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.