Fw: Cuba -- a personal story

Donna Stainsby dstainsby at telus.net
Tue Mar 11 10:56:37 MST 2003

With encouragement from Walter Lippman, I'm sending this on.

----- Original Message -----
From: "Donna Stainsby" <dstainsby at telus.net>
To: <project-x at resist.ca>
Sent: Thursday, February 27, 2003 9:43 AM
Subject: Cuba -- a personal story


For many years, this little island has been my hope for the future of our
world.  Before my trip there I had braced myself for the inevitable
disappointments.  There were almost none.  I feel that I've added another
load, that of my expectations, to the tons Fidel already carries for so many
of us around the world.

For many years my brother and I had wanted to go to Cuba, and this year it
finally became possible.  We flew to Varadero, not for the beach, but
because the only Vancouver/Cuba flights go there.  We had already decided
that we wanted to see much more of Cuba than Havana, so a car rental was
needed --expensive, but easy to arrange.  So, about 8:30 am we were on our
way to Havana.  No problem, the highway went straight to and through the
tunnel under the harbour from east Havana to Havana proper – only 140 km
from the airport in Varadero.  After getting lost in Matanzas, an industrial
city halfway between Varadero and Havana, we approached Havana – and
approached Havana and approached Havana.  East Havana was much larger than
we had thought.  We finally drove along a waterfront street that seemed much
like the fabled Malecon, which it should, as that is precisely what it was.
Where East Havana stopped and Havana began we have no idea.  It took us two
weeks to figure out how we had arrived in Havana without going through the
wonderful tunnel.  We found our way through Havana Vieja, the old city, to
our previously booked casa particular, the Cuban equivalent of a bed and
breakfast.  Our reserved room had been given to a couple of Canadian girls.
Grrr!  We had, however been moved to another room, a flight up.  And so
began the series of fortunate accidents.

Our hosts, Luis and Fafita, spoke no English but had invited a friend who
did to be there for our arrival.  Exhausted as we were from an overnight
flight with no sleep, we managed to talk for a while before collapsing.
Thank goodness for my brother’s minimal Spanish.  That night I understood
about ten words of the short conversation.  I did understand, however, my
brother’s statement that we both admired Fidel, and also understood that our
admiration gave us an instant entrée to the hearts and minds of our hosts.

 We spent our first day in Havana just walking and talking – and falling
victim to the ever-present hustlers of the city.  After spending $32.00 for
four mojitas ordered by our “guides”, we later learned they could be
purchased for $2.00 each at most bars.  We wandered on and went into Bar
Montserrat.  The food was good, the music was wonderful and the beer was
cheap. We enjoyed the evening and walked back to our room in complete
confidence that we would not have trouble on the streets.  We didn’t.  For
the first time we realized that the narrow streets – back alleys was what
they seemed like – were clean, and that there was no smell of garbage.

The following day we continued to explore Havana ending with dinner at the
Hanoi, a state run restaurant where we ate well, drank two beers, and got
out with a bill under $10.00.  We spent the night and the next day ill with
‘tourista’.  With the help of a German tourist also staying at our casa
particular, we recovered.  During that day, however, we felt that the major
exhaust fumes from the almost ancient vehicles in Old Havana were
contributing to our feeling ill.  We decided to leave Havana and head for
the countryside.

Since entering Havana had been so ‘easy’, we believed that leaving it would
be no problem.  After heading south for the Autopista, the main central
highway, we discovered that we were yet again on the Malecon, which was, of
course, north of our casa.  So much for planning.  We followed the Malecon
west, and eventually found our way to the Autopista.  Despite what we had
read of the terrible roads of Cuba, we found the Autopista an excellent
highway, at worst needing resurfacing in some places.

As we approached an overpass, we saw a police officer step out and signal us
to stop.  Heart pounding, I fumbled for the car-rental papers and my driver’
license.  The officer laughed the papers away and requested us, if
possible, to give a ride to his friend.  Believing it was almost obligatory,
we said yes.  And so fate in the person of Ernesto came into our lives.  He
was heading for Pinar, the major city of the province of Pinar del Rio.  On
the way to Pinar, Ernesto suddenly asked us to stop.  Although stops on a
freeway seemed unusual to me, I did as he asked.  He ran to a house along
the road, and quickly returned with a cassette tape of Cuban music – a gift
for us. When we entered Pinar, Ernesto guided us to a casa run by his uncle.

When we explained that we needed a room with dos camas, two beds, he seemed
puzzled.  It took a while to find the words to explain that we were brother
and sister.  It seemed that his uncle’s casa, and that of another relative
whose casa we went to next, had only double beds.  Then Ernesto took us to a
friend’s home where we could rent the entire house for $25.00.  The man at
the house said it would be fine, but that we had to speak to his wife who
was at that time at her mother’s home.  We went to Mama’s, spoke to the
wife, and rented ourselves a small house for two nights.  It was an
extremely fortunate rental for me, as my illness was not really over.  The
following day, our hostess, Sonia, discovered that I was not well.  She
insisted that I get up, shower, and go to see her Mama who was a herbalist.
Mama made me a foul tasting concoction that cleared my problems in about an
hour.  Marvelous!

That day was lazy.  We found a great little restaurant where we had the most
expensive and probably the best meal we enjoyed in Cuba.  We also began
conversations with Sonia and her husband, Wilfredo.  When Bob’s, my brother’
s, Spanish melted down, Sonia tried Italian.  That helped me somewhat as I
had a little Italian.  A relatively early bed, preceded by Cuban television,
an hour-long news program mainly about Venezuela.  We actually understood
quite a lot of it.

The next day we headed for the wester-most point of Cuba, Maria de la Gorda,
one of the major dive centers of Cuba.  Along the way we bought gas, and
picked up our first non-suggested hitch hiker.  We had decided to drive to a
beach  -- only 8 kilometers off the Autopista, and our passenger worked
there.  The 8-kilometer drive took about twenty minutes, so we learned why
Cuban roads were sometimes criticized.  It was a glorious beach, but it
seemed quite deserted.  We bought a couple of beers and ordered a fish
lunch.  We discovered that the lunch would not be served where we ordered
it, but that if we came back in about 15 minutes, a young man would take us
to where the lunch would be served.  It was unusual, but we were hungry, so…

Fifteen minutes later, after having our beer on the beach, we returned and
were led across a grassy field.  Along the way, I remarked on the line of
gleaming washing beside a small house, saying, “I wonder what her laundry
secret is.”  As we walked past the house, I saw a woman scrubbing clothes in
a huge pot over a fire.  I learned her secret.  And then we entered a house
and met Maria.  She served us a wonderful lunch, and talked to us.  For the
first time, I began to understand much of what was being said in Spanish.

Again, Bob had said that we admired Fidel, and again we saw the pride of the
Cuban people in their leader and their country.  Maria told us that
hurricanes in both October and December of 2002 had hit their village and
that most of their roofs had been destroyed.  Fidel had come, and in the two
months between the last hurricane and our visit, the roofs had been
replaced.  The empty beach – apparently usually filled with small cabanas
and the visitors who stayed in them – was thus explained.  Maria told us
that her father had been a security official for Batista though he had not
been very happy in the job that involved killing.  After the revolution, he
continued in his job but for Fidel and for the new Cuba where political
killings were not allowed.  Before we left, Maria said that if either of our
sons visited Cuba, we were to send them to her.  We will.

Driving out the 8 km of potholes, we again picked up hitchhikers.  This time
three young men were heading in the direction of Maria de la Gorda.  We
stopped to drop off one man at his job and asked our other riders if there
were any casas particulares in the dive center.  Absolutely none, we were
told, but there were a few in the small town of El Cayuco on the way there.

Again the needed two beds were a problem, but a single cot was brought into
the room.  Our host sold beer made in Pinar for 50 cents each, so we bought
a round for the house: our host, the cook/manager, our two riders, and three
others who dropped in.  No English here, so we struggled through the
Spanish – the accents in this town were very different from those further
east – and chatted.  A good meal, more beer, music, and conversation filled
the evening before bed.

Maria de la Gorda was actually only a sort of gated hotel compound.  There
were apartments and hotel rooms, a small store, a bar and a restaurant, and
the dive center. It’s sole reason for existence was tourists.   It was a bit
of a let down as we had thought it would be a town.  We had coffee and left.

We headed back east.  Through this entire western area of Pinar del Rio
province we saw a great many homes that here would be called shacks.
Despite the obvious poverty of the area, we saw clean well-fed children, in
the same school uniforms we saw in cities.  As a friend of mine who
previously had visited there said of Cuba, “The people are friendly and
there are no hungry children.”  The kids from toddlers to late teens are
tremendous people. -- heads up, minds busy, smiling, seemingly oblivious to
race, friendly (though the wee ones are shy) and always helpful. They are
one of my strongest memories of the island.

I should explain about the hitchhikers.  Hitchhiking is the major means of
getting around Cuba for the Cuban people.  It is not only legal, it is used
by people of all ages.  All government vehicles, if they have even one empty
seat in them, must pick up anyone needing a ride.  It was quite something to
see large empty government trucks not only providing rides for 20-30 people
at a time, but often providing folding metal steps so riders could more
easily get into and out of the backs of the trucks.  I never thought I would
see police officers and military personnel hitchhiking!   At busy
intersections, one will often see police officers handling the hitchhiking
process, keeping people in a queue, and making sure that the first people in
line get the first rides.  It seems to work.  Women apparently have no
difficulties, and whole families get rides to and from towns.

We again entered the town of Pinar  -- no choice, the highway goes through
it --and stopped to ask for directions to a restaurant.  The young man on
his bicycle rode off, we followed and arrived at the restaurant we had eaten
in previously.  It was a great coincidence as we knew how good the food was
there.  As we sat down, I realized that I had left the car key in the locked

Our young guide was still there and told us not to worry – no
problema – and rode off to get someone to open it for us.  We ordered dinner
and waited.  Our guide returned with a representative of a car rental agency
who popped the lock and gave me the key.  Since it was not the agency from
which we had rented the car, I expected a charge.  No, no charge, but a
small tip would be accepted.  I very gladly gave him a tip.  After another
great meal, we decided to head further east before looking for a casa for
the night.

None of the small towns shown on our map seemed to exist and it began to get
dark.  We finally saw the lights of a small town off the Autopista and
turned off.  In the central square of Guanahay we stopped, and, as usual,
several people immediately offered to help.  A small disturbance seemed to
be rising as to who would be able to guide us somewhere, but two young women
climbed into the car and guided us to our home for the night.  Our host also
ran a butcher shop – dealing only with pork – and immediately set about
making us comfortable.  Again an extra bed was brought in, extra towels
provided, and beer offered.

The following morning a young man came to our room to see if we wanted
breakfast.  We ordered just coffee that he brought almost immediately.  He
stayed to talk, and we learned that he was a nephew of the owner.  His
teacher/father worked as a translator in the Cuban embassy in Qatar, where
his sister was a doctor.  This young lad had excelled at football (soccer)
in school, but was undecided about what he wanted to do with his life.  His
English was not extensive, but his accent was almost flawless.  This was an
enjoyable conversation with Carlos speaking English and us speaking
Spanish – all of us correcting errors in the others’ speech.  Fun.

Leaving Guanahay, we realized we were in Havana province – and almost
entered the city again.  We managed to turn around and with much effort,
directions from several people, and a too-vague map, we got on the Autopista
heading east.  We crossed into Cienfuegos province and turned south to the
coast.  We entered Trinidad, just across the provincial border in Sancti
Spiritus.  We drove the cobble-stoned streets of this 415-year-old colonial
city, following our map to a central parking area.  We discovered it would
cost us two dollars for secure parking.  We decided to park there and hunt
for a room for the night.  The parking official took us about half a block
to a house where we waited as he checked if there was a room with two beds.

The entire house was available for $25 per night – living room with bed,
kitchen, second bedroom upstairs, lovely bath and a roof-top terrace reached
via a ladder.  We took it and stayed three nights.   We rested, prowled the
streets, found a market, changed some Canadian dollars at a bank, visited
museums of this charming colonial city, and spent a day at the beach.

On the way  ‘home’ from the beach, we passed a little restaurant right on
water.  It simply demanded that we stop.  Seated and watching the sunset, we
noticed a group of men with instruments at another table.  They began
playing and singing – jamming it seemed like.  As one song was proceeding,
suddenly the man we had assumed was the host at the restaurant soared into a
solo, backed by the others.  A glorious voice!  We ordered more beer,
listened as they changed from just having fun with music to their more
formal entertainment.  We bought tapes of their music and put money in the
straw basket that was passed.  They insisted on autographing the liner of my
tape.  A truly super evening.  Trinidad was wonderful. At our casa, good
food, good coffee, free laundry -- what else could one ask for? A very
memorable three days.

We had realized that with three more days (four nights) in Cuba we couldn’t
go much farther east, and besides, we wanted more time in Havana before
flying home.  We looked at the map and found that Santa Clara was a good
stopping place for the night so paid our bill and started out.  We checked
our invaluable Lonely Planet Guide to Cuba and discovered that the final
battle of the revolution had been fought in and near Santa Clara and again
felt that fate had us well in hand.  The city also had a huge memorial to
Che Guevara, so we knew Santa Clara was where we wanted to be.

The drive was through gorgeous countryside, the roads were again good, and
Santa Clara
was easy to get into.  We drove around a bit and then decided to visit the
Che memorial before finding a room.  The museum told Che’s story and the
story of the final battle.  I was actually able to read most of the Spanish
inscriptions.  Exciting!  The monument of Che, a huge statue on a massive
base, all raised on large concrete steps, was awe-inspiring.  The
inscription on the base was Che’s final letter to Fidel explaining his
decision to leave Cuba.  Born an Argentinian, and given Cuban citizenship,
Che called himself a Latin American.  As all Latin America was not free, and
his greatest skill was in making revolution (despite his being a medical
doctor), Che had decided to go to Bolivia where he felt he was needed more
than by being in charge of three ministries in Cuba.  Che was murdered after
his capture by CIA-led forces in Bolivia, but his body has been brought to
Cuba, to Santa Clara where perhaps his greatest battle was fought.

After leaving the memorial we looked for a casa for the night.  A young man
passed us a card through the car window as we stopped at a traffic light.
We pulled over, talked with him, and followed him to his apartment – or,
rather, his apartments.  He and his wife lived next door to his mother who
had two bedrooms in her apartment, one of which was available to rent.

Pavel and his mother, Ileda, jointly operate the rental business.  Since
this was late in our trip, our Spanish had mushroomed.  We had many good
conversations in this home, learning how the casa particular system
operated, how the electoral system was organized, and how the tourism
business – i.e. the dollar economy – was affecting the social structure of
the country.

People in Santa Clara are deeply grateful to Che Guevara, as
well as believing in the strength and political pragmatism of Fidel.  They
praise Fidel’s method of dealing with the “periodo especial”, the years
since the demise of the Soviet Union, their primary trading partner.  This
time of difficulty has, of course, coincided with the US embargo on trade
with Cuba.  I am in awe of the strength and dedication of the Cuban people.
They will not give up their way of life.  Truly the motto “Socialismo o
Muerte” is a statement of the belief of Cubans in their revolution.  If they
give up socialism, then the death of their Cuba is the alternative, and this
they WILL NOT allow.

Through the province of Matanzas, back to Havana, this time entering from
the south so no worry about the tunnel.  We decided to look for a room in
Vedado, the part of Havana that was the center of society in the era of
Batista, Mafiosi and the mega-rich.   We simply couldn’t face the air in
Havana Vieja, Old Havana.  With the help of a Cuban parking official who had
spent three months in Montreal some years ago, we found a room near the
Malecon and the hotel area.  We had one and a half days to see the rest of
those places most important to us in this wonderful city.

First, we went to see Granma, the private yacht that delivered some 80
revolutionaries to the south east coast of Cuba from which the survivors,
including Fidel, Raoul, and Che, hid in the Sierra Maestra. This area is now
the province of Granma.  There the people fed and sheltered them in the
earliest days of the revolution. Trim and neatly painted, Granma is kept in
a glassed-in enclosure, under the supervision of smiling guards just outside
the Museum of the Revolution.  Visitors may only look at her through the
glass.  Nearby are many of the vehicles: old Soviet tanks and trucks,
rebuilt ‘armored’ cars, and a tank constructed out of a tractor.  All show
the bullet holes of their days during the revolution.  The Museum itself
tells Cuba’s story from the days of Spanish rule to the present.  Again I
was delighted in my new ability to understand the Spanish explanations of
the exhibits.  (I question the level of English in the translated signs,
though.  My teacher fingers itched to get out a red pencil.  I hope this can
be improved as the bad English leads to scorn from some visitors.)

We visited the Plaza de la Revolucion and imagined it full of tens of
thousands cheering Fidel.  His office is in a building behind the museum
building and speaker’s platform.  We sat and looked at all the windows,
wondering if Fidel was looking out of one of them.  (We passed on the museum
to Jose Marti, the intellectual leader of Cuban independence from Spain.) We
traveled back to our room in what we called a yellow football helmet, a very
small cheap taxi which looks exactly like a football helmet with the driver
perched just behind the nose guard, two passengers crowded in behind him.

Sunday morning, our next to last day in Cuba, we finally found the tunnel
(!) and drove through it on our way east to the Morro, the castle and
fortification from which the Spanish controlled access to the best harbor in
the Caribbean.  The huge cannons were still there, and one could easily
imagine the British ships being driven back out to sea.  And they were until
they captured it from inland –sneaky devils.  They did give it back to Spain
later, though, in return for Florida.

And then to Varadero for our last night before our plane left.  We spent
some time on the beautiful beach and returned to our “training hotel”.
Cuban hotel workers are trained on the job in hotels for which much lower
rates are charged.  We were delighted at our two-bedroom apartment for $35.
The wake-up call came promptly at 6:00 am, and we were soon off to the
airport.  All went smoothly including the return of our rental car to the
friendly agent of Cubacar.  An interesting thing: when I picked up the car,
he spoke English; when I returned it he spoke Spanish – and I understood him
without trouble.

Since I’ve been home, I have tried to shape my thoughts and experiences into
something of value for others.  I haven’t succeeded yet, but a few things
have become very clear in retrospect.  The necessary opening up of the
island to tourists is creating some problems for Cuba.  Two classes of
people are developing: those who get paid in dollars in some aspect of the
tourism industry, and those who get paid in pesos.  The government is easing
the difference in income in two ways that we found out about:  people who
operate casas particulares pay $100 per month for any month during which the
room is available for rent, and those who earn dollar incomes pay income

There is no income tax on peso income.   The people have faith that El
Jefe, Castro, will solve these problems.  And this is key.  The people have
faith in Fidel, and they have a belief in themselves.  They know the
importance of living in a country with over 99% literacy, free education to
whatever level you wish, free total health care, rent that is a percentage
of income, and which ceases after 15 years of occupation of the same home.

The home then belongs to the renter and can be left to his/her children in a
will.  It cannot, however, be sold.  Housing is a right, not a means of
earning a profit.  Children are well looked after in all parts of the
country we visited.  They attend school –primary 5 hours per day, and
secondary 7 hours per day.  Needless to say, Cubans are well educated.

Nowhere did we meet unfriendliness.  This is a society where people help
people.  We saw people working together in their communities: fixing
potholes (a never-ending task), scrubbing doorsteps and sidewalks, helping
each other in market stalls, and so on.  If we asked for help, the only
problem was choosing someone to help us.  It seemed that nearly everyone
wanted to. There are always arguments that socialism can’t work because of
the inherent selfishness of human beings.  I have come to believe that
selfishness is only as inherent as the pride in joint accomplishments.

Yes, there are hucksters in Havana; yes, there are those who defect for US
salaries, but there are the people who believe, who know so deeply, that
their accomplishments are worth defending.  From Ernesto who hoped for a tip
but who gave us a tape of Cuban music, Maria who fed our minds as well as
our bodies, musicians who gave us a piece of themselves, hosts everywhere
who gave us information, help, and pleasure, to the children, joyous in
their freedom all over the country.  From them all, we received the gift of
hope. As Fidel says in so many of his speeches, a better world IS possible.

Cuba is the proof.

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