03.10.2012 - 27.10.2012
Socialism versus capitalism/commercialism.
The basic premise of Fidel's socialism is a classless society. Everyone has the same opportunities. People are provided with the basic neccessities for living, i.e. food rations of rice, black beans, sugar, and of course rum and cigarettes for the older generations, a house or apartment, a job, free medical care and free education, including university, and on top of this a minimal wage to pay for other necessary items. Privelages such as better housing and vehicle ownership are awarded to people with higher ranking jobs such as the military. Money sent from relatives overseas also provides oportunities for improved lifestyle. But essentially everybody has very little. However with the introduction of tourism in the 1990s (prior to the mid 90s tourism was restricted to resort holidays and locals were forbidden to mingle with foreigners) came opportunities for increased income above their wage and hence opportunity to improve lifestyles. Today Cuba appears to be a population aching for capitalism. They see foreigners as a dollar sign. At times it feels as if everybody is trying to make a buck out of you. The sad effect of this is that it reduces the quality of the interactions foriegners experience with locals. We had children as young as five approach us asking "un dollar?" and holding out their hand. It is interesting that despite the pro-socialism slogans painted everywhere - on trees, bustops, motorway overbridges, and walls of buildings, the human drive to improve upon what they have is still alive and well in Cuba. They may well be a very happy people, however they seem to think that they will be happier if they have more. It does seem to me that life would be more rewarding if they sought genuine interactions rather than trying to acquire money all the time. And I or one am more inclined to chose the taxi that sits quietly waiting for me to approach rather than the one chasing me down the street yelling "Taxi, lady?!? Where are you from? I give you good price! Where you want to go?" But that's from the perspective of traveller tired of being harrassed. My friend Clare and I were offered "Taxi? Boyfriend? Husband?" more than once!
What I do find interesting is that despite being such a proud nation, they have no qualms about sticking their hand out and begging or using scams to try and trick people out of money. Although in saying that, for every beggar we have encountered we have come across ten people trying to earn a dollar by dressing up to pose for photos, selling peanuts, playing music, etc. I asked our host if milk was expensive or hard to come by as we had several women stopping us in the street pointing to our kids and asking if we have milk for their children. We are thinking maybe we should talk to Fonterra about sending milk as aid but our host then informs us that they get milk powder as part of their rations, enough for 24 litres per month, and extra rations if they have children. UHT milk is readily available at the mercado, and is not really cheap but is affordable enough for most people to get if they need it. Her thoughts were that they are hoping we will say 'no' (because who carries milk with them for a 4 and 7 year old???) and then feel bad and give them money instead. Begging without asking directly for money.
Daisys own private playground - A two-tiered system in a classless society.
In Trinidad, we attempted to take Daisy to the playground. The first time we arrived at 12 noon and the children were all filing out. Th gates were then shut by an elderly getleman who saw us and invited us to come in. The local children stood outside jeering at the man. We weren't entirely sure why the playground was closed, or why they needed a man there enforcing it. We wondered if it was in order to ensure the children went home for lunch - as there were no adults supervising as there would be in New Zealand. The children all just wandered down there unaccompanied. After the first attempt to go down te slide, Daisy discovered there was another good reason to close the playground. The equatorial sun is inceddibly fierce and Cuba at midday is scorching. The apparatus was unbearably hot, and there was no shade. We abandoned the attempt and promised Daisy we'd return later in the day. Around 6pm when the heat had left the sun and the afternoon rain had cooled the air, we returned only to find that once again the children were being ushered out and the gates locked by the elderly gentlemen. He beckons us in and gestures to the apparatus indicating it was ok for us to play. Little white girl Daisy ran around in her pretty dress playing on the playground while hoards of black and brown children watched through the fences, apparently pleading to the elderly man. The coincidental timing made it felt like the playground had been cleared for our little princess. I commented to my friend Clare that it did not feel right for Daisy to be given this special privelage in the face of the local children. In an attempt to ease my middle-class guilt, Clare reminded me that that the Cuban classless society extends only to locals and if they wish to charge us 3-4 times more than locals for everything else, then it works both ways, and that means because we can afford to pay a tip to the playground guard, we get to use the playground out of hours. Eventually a woman entered with two girls and appeared to be yelling at the man while pointing to us and the gentleman wandered over and indicated we had to leave. We paid him a dollar for the privelage and his overtime and left. Whilst he didn' ask for money, we assumed that was what he hoped for when he let us in. And even if he didn't expect it, he appeared to have copped a lot of flack for doing us a favour. An interesting social position which despite the discomfort was well worth it for the smile on my girls face for the 20 minutes she had as 'queen of the playground'.
Cuba is incredibly hot. We arrived to amost unbearable heat. The air was thick with humidity and barely a zephyr could be felt. We sat in a sticky chair and drank cool mojitos dreading the time whne w would have to move again. However, over the next few days we acclimatised and a breeze did develop. Heat is not the most significant feature of Cuba's climate though. Most days we have experienced torrential rain which comes on almost as suddenly as it dissappears again. Several centermeters appear to fall within anywhere between 5 and 30 minutes and then the sun returns as if to say "sorry I made a mess, I'll clean it up again now". Within an hour there is little trace of the downpour other than the puddle-filled potholes that are the defining feature of Cuban roads. Most days there is thunderstorm, sometimes witht he rain and sometimes without. In Trinidad each night as the sun set, lightning forked across the sky every few seconds lighting it up like firworks. It was the most phenomenal sight. And the thunder sounded like someone was starting a Harley on loud speaker above your head! There were more than a few times when we lept out of our skin! Then there was the hurricane. Because if you are going to Cuba in hurricane season you have to be there during a hurricane! Luckily we just caught the edge of it and although their was some decent wind and some brief heavy rain, it wasn't much compared to what we are used to in Wellington. Not many places in the world could rival Wellington for dramatic weather but I think Cuba beats it. Whilst it doesn't appear to have the cold it certainly is unpredictable and extreme. My weather highlights are the lightning and thunder storms and getting caught in the horozontal but warm torential downpour at The Plaza de la Revolution, just as the final photo of the kids and I was taken in front of the giant iconic Che Guavara outline. The run back to the car left us drenched (and showered) for the evening. The best thing about the heat is that getting caught in the rain is actually a pleasant experience!
I have to say that all in all, Cuba was a place that definitely grew on me. It was overwhelming initially. The noise, the harrassment, the decrepitness. But once we got used to that we started to relax and enjoy it. Especially when we knew our way around each place. All in all it was good. I would like to write some more when I get the chance and post some more photos.