A futile attempt to make up my mind.
03.09.2006 34 °C
Neal and I picked Cuba because: it's cheap, it's cheap and it's cheap. We were looking for some nice, ocean-side place that wouldn't break the bank, and Cuba is packed with all-inclusive resorts that let you overdo it on everything. Aparently its possible to get bored with too much free booze (sort of).
Our resort was in a small city called Jibacoba, in the province of Havana. The place was barely half full, since August is so warm here at home and people tend keep Cuba for the winter. Still, more than half the guests were from Toronto, which might as well have been the other side of the world. There are two faces to Canada, too.
We arrived on a muggy night, sometime after supper, and I had to convince Neal that bringing our luggage to the room before going to the beach was a good idea. We made it to the water just in time to catch the biggest, reddest sunset I've ever seen - the sun just sitting on the water, twice its size, and sinking by the second. Neal went in, I marveled at how white sand is so much nicer than rocky brown pebbles, then we headed out to eat. The buffet was huge and varied, although as the week progresses you realize you eat the same thing every day, just with a different sauce. Still, it was good.
The next day we tried snorkling - one of those things you have to build yourself up for. First, get over the fear of touching sea grass. Then, get over the fear of curious fish. Then get over the fear of swimming over the deep chasm of coral reef, where the sea bed suddely, unexpectedly drops some 15 feet and you feel like you're falling. But, that conquered, it was breathtaking. So many fish, in so many colours - and coral of every shape and texture. Neal and I developed a system of tugging and frantic pointing to catch the other's attention at something that swam by. There was even the odd eel and flatfish, and the infamous school of jellyfish on our last day that called an abrupt end to my snorkling adventure (those things hurt, little buggers).
The rest of our days were spent much like spoilt, beached walruses. Eat, lounge, nap, drink, drink, pool, drink, eat, HBO, drink, shower, dress for supper, repeat. There's something blissfully mind-numbing about doing sweet-diddly-nothing all day long, day after day. It was like a routine of non-routine, setting everything back to 0. After a week of it you start to feel the twinges of boredom and monotony, but I can see why people go back to Cuba again and again, year after year...
Then there's the other side of Cuba - the one you only ever get a glipse of. Ramshakle houses, the kind that look long abandoned, are everywhere. People are sun-burnt dark, roaming the roads, talking to one another, calling you over, asking for a peso or a caramello, looking almost destitute yet purely, simply happy. And so began the debate with no answer: what do the Cuban people think of Cuba? They have complete health-care coverage, complete dental coverage, their food and housing is heavily subsidized by the government, and their education - to whatever degree they choose to achieve - is absolutely free. Even their funerals are paid for by the state.
Yet they lack so many of the basics. Our guide to Havana explained that the Cubans have two currencies: the non-convertible peso, and the convertible peso. The former is what every Cuban gets paid, which they can use at subsidized markets to pay for food and other necessities. Yet anything on the open market is only available for purchase with convertible pesos - which only those in the travel industry make through tips. And 60% of their necessities are purchasable only with convertible pesos. And there's the paradox. They have money, but they can't spend it on many of the things they need. The guide told us that here are as many opinions as there are Cubans, and that we'd have to make up our own minds on the matter.
Havana was beautiful - and incredibly poor. Crumbling houses, peeling paint, bicycle taxis, camels, and people everywhere, in places that would be condemned here at home. Yet there were magnificent cars - leftovers from the 50s - and music, markets, restaurants, odd characters, stray dogs, the occassional refurbished building. The Christopher Columbus cemetery was huge and gleaming with white tombstones, and revolutionary square was covered in cracked pavement and lacking the pomp I was expecting for such a sacred place. There isn't any advertising in Cuba, just revolutionary billboards - remembering heors, criticizing Bush, praising Cuba's policies against child labour.
It's a city unto itself - unique in the world. I realized how the endless, relentless construction of Wal-Marts and McDonalds and the like are making the world a predictable, monotonous place. That's what was so disappointing about New Orleans - its jazz history turned into a gimmick to sell the same old stuff you find anywhere else you go in North America. What must the world have been like before franchises made every place feel exactly the same? I expect it felt as genuine as Havana - as untouched as Cuba.
Whether or not Cubans are happy with it all is another story, though.