Saturday, 31 October 2009

An education in the Carribean

Is ignorance bliss?

During the five days I spent in Havana, I was waiting for an opportunity to speak to a Cuban and ask them what it is actually like to live in a communist society. I observed the women carrying their children on their hips and wondered why they had no pushchairs; I wandered along the Malecon and watched the groups of Habaneros gather on the seawall as night descended and realised this was their Saturday night's entertainment; I pondered the crowds hitch-hiking by the side of the motorway and climbing onto rickety wagons pulled by thin ponies. This was a society of scarce possessions and I desperately wanted to know how people lived like that.

At Varadero I got my chance.

The skinny peninsula in the north of the island is a world away from the capital. This is the only place where workers can keep their tips and is therefore seen as El Dorado. While they may earn more than the 20 pesos per month average, they may not live there - Varadero is for rich tourists only. Instead they are bussed across the bridge at the Kawama Channel from Matanzas, where most live, to the various resorts that line up along the Hicacos Peninsula, each claiming their slice of white powder sand and turquoise water.

At our resort there was a team of entertainers who organised games of petanque, archery and waterpolo during the day and put on a very professional show each night. We lay on the loungers Juan pulled down and dusted off for us each day, sucking the milk straight from the coconuts, feasting on the daily barbecue and drinking mojitos at absurdly early times of the day feeling very satisfied with life indeed.

It was the third night when I got my wish.

Keen to practise my Spanish and worm my way into the entertainers' confidence, I had achieved first name terms with a number of them. On that third night, at the bar after a great show and a good few gin and tonics, Jessica shyly asked if I would like to go to a club with them. We jumped at the chance and as we waited for the taxi to arrive she and Alfredo asked us about our lives back home. Normally when we're abroad, we have to explain exactly why we're not English, but Alfredo knew immediately where Scotland was, the capital city and the fact that William Wallace was 'our hero'. Impressed, I asked how he knew all this. His answer broke my heart, as he sat on the kerb in his backwards baseball cap and oversize basketball top. "Education is all we have." 

In perfect English he explained how the two currencies "are killing us". Anything worth buying is charged in the Peso Convertible - the currency for tourists, pegged to the dollar, one peso of which is roughly equivalent to ten Peso Nacionales. Living off 20 nacionales means only the state basics are within their financial reach. "Working in a hotel is good because it's easier to steal" he told me, describing how the staff can smuggle out food for their families and bottles of rum to sell to tourists. 

Jessica, who had been quiet up to this point, added simply "Shampoo. Shampoo is very expensive." She seemed much less inclined to talk about things, but Alfredo had a dejected air that gave me the impression he was past caring. He noticed my wedding ring and asked if we were married. I said we were and he smiled at Jessica. "We got married a few months ago on the beach. It was very simple. I wish I could take Jessica to a restaurant." I realised I had never seen a Cuban in any of the places we had eaten or had a drink in the days we spent in Havana - except for the one man whom I had spotted leaning through the window at one bar with live music. I had wanted to buy him a drink. I wished now that I had.

Perhaps noticing my upset, Alfredo added: "I love baseball - I listen to it on the radio. It helps my English. The TV is only three stations - government propaganda." He looked disgusted. 
I asked if another benefit of socialism, besides the education, was the health service.
"Yeah, that's what they say in books," he said. Apparently all the good doctors go to Venezuela and in return the country gives Cuba oil and electricity. He added there is a real shortage of medicines on the island.

Pointing at his basketball shirt, he said this was a gift from one of the tourists. "The cap too - and the sneakers." I was slightly suspicious at the time but every time I saw Alfredo for the next week, he was wearing the same outfit. They took us to an amazing open air nightclub, a courtyard hidden behind a wooden door in a wall, where palm trees grew and a ten piece salsa band played until 3 in the morning. Jessica taught me to salsa, but they excused themselves after an hour. It was a long way home and they had an early start in the morning. 

The next morning, as I lay by the pool with my mojito, I felt like a total fraud. Who was I to lie here in the lap of luxury while the people around me had no shampoo and one T-shirt to their name? The hypocrisy and corruption of the government made me want to cry.  As Jessica had said so plaintively, "It's been 50 years". All they want is a chance to use their education and build themselves a better life and instead they speak the language of the first world fluently, work with its members every day and then the door is slammed in their faces and they must go back to their third world environment. It's so cruel that they are so aware of what they are being denied. As Alfredo said: "You just have to hope." He's too smart to follow the hordes of desperate Cubans across the straits in their tiny boats to Florida. He knows that most of them "lose their lives". So they keep on working hard, six days a week, and nurture the hope that there is hope.

While I noticed an inconsistency or two in their story over the next few days - Jessica drinking a sangria from the bar despite the claim she didn't drink and Alfredo magicking up an email address after claiming Cubans weren't allowed internet access - I left them half the contents of my suitcase. Jessica was delighted, disappeared and returned wearing one of my dresses - Alfredo grinned as he pulled on his new baseball cap and the rest of the entertainment descended on the books and magazines. 

I hated feeling like the 'benevolent white woman' but I didn't know what else to do. I told myself they hammed it up for exactly this purpose, but even if they did, they still had a tiny fraction of the possessions and an even tinier amount of the opportunities that I enjoy. 

Shopping in the supermarket - where everything you could ever want in multiple varieties is there on the shelf in front of you - will never feel the same again.