~ There is only one journey: going inside yourself. ~
- Rainer Maria Rilke


The Cuban Journals: Soap, Milk and Chocolates ~ Sunday, February 17, 2008

It is our last full day in Varadero. We usually divide our time here between walking around the town and sitting on the pleasant but crowded beach, with its white sands and clear water, stretching out into the distance in ever-deepening bands of turquoise. We've both managed to get a lot of reading done (I'm not much of a beach person, as I'm not athletic, only occasionally frolic in the waves and am not big on suntanning. I swear, I'll be coming back from a week in Cuba almost as pale as I was when I went).

But, though the town is cut off from the rest of Cuba--and I'm growing increasingly frustrated by this isolation and more intrigued by the question of what it's like beyond the tidy streets of Varadero--we've had a few interesting encounters and experiences over the last few days.

* * *

On our first day, we walked through the town to get our bearings and purchase our Via Azul bus tickets to Havana. Via Azul is the tourist bus line (there are separate buses for tourists and locals--I don't know enough to speculate about whether it's to keep people from telling outsiders what Cuba is like, or whether it's simply that tourists might want a more luxurious travel options than the regular inter-city buses). The town seemed well-maintained. Though there were some run-down places, I was most especially struck by the lack of litter. No cans and bottles strewn on the grass patches--everything was strikingly clean. Ontario, after the thaws--not to mention other places--Japan, Italy, etc.--had far more litter strewn by the roadsides.

And so, we wondered, as we walked through, how much this was like the rest of the country--were Cubans exceptionally civic-minded?

Later that afternoon, we were sitting on one of the slightly offputting rattan chairs in the lobby area, right beside a sign that said "Careful--wet floor". They had placed it right beside a pool of gungy water that had accumulated due to a leak in the ceiling, and Tom chuckled and said, "I guess it's easier to put up the sign than to actually fix it."

A few moments later, a burly, bearded man started taking photos of the sign. When we made eye contact with him, he grinned and said, in accented English, "Easier to put the sign than fix. I'm taking a picture to show people back home, or they might not believe it."

Of course, we started chatting. He and his family are from Poland. "For my wife and me," he said, "this is our past--this place, this kind of society. For my daughter, it's history--textbook stuff. We are here to show her what it was like for us."

We learned that they had been here several weeks, staying in Varadero, but touring around, taking buses and taxis into nearby towns, chatting with people. As he spoke, he grew angrier and more passionate,

"A man heard us speaking Polish. 'You are Polish?' he said and he took us aside. He is a school teacher. He told us of how things are. Only household with children under seven can get milk. Any families with older kids--no luck. This is the rationing. They only get one cake of soap a month. One tube of toothpaste. I said to him, 'Is there something I can give you to help? Some money, something to buy?' He said, 'Only take back the word and tell them how it is here.'"

His wife and daughter came over as he was speaking with us--smiling politely and touching his shoulder and he shook himself, then chuckled. "It's okay. I get carried away. We will see you later, perhaps."

* * *

We had read that it's best not to drink the tap water in Cuba. Two different women at CAA warned us of the dire consequences of drinking tap water--or of even using it to brush our teeth. Even on the bus over from the airport, the representative said, "We drink our water here in Cuba and it is good water. But there are minerals in it that do not agree with your stomachs. Rather than get sick, it's best to stick to bottled water."

Imagine my dismay, then, to learn that our hotel doesn't have bottled water--neither as a giveaway, nor available to purchase. Upon making inquiries, we were told that the tap water was fine, but to be safe, we each had a thermos (which did not appear to have been washed much, and had an interestingly earthy smell to it) in our rooms and we could come down and have those filled from the bar, which contained filtered water. Once again, we were told the tale of these mysterious "minerals" that would upset our stomach, and this time, I began to wonder whether the minerals in question might not bear a suspicious resemblance to the bacterias which live in the water of every other country whose water we delicate North Americans can't drink. Could it possibly be some kind of strange way of saving face, to blame "minerals" rather than bacteria? An interesting question.

At any rate, I wanted to get a water bottle that we could refill on the beach, and we were told to go to the grocery store, which was two blocks away, in the opposite direction than we had previously wandered.

We made our way through a crafts market--all the stalls sold variations of the same crafts, at fixed prices. At one point, a woman offered to braid my hair. When I declined, she started asking if I had any soap, shampoo or anything at all that I might give her. Since I had given my extra soap to the woman who cleans our room, I wasn't able to help her with that, either. Even the pencils and erasers we had brought to give to the kids we had forgotten to bring in our bag that day.

At the grocery store, which consisted of two, narrow aisles, it rapidly became evident that this groceria was primarily for tourists--the prices were high, even by our standards, while the clientèle consisted entirely of people from the resorts in the area. Most of the goods available were imported--either from other parts of Central and South America, or from Canada.

The chocolate bars were all kept at the front, and when we asked the woman at the desk about one that contained cashews, she said, "Oh yes, that one is very good." It cost about 2.35 pesos, which translates to about 2.50 CAD--but it was for one of those big chocolate bars, so it wasn't too outrageous.

Later, we spotted a restaurant selling food in another part of town that Cuban folk would be more likely to frequent. A hamburger was .80 pesos, and a plate of spaghetti was 1.35. If that's the average cost of a meal for someone from Cuba, then 2.35 for a chocolate bar would have been ridiculously luxurious and expensive.

"I wonder if the woman at the store had actually even been able to afford to taste that chocolate bar," Tom said ruefully as we looked over the restaurant prices. That was when I remembered another key detail. The chocolates had been in a glass case at the front by the cash register, much the way valuables are stored: in display cabinets, under constant supervision.

::Posted by Anduril Elessar @ 3:23 PM::::


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