The Easy Way to Tour South America Lazy dad, hyper mum, four kids (one in nappies) tour South America for 6 months

The Easy Way to Tour South America
Observations in Cuba
Just sitting around

Just sitting around

I’ve asked many of the Cubans we’ve met what the biggest Cuban sports are. Unlike pretty much all of the Spanish speaking world, football doesn’t get a look in. Number one is baseball. Second is boxing. Third, and I was told this by more than one person, so it was either a famous joke or is true, is transvestitism. Here in Trinidad, there is a very visible transvestite touting for a restaurant, but one transvestite, however camp, does not a national pastime make.

No, in my view, boxing is third, baseball second, but the most prevalent participation sport is just sitting around. A short walk down any street in Havana, Cienfuegos or Trinidad (admittedly my experience is currently pathetically limited to these three towns) will throw up a density of sitters that would put a large cattery to shame. Is it the heat? A lack of opportunity? A lack of imagination? Never got to ask…

Cubans seem to be better integrated racially than most places I’ve been to. Certainly this is the case when compared to the UK or USA. In most social or work scenarios, multiple-racial groups were together far more than I’ve seen in other countries. In bars and cafes, many groups had people varying in skin colour from very light to very dark. This was the same in other social settings, such as on the beach. In most jobs where we saw a number of people working, be that in the cigar factories, shops, hotels, mechanics and so on, again the mix led you to believe there was little by way of discrimination (except for taxi drivers and owners of Casas Particular who seemed to be mostly lighter skinned). This to me compares quite favourably with the UK, where although society is not overtly racist, it is also not that integrated.

This kind of homogeneity also seemed to be true of wealth distribution. The area we are staying in is not a tourist area – we are in a Casa Particular which is effectively a tiny bed and breakfast with humanity and without flock wallpaper. On all sides and in all the surrounding streets, there are businesses being run out of houses, with no hotels for several blocks. The area would be considered a relatively poor one in comparison with most areas of most big cities in the UK. Here, though, it is an average area.

What was in stark contrast with the UK is that there are few outliers from this average. The rich are just a little richer, though often in the same area, but with one or two more rooms in the house, and the poor are just a little poorer, generally living with a few more people in each room. Most go to the same shops for food, the same barber, the same (highly skilled) car mechanics. Not everyone went to the bars that tourists frequented, though there were some locals there. Most seemed to be relatively content with their lot, but not with their system or its limitations. We saw no one sleeping on the streets, though sometimes there would be 6 or 7 people living in a single room. So although the average level of material wealth is likely lower than in the UK, the disparity between rich and poor certainly seems far less stark. This view would have been skewed had we met government functionaries.

Despite the levels of poverty, this also feels like an incredibly safe place to walk around at night. Apparently, there has been a very low tolerance to crime by the police, though we read this and weren’t told it by anyone. Whatever the reason, it is one of the only places I recall where I’ve walked in poor areas at night, where the streets have had a lot of people still wandering around, and yet there’s been no explicit or subliminal threat of violence or intimidation.

Similarly, a lot of Cubans seem to just want to help out. A bicitaxi (not too tough to figure out what that is) comes to a standstill as a car nearly reverse into it. The driver of the car comes out and argues with the bicitaxi driver. A bystander gets involved to diffuse the situation, but recognising that bicitaxis are not the easiest vehicles to reverse when there are passengers, helpfully pushes it backwards a couple of feet so that it can turn and overtake the car.

All in all, the people in Cuba are some of the most charming and friendly that we’ve met. And although there have been occasional incidents of self-interested friendliness, most has been banter and genuine interest rather than for alterior motives. There’s not been a street we’ve walked down in any city here where less than 4 or 5 people have stopped us with an incredulous shout of “cuatro” as they point to our four children. Invariably, some wit or another then points at me or Paola and says “con este, cinco” (meaning “five when you include that one”). This has prompted a race between Paola and I to point at each other, and get the “five” comment in while raising the insult stakes in describing “that one”. It would be fun if it didn’t get so close to the bone. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Everyone wants to help with the children. Whether that’s the owner of our Casa Particular wanting to take them to the park, or people just picking up a two year old because he’s fallen down. And when a child falls, there is no Anglo-Saxon reservedness, or ignoring, or the awkwardness of having noticed, knowing that someone is aware that you’ve noticed, and yet holding back ‘just in case’.

There’s nothing real-time or always-on about Cuba. I can’t make up my mind whether that’s more charming or frustrating. I’ve decided to settle for the charming and to get over this less than useful need I’ve allowed myself to succumb to. Some examples. If you want to have something for dinner in your Casa Particular, you need to ask the day before, as the fridge isn’t kept full ‘just in case’. If you want to connect to the Internet, you might find somewhere that has connectivity, but that’s no guarantee that it’s available, and if it is, think 1997 dial-up speed. Want to switch the light on? Sure. Just wait four or five seconds after you press the switch to see it come on. That was a real test of patience. It took me 3 or so flicks before I figured out that I just had to wait longer.

“Wait longer”. That, for Cuba at so many levels, deserves a whole book.

Boys learning the art of Just Sitting

Boys learning the art of Just Sitting

3 Responses to Observations in Cuba

  1. Daniel says:

    Your commentary is very insightful. As a second generation Cuban (my parents left when I was a little child) who’s never been back, I’m left with anecdotes like these to make sense of the Cuban culture and people, both in the island and abroad (expats). So, thank you for taking the time.

    Being in Miami now, I’m again inundated in a deep Cuban culture, that is usually politically divided between those that don’t want to support the island in any way (because sending money to family indirectly supports Castro’s regime) and those that are sympathetic and tolerate Castro, hoping that his death will bring change.

    I find your observations in stark contrast to those that are here, even those that left recently.

    According to these recent expats:

    That sitting around? Due to a true lack of opportunity.

    The economy is very poor. For example, the corner store doesn’t even trade in Cuban pesos, what most Cubans who do work trade with. Food rations are barely enough, but they can’t cover gaps because the local government-run stores don’t offer goods at a reasonable price (or currency).

    The government take over of most private industries has left most of the Cuban people in financial ruin. Enterprises didn’t enjoy any free market growth.

    As you’re growing up, you are forced into political views and situations you may not agree with. The “force” is very passive aggressive but ever present. For example, two guys that recently came by “balsa” (makeshift raft) tell me that the only way to get into college was by pledging allegiance to Castro.

    Not sure if you’re still in Cuba, or if you will read this while still there, but ask some of them about their feelings towards their island. Once they tell you their opinion, ask again, this time letting them know that you will keep it a secret (at least among Cubans). I’m going to guess only then will you stop getting the “company line” and will start getting the truth.

    Because it has to be some desperation to motivate someone to try their chances again the open seas than to live another day in Cuba. Think about that.

    • iyas says:

      Hi Daniel. I don’t really disagree with anything you say here. I think it really is lack of opportunity, but never got the chance to ask. You are either on a state salary, which is minuscule, or you run an enterprise and pay a heavy tax on it. Food prices are really variable – some foodstuffs were unbelievably cheap, while others such as milk were prohibitively expensive for anyone on a government salary (which is most people). The poverty is rife, but I was still surprised to see fewer people sleeping the streets than in most cities I know, including London. The people we spoke to were not fans of the regime at all, but they also didn’t seem to want to leave, just to have a better political system. But clearly, those were by definition not the guys who took to the seas.

      • Daniel says:

        It was nice to read the more positive things, the biggest of which was the racial mix among the people. That mix doesn’t exist as much in Miami, but is also much improved here than the greater US. Nice to hear that crime is low and that the people still bond together. I dream of one day investing in Cuba’s future. I think the people are amazing, and I’m proud to be a Cuban.

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