This second post on Cuba is dedicated to the more subtle aspects of the being a tourist in the country, the things I didn’t know before I went, and the things I knew but only in theory. For instance, I had heard that people who travel to Cuba bring presents to give to the Cuban workers there. While their basic needs are mostly met, there are lots of things lacking in their everyday. Toilet paper is a luxury, for example, even toilet seats are in high demand. And paper in general is hard to get, so little things can go a long way.
After a trip to the dollar store and Canadian Tire I had collected these items:
I had originally thought that the presents were mostly for the housekeeping staff, so my choices were feminine oriented. I was told they like flashy stuff, bright colours and whatnot, so I made my choices accordingly. What I quickly realized, was that the need was far greater and wider than I could have imagined. Also there is a difference between knowing about needs and actually feeling the need once you’re there. I immediately regretted not bringing more stuff. Not the fun stuff like gum and candies and bracelets, but the practical stuff: batteries, paper, pens, flashlights, tape, tools, books, bike accessories, clothes, matches, and the list goes on and on and on. The place where we were was so rural that even if these things were available in stores, the residents would have to travel to the nearest city, which is difficult because they don’t have cars and the buses are crowded and irregular and, well, these things aren’t readily available. I was shocked at how easy it is for travellers to make life a little easier for the locals, just by packing these simple items. Next time, I’m bringing an extra suitcase, just for stuff.
The other thing I found difficult, was how I felt when I got home. Stuff. Stuff. Stuff. All the unnecessary SHIT that surrounds us here at home. All the different versions of it. The brands, the stores, the malls. It made me queasy before, but upon returning from Cuba, it literally makes me ill. The futility of stuff, when our basic, everyday needs are really so simple. And how much money we spend on junk that WE DO NOT NEED. All the flavours of chips and crackers and juice. All the different stores to get clothes. Knickknacks, trinkets, doodads. All the millions of variations of things, that when you slice it down to sheer need, become superfluous. I am still grappling with this.
There is no recycling in Cuba. The infrastructure is simply not in place, and drinks at the bar are served in tiny little plastic glasses. This is frustrating for two reasons. One, the volume is so small, that you have to keep returning to the bar for the equivalent of a glass of beer. Second, the guilt of throwing away all these plastic glasses starts to weigh on you after a few days. You can recognize the people who have been to Cuba previously because they have to-go cups, which they use for their morning cappuccino and later for their alcoholic bevies. Next time, to-go cups all the way.
This was a source of constant anxiety for me. My mum and I referred to it as CUC anxiety, and I had a bad case. CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) is the tourist currency, and it is approximately equal to one Canadian dollar, and exactly equal to an American dollar. While the resorts are all inclusive, there is the tipping to take care of, a system that intimidated me to the point of freak-out. First, anytime one of the workers does something for you, you give them a CUC. They don’t ask for it, of course. It’s just a thing you do. You leave one on the pillow for housekeeping staff every morning. In the dining room, you leave a CUC on the table after you leave. If the cook at the grill fries you an egg, you leave a CUC on a plate by the grill. The bar tenders get tips. The tour guides get tips. The musicians get tips. This is fine, and expected, but my anxiety came mostly from the question: “is it enough?” and then, every time I left our room, I had to ask myself, do I have enough CUCs? Unforeseen circumstances happen all the time. Once at dinner I only had one CUC and in came the musicians. Shit! I sat stiffly in my chair, not enjoying the music, because I didn’t know who to give my CUC to. The server or the singer. I ended up borrowing a CUC from the nice lady beside me. Of course, this CUC anxiety is more a reflexion of me than anything else, but it is also a reflection of the economic divide. At home, I live below the poverty line, but here, I am rich. Seems outrageous, but it’s true if you consider that the average Cuban makes 20 dollars a month! So even one CUC is NOT nothing. Every tip is very much something, and I felt the weight of this. Also, I had the feeling that the tips were constantly being calculated and though everyone was always extremely friendly, the tip expectation hummed like an overtone. How could it not? This was exacerbated but the fact that after day three, I realized with horror that at the rate I had been tipping, I wouldn’t have enough to last the week. I changed the rest of my Canadian money at the hotel desk and then had to be very careful with every CUC on my last four days. Each one counted, for me and especially for the person I was giving it to. Next time, I will exchange more CUCs than I think I need. Yes, they do add up and it does represent a certain sum, but it is much more meaningful to spend a CUC in Cuba than a dollar in Canada.
It’s a surprisingly beneficial blend that I would never have dared to experiment with at home. It happened in Cuba simply due to the order of activities. Many afternoons I spent horseback riding, and when we got back in the late afternoon, about an hour before yoga class, some of us would have a beer or two and sometimes three with the guide, Chichi, at our usual spot at the bottom of the stairs. We’d chat until I had to go to class, already sweaty and hot and likely smelling boozy. Good thing the sessions were outside with a healthy ocean breeze! At first I was sheepish to show up after having imbibed. I wasn’t drunk by any stretch, but still. There is a spiritual aspect to yoga and so it was a little like showing up for church with whisky on your breath. The surprising thing was how much easier yoga is when lightly under the influence. My downward dog has never felt so good, so relaxed and deep. Now, I don’t know how I looked, but I felt good. My muscles, which are usually painfully taught, were more relaxed and shifted from one position to the next with a new lightness. I still don’t think I’d show up to a class with beer on my breath here in Montreal, but somehow in Cuba it just worked. And maybe I’ll give it a try at home after an evening oat soda. I might be onto something.
This particular photo was taken in the early morning. I was actually quite hung-over, borderline about-to-throw-up, and I can confidently report that while I found doing yoga under the influence of beer to be beneficial, doing yoga while hung-over is very unpleasant and strongly discouraged.
Did I mention Cuba is beautiful?