How Foreigners Look at Me

Yusimi Rodriguez

Discussions like this take place day and night in Havana’s Central Park.

HAVANA TIMES — I started asking myself this question three years ago. I was in Central Park in Old Havana, seated a few yards from the place where many people, mostly men, gather to argue about baseball, soccer and volleyball – or about Michael Jackson’s death at that particular time.

A couple of tourists passed by and asked if I spoke English so that I could explain to them what was happening. What to us was a lively discussion about sports was — in their eyes — a raging quarrel that at any moment could explode into bloodshed.

It took me a couple of minutes to explain the situation, in English. In the end they smiled at me thankfully but the woman did something that surprised me: She pulled a bar of soap out of her purse and gave it to me as a gift.

That wasn’t the first time I had received a gift from a foreigner. Actually, now that I think about it, most of my clothes have been given to me by foreign friends or Cubans who live abroad.

But that was the first time I felt like some starving beggar. Why did this woman think that she should give me a bar of soap?

I think it started in the ‘90s, during the Special Period crisis, when everything was desperately welcomed: from a tube of toothpaste to a pair of shoes.

I heard or read an anecdote about a Cuban woman who wrote that she didn’t have any sanitary pads, and a European woman sent her an exaggerated amount of packets. The Cuban was a writer and she had written a fictional story…fiction based on harsh reality.

Outside a Havana hotel.

In the ‘90s, we Cubans used pieces of cloth during menstruation, and we washed them so that they could be reused.

With the official end of that period, we should have left behind any reliance on what some foreigner might give us. Likewise, they should have stopped looking at us like the starving poor who barely survive on their salaries and have to sacrifice to buy a bar of soap.

Four months ago, a Jamaican friend was about to come here to Cuba on a visit, so she asked me what I wanted her to bring me. Although I only asked for a USB flash drive, she insisted that I ask for anything I might need, without being shy: clothes, shoes, food, soap or whatever.

I asked if she would make the same offer to a Canadian friend, if she were traveling to Canada. She responded by saying yes, explaining that a Canadian friend might ask for some special type of tea, spices or something like that.

But would an adult Canadian university graduate have to ask for a flash drive, clothes, shoes or even deodorant? I don’t have an answer to that question. I don’t know how a grown female college graduate lives in Canada.

When I finally saw my friend at the hotel where she was staying, I was introduced to a group of her friends, who to my surprise had also brought gifts for me.

How did I feel, standing before the warm and sincere faces of those women who, inadvertently, gave me a cold shower in my own underdevelopment, stripping me of the little dignity I had left that morning?

I hadn’t mentioned a small incident that had happened a half hour earlier, when I got in the hotel elevator with my friend and the security guard made me feel like a potential criminal. Perhaps that expression is exaggerated – hell, maybe the whole thing was in my mind.

When I explained to him the circumstances (my friend didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to go up to her room without paying or without a special permit, and I didn’t know that she wanted to take me up to her room), the guard was very polite. He only called his supervisor as part of the hotel regulations, because they had seen me on the camera. The manager was also very friendly.

Feeling like I’m a potential criminal is still a conditioned reflex. Just four years ago we Cubans couldn’t go into hotels without feeling we’re being watched, that we’re out of place.

Hotel Parque Central in Havana.

Now we can even stay in hotels (those who can afford it), which is to say that officially we aren’t second class citizens in our own country. Still, it’s hard to get used to the new status.

Back to the question: How did I feel standing there in front my friend and her gift-bearing friends?  I can only say that what came to mind were those times when my parents and all the adults around me would say, “Study to be someone in life, so you don’t have to depend on anybody.”

My whole generation was brought up with that idea. Now I receive my basic necessities from the hands of foreigners, including people from developing countries who aren’t rich but are able to bring me things I can’t afford.

How did I feel? Tremendously grateful. Fortunate and extremely grateful.

So, did you think that I accepted the bar of soap from that woman who was from who knows what English-speaking country? Of course I did. I smothered the incipient attack on my dignity in seconds. It was a luxury I couldn’t afford.

15 thoughts on “How Foreigners Look at Me

  • December 30, 2012 at 9:45 am

    I always feel so welcomed in Cuba by the wonderful people of this beautiful country. Every time I go to a friends home I take a gift as a thank you for welcoming me into your home.
    If I could afford it, I would give so much more to the Cubans because they give me so much by allowing me into their home land and giving me a sanctuary, a home away from home.
    I am humbled by their generosity and kindness.

  • September 10, 2012 at 2:59 am

    don’t bring things like soap. they can be bought in cuba. there are shortages of interesting books and magazines but it is probably a good thing not to bring right wing stuff. also, DVDs. the cuban government has a huge debt and that is partly caused by embargoes. soap is not expensive but it has to be paid for in CUCs and anything else imported. those not in the CUC economy have problems getting necessities. at least cubans ask for stuff and i find their gratitude for small things excessive and embarrassing. it’s just basura to me. i have been in countries where stealing stuff by everyone is the norm. i read in an asian newspaper about respectable, well dressed women in the lobby asked to leave because they might be looking for trade. the article complained that the badly dressed australian guests were not asked to leave. it is true. australians will not dispute that they are not into smart clothing. soon after, immigration imposed dress standards as a sort of national revenge on poorly dressed but rich foreign tourists. i prefer to dress badly in places with high crime. there are lots of guys like me. as for cubans like the writer of this article. don’t worry about what others think of you. the stuff that you need is just peanuts and basura to the tourists. in rich countries, about a third of food rots in the fridge. the average person must throw out $20 worth of food every week. the streets are littered with trash that cubans would thanking tourists for excessively. food, clothing, shoes, furniture, pots and pans, radio-CD players, DVDs, televisions, fridges etc. i have found $30 bottles of vodka and other spirits on my way home. in australia, the streets are littered with small change. the streets are not paved with gold but they are littered with copper-nickel coins. 20 cents or under is just basura. no one will pick it up.

  • September 6, 2012 at 11:15 am

    Your list of products are mostly made in the US, the country that has embargo’ed Cuba for 50 years. Cubans are quite happy with local products, they just don’lt have the money to afford them. Quality items can all be purchased in Cuba. Why not buy them there rather that rewarding the oppressor? It also saves you baggage space! Seems logical doesn’t it?

  • September 6, 2012 at 11:07 am

    ‘J Condotti’ asserts the usual American claptrap, that Cuba’s problems have nothing to do with the 50-year embargo. Of course he/she would – no one wants to feel responsible for creating hardships for millions of people so blame them or their government for it – an example of blaming the victims of course

    In response, I will point out my usual, that you can assert what you will, but it’s quite easy to prove it one way or another – stop the insane embargo and see what happens. I also point out that if the embargo is not having an effect on Cubans’ lives, then why has the US maintained it for 50 years???

    Is the US just stupid, or is ‘J Condotti’ stupid or does he/she think we are stupid? Take your pick.

    Being able to buy a Sony DVD in Cuba is not an example of the embargo not affecting Cubans lives. Not having enough money due to not being able to trade with its nearest neighbour, a huge market, is an example of what the embargo is responsible for. And having the US fine international companies for doing business with Cuba, on an almost daily basis, largely unreported unless you read a Cuban news source – is another example.

    The companies pay it, uncontested, in order to be able to keep doing business in the US. ING Bank was one of the latest targets. It just paid a record penalty of $619 million, has closed its branch in Havana and has had to sell off resources, just last week, all its branches in Canada.

  • September 5, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    I’m from the US, and I when I visit your island, I always return home filled with riches. To the people of Cuba, your gentleness is not lost on me, your generosity will not be forgotten, and your industrious spirit will eternally inspire me.

  • September 5, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    Lawrence, congratulations on doing the right thing by the orphanage. However, the reason there is a shortage of money in Cuba, as you say, has nothing to do with the embargo. After all, you were able to go into a Government-owned store in Cuba and buy a Sony product. I suspect you could have also purchased bottles of Coke. Embargo? The problem is not the US or American foreign policy (plenty to criticise there on other fronts). The problem is a 50-years-plus system that just doesn’t work.

  • September 5, 2012 at 10:47 am

    I’m truly TRULY grateful for this article. So many people on the Travel Advisory board say we shouldn’t bring gifts to Cubans…they believe it makes Cubans feel ashamed. But I ALWAYS bring gifts. We have a “Cuba” suitecase at the house and the whole family gets involved. Often, I buy clothes and shoes for my kids when they are not with me. Many time, the articles do not fit…so it goes into the Cuba suitecase! I know they’re big on brand names, so we also keep our ‘mildly used’ brand name clothing to bring. Again, thank you for this article. I will be sharing it with everyone! …countdown… 9 days till I enjoy Cuban sand and smiles again!!!

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