The Ignorant Canadian more like it. I decided to go to Cuba sometime in mid-December. I wanted to get far, far away from anywhere I knew for New Year’s (which happens to also be my birthday, an event I’ve never enjoyed). I went on some travel site, typed in the dates, and the cheapest place in the WORLD for me to go that suited my pretty basic requirements (not Canada or the US, essentially), was Cuba. So I did it.
Honestly, I knew pretty little about the country going in. I had planned on reading up over the holidays but instead decided laying down and watching garbage television for 7 days straight would be more productive. So most of my historical knowledge going in was pretty basic: Batista, Fidel, the Bay of Pigs, the US embargo, Raul. The more specific references came from either Mikhail Kalatozov’s 7,000 minute long “Soy Cuba,” which looks at pre-Castro Cuba, and was one of the first films I ever watched in film school. The narrator’s deep voice saying “Soy, Coo-ba” – a line oft repeated in my first year dorm – kept running through my head as I awaited customs. And Steven Soderbergh’s “Che,” which resonated much more with me than I had thought. But in terms of contemporary Cuba, I was pretty unaware. Which was actually a kind of amazing way to go into it. Like seeing a film without having seen a trailer or having any knowledge of the plot.
My fellow traveller, Michael, and I got through customs and we were actually both “randomly” picked out of the crowd awaiting to leave to get intensive searches. A process I’m well versed in care of America, so I didn’t really even flinch. The security guard did his job fine – asking me if I had any drugs and why I was here and what I did for a living firmly and with authority. But then once he realized I wasn’t smuggling in weapons or drugs, he switched into apology mode, neatly packed my clothes back in the bag and wished me a lovely trip: “Cuba is happy to have you.” The American border patrol could learn a few things from his demeanor.
The customs guy’s kindness was a precursor to what was to come. Everywhere we went, from slummy, devastated areas of Havana to the most pristine touristy areas, eager, friendly Cubans flocked to your obvious tourist-ness in search of some sort of service they can offer you. And while money was almost always part of it, it didn’t make it any less genuine. If I made $10 a month and couldn’t leave my country, I’d be doing whatever I could to make a buck. And almost every Cuban we came across had such an undeniably sweet spark in their eye, it was hard to turn them down. It was usually a twenty or thirtysomething guy, and it would always start with the same question, worded the same every time:
Guy: Where you from?
Guy: I love Canada! Toronto!? Montreal!? Vancouver!?
Guy: It’s cold up there!
Then it would transition into whatever they had up their sleeve. One guy just wanted to show us around. Another wanted to tell us about Cuban history over a round of beers we paid for. Many wanted to be your personal cab driver. Even more wanted to sell you cigars. And a few wanted to sell you women, also using a practiced routine:
Guy: You guys like the Cuban girl?
Guy: You want a Cuban girl?
Us: Uh… Not real…
Guy: I can get you a Cuban girl.
Us: No thanks.
Guy: You don’t like the Cuban girl?
At which point, he would motion however many feet away and show us the actual Cuban girl, who was sitting and waving. I’ve honestly never seen so many prostitutes, male and female, wandering around every neighbourhood we journeyed through. Tourists are going to pay more for sex than a guided tour, and Cubans have very few methods of participating in capitalism. (An interesting note is that despite this prevalence, HIV infection rates are the lowest in the Western hemisphere).
There are a few other methods, we learned. Recently Cubans can open their own little restaurants (paladares) or B&Bs (casas de particular), and though they are intensely taxed by the government, its not some set income. There’s other things changing too. Some as a result of the devastating period of economic crisis known as the “special period” that occurred the USSR and its huge contribution to the Cuban economy dissolved. And some a result of Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother, who since becoming Cuban President in February of last year, have given Cubans access to cell phones and the internet (mind you, at prices no regular Cuban can afford. Activating a cell phone costs more than most Cubans make in a year).
But, more often than not, Cuba is a static, mystical world where change simply doesn’t come. The first day we spent in Havana – endlessly roaming through its crumbling beauty – it was one of the most incredible feelings of being transported to a different world I’ve ever felt. Cars mostly from the 1940s and 1950s. Stores with bare shelves, stocked only with necessities. Gorgeous architecture from a variety of eras – neo-classical, art deco, colonial… Most of all, it was incredible for its complete lack of materialism, over consumption and anything from American (or Western, really) culture post-1950s. Other than a few propaganda billboards comparing Bush to Hitler, there was nothing. No products, no celebrities, no media, little to no technology…
1950s America is evident everywhere though, from the cars to the buildings. And there’s an abundance of ice cream shops, ham and cheese sandwiches, hamburger and french fries, obviously influenced by 1950s America and many served in restaurants mimicing it. Theres also an obvious obsession with US culture from some of the locals… One woman acted like I have given her my first born child when I handed her the American magazine she had been eyeing for ten minutes.
And while I knew it the back of my mind how problematic this world obviously was… especially whenever I saw the constant billboards with photos of Fidel or Che or whoever else shoving the Revolution down everyone’s throats… I found it to be exhilarating. For someone who lives a life of constant media consumption, within a horribly image conscious existence, and with addiction to the internet to boot, this world made me feel so bare and free. And to feel that while wandering around a city as beautiful as Havana, as we did for the first four days of the trip, was definitely something.
However, the other side of it became evident from time to time, as much as I tried to pretend. Especially as the days led up to the 50th anniversary of the Revolution. Sure, as some tourist wanting to escape his reality, and one with the money to experience everything in any way he wanted to, Cuba’s lovely. But to Cubans, as content as they seem (or, as I suspect in many cases, as brainwashed as they are), don’t have it easy: Free healthcare, yes. But Michael Moore failed to mention most of the hospitals are in dire need of funding and some don’t even have access to basic medications of medical technology. Free university, yes. But the universities are often falling apart, literally.. and I can’t imagine much is taught outside Fidel’s ideologies. The media is entirely controlled by the government, which in itself is totally rigged. Cuban elections boil down to a simple universal choice: Communist or Communist. And attitudes toward sexuality (which I’ll get to in Part II), make America look like The Netherlands.
But despite all that, when we roamed the streets of Havana the night of Liberation Day, January 1st, nobody seemed to be complaining. Thousands of Cubans celebrated in the streets as Michael & I witnessed with our dollar cans of Cuban cervezas and 50 cent packs cigarillos in hand. It was easy to forget – because of the people themselves – the unjust context of the environments we were infiltrating.
This was evident again when we travelled outside of Havana. We witnessed what I found to be the most beautiful aspect of Cuban society: the family. Because of what they have gone through together, and perhaps also because of their inability to really separate given the geographic restrictions placed on them, Cuban families are something else. Teenage delinquency is non-existent (as is most violence.. I’ve never felt safer walking around the streets of a large city as I have in Havana), and the close bonds are evident even in the brief moments I shared with them.
In Las Terrazas, a small eco-village 80km west of Havana (and a small rural community and “environmental project” protected by UNESCO), there were little waterfalls and natural swimming pools all through these paths where dozens of Cuban families had picnics and swam on what I’m sure was a pretty major outing for them. Our presence seemed to have no negative effect. In general, I found Cubans were remarkably welcoming even when they didn’t want anything from us. They were happy we were giving to their economy, and proud of what their country had to offer.
At the swimming holes, you watched as members of the family of any age and sex swam together, ate together and exuded this bond you rarely see in North America. North American tourist families often look so forced, so cold. Like they are incapable of truly having a good time together. But the Cubans were laughing, jumping, and even cheering us on as we jumped off waterfalls.. a unique familial joy was everywhere you looked.
To have this juxtaposed with Varadero, where we spent our last two nights, really put this in perspective. An almost entirely Canadian tourist spot, its beaches may be some of the most beautiful I’ve ever witnessed, but being around all those Canadians after 5 days within more traditional Cuban society was terrifying. Everyone grouped together based on sex or age or appearance… Teenage boys enjoying the lax drinking laws, screaming shit like “Go Such And Such Hockey Team” and showing each other their Canadian flag tattoos (who made me think I’d probably be better off making out with a guy in front of a Cuban cop then in front of their drunken asses). Teenager girls wearing next to nothing and passionately working on their tans while reading gossip rags they had snuck in from Western society. Moms looking stressed. Dads looking bored. Me wanting to get the fuck back to the swimming holes…
I left Cuba truly confused as to how life really should be lived, and confused about what’s best for Cuba: I’m not advocating communism or a dictatorship, and I’m obviously all for Raul Castro distinguishing himself from his brother and giving Cubans the political and social and geographic freedoms they deserve. It just seems like such a shame to totally catch this world up with the rest of us… And I don’t know if that many Cubans would necessarily disagree with me. There’s a freedom in their forced isolation. They may have Castro’s doctrines leading them down unfair paths, but Western society has a whole mess of commercialism, media, and vanity doing the same. I realize that can never be a fair comparison, I’m just saying… Though I also know I’m a bit blinded by my love for the release their world gave me from my own.