of life and to help their friends, neighbors and family.

Squeezed between two vices of their own government and the atrocity of the US Embargo, the people are left with few choices – try to fill the few positions offering services to tourists, try to flee, rely on the help of any relatives who escaped or slowly become despondent as any hope of a better life becomes more distant. The general poverty of the people is contrasted with their high levels of education, ingenuity in repairing things well past their intended life and the overall goodwill they have towards people in general. It’s a heartbreaking contrast made all the more poignant by their proximity to one of the wealthiest most powerful nations on the planet, where the daily count of items thrown out as trash would feed and clothe the whole country.

Since most tourism to Cuba comes from Canada and Europe, this is an important topic to anyone who goes to Cuba, because it is very easy to add a helping component to your unforgettable vacation. First is the endless civic duty of writing to your MP (again, yes, I know how well that works), and informing them of your opinion of the US Embargo. Yes, we know the US considers our opinion of hardly more import than a horse of a fly, but the more clamoring voices are out there, the better. But more importantly and directly you can help with material goods that we take for granted to make a difference in the lives of those whose fortunes are not theirs to direct. ***

So how can you be helping tourist? There are a few great ways: pack lightly and use your 20-30 kg allowance to bring in consumer goods. Just about everyone that’s been to Cuba knows to do this anyhow, from speaking with friends who do exactly that. What exactly to bring? The lists are endless and varied – over the counter meds for colds and fevers, antibiotic ointments, band-aids, bug spray, reading glasses, candy and chocolate,  multivitamins, shoes, shoes, shoes – smaller sizes please, clothes, coloring books and crayons, laundry detergent, toys, especially baseball gloves and balls, soaps, razors, feminine hygiene stuff, cosmetics and nail polish, fishnet stockings, baby stuff like bottles and clothes, fishing gear, wind-up torches, Spanish-English dictionaries with phonetic pronunciation, ipod shuffles, any usable electronics – used (but not ancient!) laptops, notebooks, memory sticks, small tools like screwdrivers and screws, nails, bike repair tools, tubes, musical instrument stuff like guitar strings, valve oil for horns, trumpet mouthpieces, etc.  

The trick is to try and distribute your goodies off the resort as much as possible. The people that work at resorts receive tips in the much valued convertible currency and as such have access not only to the magic money but also to the goods that this purchases. Hotel staff certainly appreciate gifts but they really are gifted in the society as is. Many people who don’t want to seem paternalistic or encourage overt begging on the streets simply make arrangements with local schools or churches directly who provide a means to distribute the goods. Some hotel tours go into local areas and the tour guide can be a great resource and intermediary also. If you have meaningful interaction with someone off the resort feel free to leave a gift for them also.

Tip the staff. I can’t stress this enough. I saw many of my compatriots (both Canadian and Russian) not tip at all, which is deplorable. When you spend $600.00-$1800.00 on a vacation you can surely afford the approximate $100.00-$200.00 in tips that a week in Cuba typically adds. I think many people get very frustrated for two reasons – one the vacations are billed as ‘All Inclusive’ and fifteen years ago the government actively prohibited tips and they had to be given covertly. Now it’s an accepted practice and people don’t have a plan as to how and when to tip so they get frustrated with the whole thing.  We typically spend 10.00 – 20.00 CUC per day on tips and consider that a simple courtesy. We typically tip 2.00 per day for the maid, 1.00-2.00 per table per meal, 5.00 or so for the music at dinner (if we feel like it that night), and 1.00 – 2.00 for a round of drinks, coffee, coconuts from the gardeners, etc. In your average day you’ll have three meals, several rounds of drinks and get your room cleaned, so budget for it right off the bat. Essentially tip at least 1.00 CUC and add based on good service or your level of intoxication. 🙂 When you arrive simply exchange all your cash at the airport and get a ten or so in one CUC coins. That should see you through the next day at which point you can get more change. If you run out of money you can use VISA but not Mastercard to withdraw more, which is a pricey process.

***Typically when this topic arises someone inevitably says that it’s the job of Cuban people to have a revolution and install a democratic government. No argument from me, except for the obvious one – the population is totally disarmed. One of the first things any totalitarian regime does is disarm the populace, with such historic examples as N.Korea, Soviet Union, China and many others. How can people revolt if they can be gunned down en masse? Protect your second amendment my US friends, at all costs, it is the only thing to keep a government from going rogue. Besides, if the embargo was lifted or at least greatly loosened, the renewed hopes of the people would do more to spark change than a bloody conflict.

For more sites that helps with diverting donations where they’re needed check out:

http://www.stuffyourrucksack.com/

Not Just Tourists

http://www.canadacuba.ca/donatetocuba.php

Life in Paradise

Cuba - pool shot

 

We sit on the patio outside the hotel lobby and drink illicit pina coladas. Illicit because Raul is not a guest at the hotel and is technically not allowed on the grounds without purchasing a day pass which he could never afford. I didn’t get him one because he can’t take a day off from his school and work and is coming to see me for a couple of hours in the evening.

He’s lost a lot of weight since we met two years ago, and doesn’t want his picture taken.

“Why?” I ask.

He’s uncomfortable at the question, but answers in halting English.

‘Because when I go fishing the water is very cold’ he says. ‘And sometimes I don’t have time for lunch, only breakfast and dinner.’

My brother and I met Raul on the beach where tourists are taken to go snorkeling at the coral reef in 2007. He was selling shell necklaces to supplement his meager income and he spoke some English that he learned from a book a tourist left behind. My brother fell to talking with him and invited him to come back to our hotel so he could pick up a shirt that my brother promised to give him. When we exit the hotel lobby he is waiting for us perched on the concrete railing looking distinctly shy. He’s brought a canvas bag as a present for us in exchange for the shirt. Galvanized into action my mother who has a heart of gold and endless generosity stuffs his bag with all the items we can possibly leave behind – sandals, toiletries, clothes, hats and such small items that we always leave behind for the staff.

Several drinks later we learn a little bit about him, he lives with his father and extended family in Cardenas – a small city close to Varadero. He goes to school to learn English to he can work with the tourists. He wanted to get a sociology degree but working with tourists will enable him to survive whereas the government salary will not. When he’s not in school he fishes for the simple reasons of needing to eat. Every day he fishes from about six am to sometime in the afternoon, and goes to school four days a week. He can’t skip a day or the fish will drown, or someone else will empty the traps. His catch feeds his family, neighbors, friends and any excess sold to pay for the basics of life which there are never enough of.

If he’s very lucky, after he’s done two more years of school he can get a job at the airport or hotel. He doesn’t understand why he earns his money in pesos but has to pay for everything in tourist dollars. For that matter neither do I. The prices of goods are about the same – an ice cream on the side of the road costs 1.00 CUC, soap costs about 2.00 CUC and a pair of shoes 40.00 CUC. For people that earn 15-20 CUC per month the cost of living far outpaces their ability to pay.

‘When I moved here to go to high school’ he tells me, ‘I could not afford shoes.  I was very lucky when a cousin went to Miami, as he left me all his shirts and shoes’.

I have nothing to say to that. I’ve known poverty when we first immigrated to Canada with nothing but four suitcases, but it was a genteel poverty compared to his. I’ve never gone without shoes or not had enough food to eat. Yet this is his daily life and the daily life of all the citizens of that mismanaged and beleaguered island. With very little private enterprise and oppressive and constant governmental control citizens must do what they can to survive, be it engage in black markets or try to engage tourists to spare a buck to complement their income.

Since we met we’ve corresponded with Raul several times, with a few letters and parcels going missing. The first thing he asked for as we told him we’re sending him gifts? An English Spanish dictionary. Now that I see how much weight he’s lost and how hard he works I wish I feel a deep sense of injustice. It is not lack of willingness to work or a lack of opportunities that keeps him struggling to live, but a government that is totalitarian and obsolete and rules all areas of life including food production that accounts for the horrific shortages Cubans experience daily.

We sip drinks on the patio until the guard approaches and tells him he has to leave.

I walk him to the bus bound for his hometown, hug him goodbye and tell him we will help however we can, and that I hope there are major changes in Cuba soon.

 

Cuba - Raul