Thursday, October 25, 2007

Cuba overview

After having dreamed for so long about going to Cuba, I would never in any scenario have imagined that I would voluntarily leave early. But usually when it happens, it's least expected. My overall impressions of the country would take weeks to explain, because it is quite simply the most complex, contrasting place I've ever been in my life. The extremes of loving it and hating it were so huge, every day so intense that I found it utterly overwhelming.

Havana is a city that I imagine most people would fall in love with. The architecture, the music, the art, the old cars, the's so charismatic, gently pulsating life, slightly chaotic, slightly slow, all the push and pull combining together in a gentle whirl with the Caribbean backdrop of the Malecon.

The rest of Cuba, to be perfectly honest, I could have done without. Santiago, where we first went, was basically horrible, with the persistent horrible harassment we endured, the heat, the humidity, the dust, the dirt, the grime. Baracoa, a small seaside town was better, but there just really isn't that much to do in this country. Yes, the scenery is beautiful, but apart from sitting outside in plazas and parks watching people and drinking and dancing, there just isn't anything else.

Granted, those things were fabulous and I am sure I will recall them fondly for a long time to come. It is rare to find a culture that still has so much public space, where outside common areas like parks and plazas are occupied by all ages and races, and the feeling of community is indeed very intact. I did thoroughly enjoy sitting and watching people coming and going, watching life just unfold. However, three weeks of that is more than sufficient.

After Baracoa I went to Bayamo and Holguin, both of which are not touristy and I didn't get bothered much at all, which was nice. But, well, I'm sure many people will disagree with me, but apart from Havana, all Cuban cities and towns are essentially the same. There is beautiful colonial architecture in varying degrees of decay, and there are resplendent old plazas and central squares and parks, which are lined with all the busy essentials of any city; food, entertainment, art galleries and the like. All great, but not much variety. You might as well just stay in Havana for the entire duration of your stay in Cuba.

Trinidad is by far the touristiest place in Cuba in my opinion - Havana may have more in terms of sheer numbers, but the fact that Trinidad is so small makes it feel crowded with backpackers. Nice in a way, but the effects of tourism are really felt there. The old cobblestone streets and the restored houses are refreshing to see in contrast to the millions of houses around the country that are decaying to the point of being dangerous to live in.

I was pretty much done with travelling by the time I got to Trinidad so apart from a day trip to Vinales in the west, I stuck around Havana.

The music in the country is phenomenal; when musicians are guaranteed the same income or more as engineers and lawyers, it's no wonder that people don't feel the pressure to pursue other careers, thus allowing multitudes of artists of all sorts to thrive. That's one good thing about Cuba. And the dancing; I don't think any writer could put it into words. When you watch Cubans dance, it just changes you. I can't explain it.

But then there's all the horrible stuff that comes with it. Appearance has everything to do with everything in this country; maybe more so than anywhere else I've ever been. I'm a female, young, slightly chubby by American and Japanese standards, but by Cuban standards I'm pretty average. I'm dark haired, eyed, and skinned, so I don't stick out as much as Molly did with her blue eyes and blond hair. But for some reason, I got a lot more attention than she did - maybe Asians are more of a novelty. Nowhere else that I have ever been in my life have I been regarded as a mere dollar sign with legs; nowhere else have I been constantly disappointed by realizing that the kindness of the Cubans to me was motivated solely for economic gain. In this socialist country, I saw the most capitalism I have ever seen in my life. None of that invite you to tea or coffee just to be hospitable and curious and kind, none of that simple conversation on a park bench. Yes, there were a few examples that stick out as being different, but the grand majority was people who were kind to me because of what they thought I could give them, and the interactions ended with that.

The Cubans are a truly unique people; I don't think there is any other nationality of people that I could compare with them. There is a self-assuredness, a self-confidence, and an absolute comfortableness that is apparent in the entire population. Cubans are a mixed nationality, ranging from whites that look as if they just got off the plane from Spain, to the blackest black of the Yoruba roots in West Africa. But they are all Cubans, and despite color, size, weight, height, age, and sex, they are all totally comfortable being Cuban and everything that goes along with it. There is no shyness, only direct, blunt, and often times harshness. I wish I had gone to Cuba 10 years ago, before this emerging dual economy had gotten to the point where it has destroyed the authenticity of so many Cubans. Prostitution is so much easier and faster than working for the government wage of 10USD a month. Begging guarantees more income than working as a computer engineer. Robbing a tourist means the equivalent of 20 years income, at least. So who is to blame?

When you go out, and people ask you to dance, it's not like in other countries where people just want to dance with you. In Cuba, after one or two songs, they ask you to buy them a beer or soda - 1USD - 3 days of their work. They act as if it's their obligation, often demanding rather than enquiring. For travellers on a budget, and even for those that aren't, this can get extremely irritating. Since when do you have to buy a beer for every person that dances with you?? I realize that there are multiple sides to this story, and it's virtually impossible for these regular Cubans to obtain their glimpses of fiesta in any other way, but it grows so frustrating. Molly and I discussed whether we would actually have more fun if we just started throwing around our cash and bought drinks for a bunch of Cubans whenever we went out. The conclusion was that no, it would simply result in them pressing us harder for cash, and probably larger numbers joining in to see what they could gain as well. The other thing about dancing is that a lot of Cubans just want sex. It's the most sex-obsessed culture I've ever seen. I suppose with no economy, no work, no food, no diversion, and a great offering of soulful, sensual music, it makes sense that this would have evolved. But it is at times super overwhelming to be a part of. Ten minutes of dancing followed by a proposal to go have sex. And even if it's not directly prostitution, it's not genuine sex of simply wanting to fulfill a lustful desire. The idea is that they sleep with a tourist, who then becomes their sugar daddy or mommy during the duration of their stay. If the Cuban's really good in bed, maybe the tourist will come back to spend more time with them. Remember that even if the sugar parent is only spending $10/day on the Cuban for alcohol, food, and transport, that's a month's income PER DAY that the Cuban is gaining. Anyway, I digress. If the tourist comes back to have more sex with the Cuban, the Cuban can then begin to propose a way to get out, in effect going to live with the tourist abroad. It's said that 99% of Cubans, as soon as they have gotten out of the country with a foreign spouse, leave them. I don't really understand how someone could go through those motions for so long, but of course I don't understand what it's like to live in a country where you know you will never succeed materially, where you will never make more than $25/month by purely legal means.

I don't understand the sheer stupidity of the government in so many ways. During the Special Period of 1991 to 1994 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was an extremely severe food shortage in Cuba where people had no choice but to eat things such as banana and grapefruit peels, and rice was available for 10 or 20 times the normal price. You look at the Cuban countryside, a large part of it virgin, fertile, lush land where essentially everything must grow, and you think, how the hell are the people here hungry? You go to the markets and there are vegetables; everything must grow here. Yet, sugar cane has been such an engrained part of Cuban history that even today, 5 pounds of sugar are given to every Cuban in their ration each month, while not a single green vegetable is included.

And fish; it's hard to find in Cuba and it's expensive.'s a long, thin island in the middle of the Caribbean. In the coastal towns there seems to be a good selection of fish for decent prices, but anywhere inland it's very hard to find. But ice cream can be found everywhere...if you can keep ice cream frozen shouldn't you be able to transport the fish? The island is so thin I can't imagine it would ever take more than 3 hours to get to any town from the sea. Why do you have to eat grapefruit peels when you could include a ration of fishing line and hooks and tell people to go catch their own dinner? I may sound stupid and extreme, but really, it's ridiculous.

And the U.S. Embargo; the propaganda jumps wildly from proclaiming that the bloqueo can't stop them, that it's not accomplishing anything, all the way over to outstanding claims of how every day the bloqeuo continues 400 cars cannot be brought into Cuba. Umm last time I checked, many many countries were able and willing to trade with Cuba, including ones that make high quality cars, like Japan, Germany, even Korea, China, and Russia...

And in general, the propaganda is at a level so high that I think it would drive anyone insane. You'd either fall madly in love with Fidel or want to murder him. It's funny, all the slogans read about the Revolucion, and so much is written in future tense; Venceremos - we will conquer. Lucharemos, trabajaremos - we will fight, we will work. Until when? Who are we conquering, and if the sign is immortalized in red paint on the wall, doesn't that mean there is no end date to the fight, that it's a permanent battle? And what happens when we win? Wait, didn't we already win in 1959?
I had stuff removed from my luggage without notification, and I'm not sure if it was someone from customs, or someone that works at the airport that stole it. It really really sucks, because I lost all my photos. All the Old Havana beautifully maintained cars, the crumbling architecture, and of course the countryside. I also lost Molly's videotapes, which definitey really sucks. I can't believe that I would be stupid enough to put everything in my checked baggage, and that I didn't back anything up on an iPod or CD's. I guess that means I just need to relive all the good stuff in my mind, and I'm sure as time passes the bad stuff will be less intense and draining.

I don't know how quickly Cuba will change, in terms of tourist appeal. There is so much cacophony about what will happen after Fidel dies, with theories ranging from nothing will change, to the U.S. will come intervene and overnight Cuba will be caught up to U.S. levels of technology, cars, housing, and life in general. Nobody really knows, but I wonder what would happen if all those new cars came in. Would the dinosaur Chevrolets still roam the streets of Havana, winding in and out of their grandchildren, the 2010 Fords and Chevys? Or would they just disappear altogether? Would tourists want to go to a Cuba with no old cars and crumbling buildings? Would tourists want to go to the McDonalds and Starbucks that might appear?

Or, will it not change for a long time to come? Yes, the invasion of Nike, Adidas, and the like has already been steadily infiltrating the society, but will the government realize that a large part of the tourist income, which s so vital to the suffering Cuban economy, comes from people that romanticize about the old Cuba and if it changes, those people will stop coming?

The funny thing is now that I've left, I find myself thinking maybe I should have stayed, and I feel as though some parts of me have already changed greatly. The self-confidence and lack of self-consciousness, and the thorough sensory experience of music is something new. Perhaps there will be more things that become apparent as time goes on.

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