Beyond Words

The Blog Formerly Known as "Nagoftaniha"

Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Saturday, February 11, 2006

¡Soy Cuba!

Most people look at a vacation as a way to get away from everything, to get involved in activities that ordinarily they would find absurd or merely silly, to forget about their surroundings and the native people and indulge in excesses which ordinarily they might avoid. I’m not one of those people. I’d like to learn about the foreign cultures and people and my trip to Cuba with all the provocative and negative news that we hear about this land was of this sort.

Due to the fact that the vacation ‘packages’ in Havana are very rare or expensive, we had to settle for an “all inclusive” package in a vacation resort in Varadero, which is about one and half hour’s drive from Havana. These vacation resorts are islands of plenty in a land of shortages. Many people decide to spend their entire time in these resort areas, and most likely the only natives that they might come in contact with are the people who work in these resorts. The tour organizers and the hotels provide them with all kinds of activities to keep them busy and satisfied.

In our short stay in Cuba, we made three trips to Havana. The first trip was an organized bus trip which took us to Old Havana. We walked through narrow streets with their rich colonial history. Old Havana is flooded with tourists, which makes them a good target for Cubans selling their ‘stuff,’ which is mainly cigars obtained illegally from cigar factories. We were warned by the tour organizers about these people and came in contact with a lot of them. The only one in our group who could speak Spanish was the tour guide and she was the one who was trying to protect us against hordes of people who seemed to have nothing else to do but to walk or sit around the downtown core and target the tourists for one or two pesos.

We visited several sights within Old Havana and our excursion took us to an ancient and historical cemetery where Cubans bury many of their dead. While we were traveling in a nice air-conditioned bus, the only mode of public transportation available to the general public was what is referred to as “camel-buses.” These buses are a very basic mode of transportation and they are always filled to capacity.

After this one day trip to Havana, we felt there must be more to this great city. Our travel book talked about many other landmarks and sights that were not covered in this short trip. We decided to rent a car and do an excursion on our own. On the way to Havana, we witnessed hundreds of people who hitch-hiked to work or other destinations. We were told this phenomenon has created a problem for the government and has forced them to form a hitch-hiking police force! It seemed to me that a good portion of Cuban citizenry spends most of its day trying to find a ride to wherever they’re going.

Driving in Havana was not what I had expected. Even though many street signs are missing, and most cars are in dire need of repair, it seemed most drivers followed the rules. In fact I had an easier time driving in Havana than in Toronto! We visited some museums and had a nice drive in a more upscale area of Havana called La Playa. We walked through narrow and crowded streets of Havana and lunched at local restaurants.

Back at our resort area everything was in perfect order. The guests were sitting in easy chairs, sipping on their drinks and trying to take it easy while the locals were doing their best to make their stay satisfactory. I was told the local people are not allowed in these resort areas.

My short trip to Cuba has altered my mental image of this country. My expectations were not fulfilled and in my mind many questions remain unanswered. I’m aware of the fact that a short stay in a foreign country is hardly sufficient to pass judgment on a people or a form of administration. But I flew to Cuba with high hopes, to see what a socialist country can achieve despite all the trade embargos and all the troubles that the Empire creates for its people.

One thing that I’m sure of is the fact that Cubans are proud people. They’re proud of what they’ve achieved despite all the shortages and despite the constant barrage of negative and fallacious stories that originate from the exiled Cuban community in Florida.

Nevertheless, I expected more. I did not expect to see so many people living in poverty, so many unfinished projects and so many buildings in dire need of repair and reconstruction. Next time around I will stay away from the resorts and try to get to know the people better. I can't wait until the next trip …

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