RBC students Catherine Curtin of Atlantic Highlands and Ava Zockoll of Bay Head distribute shirts to volleyball players in Cuba.
Five days staying in a B&B in the heart of Havana and interacting on a daily basis with numerous Cubans from a variety of walks of life is a lot different from visiting this island country on a cruise ship and having escorted tours to specific sites. Though our stay was brief, and each morning enveloped in intriguing, exciting, and well played volleyball matches, I not only learned a lot about the people who live in poverty, or near it, under communism, but also from those who live far above the poverty level in that same communistic nation for whatever reason yet do give so much of themselves to others.
The trip left me with mixed feelings about American tourism bombarding Cuba in the future. There are numerous tourists in the country now, but most come from France, Germany and the surrounding island nations. They have left some impact, I’m sure, but none simply has the power, the awe, the excellence, the economic level of the United States. That’s one of the things that scares me.
Regardless of their government, the young people we met, ate with, played games with, talked to and laughed over misunderstandings in our language translations with, are happy. They don’t have much, but they don’t seem to care. They have beautiful smiles and I couldn’t help but notice their beautiful teeth, meaning their dental care, socialistic or not, must be pretty darn good. Their families have to scrounge for money, I’m sure, since unemployment must be extremely high, judging from the number of people of all ages we chatted with sitting on door stoops, walking around, or enjoying the squares and parks scattered throughout the city. Wages are definitely low…they say 20 pesos a month is about average, though I haven’t figured out whether a waitress or a maid in the B&B has to turn in her tips to someone or whether she’s providing the funds for an entire family.
They’re certainly healthy, so the monthly dole of rice, beans, eggs, a bit of chicken, terrible tasting coffee, for all, plus milk for those under seven years of age, and perhaps one or two other things, must be sufficient for them who know no better, given the sunshine they can absorb for nothing and the exercise they get in ownership of non-motor driven vehicles. Yet with the plethora of fruit that grows in that climate, I cannot understand why fresh fruits and vegetables other than beans are not in their allowance.
They’re clean, though they don’t know how to keep their streets the same way. The government provides workers with brooms made from corn husks or straw to sweep the streets and Russian made trucks to hose the streets down. Restaurateurs scrape plates into the gutter to help all those stray dogs survive. But there are few trash receptacles anywhere. So youngsters don’t see anything wrong with discarding a paper on the ground, or tossing an empty popsicle stick away; in fact, they seemed not to understand why I looked at them with a bit of shock when I saw them simply drop waste paper.
But the constant sight of laundry hanging from windows, on lines stretched between buildings, the impeccably neat clothing on the children, the mis-matched/wear what you have shorts and tee shirts on the teams playing volleyball, were all spotlessly clean. And when the Red Bank Catholic High School girls there on a friendship mission brought uniform shirts in red and blue so there could be two easily identifiable teams, they were received with pride and washed nightly for an equally clean appearance the next day.
They love their children. The volleyball teens’ mothers sat on the ground or leaned against the building to chat among themselves and watch their daughters at play, many with smaller youngsters playing on the sparse playground equipment in the same fenced in area. The girls came over to share time and happy exclamations to them between plays, both obvious to revel in each other’s company.
The teens visited the senior day care center with us one day, and it was obvious they had been there before, lots of times. And the seniors loved their company as both interacted so easily with each other. Big sisters hugged and played with little brothers, teen age sisters and brothers danced together with ease. Family seems to be important in a country where, ironically, teen age pregnancy is a far larger problem than drugs or alcohol and where abortion is not only permitted, but rather encouraged as a means of birth control.
They’re polite and courteous, eager to assist anyone who looks to be in need; their table manners are impeccable. If the restaurant food was different from what the girls we were with are used to, they certainly didn’t show it, either by surprise, distaste, or eagerness. They simply ate what was on their plates.
But always, always, Big Brother is watching. Billboards do not advertise the newest product, or the sales of items in stores. Nor do they promote the coolest soft drink or which brand is better than another. Instead, they promote the views of the government, the message that Castro is the champion of the people, the promotion of new ideas. On the other hand, billboards advertising the 2015 visit of Pope Francis, recognizing him as a missionary of mercy, a man who was greeted by the people with great abandon, still hang from buildings or remain posted on walls.
Whether we continue to open up relationships between the two countries, whether our cruise ships continue to make stops at the major cities to give foreigners a hasty view of today’s life in Cuba, whether the influx of American money, ideas and the needs of tourists will change the face of Cuba is yet to be seen. But today, you ask a Cuban about the Castro brothers and he’ll shake his head, not sure or reluctant to answer. But ask him what will come next, he’ll stand up, grow excited, and shake his finger at you saying, “That’s what we’re afraid of!”