As a Canadian wandering the humid streets of Havana, who has come to inhale some revolutionary air before the second invasion of the American empire, I discover quickly that I am a key to survival in a world of lack.
Cuba is a country of great beauty, splendid architecture and white-sand beaches whose citizens have overcome adversity through music, solidarity and the big dream of socialism.
But it is also a country of appalling toilets, sketchy access to the Internet, no credit, limited choice and little desire to placate foreigners. I can’t help thinking of the soon-to-be-swarming Americans and realize that the pertinent question is not “Are the Cubans ready for the Americans?” but rather, “Are the Americans ready for Cuba?”
Havana boasts exquisite colonial buildings, winding narrow streets and soul-expanding music that can move the weariest of travellers. But in the many bars and restaurants of Old Havana, those who serve you a mojito or a Bucanero beer make it clear that resistance is still alive and they will not be dominated by foreigners, despite a desperate need for their tourist dollars.
At first pass, locals can seem uninterested in tourists, even haughty, but offer them a smile, a conversation, a little soul, and the revolutionary airs vanish: You are embraced into their warmth and soon looking at family photos on their cell phones, listening to their stories of financial struggle and dreams for an abundant future. A sneer followed by a wink; this is Cuba.
What is missing in most of the country, however, is luxury. Sure, there are high-end hotels in Havana and Varadero, but outside, on the street, in the bars and restaurants, Cuba exposes her lack in unsettling ways.
My partner and I dined in one of the most grandiose hotels in Havana, Hotel Nacional de Cuba, because it advertises that it accepts credit cards – we’re out of cash and the banks are closed. We feast on decent but bland food and are offered only two choices of wine: red or white. It’s the same lean choice with beer: dark or light. No vintages to choose from, no breweries to favour – it’s simply this one or that one, period.
When the bill comes and we present our Visa, there is much consternation as the card is passed to three different waiters until the manager informs us that it is evening, and there is no electronic communication with the banks in the evening, so our card cannot be accepted. We fish for Canadian dollars and pay far too much in exchange. But as we weave through the streets of Havana on our way back to our casa particular, we feel safe late at night in a city of 2.2 million. Violent crime against foreigners, and apparently also Cubans, is still negligible.
The next day, anxious to connect with the online world, we find ourselves on 23 Street, which is one of only a handful of WiFi zones in Havana. The booth that sells WiFi tokens has sold out of tickets, so we negotiate with one of the many scalpers and pay $10 (U.S.) for an hour token, sit down on a cement wall along with dozens of Habaneros and download. My iPhone picks up the signal, but my partner’s iPad wastes most of his hour searching for a connection. Some of the larger hotels have WiFi, but each time we try to access it, the Internet is down, our devices can’t locate the signal or the lineups are too long.
Only a few days after our arrival in Havana, I am already desperate for salad. Salad is on every menu and regardless of the eatery, it is always the same: slices of thin tomato and watery cucumber with shredded cabbage. I’m also starved of fruit. Expecting an abundance in a tropical country, I am astounded by the lean pickings of over-ripe bananas, guayavas and the odd brownish pineapple. Not a mango or strawberry in sight.
It’s much worse outside the cities. When we hit the beach towns, we opt for the non-tourist locales and find ourselves on gorgeous stretches of sand littered with garbage, empty rum bottles and beer cans. There is also no food. While there are small kiosks where one can purchase liquor, the odd tin of German tomato sauce and small chocolate cookies, there is simply nothing that smacks of nutrition. When we finally find a restaurant, we have the same choices that we will have every night for the next two weeks: rice and beans, fried fish or fried chicken with, of course, the ubiquitous “salad.”
The next day, in another beach town, we happen upon a shop that sells ice-cream, proudly advertising 13 flavours, but when I order, I learn that only one is available – cherry.
Food resources, I am told, go to the all-inclusive resorts on Veradero or the high-end restaurants in Havana, while the rest of the country subsists on meagre pickings.
What was most consternating to me, however, were the lavatories. I found myself aghast at the lack of toilet seats, filth on the floor, dearth of toilet paper, absence of water for hand washing and certainly no paper towels.
The most confusing thing in Cuba is the dual monetary system – one for foreigners and one for Cubans. Foreigners pay up to five times the amount for the same items, but will Americans pay American prices for a dearth of choices and often aloof service?
Despite the lack, Cuba is a land rich with history, idealism and joie de vivre or, as the Spanish would say, alegria de vivir.
The Americans will soon descend in the millions and, perhaps, the free market will add some choice to a country that has known restraint for 58 years. Food choice may flourish and liberties may expand. One day soon, there may be plentiful WiFi, oranges and lettuce, but I hope the Cuban spirit remains alive.
When the Americans go to Cuba, I hope they let go of their luxuries and enjoy a country with an almost-100-per-cent literacy rate that has found both a high degree of safety and racial tolerance. I hope they relax and accept less service and fewer choices. But most of all, I hope they leave American expectations behind.
And, I hope they bring toilet paper.