Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Thoughts about traveling ahead, and a reflection on visiting Cuba last year

We've been traveling for many years.  We're exploring the world, basically, and reaching out to people wherever we find ourselves.

Yes, we're privileged to be able to do so. But I hope that we're taking our viewpoints and voice along with us.

The previous two winters, we visited Guatemala and Cuba.  This winter, we're going to New Zealand. The contrast will be informative.

In reflecting on our visit to Cuba (via various reminders), I came across a piece on my iPad that I'd written shortly after coming back, but never posted (there wasn't any really functional internet access during our three weeks there -- you bought govt. cards and sat out in the main plazas to get a wireless signal to use your cards), so the few Cuba posts and reflections were after we returned. 

Hmm, I just realized my Cuba thoughts are on my iPad.  These are my updated thoughts.

It's been about 2 months since we returned from Cuba, and I'm still musing about the trip.

The largest Caribbean island, Cuba doesn't disappoint with beautiful beaches, historic architecture, fantastic music, and delicious food.

But the mythology around Cuba (from here in the U.S.) and the tremendous disparity between the tourist experience in Cuba and the non-tourist economy continues to niggle at me. I was thinking about this again today (I'm feeling guilty about not sharing curated photos... yet).

 I can only compare it to the feeling I had returning from Tanzania some years ago, on a (budget) walking/camping safari, but one that turned out to be an experience that we had a driver/guide and a cook for both of us, as we were the only two on the trip. Unsettling.

And it was the only other part of the world that we've been to, that I felt the looming challenge that food availability could be.  In Tanzania, in a non-agricultural tradition, drought was decimating the grazing land that the Masai herders depended on;  I keenly felt the sense that one droughty season might be crucial for survival or not.

In Cuba, there is a minimal safety net;  the small stores for Cubans provide a variety of staples, very cheaply, with a subsistence ration provided each month.  But the staples were quite minimal:  white flour, sugar, rum, salt, cigarettes, cooking oil, dried beans, perhaps a few onions, and maybe some milk powder.

There were small "farmer's markets" in Havana, if Cubans had tourist dollars to spend, so they could buy a little bit more diversity of fresh produce available in February: onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, bananas, pineapples, carrots, and cabbage.  It wasn't particularly impressive.

The markets (indoors) focused for tourist dollars were equally depauperate.  Their offerings were an odd assortment of rum, canned imported goods (tuna, tomatoes, etc.), bottled water, soft drinks, coffee, powdered milk, and crackers/candy/cookies/chips. 

And there was nothing that we saw in our three weeks in Cuba that remotely resembled a "grocery store" in the sense we'd think about that in many parts of the world.

Nor was there a vegetable garden on every corner either.  Havana is ringed with small community/market gardens, but we saw relatively few elsewhere.

So, the wonderful paladares (private restaurants) and the casa particulares that we experienced are getting their food supplies from sources that aren't available to "regular" Cubans (or tourists), for that matter.  

Tourist money means that vegetables, fruits, and meats are serving these places, but what ever fresh foods are available are only available to those with have tourist income to spend (we saw long lines at some of the small produce places).

Hard to know what to make of all of this, but I do know that Cuba isn’t a paradise of organic vegetables!


  1. I have heard that the poverty in Cuba is pretty severe. It's sad to think that all the hopes from the Cuban revolution have led to this. I think the United States and our embargo have done a lot of damage. At the same time, no country should be ruled by the same man for 50 years. Obviously, it was a mistake for Cuba to become so dependent on the Soviet Union, but did they have a choice? I'm not sure.

    1. It was telling that there was such disparity between the "tourist" economy and the ration economy.

      And as I wrote, there was nothing like a "regular" grocery store anywhere in Cuba where we traveled. And that includes Havana.


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