Mrs. Dalai and I continue to travel to weird and wonderful places, and with me being officially retired, we hope to do so even more often. Cuba has always intrigued me, and I had even strongly considered joining a religious mission trip here some years ago. Yes, there is a very small, but very vibrant Jewish community in Cuba. We never did make that trip, but we are now circumnavigating the island nation on a very nice cruise ship. While other ships have made the run, this is the first visit for our particular liner, and I feel a bit like a pioneer. Our first stop was in Santiago, very near Guantanamo, then to Cienfuegos with a side trip to Trinidad, and we end the journey in Havana.
I am very taken with this place. The land itself is spectacular, mountainous with pristine beaches almost ringing the island. The three cities on the itinerary all have incredible natural bays around which they grew. Someday, this will be a paradise, but I’m glad to have seen it before there is a Starbucks on every corner. And I promise that will happen. Such beauty only a stone’s throw away from Key West, Florida, will not go unnoticed for long.
Yes, Havana is only 90 miles (well, 93 to be precise) from the United States. Ninety miles and about 50 years away. Much of what you’ve heard about this place is accurate. It is Socialist, and it is poor. Very poor. Many, if not most buildings are in need of repair, there is trash in the streets (perhaps less than in other big cities, but still…) and there are any number of beggars. We are told there is no crime to speak of, and I hope we don’t find out otherwise.
You can look up Cuba’s bloody past yourself, but suffice it so say that the citizens have never had an easy time. Its early history contains savage native tribes, and being owned by one colonial power and then another. In the mid-portion of the last century, Batista, the pre-Revolutionary tyrant, supported by the US until near the end of his reign, tortured the people and set the stage for Fidel Castro’s Revolucione. Of course, the subsequent regime has not had a stellar human rights record, either. Since I’m here in country, let’s not get into that right now. It’s all out there on the internet.
We have only had close contact with our tour guides, who work for the government-owned tour company. Most everything here IS government-owned, although there are many tiny private businesses. Many rent out rooms, or operate small restaurants out of their homes. But if a business becomes wildly successful, the government will nationalize it. The standing philosophy suggests that a business should not become so wealthy as to have the means to influence the government. Right.
Our guides were honest with us to the extent that they were allowed, or so it seemed, anyway. To a man (or woman) they all admitted that their society is not perfect. This is pretty obvious. They did tout the fact that there is universal health care (but did not comment on its quality) and all mentioned the safety-net of a monthly ration card that would provide rather less than a month’s requirements. Our guides did not tell us how much they made, but did say that a teacher might make $20 US/month, and a high-production torcedor (cigar-roller) in one of the state-owned factories might make up to $200/month. I can only imagine what the Cubans think of us spending what is for them over a years’ salary on a box of Cohibas. (Yes, I did! You can’t go to Cuba and NOT buy cigars…perfectly legal to bring them home!)
We did visit a cigar factory in Cienfuegos. They make cigars sold under a number of brands, and I haven’t a clue which were being rolled that day. We weren’t allowed to take photos, sadly, and there was a factory “guide” (handler would be a better term) who followed our group to enforce that. Even so, one of the torcedors (who are mostly ladies, by the way) handed me a freshly-rolled beauty and suggested I put it in my pocket. Mrs. Dalai suggested otherwise, and I sadly gave it back. I hope I did not offend…the ladies are on production, and she was giving me a gift from her own pocket. But with the handler watching, I figured it might get her in trouble.
As a group from a cruise ship, I think we were monitored minimally, if at all, by the Cuban government, although I’m told by friends in Florida that people travelling as individuals, technically no longer possible, are closely watched. I wandered around Old Havana looking for the best cigar deals with no obvious tail. In fact, I really got the feeling that the Cubans couldn’t care less about a bunch of elderly Americans (average age on our cruise was mummified) unleashed on their nation. I had some illusion that the US government might be more interested in our travel to this once-forbidden destination, but upon arrival back at the cruise terminal in Miami, our encounter with Customs consisted of a brief glance at our passports, and a “Welcome home!” So much for pretending to be a smuggler.
Of all the things told to us by our guides, here is what I found most poignant:
I am telling you this as Jose’ (not his real name) the man, not Jose the guide. We were amazed and thrilled when Mr. Obama came here. We didn’t believe it would happen until we saw it ourselves. We are sad that Mr. Trump has reversed some of what had changed, but we hope he, too, will come here and see that we want to be your friends.
Some of you have asked me how I like living under Communism. I would LOVE to live under Communism, where everything would belong to everybody. You could drive a car and park it when you are finished, and then I would get in and drive it somewhere else. That would be perfect. But what we have in Cuba is NOT Communism, it is Socialism. And it doesn’t work.
While I don’t agree with his assessment of Communism, he appears to be quite correct about Socialism.
I do have some sad observations about my fellow American travellers. As I mentioned, they were mainly older, some quite a bit older. We were definitely in the youngest quintile, and probably the youngest decile of passengers. And we are not spring chickens anymore. I’ve railed before about waiting to take that trip of a lifetime until the end of your lifetime, and there were a few of those on board. Still, most of the rest of us were able-bodied, not that Cuba requires any great vigor to visit.
You’ve heard about the entitled Millennials and their horrid behavior. Well, they had to learn it somewhere, and I think I’ve discovered the source. I have never been as embarrassed by the behavior of my fellow Americans as I was on this trip. While the majority were gracious, courteous, or at least civil, a good number of the old folks were cranky, whiny, pushy, and downright unpleasant to be around. I thought for a time I might be in a bad remake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, in this case, “Snowflakes and the Seven Statins”. Frankly, I saw a level of anger and even contempt among this bunch which I don’t recall seeing before. Perhaps as I get older myself, I find this stuff more obvious and less tolerable. These folks would cut in lines (not nice when you are waiting for a tender in 95-degree heat to take you back to the ship) and grouse about everything. Get between them and someplace they want to be, even if it means they would only have to take an extra step to go around, and you’ll be the recipient of a very loud and very irate “EXCUSE ME!!!!!” I refrained from responding, ‘you’re excused”. I don’t know if these people have chronic pain syndromes, or they are just rich and spoiled, and expect the world to kowtow to them. One would think touring a poor nation like Cuba would bring home the message of just how lucky we all are to have what we have and to be able to go back to it. Or not.
Compounding the joy, there was a custom among some from a certain part of the U.S. to (loudly) describe in great detail everything going on around them in real time to their companions, as if the latter were not seeing the same things at the same time, peppered of course with appropriate color commentary. Maybe the rest of us would rather experience the experience for ourselves? That’s too bad.
Be that as it may.
I do urge you to visit Cuba should the opportunity arise. You won’t regret it. Bring me back a Trinidad if you wouldn’t mind…
via Blogger https://ift.tt/2UVncAB March 27, 2019 at 02:07PM