Monday, March 10, 2003
Ruth at the keyboard
We arrived in Montreal in the wee hours of the morning yesterday. With a change of temperature of over 40 degrees, the beach at Santa Lucia seems light years away. Montreal is REALLY COLD, though Elie and his friends say it was colder last week. At his moment, I can’t imagine anything colder. Avi and I were walking from Elie’s house to a lookout on Mount Royal, a trip supposedly of a half hour by foot, when the wind blowing on my cheeks (everything else was covered) made us wuss out and take a cab.
Being with our boys has been the highlight of the trip. Last night we went to Spirit Lounge, a funky vegetarian restaurant that Elie had heard about, but hadn't been to yet. The decor is original "funk" highlighted with aluminum foil. The food is creative and yummy, a set menu for the main courses, with sorbet and desserts optional. However, this restaurant has its rules: You can order your main course in one of three sizes, but you MUST eat up everything on your plate or pay a fine of $2 which is then matched by the restaurant and given to charity. The rule regarding dessert is somewhat different: If you don’t finish dessert, you are barred from the restaurant. To our surprise and delight, the boys treated us (and cousin Josh) in honour of my upcoming birthday. I also reminded them that the previous day was International Woman’s Day.
Our last day in Cuba was International Woman’s Day. This day seems to be much more important in Cuba than here in Canada. On that day we were in the town of Gibara, a town of 16,000 33km north of Holguin (where there is an international airport). For your information, Gibara claims that Christopher Columbus landed here in 1492. In the 19th century it was a major port, and now it is a sleepy town with a small fishing industry and a shipyard that produces fiberglass boats. There seems to be quite a bit of restoration work happening in the town.
Oh yes-International Woman’s Day. Throughout the day we saw cakes being delivered to women all over town. By late afternoon and into the evenings and night, we saw parties of women (occasionally including some men) sitting outside their homes, with decorations, food, & drink. I was greeted throughout the day with salutations marking the day. We spent most of the day lazing about on an idyllic beach outside of town where we found powder fine sand, interesting reefs for snorkeling, and no other tourists. There were a few local kids and a couple of college students home for the weekend. On this trip to Cuba we spent more time on beaches that we did in our previous trip, especially during the second week after Elie left us. Some of the time has been on tourist beaches (such as the 3 plus days spent at Santa Lucia, days 10-13 of our 14 days) and some has been on isolated beaches such as the one I just mentioned.
Some other highlights of the Cuba trip:
-Baracoa: a lovely colonial town of 50,000 which also claims to have been the first visited by Christopher Columbus. It is the first Spanish settlement in Cuba and its architecture reflects the colonial period with a frontier town feel to it. From this town, we took a day trip to the mouth of the river Yumuri, where we hiked and cooled down in the river guided by a group of kids who latched on to us. These kids latched on to us after we rejected hoards of adults telling us how difficult their lives are. Some of these adults were more successful than others - they managed to shake some $$ out of us. We rejected the offers of seafood, but accepted offers of cocoa (regional specialty) and one of the men was lucky enough to get the job of guarding our car. One of the cocoa ladies also profited when Elie gave away his towel. We also purchased some balls of cocoa (pure, unadulterated) and some of you may experience the pleasure of us making the cocoa a la the recipe that one of the women provided us. But in case you don't, we've included one photo with this email of us together with the Cocoa Ladies.
-On Day 7, on the way to Holguin in order to drop off Elie at the airport, we came across a group of musicians jamming on the back of a truck, parked along the road in a small village. They were a bit drunk and happy, glad to see this family of tourists with their digital camera, glad to see the 3 male tourists join them on the truck. Among their repertoire, was the song Mayari, a song that we heard over and over again. This is significant only in that we had just passed Mayari. In addition to the musicians on the truck and us, there were a number of townspeople and a local official. The townspeople had also been drinking. The official, I believe, was head of the local CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution). He was serious, kept watch that I was not being harassed, and kept control of the festivities.
- Day 9 in Camaguey, we went to the market. This was the first time we saw a well-stocked permanent market. We were excited by the batidos (fruit shakes) and the vegetarian (corn and yucca) fritada. It isn't always easy to travel Cuba with a vegetarian and albeit a meat-eater, but one who does not eat shellfish or pork products. At one of the vegetable stalls, a vender was kidding around with Avi by suggesting he buy some beets. When he responded with "...but I don’t have a kitchen." The banter continued with Avi suggesting that she cook a vegetarian meal for us. She was quite surprised by this offer, felt a bit embarrassed because her home was simple and "ugly,” but after discussing the offer with a friend (also a vendor), she sent us off shopping for vegetables and the dinner would happen in her friend’s home. The evening turned out to be one of our best, both in terms of a culinary experience, as well as a social one.
It is hard to believe that from here we are heading for Portugal and not to Vancouver and back to work.
Thinking of you,
Avi at the keyboard
A few random thoughts about money:
The Cuban peso is worth about a nickel in our money. Cubans with regular jobs earn in pesos. We’d ask from time to time what they made. The woman in the marketplace we shared dinner with told us she pulls in about 20 pesos a day. Yes, that’s a buck. She does it by working a 12-hour day - seven of them in a week (though Sunday is only 6 hours). The guard doing night duty along the beachfront of our fancy hotel makes 230 pesos a month (5 nights/wk) (under $15 Canadian). Rafael, the architect with whom we spent several evenings in Santiago, is managing the redesign and rebuilding of a health clinic. His 5-days/wk professional government job pulls in 450 pesos per month. One day one of the hitchhikers we picked up was a woman who is an engineer. She commented that most of the engineers in Cuba are women. My socialist-leaning heart swelled in admiration, until she explained that men prefer to go into driving cab or working hotels so that they can get into contact with foreigners and get some dollars. And there’s the Cuban reality. Yes, rents are cheap (in our terms- though not always in theirs), education and medical care are universal, basic foods are rationed so that no one starves. But if you want anything interesting - say an electric fan or a bottle of honey, you need dollars.
The evening we went to watch the local team play baseball in Santiago, we ended up going into the stadium in two groups. I, who had gone with our Cuban companions to park the car, got my ticket paid by Rafael and slipped in the gate at the Cuban rate of one peso admission. Ruth & the boys got stopped on their attempt and sent to the tourist gate - $2.00 apiece. Of course, I had paid a dollar (33 times the combined admission price of us three Cubans) to have the car "watched" during the game.
Having the car watched was one of our constant dollar drains. Here we just call it "parking" and include it in our assumed costs of vehicle operation. Same there, but instead of parking lots or meters we were constantly having it "watched". For dollars. Always by a male, of course. The women were busy being underpaid engineers. In Santiago de Cuba our landlady directed us to the old man who lived down the block. Each night we parked on the street in front of his doorway. He spent the entire night sitting up, machete at his side, near our car. Payment? Two dollars.
For those things that Cubans do (and foreigners usually don’t) we could get away with spending pesos. A glass of guarapo (freshly squeezed cane juice) was a peso. So was refresco (disgusting sweet artificial fruit drink). In Camaguey we went one night to the local theatre - some two actor bizarre production about aging and fear. At least we think that’s what it was about. Maybe our Spanish wasn't as good as we had hoped it would be. Or maybe this was just a play that would have been attended primarily by friends of the actors if it had run at the Vancouver Fringe. Anyway, we were part of an audience of about 40, all of whom had paid 2 pesos for live theatre. The next night we played it safer and plunked down two pesos apiece to the local movie house to see Hombres En Negro II.
So we were frequently being viewed as a source of dollars by the locals who really do need them. Several people we talked with confirm that in the old days a peso really got you something and their salaries were adequate and the stores had stuff worth buying. What, you ask, are "the old days"? That means 1990 or before. In case your grasp of current events isn't complete, I'll point out that 1990 marked the collapse of the USSR, and it’s ability to prop up the economies of it’s allied nations.
Of course, Cuba would do much much better if it could simply enter into trading relationships with Uncle Sam. Everyone will tell you about the pernicious effects of the "economic blockade" - and I believe it. But capitalism is truly transnational and, Helmes-Burton law notwithstanding, able to deal with the Cubans quite effectively. After constant debate between us as to whether we preferred Bucanero or Crystal - Cuba‚s two leading bottled beers - we discovered that they are both produced by Labatt’s. Sherritt Mining (a Canadian company) runs the big polluting nickel processing plant we passed in Moa.
Cubans lack $$ for large scale investment - but I got the sense that they also lacked initiative (or were smothered by centralized bureaucracy) for small scale stuff. The women who hustled us for their homemade balls of Cocoa were among the very few we met who actually had anything original to offer. And every woman in the area had the same thing. We found very little handcraft or artwork in the country. Coconut shells abounded, but you didn't find carved figures to flog to tourists. No one cooked anything for sale that was unique. And so it went. Elie saw a metaphor for Cuba in the baseball game. Good pitching and hitting, but no hustle. No one dived for a ball. No one risked a three base run when a safe two base would do. I suspect these observations would fall right in line with the pro-market propaganda of the Fraser Institute and their ilk. But despite the great bulletin boards along the roadside proclaiming how the Revolution was made each day by the glorious efforts of a determined people, I suspect few folks were reading them. They were instead looking for foreigners whose cars they could "watch".
Enough of this drivel. Time to send the letter off and go to a Country & Western bar (in Montreal??!) Elie has picked out. I think I may have figured out some of the quirks of the dreaded Telus webmail ˆ if some of you would confirm receipt of this letter I’d appreciate it. I also appreciated your earlier responses to my comments about sun, potholes and whether or not you are chopped liver if you don’t get picked up in a club. Next stop - Lisbon!