In the Caribbean town of Nueva Gerona, on Cuba’s Isle of Youth, a festival is under way. Horse-drawn carts and bicycle taxis take revelers to open fields, where young Cubans drink beer and gather in circles to talk.
Parents walk hand-in-hand with their children, stopping on a bridge to chat with old friends or to play traditional fair games like tossing the ring over the bottle.
From every corner, deafening disco music blares, and tacky floats tower high in the distance, carrying teenagers who shake and spin in bikinis and shimmering headdresses. It is, like the rest of Cuba, a place frozen in time, peaceful, nostalgic, innocent—unaware of what it isn’t.
Nueva Gerona is not a place tourists frequent—it is way-station for visitors from Havana who then travel down a desolate highway to an almost abandoned seaside hotel, The Colony, where trips are arranged to a prime scuba diving and snorkeling spot.
Two women staying at The Colony hotel but eager for a night on the town need to be resourceful in their planning. The hotel staff has no official information and no stirring interest in helping arrange transport. Finally, the receptionist calls a friend who agrees for $30 (in the tourist currency of convertible pesos) to drive his Russian Lada to Gerona, returning at 2 a.m.
Bouillon Not Bullion
Not to waste the opportunity, the driver starts the journey by stopping in the back of the hotel. In full view of a security guard, a woman hustles out a canister of meat and places it in the trunk. Her maneuver is a reminder of the shortages that plague Cuba. At various times, thanks to local policies and the U.S. embargo, such basics as meat, soap, toilet paper, toothpaste and toothbrushes are hard to get. Locals are thankful when tourists offer up pens or bouillon cubes.
The driver makes a small detour on his way out, down a side road to meet a man on a scooter, who unloads the canister of meat, places it on his footboard and smiles and waves as he drives away.
Remarkably, Gerona could be mistaken for a middle-class town, compared with other parts of Cuba. One of the seaside hotel’s valets, his lawyer wife and six-year-old son host the evening’s dinner in their two-bedroom flat, up a collapsing staircase in a complex of Soviet-style apartment buildings.
The couple has a television (tuned that evening to a live speech to parliament by President Fidel Castro), a CD player, and a kitchen stocked with fruit and chicken, bread and vegetables. The only obvious sign of shortages is in the bathroom, where pages from a Russian book have been transformed into toilet paper.
The couple doesn’t yearn to travel—they are happy with a simple life and express no worries about basic food, education and health care. Their only anxiety: what happens to Cuba when Castro dies?
Even in the poorest parts of Cuba, judging by a week-long trip, life seems to function in a tranquil way that isn’t the reality in so many of Latin America’s most down-trodden neighborhoods.
In Trinidad, an historic city of cobblestone streets and pastel-colored buildings, families crowd into two-room stucco homes without water and only dodgy electricity. Yet at least in front of a visitor, there’s little grumbling.
On the wall outside one home is spray-painted “Viva Fidel,’’ and inside a heavy-set woman apologizes for having nothing to offer her guests. The road where she lives is unpaved, her daughter is thirsty and her greatest wish is for new clothes—but she has no complaints. She dresses her daughter in uniform each day to send her to school nearby, and she is starting a renovation of her house.
In Cuba, not surprisingly, an American visitor doesn’t evoke the excitement and envy that was common in Eastern Europe in the 1980s. Yet there is also no animosity—only toward the government of George W. Bush. To Cubans, it seems, the ideal visitor is a Brazilian, who embodies Lula and samba and what many people seem to imagine is the good life.
The system’s decay is not so evident in the people as it is in the buildings and roads, all in desperate need of investment, and in the requests that any child or adult may make—mostly for clothing, any colors, and in any size. Cubans, unabashedly vain, take their dress seriously.
As they do their heroes. First, Che Guevara, whose famous revolutionary face dons T-shirts, hats, and other items hocked eagerly at beach hotels and city stores. And then, of course, Ernest Hemingway, the heavy-drinking writer who seems to have frequented almost every bar in town. A hustler seeking to show a tourist a good time is certain to promise a visit to one of his watering holes.
Even though Fidel gave up smoking, cigars are still puffed with great enthusiasm in Cuba.
The Old Man
Several images stay in the mind: An old man in a starched white suit, puffing outside a rum factory in the historic center; a bearded fellow sitting on the steps of the Havana Cathedral besides a woman entangled in gypsy jewels, both with cigars dangling from their mouths; a raccoon-faced elderly lady dressed in primary colors and large, round sunglasses who takes a drag on the sidewalk by one of Hemingway’s true hangouts, La Bodeguita del Medio.
The Cubans say they have new friends, and many of them: Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who is sending oil, Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who supplies appliances, and China, which is helping any way it can.
In Castro’s Cuba, a visitor can find luxury—at Hotel Nacional in Havana. The famed Buena Vista Social Club members play regularly at the old-world hotel, bartenders serve up mojitos and pina coladas underneath palm trees outside, and $5 extra buys you access to a gym and sauna.
Most interesting is to leave the beaten tourist path and venture on your own—no matter how challenging.
As we drive along the highway lined with sugar cane from Havana to Trinidad, the hired driver buckles over in pain. He steps out of his car and lets a passenger take the wheel, directing her to return to the last exit and seek assistance in the nearest town.
There, two nurses inside a makeshift public health center say they can’t help him and send us to a hospital 15 minutes down the road in a nowhere town called Aguada. By now, the driver is sweating heavily. He has a blood pressure problem, he gasps. His wife, who by chance had decided to accompany her husband for the four-hour drive, looks anxious.
Aguada’s hospital lacks water but has oxygen. A nurse sits the driver down, takes him into a room and hooks him up to a tank.
Outside, a local policeman wanders over to make sure the two foreigners are all right. A hospital worker hangs around to talk about the weather. Three women caring for crying, malnourished babies stand on the hospital roof and ask to have their pictures taken. Bikes and horses pass. Dusk falls. The driver’s wife arranges for another taxi and says her husband will be all right.
Finally, the new driver arrives and takes the tourists on a three-hour midnight drive toward the beach, speeding down an empty road covered with dead crabs. One pierces a tire, and the driver stops and changes it by the light of the moon as if this were part of his daily routine. Aguada fades in the distance and soon we re-enter the tourist zone.
From Havana to Gerona, Aguada to Trinidad, the average Cuban seems content enough (and sensible enough not to clamor loudly for change). The 78-year-old Castro, gaunt and shaky, makes sure tourist and citizen alike know his slogans, spread on the only billboards that grace Cuba’s highways: “Nationhood or Death,’’ “The Battle Continues,’’ and “A Better World is Possible.’’ Just how all three will play out is anybody’s guess.
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