Following Hurricane Matthew - Winter 2017 travel blog

the group & local fishermen

varied faces of Cuba


After the Cuban revolution the country hitched its star to the Soviet Union. This provided them with a ready market for their sugar and regular cash flow. But it’s always dangerous to put all your eggs in one basket and when the USSR fell, we cranked up the embargo even harder hoping to finally get ride of Fidel, that insolent thorn in our side. There were over 200,000 immigrants forming large exile communities in the US and pressing their congressmen to free their homeland. I’ve already written a bit about the Special Period and the experiences our guide shared. According to our guide book tales of survival from this era are both grotesque and heroic. While stories of vendors replacing pizza cheese with melted condoms and community meetings called to order people to stop dining on the neighborhood cats and dogs are probably urban myths, they represent the desperate living conditions endured doing this time.

These days Cuba has put all its eggs in another basket - tourism. The beach resorts they built north of Havana have been enjoyed by frigid Canadians and Europeans and their cash helped the Cubans to get past this wretched time. We’ve read that the numbers of these tourists have dwindled as Americans began to hit the sunny shores in larger numbers. Part of Cuba’s charms is its uniqueness, caused by its isolation and resourcefulness for sixty years. But now that they are hard at work building new hotels and restaurants and making their island more comfortable for us, they may be losing the very qualities that brought us here in the first place. Now they have to compete with other Caribbean islands for the tourist dollar. And many of their neighbors are hanging on by their economic toe nails. Stories about the deep debt Puerto Rico finds itself in have been on the news regularly and they belong to us. We’re still propping them up a bit. In these days of multinational corporations to survive as a small island, you need something special. The Cayman Islands have made themselves an offshore tax haven. Someone will figure out how to get their hands on all that untapped moola and that will be the end of that. Other islands are selling their citizenship to wealthy residents of undesirable countries. There’s more than one way to get around that Muslim embargo. Many Cubans overseas are sending back remittances and its highly educated populace is a real asset. But you still need someone to build the roads and transport goods and services. Right now people can’t fix up their crumbling homes because building supplies are so scarce.

Americans will not be comfortable here until they can use their credit cards and ATM’s. That’s the fault of our government banking regulations, not theirs. It made us uncomfortable to carry around all the cash we though we’d need for this trip, because everyone knows you have it. Then our guide told us that he was spending $1500 cash/day on our behalf paying the bill at hotels, restaurants, cultural events. It worked out OK because there isn’t much to buy yet, but that should change.

There is no fast food here. I don’t require a McDonald’s or KFC, but we didn’t need to eat two massive dinners every day that took over an hour to eat, even when our guide called in the order hours ahead of time. It sounds like the dual currency system will be coming to an end soon. It didn’t bother us, but must inconvenience the locals, especially those whose work doesn't give them a chance to earn any tourist pesos.

We don't like group tours, but are glad that we came to Cuba on one. It would have been impossible to accomplish all we did on our own. Road Scholar was one of the first travel companies to bring in Americans and being first came them access to the best hotels and restaurants. We’ve heard that other tour companies have investigated starting their own programs and given up. There just aren’t enough hotels and restaurants that meet our standards. None of us got digestive problems and the food tasted great. It was annoying not to be able to flush the toilet paper, but we’ve been in other countries whose plumbing wasn’t up to this task. We were advised to bring lots of our own TP, but that seems to have become less of a problem. Most of the toilets have seats now; we heard they used to be in short supply.

We thought about coming here on a cruise, but are glad we didn’t. Cruises can only provide a cursory impression and are limited as to where they can go. The countryside was very different from Havana and we needed to see both to get a more accurate impression of what this country is about. Because tourist offerings are still so limited, even a medium sized cruise ship population will overwhelm any port where it stops.

How do you know when it is time to stop being a tourist? This trip made me think about this unpleasant topic more seriously. The first night in Miami when we completed the forms required for entrance to Cuba, the woman next to me could not follow our guide’s clear and concise instructions. Her husband tried to help her, but this made him fall behind and get confused as well. A few days later she fell down twice, the second time gashing her head hard enough to require twelve stitches. She appeared to have fun, but I’m sure she was a constant worry for our guide and took an inordinate share of his attention. Once you begin to waiver, should you stay home and wait for it to be over or stay on the road inconveniencing others and die with your boots on? When is enough enough?

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