By Yusimi Rodriguez
HAVANA TIMES — While Cubans and US citizens await the fast approaching US president-elect, Donald Trump’s inauguration day with uncertainty, US citizens are in a hurry to get to know Cuba before the normalizing relations process is reversed, according to what the soon-to-be tenant of the White House has announced.
I have recently met an interesting group of US citizens who are visiting our country. At a first glance, they are a micro representation of the US’ multiethnic and multirracial society: Caucasian, Afro-descendents; citizens from other Latin American countries, Polish people, Bulgarian, Russian and an Italian descendent. What did they have in common? The passion for or, at least, an interest in dance. They have come to go to dance classes for a week, not just salsa classes but also African rhythm classes. They haven’t stayed in a hotel, but in casas particulares.
David, a young 28 year old man, descendant of Italians, is not only going to dance classes, he is also making a documentary about Cuba, what US people think back home and the reality of Cuban life. He’s the one that talks to me the most, not only to answer my questions but to satisfy his own curiosity too.
This is David’s second trip to Cuba, as part of a group who are interested in Cuban dance. He doesn’t feel like a tourist, although he knows that’s its almost inevitable that Cubans see him in that light, and he really doesn’t like to stay hotels. “I don’t like the extremely fake idyllic world that they build around you, all of this comfort which prevents you from seeing what the country’s reality is, how people really live, streets which are broken. Here, I can eat what Cubans eat.”
According to what I could make out when this group of US citizens kindly invited me to join them and have dinner at the home they were staying, we Cubans eat white rice, black beans, salad, fried plantain and… lobster or meat, depending on what you fancy; some delicious fried rice with parsley, onion, garlic, soy sauce and a layer of cheese on top, invented by a young Cuban cook for the vegetarians present, as well as cake with ice cream for dessert with coffee, which even though I didn’t try it, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the kind we get on our ration cards.
How many times do we Cubans eat a meal like this in a year? Personally, nearly always, as I’m a vegetarian, although I don’t normally have these amazing fried rice wonders (which I’m sure I could make at home), or dessert with ice cream and there isn’t always oil to fry plantains. However, lobster for the majority of my fellow countrymen is a great luxury. I know young people who have never even tried it and not because they are vegetarian.
Isn’t the life which tourists enjoy staying in casa particulares also idyllic in a fake manner? To a great extent, and they should be. Tourists don’t save money for months or pay an airplane ticket, as well as staying in an all-inclusive place and go to dance lessons (which they could put into practice at night, in tourist hotspots where people dance salsa), to find that there isn’t any water in the tank and they need to fill it up, or that the water is cold and they need to heat it up first on the stove and try not to do so for too long either because we need to save on the gas; or that toilet paper has finished and can’t be found anywhere in stores.
Visitors don’t travel all the way here to eat chicken instead of fish, or mince soya, or catfish or fish full of bones or other river fish which can be bought at the fish shop for a more or less decent price. Cubans whose businesses involve renting out rooms in hard cash, know that customers have to be respected and given a quality service.
David is aware that casas particulares don’t reflect the real lives of the Cuban people, but at least he feels a little nearer and can talk to the home owners, neighbors, and friends who visit these homes. If these tourists enjoy anything (although David doesn’t like the word “enjoy”, it’s being able to sit down and talk to a Cuban person. When you ask them what they think about Cuba so far (for many of them it’s their first trip), their answer is unanimous: “We love it, the people are great, so friendly, so open… The landscape is beautiful.
However, not everything has been rosy and something has tarnished the landscape. “There is trash everywhere; they don’t look after the environment,” David complains. His travel buddies agree with him, and they asked me why garbage isn’t recycled. They are aware that more garbage is produced in their country, but they have more of a recycling culture. Silvia, a 35 year old Bulgarian woman, who has lived in 17 years in the United States, tells me that when they were swimming in the ocean there was garbage in the water, and she asked a Cuban woman afterwards why they don’t clean the beaches. The answer was that the government is only concerned about cleaning the beaches where a lot of tourism goes; nobody cares about these. The beach is in Cojimar.
From what I could see, at least at two of the casas particulares which I visited in Cojimar, the owners provided a personalized service of an extremely high quality. However, tourist demand could be affected if beaches continue trashed or get even dirtier. And in the long term, the Cuban Government’s revenue, which relies heavily upon tourism could drop. Will our authorities rush to clean these beaches and especially to keep them clean, if not for the local people’s wellbeing then at least for tourists? Let’s hope so.
The other thing that David didn’t like at all, during his first trip to Cuba, was the tour he had of the Museum of the Revolution. “I didn’t believe most of what they were saying. And the airoplane they had on display, as a CIA plane which was knocked down from the sky by Cubans was too new and well cared for me to believe it. On that tour, somebody asked whether there was racism in Cuba and the museum guide told there wasn’t; but when the same person asked about black leaders, the guide couldn’t even mention one.”
David noted that, in spite of the racism which runs rampant in the US, it’s easier to find Afro-descendents in positions of power when compared to other Latin American countries. However, he isn’t oblivious to the fact that there are many Afro-Americans in the poorest social class. But luckily for him, this second visit to Cuba didn’t include a visit to that same Museum.
He also noticed just how slow the Internet works and he seemed concerned by this. “Cuba should invest more in the Internet and developing its infrastructure rather than in imports. The Internet will give the Cuban people the tools they need to access knowledge and jobs. Currently in the US, there is a lot of interest in Cuban rum and tobacco, but that’s only because the embargo has made them more exotic. When the embargo is lifted, this interest will fall, like it has for other things. In fact, very good rum is produced in the US. Look, there are studies which prove that, although it might seem incredible, that more rum was consumed in the US during Prohibition than when the ban was lifted.”
In spite of his unhappiness about the garbage and the little care the Cuban authorities have for the environment, these US tourists have enjoyed their experience a great deal and some of them are even talking about returning. They take away a good impression of the Cuban people with them and they know that the only distance that exists lies between governments but not between people.