February 18, 2017 · Centro Habana, Cuba.
CUBA, PERSONALLY 2016 February
A bit about, 7 Cubans, 11 tour mates and a Presidential Campaign. (I hope you find one of these stories interesting please feel free to cursor down to make sure you have not missed something.)
When I organized my trip to Cuba, I did so with the intent of meeting Cubans. Since my Spanish is not good, I opted for a tour, that would have us staying in family homes and not hotels. This made getting internet a challenge, since Cuba has only had the internet for 9 months, it’s hot spots are upscale hotels and the City square. The limit on internet access, made it difficult for me to be timely with my postings.
When I arrived and went to stay in homestays, I found the homeowners spoke as much English as I did Spanish. This made it difficult for me to have the interface I had hoped for.
Two young people doing their best in a challenging situation
Upon my arrival in Santiago, a week into the three week tour I was desperate to make connections both internet and interpersonal. Having found the town square, I attempted to get onto the internet and let others know what I had been up to. But I could not. A young man, who was selling internet cards for a dollar for the market price of two, asked if I wanted to buy cards. I told him, ‘No, I have the cards, I cannot get connected.’ He then offered to help me connect which he did. His name was Lindy and I was very happy to have had his help, and rewarded him more than the $1 premium he was charging for cards. I suggested to him instead of working the margins on the phone cards, he would make more money helping tourist like me with their internet challenges.
As we talked I noticed a young lady who was watching us interact. She seemed to be affixed to my 3-way pen (pen, flashlight and touch screen pointer). I offered it to he and she accepted. I then proposed to the three of them we have lunch and Lindy could be the translator. We had nice lunch in a nearby restaurant. Lindy had been studying computer technology, but then had to do his military service, which he just completed. He was now trying to figure out what to do next and was selling phone cards and tomatoes to make money for he and his family. His dream to work with computers and help support his family.
The young ladies name is Dalia, she lives with her parents and little brother outside of Santiago with her one year old baby girl. Her mother works in a book store, making a wage of $4 per month. The average wage in Cuba is $7 per month. Of the poorer countries I have been to, this is the lowest wage structure I am aware of. In Albania and Macedonia, it was about that much per day, and in the USA per hour. They enjoyed their lunch, I enjoyed their time. I paid Lindy for getting me connected and showing me how to stay connected. And for Dalia, age 20, I gave her something to help with her daughter and family, equivalent to 6 months wages, but for us the cost of a nice dinner. Her dream, to be a dancer.
These two young people were nice and kind doing the best they could in difficult situations. I have great respect for them and hope their lives go well and improve as Cuba does too, I hope.
Take me out to ballgame
After having success in finally meeting locals, when I arrived in Havana with a free day, I sought a repeat performance. What I wanted to do was something Cuban, with Cubans. I asked the receptionist at my accommodation if there were any baseball games (Cuba’s national sport) being played the next day and could he find a Cuban who spoke English to go with me? He said he would check with the owner and get back to me.
Having returned from a night of Cuban, Casino dancing, the receptionist Jorge, informed me that there would be no games until the weekend, but there would be different age groups practicing at the stadium; including his girlfriend’s son and he had permission from the accommodation owner to go with me for the day.
So off to the ball games/practices we went, in the most traditional way possible, in a 1950’s vintage auto. Just like the good ol’days.
There we met up with Ismarie his girlfriend, Frank her son and Frank her ex-husband; who I referred to as the ball park Franks. We watched various men’s and women’s teams practice and even the women’s teen national championship team. The Championship team, seeing me with the camera, went into various poses seeming to enjoy the moment. The ball park Frank’s went home, the son with an SF hat; while Jorge, Ismarie and I took the local transportation and ate a local restaurant. It was the best meal I had in my time there, and I had many a meal.
As it turns out, Jorge and Ismarie worked at the same company (similar to Brinks), he left recently to get into the accommodation business, and Ismarie remains as an accountant at the security company.
When I got back from the days outing, I was quite tired, and accidently formatted one of the SD chips I had pictures of the day saved on. The pictures I have are not as good as the one’s I lost. Jorge has taken the disc and is hoping to have someone recapture our pictures of the day.
I enjoyed the day out with locals, doing what locals do, enjoying their national sport, in a not dissimilar way to the way I remember doing as a youth and in the same type of cars.
Getting out of line, when there is none
One thing I found out in Cuba, was lignin up was not a simple thing to do. In Cuba there appears to be one line for many things. When one arrives at a line, as I later found out, words or gestures are made to let the new person know where their place in line was. The line hierarchy apparently gives preference to local over non-locals.
On this day my goal was to get some internet passwords, so I could send out updates on my where abouts and happenings. As I waited in a crowd, which constituted a line outside the phone company’s door a lady asked me something in Spanish. I said, I do not speak Spanish, I just want to get a phone card. She then talked to someone else got into the crowd and motioned me over to stand in front of her.
At this time there were about 20 or so persons in the crowd/line, with 2 or 3 being let in at a time, based on if they wanted an internet card, a phone top up card, or to pay a phone bill. Slowly we moved to the front of the line, as well as a solidly built serious looking man who had arrived later than us and had stepped up next to me. When it came my turn, the man stepped in front of me to go in, the lady put her hand between us and eyed the man back. She had my back covered, literally.
I went in and got my phone cards and on the way out saw the lady doing her business. I thanked her in Spanish and left her one of my traveling cards, which is quite simple my name, email and a statement, that there are no strangers for me, just people I have not met. She responded with a smile and I was thankful for her help.
While I was in western Cuba I got an email from her, stating she was happy to help and appreciated my appreciation. I told her I would be back in Cuba on my last day and would be happy to take her to dinner in appreciation. Her name is Xiomara.
We met where we had last seen each other. I asked where she would like to go to dinner, she mentioned a place her best friend had worked, but it was very expensive and the type of place frequented by creative types. The sun had still not set and the restaurant was near the sea, so I walked us along the waterfront.
Xiomara is a computer person, who puts together video, and music for dance nights and also does computer work for others. But is having a bit of a challenge due to her computer being friend by one of Cuba’s frequent power outages/surges Her mom is 70 and is on pension now and used to work for the Canandian, Uk and Swiss Embassies.
As we walked we came across a negative space sculpture making the number 7. I like negative space sculptures and I like to have fun with sculptures when I see them, no need for them to be static. Xiomara posed, formally for some pics, but then when she saw what I was looking for posed informally.
We went to dinner at her friend’s prior workplace, and I told Xiomara, as I tell everyone I eat with, order what you like. So she did ordering a filet and me lobster. We had a number of drinks and dessert and she texted her friend who was now in Hollywood, how exciting it was to eat at this restaurant of hers. She was very appreciative of my appreciation of her kind act, when I was out of line. While it was an expensive meal by her standards (remember the average wage in Cuba is $5 per month), it was not by mine, when all was said and done cost of appetizer, meal, drinks, desert with tip $60, a few hours wages in the USA, an annual wage in Cuba.
We followed dinner by meeting her 70 year old mother, who was originally from Jamaica but move many years ago to have a better life in Cuba. She now lives on a pension of $7 per month. They own their own home, with no mortgage, as 90% of Cubans do. It was nice to share the evening with these two kind ladies and to be invited into their home, for a friendly conversation.
I hope Xiomara can find a new computer and get back to her career. I will be looking into ways to post her one. I gave away my un-needed laptop computers to others before my departure, so I will check around to see if I can find something for her.
While military intelligence is considered by many to be an oxymoron, military imagination is even more so. Olexis our tour guide shared his experience in mandatory military servitude, which is required here as well as in many European countries.
Olexis’ father is a Captain in the military and handles criminal investigations of misdeeds by soldier and officers, and has always discourage Olexis from making the army his career. None the less, Olexi opted to join military high school (he liked the way the men looked in uniform). By high school’s end he had decided the military was not for him, but he still needed to do his year of obligatory service.
Once assigned to his unit, he found out it was one of the least desirable units to be assigned to. Fortunately, on his first day his well learned and crisp salute to his Master Sargent and other officers was duly noted and he was made the equivalent of a Corporal and was involved in the training of his peers, without having to go through the rigors of being trained. All was good for these first 45 days, but then came the day of reckoning, he with his peers now were assigned military duties in the battle of the sugar cane. This meant fighting with the canes from sun-up to sun-down, not matter the weather, humidity or winds.
It was not a battle Olexis had in mind or wanted to fight. He opted for a counter offensive, this included slacking in his work. This got him a five day suspension and relegation to the barracks, a welcomed change from being in the ‘caning fields’. But once the suspension was served, back into the fields he went. A few days later, a friend who had been in military jail for the last few weeks reported to Olexis his jail experience, which included lying about all day, getting food as he wished and living a charmed existence. Olexis was quite charmed about this story and went about getting himself ‘arrested’ for failure to complete his duties. This landed him back in the barracks where he awaited the jail truck that would take him to the bliss of prison and out of the ‘caning fields’, but after 4 days there was no truck and he was returned to battle the cane once again.
Drastic situations require drastic measures. At this time in Cuba’s history a program had started that permitted Cuban’s to leave Cuba to perform humanitarian work oversees, and when one was permitted to go, the families where given time to spend with the family member who was to leave. On this note, Olexis informed his commanding officer, of his brother’s selection for such overseas humanitarian work. As a result, Olexis was given 4 days leave from the fields to spend with his departing brother. A brother, who did not exist in reality, but only in Olexis’ desire to get out of the thicket of cane fighting. Shortly after his return from his non-existent brother’s side, the Cuban military found Olexis unfit to fight the battle of the cane, and reassigned him to do underground work as a potato digger, work which he did not like either but was preferable to fighting the cane from sunrise to sunset. After 10 months, 8 days, 8 hours and 17 minutes of agrarian service to Cuba, Olexis had completed his on the ground military service to his country. He went on to University where he studied and taught English, now serving as a tour guide and being touted by his clients to become President under his other name Santiago.
Being personable is how I enjoyed Cuba, personally.