Wednesday, August 22, 2007

So This Is (A Part I’ve Seen of) Cuba

How odd it seemed to be sitting again in front of a computer after two weeks; the screen looked strange, the keyboard felt weird, my fingers were typing the most unexpected combinations of letters, quite far from the words I intended to form. I was only transcribing the notes I had scribbled down on a piece of paper during these two weeks – there is not much continuity, these are random thoughts and impressions (plus some pictures that might or might not have anything to do with the text)– not an essay.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

A sea, from the darkest indigo at the horizon to the lightest green where the waves break on the white sand, passing through the brightest turquoise. Watched from the shade of a beautiful tree with thick round leaves, the size of two hands put together, with clusters of grape looking green fruit, possibly edible.

On the far shore to my left, I can see some of the tiny white houses of the Cubans; no windowpanes, just wood shutters. (Later we found out that those little houses were in fact a summer camp for kids. One day we saw those kids, a long line of them taking a trip on the beach, visiting the marsh (a protected ecological area) that separated the hotel and the beach – they were good looking, well dressed, very nice kids.)

The heat is heavy, but not oppressing. I like to think I can absorb it through all my pores and store it somehow as a shelter against the winter that is soon to come, home, in the north.

The people are poor, but I think they’re proud and relatively happy. They’re blessed with a nature of a marvellous richness.

(On the bus trip to the hotel, I saw a man mowing his short dry lawn, in the little yard of his little house with no glass window panes; decrepit apartment buildings, in dire need of painting, with tiny apartments, with minuscule balconies, and little windows, all with air conditioning units.)

It’s difficult to say what is or would have been better, especially as an outsider. The communists or the Americans? I believe that ordinary people would have been exploited the same and most likely more by capitalists, with access to education and healthcare more precarious. Right now, education (from preschool to university, and beyond) and healthcare are free for all. I’m sure things would have been just as bad as in Haiti or other countries in the Central or South America. (A co-worker, who has relatives in Venezuela and who’s also been several times to Cuba, told me they’re much worse in Venezuela than they are in Cuba.)

Twice, a stronger wave washed on the sand silver fishies, not an inch long, from the schools swimming right at the shore. We hurried to scoop them, with the sand they were lying on, and throw them back in the water. I’m gladly reporting that many of them swam away. They probably got a bit smarter, at least temporarily, and swam in deeper water, because it didn’t happen again the same day.

There is a permanent guard at the entrance from the beach onto the hotel grounds. One night when we returned from watching the sunset, he gave my daughters two grasshoppers he’d made from palm tree leaves and grass.

The Cubans have beautiful names. Some have Spanish names: Julio, Carlos, Pedro, Rosa-Maria, Alejandro. Some have Russian names, like Yuri or Ludmila – how weird it seems to see such names here, so far geographically and ethnically from Russia, yet in a place with its destiny so closely linked to it. (The guide on the bus taking us from the airport to the hotel mentioned how badly the Cuban economy has fared after the fall of the communist regimes in the Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries. It was opening the country to tourism, he said, that helped immensely the recovery of this economy. Most tourists are Canadians, Brits, and Italians, with some Germans, Spaniards, and Scandinavians.) Finally, others have beautiful strange names like Amauris or Mileydis, Raydel, Naybi, Arianny or Luzmila.

On Saturdays and Sundays, local people literally invade the beach.
They are beautiful people. They come in all shades, from the two boys I’ve seen on the beach, black like coals, to the dancer in the nightly show, white-skinned and fair-haired, a perfect copy of Nicole Kidman’s.
At ten in the morning, I saw them standing in the water, chest deep, in groups, men and women, with a bottle of rum, passing it among them. I saw them coming out, drunk, holding hands, some not able to stand straight on two feet, the empty bottles dangling from their hands.

An old man who gives out the chairs at the beach works thirty days for 284 pesos, which means about 11 CUC (convertible pesos) (1 CUC ≈ 1 USD). Every day, he comes to work, 5 kilometres, from his village, on his bicycle, which costs 125 CUC.
We gave him one convertible peso everyday. He is thin, and has bright blue eyes. He is very proud, masking under a slight grumpiness the unease of having to accept such tips from strangers. The Old Man and the Beach… (Few people were tipping, though. We gave wholeheartedly, everywhere we could, aching for not being able in fact to do much more.)
One morning, a couple of days before we left, he came with a big sea shell, ten inches long, maybe eight wide, and asked my husband if he wanted to take it home with him, to Canada. It’s a beautiful shell, rough on the outside, unpolished, inside a superb glossy pink, the pink of new skin that has grown over a healed wound. The ocean is inside it. It is a very beautiful, very precious gift.

The last day at the beach, this year. “Invasion” of locals again. At eleven in the morning, they’re playing volleyball in the water and their bottles of rum are already three quarters empty. I’m feeling very good humoured as I’m sipping my second ron y coca-cola or Cubata as they call it here (cola, dark rum and a dash of lemon juice). This drink always makes me think of Julio Iglesias’s song, I don’t know it’s title but it says something like this: ron y coca-cola/dame un beso Lola/ven conmigo a bailar/no quiero que estas tan sola.

Like a surreal image, I watched an old woman, extremely thin, her emaciated face deeply wrinkled, walking briskly through the water, her flared jeans wet to the knee, wearing a flowery voile tunic, a white turban on her head, and a huge cigar in her mouth. She was amazing! Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera out, and, by the time I had it, she was gone. Too bad.

That’s it. The hour-long bus trip back to the airport is an opportunity to revel again in the beauty of this land, to oscillate between admiration and pity, to read all the slogans written on the walls of buildings or on immense placards: Sí, se puede, Siempre adelante, ¡Volveran!, Socialismo o muerte.

La Havana (and Ernest Hemingway’s places) is for another time, when the children will be older (not us, of course!) and more interested in sightseeing than in playing in the water and making sand castles on the beach. Same goes for the cigars – I don’t want to set a bad example… (We bought a box of Cohiba, though.) Below is the second item in my collection of Che Guevarra t-shirts!

So, another summer’s gone. Till next year…


Amy said...

I liked the musings and snippets, not an essay, format. Well done, it gave me real idea of what it's like. Great pics too.
Glad you're back and thanks again for the honor!

Taffiny said...

Photographs and words creating pictures of what must have been an amazing trip. I like how you touched on different aspects of it, textures, one can feel you trying to take it all in, what was beautiful, what wasn't, what was hard but still somehow beautiful. Thank you for sharing the view with us.

The water looks so clear. Someday I hope to go stand in clear blue (ish) water (and swim in it too). I think I could stand there forever on that pale sand, looking out at the ocean, watching the boats sail by.

Jon M said...

Brilliant pics Vesper, and the writing set them off really well, I'd love to have seen the old woman with the cigar!

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

The photos and the details are incredible. I know very little about Cuba, and you've shown it to me through your eyes.

It's beautiful and sad in a way.

Thank you so much. What a wonderful visit.

Scarlett & Viaggiatore

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing these thoughts! I have a sense of the place that I never had before.

Beautiful, beautiful pictures.

Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

Great pics and thought provoking words, Vesper. Would loved to have seen your Old Woman in the Sea - with cigar. I bet she has stories to tell.

Minx said...

Glad to be home then?

Vesper said...

Thank you for your kind words. I'm glad you liked it. And, you're very welcome - I think you deserve the award.

Thank you. In everything, there is beauty and sadness. The water was amazing - neck deep in it and I could see tropical fish swimming around.

Thanks a lot! Yes, I keep thinking about that woman - she's seen both worlds in Cuba... I'm so sorry I couldn't take her picture!

Thank you so much. You're right, one has to enjoy the beauty even though the heart is heavier with the sadness for the people's fate.

Thank you, I'm glad you liked it. Coming from somebody who's taking such amazing pictures, it means a lot to me...

Absolute Vanilla (& Attylah),
Thank you very much. You know, I sent my husband to follow that woman on the beach, with the camera, but he had to be discrete, and at the last moment she joined a larger group of people and went away with them, so he couldn't do anything. Too bad...

Yes and no. When I think of the almost six-month long winter it's a definite NO. But then again...

Pearl said...

Thanks for that insider's look in words and sound.

colleen said...

I was thrilled to read this and see the photos of Cuba. It reminds me of Puerto Rico. I don't guess Americans can vacation Cuba as easily as others. What a shame. The money economy could so easily fall flat and if so these people will survive fine. They don't live the "buy now pay later" lifestyle that most Americans do. And that phrase goes for more than money. I think of it as an environmental statement too. My favorite part was the men up to their waist in the ocean drinking rum and coming out drunk!

Vesper said...

I'm very glad you liked it!

Thank you. You're quite right - I like the way you're describing the state of things.