By Kenneth Wenger
The table for six at El Polinesio roared with chatter and commentary, summarizing the past two weeks of vacation.
El Polinesio, a Polynesian-style restaurant, resides in the five-star hotel Tryp Habana Libre, formerly Habana Hilton before the 1959 revolution. I sat and listened with curiosity as my four Canadian friends told the story of their time at Varadero, a luxurious tourist resort east of Havana featuring some of the best beaches in the Caribbean.
The normally dimmed interior of the restaurant, adorned with mahogany-red linings along the walls and furniture, seemed to brighten with the fantastic tales emanating from the excited tourists. “Man you should have seen the fish. You could just reach for them and touch them!” exclaimed Mike as he shared his scuba diving experience. “That was pretty cheap too,” John replied. Roberto, sitting beside me, listened with captivating interest as I translated the stories for him; his eyes became ever bigger, threatening to burst into a thousand stars. “I don’t care what people say. I hope Castro stays here a long time,” Mike said.
“Where else are you going to find prices this cheap?” “Why the hell did you even leave anyway?” Mike asked me. “This is like paradise!”
There is nowhere I know of which can be declared a paradise. Every country and every place has its pros and cons. To declare Cuba a paradise is to know only the best qualities of the island, and it is dishonest to pass judgment based on one perspective, be it good or bad.
It would unjustly undermine the enormous effort that the Cuban population goes through in order to survive. Numerous tourist resorts cover Cuba from end to end, Varadero being one of the most famous on the mainland. However, a few offshore keys like Cayo Largo and Cayo Coco are amongst the most visited, made famous by the greenish, but crystalline, water and fine coconut-white sand of their beaches. Yet, this is a Cuba most Cubans do not get to see.
The majority of the population does not have the financial means to partake in the luxuries which the country provides for tourists. Cuban vacationers are even restricted from some resorts, such as Cayo Largo and Cayo Coco, even if they have the money to pay for it. A Cuban worker’s average income is about 200 pesos a month. One American dollar is worth about 25 pesos. With a wage of $8 a month, it is no wonder that many Cubans do not get to see the reason tourism is so strong in Cuba; the beautiful tourist attractions which only outsiders get to see. All the necessities that must be bought — soap, oil, toothpaste, food — must be bought in stores that only accept dollars.
The prices in these stores are well above our market prices. That is why so many engineers and doctors are found working as waiters or cashiers in the “choppings,” a Cuban term for “dollar” stores. If a waiter gets an $8 tip, then he made in one night the equivalent of what he would have made professionally in a month. “It’s bad but at least we got free education and free health care,” said Sofia, a neighbour in the building where I used to live.
This notion of free education and health care is one which many Cubans use as a mantra to cloak their anxiety. It is true that there is a very good and free education system and very good health care. That is, of course, when medicine is available. The scarcity of medication and supplies is largely attributed to the U.S.-led embargo against Cuba. And if the government were to charge for education or health care, Cuba would be filled with illiterates and people dying of flu.
There is no way that 200 pesos a month could also pay for schooling or medical attention. These being only a few of the hard realities which afflict the country I call my home, it is right to wonder how Cubans get by in life. Well, it is with the humour so deep in their hearts. I admire how they always find a way to make a joke about the situation they are in. I was sitting on the sofa of a friend’s house one day during my visit, when his father came in through the door soaked in sweat.
He had waited 90 minutes for the bus under the harsh Cuban sun at 5 p.m. “Kenneth, I am going with you even if it is in a bedpan!” he shouts. The whole room thundered in laughter, including the drained man himself. The bedpan being used as a raft to Miami is a very common reference in Cuba. The jokes about heading off to the United States are heard throughout the day, especially during the toughest times. Music, the great Cuban salsa, and humour are the great saviours of sanity in this afflicted nation.
Sometimes even that is not enough. Lives have been lost on risky journeys in homemade rafts toward a possible better future in Miami. Cuba, nature’s wonder in terms of tourist attractions, proves a harder ride for its citizens living there. Yet, the simplistic way of life makes the larger part of the population more gentle and eager to share what little it has with everyone who might knock on the door.
As the Cuban saying goes, Le hechamos mas agua a los frijoles, which translates to “we will pour more water on the beans.”
If there aren’t enough beans (a Cuban staple prepared with a soup-like consistency) for everyone, we will just pour more water on the pot and everyone can eat.