WHAT HAPPENED IN CUBA, STAYS IN CUBA
© Mary M. Cushnie-Mansour
The title of this blog says it all! However, this is only the case if the group of people who travel together do not have a writer in their midst!
On with the story … trip to Havana! (Sorry for the delay – life sometimes gets in the way)
Day seven … L and I went on the Havana trip. We were smart and took the tour bus, complete with a guide and a tasty lunch.
As we drove through the countryside, our guide, George, relayed to us bits and pieces of the history of the island. I must have been an annoyance at times because I asked several other questions regarding religion, labour laws, living conditions, etc. Of course, with the early Spanish influence, the main religion of the island is Christianity, Catholicism being the primary denomination. There are a few Protestants, and also highly prominent on the island is the African Spiritual worship––the reading of cards, palms, and spirits. George pointed out that many people go from the Catholic Church service to the Spiritual service … same for funerals … a ceremony to appease each of the factions.
When I questioned about life styles, the lack of modern appliances, I had the feeling George avoided the specifics. He started by saying that despite the looks on the outside of the buildings, inside was beautiful and most everyone had televisions, VCR’s, stereos, etc. Somehow, I found that difficult to imagine, and our visits to families in Cuba paid tribute to such thoughts. Of course, there were some modern conveniences, but I do not consider entertainment devices to be an improvement to a person’s general well-being.
We made our first leg stretch/bathroom stop at a roadside stand. It was pointed out that we could purchase a virgin Pina Colotta––L and I shared one––it was delicious. I took a picture of L, standing by an old car. Suddenly, a young man points to a saucer on the hood of his car, and he demanded a peso. I was astonished. I threw in a peso, and then asked L to take a picture of me, as well––two for the price of one! I don’t think the young fellow was too happy about that.
Continuing on through the countryside, I asked questions about the soil conditions on the island, mentioning that what I had noticed so far was a lot of rock. George said the Caribbean Sea side of the island was more fertile than the eastern side. He went on to talk about the plentiful fauna on the island, the 1000’s of species of insects, the animals, and the fact that 85% of Cubans owned their own homes. He elaborated about the free educational system to the end of high school, and that even after that, if a student passed a tough university entrance exam, the education was free. Those who did not pass the exam could go to a college and learn a trade. George also pointed out that medical and dental services were free. He flashed a perfect set of teeth to drive his point home. (Unfortunately, some of the street people I had observed were not so lucky––if you get my drift)
Most Cuban families must have two incomes in order to survive. Many families live together, and welcome extended family members into their humble homes so the children can be tended to while the mother goes off to work. As mentioned above, George talked of home ownership. Cubans pay a % of the cost, per year, to the government, and the house is usually paid for within 15 years. As a visitor from an affluent country, I was shocked because the conditions many Cubans live in are appalling. Up to this point, there have been no property taxes, but that is something that is going to start changing. Up to now, foreigners have not been allowed to purchase homes in Cuba, but that, too, may be changing. The more George answered, and didn’t answer my questions, the more I felt that a lot of what he said and didn’t say was “programmed”––if you get my drift.
Well, on with the actual trip … upon our arrival in Havana, our first stop was at the 16th century El Morro Castle. We were allowed to purchase rum and cigars at the store; however, our tour did not include an actual walk through the inside of the fortress. Back on the bus, we drove through Old Havana and New Havana (not the historical early section yet, though). We dismounted the bus and took pictures, and as usual, we were swarmed with people who had their hands out to beg for coins, or to sell their wares. If I had to pay each one of them for the amount of pics I took, I would have been broke in no time! I thanked my lucky stars for my new camera and its 50x’s zoom!
New Havana’s homes are in better shape than most of what I had observed up to this point in my trip. It was in New Havana that we stopped for lunch, a typical Cuban meal of rice, black beans, chicken, pork, sweat potatoes, finely grated cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes, and a scoop of ice-cream to finish it off. After lunch, we headed to Revolutionary Square where Castro gave many of his speeches. George mentioned the Pope had performed a Mass there. From there, we headed down to the oldest historical section of Havana. George said some islanders would be dressed in century costume and would be performing (like our street busters, I guess). They would also expect money if you took their pictures. One elderly woman, dressed up, a cigar hanging from ruby-red lips, sitting on a stoop, held her hand out for a peso when she noticed my camera. I walked past, went down the street, turned and focused. She must have expected me to do that, for she turned and covered her face just as I snapped!
When George discovered I was a writer, he was excited to point out the hangouts of the writer, Ernest Hemingway. He sent me down a side street, just off the square, to a café where Hemmingway had hung out. George also pointed out the hotel where Hemmingway had lived while he wrote the book “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Hemmingway actually committed suicide in his room, and it has been closed off now, and only used for “viewing.” Of course, our tour was not privy to this. I was nervous, being away from the group, so I headed back to the square. Here, the landscape was teeming with buskers and beggars. There was an elderly couple dancing; a man dressed up as Castro, brightly dressed ladies. I noticed a statue of the “Old Man of the Sea,” so life-like … and then it moved!
From the square, I snapped several photos of the people and the beautiful architecture. We went into a huge cathedral, and another building that had, at one time, been a prison; however, it was now transformed into a castle with rooms filled with well-preserved precious treasures. Eventually, we made our way to a hotel/café, another Hemmingway haunt. I took pictures of the author’s pictures. I also browsed through one of the shops and purchased a tourist guide on Old Havana, something to refer to, as my brain definitely would not be able to accommodate all the information being relayed.
Our final stop in Havana was the market. What chaos! Vendors everywhere, trying to lure the tourists to their booths … “Looking free, lady!” … I purchased a couple small things, but our time had been limited to 40 minutes, and I personally hate to be pressured into spontaneous purchasing.
By the time we arrived back to our resort, it was dark. It had been a wonderful day––a little taste of Havana!
Stay tuned for the next segment of “What Happens in Cuba, Stays in Cuba!”