Mixed Emotions

by Juana
(Boston, Ma)

My husband went back to Cuba for the first time in 50 years. He left at age 8 and had memories and family still in the country. I did a lot of research prior to leaving and read many blogs with different views of the current status. I took this trip with the primary goal for my husband to see his family, visit his old neighborhood and grandparents home and to learn something about current Cuban life and see its beauty and people we heard were extremely friendly and helpful.

Since we came to visit family we had more flexibility to see multiple things. We didn’t stay with a certain tour or have one goal in mind. We tried to fit in as much as possible. After seeing life for many Cubans first hand and many conversations as well as returning home and giving ourselves a history of Cuba Sounding as if it’s been a beautiful country with wonderful people who have had some self serving leaders. It sounds as if Castro’s original hope (like most people who turn towards communism) that the people will have equality and a better life.

We saw touristy places not sure how they were funded but were told about 9 years ago Cuban citizens could own property. Since Castro no one owned individual properties or businesses. The problem is people make such modest salaries it is impossible to purchase unless they have help from others outside the country. Family members who left the country but now could send large sums of money so their Cuban families could purchase homes, update facilities and in most cases open Airbnb’s.

We stayed in two different Airbnb’s one in Havana and one in Veradaro. Havana was beautiful, historic, and in the middle of an art exhibition which was wonderful. However with every renovated, clean, beautiful structure a dozen were crumbling and falling apart. Not only were they crumbling but people were living in those dangerous homes.

Food and necessities are still limited per person/per family. I walked into a produce market just to take a few photos and noticed the amount for items. One pineapple was 12.00 Cucs. If I was a Cuban mom wanting to provide that fruit to my family it would cost me my salary for one piece of fruit! As a tourist we were taken to a look out with rest area and photo opportunities after a day of education at tobacco and coffee farms.this rest stop boasted the best Pina Coladas in Cuba. I bought 4 which came in pineapples and included alcohol and I paid 20.00 cucs for 4. Eating in restaurants food was bountiful (except beef) we never walked away from a meal still hungry and costs were very reasonable. We had dinner one night with my husbands family. Some pork, rice and beans and a cole slaw salad. We were told to eat first as the guests, but found out three families pitched in for the meager meal and they wanted to confirm we had enough to eat even if it meant they would go without. Speaking with a waitress at dinner one night a conversation about the cost of meat came up. The girl's mom is a doctor and couldn’t afford the price of pork which was 55 cucs a lb.

My husbands family lived in a two floor 5 room home where 5 adults lived in with one bathroom with no running water (everyone has rain barrels on top of their houses). The house was falling apart. The staircase upstairs where his 76 year old aunt lived had tiled stairs that had no cement holding them on. No railings just a few rusted pieces of steel where a handrail once was. None of the windows were fitted into the sills (probably shifting). No stove just a hot plate. A dark kitchen with a tiny light and a ceiling with huge holes due to shifting. It was one of the saddest things I ever saw. Here we were staying in this beautiful Airbnb and this woman who lived and worked here her whole life lived in these unsafe, unclean, unhealthy conditions. She wasn’t the only one for every one or two houses with updates 3 or 4 were in ruins.

My husband wanted to see where his grandmothers house was and the beach he went to as a child. His grandmothers house was a ruin and in its place a place to leave your trash. We saw this often if there was an empty lot even if just a space between homes it became a place to throw your trash. Lots of wild dogs and cats found meals in these piles. The beach was so so sad. Trash and debris was everywhere. Looked like huge rocks or maybe the remains of a dock. The saddest sight was a hotel that sat right on the beach. It was still standing but a mess. The sad thing was within the rubble and dirt we saw clothes lines drying and evidence that at least one family was living there.

Our last visit was to Varadero. When we mentioned this to our driver and to family members they all said the same thing. Varadero is no longer Cuba. I understood as soon as I got there. Maybe at one time Cubans could go and visit this gorgeous beach However at this point it is too expensive for regular families to stay in the area.

We were told there are over 60 all inclusive hotels on Cuba’s most beautiful beach. Many visitors are European and spend their holidays at the resorts. Although natives work there they cannot afford to stay at these resorts. The beach is long. One side is built up with resorts a small area at the other end are small motel like places were Cubans can stay and in the center are smaller hotels and Airbnb’s. We stayed in this area. I wanted to see the whole beach and the differences. The resort area just like any other resort area. Our area had nice restaurants some shops and lots of entertainment. Further down was where Cubans stayed. We took a walk on the beach one no work day and saw dozens of families, kids groups and teens enjoying the beach. Bathing suits were worn by a few, most kids especially little boys were in their underwear and the adults and teens seemed to go in with their clothes, jeans, leggings, whatever they had on. Another thing that surprised us was there was no lifeguard or security-police presence. There seems to be no drinking age. Open bottles of beer and rum littered along the beach. Several beach parties were very drunk. Many of the children were using the beer and rum bottles to play with in the sand. I just wanted a huge garbage can and a few plastic shovels and pails for the kids to play with. Such a beautiful beach but no one in this area seemed to take much pride in keeping it clean.

Transportation was wild. In Havana old 40s and 50s cars everywhere wanting your fare. Although in photos they look amazing and a time warp. Each cab we rode in was falling apart. From the inside windows that didn’t open or slid down. No air conditioning, no seat belts, pollution and noisy bumpy rides. The novelty wore off quickly. When we were in Viñales we had the opportunity to see all kinds of transportation buses that ran infrequently and were packed like sardines. People standing on the sides of the road showing cucs so cars or wagons would stop. Did I mention on the highways there are no breakdown lanes so the ox and carts or horse and carts are driving next to you on the highway. Some Cubans told us it could take them 2-3 hours get home from work at the end of the day. We also got stopped several times by police for no apparent reason. We were pulled over, driver had to get out show all his licenses and papers might have his car search randomly. This happened to us 4 different times while riding in cabs.

As I said it was beautiful but depressing. Unless I could go and spend a few weeks with home building supplies and extra food for my husbands relatives I’m not sure of someones clothes line. Later on when I was reviewing my photos I noticed most of the items on the line were diapers. Disposable diapers that idea how they could be reused but I was told like most food and necessities they are a rationed item.

We were also warned to bring toilet paper and found many toilet seats did not exist. Toilet paper not available and in many restrooms no soap or water. We didn’t leave our residence without a bag of TP, tissues, wipes, and hand sanitizer.

Although I saw some beautiful homes in Havana old mansions looking as if they are trying to be rebuilt we then took a cab ride down a street with gates entrances, modern cars I. The driveways, security guards on street corners and homes that looked immaculate. We were told by the cab driver that these were the homes of the diplomats. Just seems crazy such a huge huge gap in the haves and have nots. I have no idea how you make things better. I just know we were all glad we had went and done the things we did but still feel depressed and sad for the conditions and struggles so many Cubans live through day to day.

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