A family trip
By Linda Petersen
My daughter Saskia van der Wal, her partner Alexis Zayas, a Cuban citizen, and my granddaughter Ariana spent the holidays with Alexis’ family in Cuba. The trip had been long planned, well before the recent changes in US policies. As usual, they spent most of the time visiting family. Several of Alexis’s family members are involved in the tourism business in the Viñales Valley, west of Havana.
SUBHEAD: First a word about the Viñales Valley
Tourism centered on the Viñales Valley is developing. The area has been protected by the constitution since February 1976, and it was declared a national monument in October, 1978. The Viñales Valley has also been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since November,1999 for the outstanding karst landscape which is characterized by sinkholes and caves and underground drainage systems. It’s also known for traditional agriculture as well as vernacular (local) architecture, crafts and music.
Transportation everywhere in Cuba is a challenge, with streets cluttered by horse-drawn carts, the occasional ox-cart, cyclists, walkers and food vendors. Without easy means of getting from one place to another, time slows down as one accepts and adapts to lack of transportation and internet and phone service beyond the island.
SUBHEAD: Daily life in Viñales: finding food is a daily adventure
Says Saskia, “The most common street vendors sell “pizza” which is really like a toasted bread with lots of cheese and sometimes ham. The few stores in town were always full of empty shelves. There are the “dollar” stores that sell products in the “cuc” currency which is close to the American dollar equivalency. But people don’t get paid in that currency unless they work in tourism, so not everyone can shop there. That is where you can get things like cereal, mayo, toilet paper, sometimes yogurt (though we were only lucky one day to find yogurt), soap, shampoo and cookies. Then there are state stores where you can buy things in the other currency, moneda nacional which is what most people earn and where you can get your supplies through the ration booklet everyone is entitled to, la libreta. These are mostly basics like rice, beans and chicken. Vegetables and fruits are sold on the street by farmers, usually walking and calling out in a loud voice so you can just pop out of your house to buy produce as they pass by in carts.”
“Other things might be sold in this way too, like bed sheets or blocks of cheese. Bread can be hard to come by. There are panaderias but they have random hours and make random quality bread. There was one bread we bought once that I liked. It was soft and a bit sweet and we were never able to figure out when that bread would be available again. We heard that a lot of bread was bought up by the guesthouses at midnight when the first batch comes out. The panaderias don’t always have the ingredients to make decent bread. Alexis’ aunt was proud of getting hotdog bun type bread that would stay soft and fresh for a few days longer. She would buy it in the local gas station market, called Cupet, also a popular place to get random things occasionally like beer, yogurt, cheese, bread and ice cream.”
As a B&B owner Alexis’ aunt and family receives many benefits from being in the tourism business. She has special food connections giving her access to a wider variety of food and other products essential to the business, and not readily available to most Cubans.
Alexis’s uncle lives in the town of Pinar del Rio. “While we were there,” said Saskia, “we had to pick up a huge load of rice, toilet paper, cheese, yogurt and various other products that she had him buy. The aunt has connections to get lobster and even beef.”
According to Saskia, local beer was hard to come by at the time of their visit. The government had some type of contract with Heineken, but since it only came in bottles and was more expensive than the local brands, Crystal and Bucanero, no one would buy them. So the local brands disappeared periodically from all the stores and Heineken was the only option. People were buying up cases when the local beer was available so they wouldn’t run out.
In spite of the hardships Cubans make the most of life. Music and dancing happen every night of the week in cultural centers. In Viñales the center is called the Polo Montaner. It offers a live salsa show from about 9-11pm, sometimes with dancers from local towns that put on a choreographed show. The DJ comes on from 11pm-1am.
SUBHEAD: Back to Havana
“To get to Havana (from Viñales) 115 miles away without a car rental took almost a whole day. First we had to take a taxi to the next town over, Pinar Del Rio, and wait at the town taxi/bus station until we could find a car that was going to Havana. A taxi, if it is an old not updated 1950s American car, is called in slang un almendron. Alexis says this refers to pre 1959 Castro era cars. Usually they are rattley cars without seatbelts and terrible diesel emissions that make your eyes and chest burn after 20 minutes. Other taxis are old Ladas that they call ladrillos (square boxes). On one occasion we had to wait over an hour for a van to fill up with enough people to make the trip worthwhile.”
The cathedral pictured is in Old Havana, Havana Vieja, in La Plaza de la Catedral de Havana. There was a classical concert with an opera soloist. The cathedral was decorated with a Christmas tree and Nativity scene. According to Alexis, the celebration of Christmas was banned for many years by the government. People who wouldn’t denounce their religion were barred from joining the communist party, meaning they faced a tough road to secure the good, state-run jobs or attend state-run universities. After the Pope’s visit in 1998, Christmas Day became a holiday once again.
Many American news reports have emphasized the hope of the people that their economic situation will improve rapidly, even expressing the thought that next Christmas will be very different from the past 50 years. However, Saskia and Alexis told me that family and friends are mostly skeptical, although some expressed hope. Many thought there was some hidden agenda. Don’t forget they are used to being left in the dark when it comes to the government. Most don’t think any major change will happen quickly and are skeptical about how change would affect their own lives on a daily basis.
The Havana airport is ill equipped to handle current traffic. The arrivals building is always packed with people waiting for a family member which makes it necessary to wade through throngs when exiting. Travel in and out is slow and tedious, with long lines and delays. It will be interesting to see how the government will handle increased air traffic.
Those who are familiar with Cuba say that change will nothappen fast, at least not for most Cubans. They imagine that the tourism industry will be the first to develop but that it will be a long wait for most residents to see improvement in their lives. Basic infrastructure, food and clothing production and distribution, availability and affordability of essential products, running water, all of this has been neglected during the Castro regimes, and it will take years, possibly decades, to reach a level which benefits all Cubans. There are reports of wealthy art dealers beginning to buy from Cuban artists, and we hear that the old cars will be hot items for collectors in the US. A few may benefit and the prediction is that the first to take financial advantage of increased trade will be the military elite, who have tight control over every aspect of the economy. As many Cubans are saying: “wait and see”………