One of the truly wonderful aspects of our visits to Cuba is the friendships we have formed over the years. We have met so many great people, both Canadian and Cuban. The Canadians seem to represent the stereotype our nation has been given: they are unfailingly friendly and completely willing to accept the fact that they are not home anymore, and willing to try to understand the reality of life of the people who actually live here. And the Cubans are happy to meet foreigners and proud to show off their resort and their country. Despite the challenges of living in a land that can best be compared to a political and economic science experiment, they remain unfailingly cheerful, happy and positive. But we have always been curious as to why they are so happy: is it because they are just naturally positive, or is it because they know nothing else than their experience in living in such a closed and insular society?
We have become particularly close to one of the staff at the resort. I will not use his real name because he asked us to keep our visit low key, so I will call him Fred. We've known him for a few years now, and he is easy to like. Fred is a big, athletic, good looking man. He is also good natured, good humoured, and easy going. Over the years, we've been fortunate to benefit from his friendly manner at the resort, and we have done our best to help him out a bit.
This year, we had the opportunity to visit Fred and his family at his home. He lives in Holguin with his wife, Joan, and his daughter Jane (also not their real names). Joan is a dentist, and she also teaches dentistry at a local college. Jane is a ten year old school girl, and is cute and shy: a lovely girl. Together, they make a nice family.
Fred arranged our transportation to Holguin with a taxi driver/ tour guide named Mauro, who I introduced you to in my first post. The plan was to drive in with Mauro, who would wait for us in Holguin for the day while we did some sightseeing with Fred. Then, we'd go to Fred's house for lunch and meet the family. After lunch, Fred would go back to the resort with us and Mauro for his afternoon shift.
It was a hot and sunny afternoon when Mauro parked at the Plaza of Flowers in central Holguin. We had been to Holguin about five years ago, and the scene was familiar to us. It was Saturday, so the square was bustling with families enjoying a day off from work or school. We were astounded at the number of vintage cars still working hard: everyone knows about the old cars in Cuba, and you certainly see them at resorts or in the tourist centre of Havana. But here, the cars were plentiful and decidedly less shiny. They belched out black smoke and made strange and loud noises, but they were working. Nothing touristy about them.
Fred joined us shortly afterward and Mauro left us in his care. Fred is proud of his home town and we visited plazas, shops, the local cathedral, and walked the side streets. The stores were interesting to see. When we visited five years ago, the stores seemed to be badly organized and lacking in goods. We remember that, in one particular store, auto parts were stacked beside toiletries, which were beside light bulbs and next to the school supplies. It was basically whatever the store could get its hands on. But in the stores Fred showed us, there was a plentiful supply of goods, all grouped together in some idea of "departments." Fred wanted us to pay attention to the price of goods. They were not expensive by Canadian standards, but the price was listed in convertible pesos, which meant that they were highly expensive for Cubans. An example would be a washer/dryer set, which cost about 300 pesos. Not bad, but when one considers that a good Cuban working wage is about 20 pesos a month, one begins to see the problem. A washer/dryer is more than a year's wages for an average Cuban.
We visited the basilica and were delighted to see that it was a day for families to bring babies for baptisms. Proud parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and brothers and sisters crowded around the beautifully dressed babies awaiting their turn at the baptismal font. Certainly a proud day for them and further proof as to the importance of family for the Cuban people. Then, to finish off a morning of celebration, we went to a nice covered patio and enjoyed a friendly beer to talk about the greatest of Cuban passions, baseball.
Finally, it was time to find Mauro and drive to Fred's house. Through a rabbit warren of winding, busy streets our '51 Chevy careened and we took in as much as we could. This was the real Holguin, far removed from the downtown areas where the few tourists walked. Now, we were confronted by large crowds of pedestrians and horse and buggies. Fewer cars competed with us for space on the roads, but many large trucks rumbled through the narrow streets. Deeper we went, and, had we been abandoned by our hosts, we would be there still. Finally, we turned off the pavement onto a narrow dirt road and bounced our way past low rise buildings, most of them two and three stories tall. Then, Mauro pulled over and we stepped out to Fred's house.
We climbed a spiral staircase to be greeted by Joan and Jane at the door. A warm welcome brought us out of the hot sun and into the cool shade of their home. As we settled in, Fred told us proudly that he had built the house himself, with some help from family and neighbours. Fred is a carpenter by trade, but he told us he learned plumbing and electricity at school. He began construction in 1995 and it has just recently been completed. He said all these things with a quiet pride that comes from such a solid accomplishment. Fred built the house over top of his father's home, which occupied the main floor. We have seen this many times before in our trips to Latin America. It's a great way to build homes without using up valuable land or paying exorbitant prices for real estate.
We enjoyed a pleasant afternoon of good conversation, despite the fact that many of us didn't know the others' language: my Spanish is non-existent, while Joan and Jane know no English. It was largely Fred and Lou who carried the translation duties. Fred's English is pretty good, while Lou's Spanish is surprisingly good. The lunch was plentiful and delicious: we enjoyed pork medallions cooked in oil and garlic, congris rice, friend plantain, and salad, all prepared by Joan. Cold beer complimented the feast.
The house is small, but comfortable and with many "mod cons". We are led to believe that Fred's salary at the resort is the main source of income when he's working. But he cannot count on full time employment. In fact, he told us that he had been called back to the resort only a day before we arrived, and hadn't worked there since April. When he's not at the resort, he and his dad do carpentry and other construction work. Joan's work is year 'round, and she works at a clinic in Holguin. Thus, they can afford good furniture, appliances and, the pride of the house, a modern and spacious bathroom. Out the back and in the central courtyard of the cluster of buildings sat Fred's workshop. All in all, an impressive house.
We were able to trade ideas and information freely and frankly during lunch. Fred and Joan are honest about their lives: they know they live fairly well, but would like more for themselves and for Jane. When I asked them about the changes in Cuba, they were somewhat stoic about the future. Basically, their attitude was that changes were coming, but slowly, and that they would accept whatever came their way. There was no sense of bitterness or disappointment in their talk. Perhaps that is the Cuban way: they are constantly told about their new freedoms, but are completely realistic and resigned to the slow pace. They are also fully aware of life outside Cuba. Fred discussed a wide range of issues with us that showed that he knew what was happening in the wider world. He also expressed a slight regret that Canada and Cuba were not closer, and by that, he did not mean geographically closer, but rather that relations were not better. I expressed my agreement and, as will be no surprise to readers, blamed Stephen Harper for the colder relations.
We said a fond and reluctant farewell to Joan and Jane, found Mauro and made our way back to the resort. During the ride, we passed through more of the twisting and winding streets of Holguin's suburbs until we found our way to the more familiar highway to the coast. On the way, Mauro and Fred kept up a lively and animated conversation in Spanish. Lou and I sat mostly quiet in the back seat. It had been a rare day, and we needed time to digest all of it. We reached the resort where we deposited Fred outside at the workers' entrance. Mauro drove us to the main entrance and we thanked him for his safe driving and interesting insights.
What did we learn? Are we better off for the visit ? And, are we more "expert" in all things Cuban? Hard to answer. We certainly felt honoured to be part of the lives of these people, even for a short time. We learned a lot, but not enough to claim to be "expert." I doubt if even Cuban people themselves would claim to be "expert" on their own country. Cuba is endlessly fascinating, endlessly complicated, and always will be. Why ? Because it is changing in noticeable and interesting ways. We feel as though we have been invited in to a party that is just starting to get going. It would be rude and impolite not to stay a bit longer. And so, we will return to continue our education in this earthly and imperfect Paradise.