God forbid I let the locals see me dance, I can hear the laughter now. “Koo-bah!” Soft sandy beaches, swimming in the warm ocean waters of the Caribbean, sipping on some local rum, old American cars in the streets, puffing on a cigar. This will be our first big trip since having children five years ago. Our first child-less trip. To say we are excited is an understatement. This will also by my first time in an all-inclusive resort. I have never been drawn to the notion of an all-inclusive. I understand the appeal of as much food and drink as your heart desires.
Because this will be my first all-inclusive, I decided I will just go with it and enjoy what the all-inclusive life has to offer a busy parent who needs a break. The closer we are getting to our departure date, the more concerned I am becoming that I will go completely crazy being stuck in a resort. I just keep thinking of all the experiences I could be having outside the resort. Even simple things like walking around a small town to see how they shop for food. I would love to see what things count as luxuries in Cuba.
A little introspective soul searching could do me some good. What brings people happiness in this place? Would that bring happiness to me? Cuba is no different than any other place in the world, in that, there is a certain level of ‘needs’ that must be met in order for someone to first feel safe, then content and happy with what one has, and then able to pursue ones desires over ones wants. It can be eye-opening for most Westerners who have never travelled to less wealthy nations to see what counts for a ‘good life’.
Cubas modern history has been interesting to say the least. The long-standing embargo on trade between Cuba and the United States has no doubt affected both countries, certainly having a more negative impact on Cuba. As a Canadian, our history with Cuba is a little different, a little more positive. Canadians are the most frequent visitors to Cuba. Recent events have led to a process of rescinding the trade embargo between the United States and Cuba, as well as lifting a longstanding travel ban for Americans wanting to travel there. An open Cuba means more trade with the US which in turn means more tourism. Cuba is certainly unprepared for such high levels of tourism. But the appeal of the money that tourism can bring will encourage them to build out a more tourist friendly atmosphere and infrastructure. I am interested to compare current Cuba to Cuba ten years from now.
To alleviate the risk of too much tourism Cuba has hiked up hotel prices because there is only so much accommodations to go around. Another interesting solution for accommodating more tourists has emerged, which will also appeal to those seeking a more “authentic” Cuban experience: the casa particular, Spanish for “private house.” Local Cubans are renting out rooms in their houses for about $30 per night. Some can be found online and others are marked outside houses by a sign depicting two blue triangles on a white background. Run like a bed and breakfast, this is a great way to experience local culture and to support local Cuban families directly. This is one way that Cubans will take advantage of a growing tourism industry. This marks quite a change in Cuba from a country with an economy completely run by the Communist State. The government is starting to allow more private enterprises like the casas. Although the system is highly regulated with the government taking a cut, it does show that the government is becoming more open to capitalist style economics.
One problem the casas may have is the inability to obtain enough food for their guests. Cuba has been under Communist rule for over 50 years. Under communist rule all Cubans are eligible to receive food rations, along with free social services, healthcare, and education. Many Cubans are concerned about their ability to get enough food for themselves and the tourists who visit. The rations Cubans receive every month last for about 1/3 of that month for most families. The rest of their needs must be met on the average income of $20 per month, which of course is a challenge.1 Most Cubans are concerned about what will happen to these government subsidies while at the same time being optimistic about the money that will come to the country through tourism.2 If I had known about these casa particulars before booking my trip I may have considered staying in one for a night or two, sounds like it is an amazing way to learn what being a Cuban is like.
As I have started to research and learn more about Cuba there is a growing desire looming in me to experience a little more authentic Cuba. I am exploring some excursion options while staying at the all-inclusive. The first one that caught my attention was of course swimming with dolphins. I am not sure how authentically Cuban this is, but it seems like something humans could universally be excited about. Dolphins! They are amazing! Crazy smart, very social, mammalian friends to humans. Did you know a dolphin can die from breathing in 1 tablespoon of water into their lungs, humans on the other hand take about 2 tablespoons. Needless to say, “Dolphins! Heck yes!”
Another excursion I was exploring was a guided jeep tour through the Cuban countryside, with stunning views, visiting farms, restaurants, and a cockfighting arena (this part may not be for everyone). A sugar tour is another option. Learning about Cuba’s long history of sugar production, open bar and lunch, finishing with rum and cigars of course. What is more authentically Cuban than sugar, rum and cigars?
One of my favourite things to do when I am in unfamiliar places or foreign countries is sit and/or walk around and people watch. I like to see how normal life is, what makes a place run, what makes people love their home country or town. This probably seems boring to most people, but after years of studying religion, history, and sociology I am continually enamored by both the similarities and differences found among human peoples. Stripped down we are all human. Different conditions have left the average North American and the average Cuban in starkly different situations in life. Yet forms of discontent and forms of happiness can abound in all cultures and in all places. To find meaning in which ever situation we find ourselves in is a primally human instinct. This desire for meaning and purpose is what connects me and every Cuban I may meet. I may think I am rich, but sometimes my poverty becomes so mind numbingly apparent when I stop and see how others find such deep meaning in their lives with so much less “things”. Meaning is not synonymous with happiness, they may cross paths, but they will never be the same. Something may fulfill you and never bring you happiness. Some things might make you feel happy and euphoric but leave you emptier than you have ever been before.
Sorry, sorry, I did it! That introspective soul searching sometimes digs deep in my brain. I think too hard. Sometimes it hurts. I do love it, but it may not be the most interesting thing to read for most people.
I forgot to mention that we (my wife and I) are going to Cuba with ten of our closest friends. It will be very fun, and I am excited about that. It will be a much-needed vacation from our dear children we love so much. I just realized after the trip had been booked, that I couldn’t imagine having gone to a country and not experiencing a bit of local life outside the resort. The historian in me can’t imagine experiencing nothing of the Communism that Castro left behind. I hope this will not be my only trip to Cuba in my life.
Perhaps I will let the locals see me dance. Perhaps they would like to laugh at me. I am okay with that.
- see Julia Salvatore article in http://www.cubastories.com/cubans-worry-their-food-will-disappear/
- for a little more information on how the Cuban rationing system works https://insightcuba.com/faq/how-does-cuba%E2%80%99s-food-rationing-system-work