Are Cubans religious?

You might expect that in a socialist country like Cuba there wouldn’t be a place for religion. That’s what I thought, too, when I first visited the country in 2008. Churches looked closed; people didn’t seem to be wearing crosses. But then in early 2011, quite by accident, I found myself travelling by ferry across Havana harbour to Regla, a district apparently known for its church.Regla f

The people standing in the passenger room of the ferry were normal-looking Havana citizens – not middle class, not poor – just dressed in informal, colourful, body-tight clothes. But as the oily ferry made its way across the harbour’s rainbow oil slicks, the female passengers, a clear majority,  started pulling on shawls and knee-length skirts, unwrapping bouquets, tying up their long, wild hair and lowering their voices. By the time we docked on the other side, they had transformed themselves into pious worshippers ready to enter the church of Nuestra Señora de Regla. Continue reading Are Cubans religious?


Cuba on a shoestring?

Let’s talk about money. How much do things cost in Cuba? Well, prices can vary considerably.

Luxury beach hotels are certainly not cheap. You can pay from $100 to $300 a day for a double room with meals. But, as this blog keeps telling you, touring Cuba doesn’t need to be wildly expensive. You can stay at a clean and welcoming casa particular (a room with bath in a private home) for about US$25 a night. Food is not expensive either. Main meals are anywhere from $8 to $20, depending on the type of restaurant. And you can even eat at your casa particular, enjoying some of the best meals available in Cuba.   Fruits like guavas, pineapples, papaya etc. are tasty and reasonable. Even fish and lobster aren’t expensive.  When you go out, a fruit juice in a café is $2; a beer is $1.50. A taxi ride through Havana starts at $5. By North American or European standards those are not high prices. Plus, they have the added advantage of giving Cubans jobs and a decent income. Continue reading Cuba on a shoestring?

Cuba’s kids

Wherever you walk or drive in Cuba you see school kids. Whether they’re walking hand-in-hand with a grandparent or with a group of other kids, they’re always dressed in clean uniforms: maroon and white for elementary school pupils, ochre and white for secondary students.
In the countryside, there are no school buses in the North American sense. School kids have to find another way to school. On my travels I’ve seen 6-year-olds riding on the back of their father’s bike or sitting in a horse-drawn cart, being brought out to the highway. Once there, they are eventually picked up by one of the trucks or tractor-drawn wagons that take country kids to school every day.  So, if you’re driving along Cuban highways, you’ll often see 20 school kids standing in the back of a dump truck or wagon, their little hands holding on to the rim, their eyes peeking over their hands. But even then they’re  dressed in crisp, clean uniforms in the regulation colours. Continue reading Cuba’s kids

My landlady in Havana

My very first ‘casa particular’ was on the tenth floor of a Havana apartment house, right across the street from the well-known Hotel Nacional, with its spacious garden, bars and restaurants, currency exchange, and email room. Living so near meant I often used the Nacional’s infrastructure: I could read in the breezy garden overlooking the sea, or send expensive emails back home to Switzerland and Canada. 

My 75-year-old landlady, Magdalena, lived alone in a four-room apartment, with me as her only guest. Every morning at breakfast, she treated me to freshly pressed papaya or guava juice and lots of Spanish conversation, which sometimes turned into a cross-examination on my private life. Anyway, it did my very elementary Spanish a lot of good, and I learned all about Magdalena and the conditions of daily life in Cuba: where she shopped, where her three grown-up children lived, what to see in Havana, where I should be careful.

Later in the day, when I returned from one of my many sightseeing trips to Habana Vieja, there’d be some small treat waiting for me from the dinner Magdalena had cooked for herself and her granddaughter: maybe a slice of flan, which she called ‘poodeen’, or a dish of sweet potato chips.

On the evenings when I didn’t go out, Magdalena and I would sometimes sit side by side in the living room, watching her little old Sanyo TV. There were only five channels, two of which were monopolized by talking heads. That left the Cuban dancing channel, a Brazilian soap opera or news reports. The TV content may not have been scintillating, but we found lots to talk about anyway. Magdalena was refreshingly critical of all government announcements.

Learning to salsa in Trinidad

My very first time in Cuba I booked a two-day bus tour from Havana through Central Cuba and back. Our group was small – only ten people – so within two hours we were like a large family dropping in on Cuba. At 11 a.m. on the second day, our bus driver let us off in Trinidad, a wonderfully photogenic colonial town.

After a short walk over cobblestones, Bertha, our Cuban guide, led us through saloon doors into the welcome dimness of Trinidad’s Casa de la Trova (house of music). About ten musicians, sporting the usual sunglasses and straw hats, were already singing and playing guitars, woodblock, maracas, bass and conga drum.

We sat down and ordered TuCola (Cuba’s answer to Coke) or fresh pineapple juice, feeling surprised, alarmed and thrilled that we’d landed in a place that looked a lot like the Buena Vista Social Club. Surprised, because Bertha hadn’t warned us; thrilled, because all the musicians resembled Compay Segundo; alarmed, because it was starting to look as if we were expected to do more than just sit there and watch.

The only other guests in the place had suddenly stood up, revealing that they were professional dancers dressed in sexy leotards.  Young, tall and beautiful, the couple carefully demonstrated the cha-cha-cha, making all the moves look easy. They exaggerated their steps. They smiled encouragingly and repeated…. No takers. Then came  salsa. Our faces hardened, eyes narrowed. It wasn’t going to happen to us – we weren’t going to be lured into touristy salsa lessons, especially not under the scrutiny of fellow tour members. By way of example, Bertha jumped up and started dancing with the band leader, who was easily thirty years her senior. They stepped and swayed together smoothly, as if dancing was their favourite activity.

Next, the male dancer asked our Linda to dance. Being from Colombia, Linda had a head-start in the world of Latin American movement. She looked good right away. This did not reassure the rest of us. Next, the female dancer pulled Antoine from Geneva to his feet.  He was definitely less agile than Linda and did not seem to be enjoying himself, although he stumbled through the steps with a fixed smile on his face.

One by one, the rest of us were invited – or pulled – onto the dance floor, where the professionals worked hard to make us look good. In the end, if not totally relaxed, we were at least all moving to the music and mentally composing postcards home about one more incredible Cuban moment.

Trinidad musician

How Cubans weathered hurricane Irma – a personal account

Hurricane Irma began her assault by striking Cuba’s north coast on September 8th, 2017, with 260 kph winds.  At that point, Cuban Hurricane Watch had been evaluating Irma for some time, finally triggering full civil defence procedures. But these could not stop Irma’s steady and violent progress as she churned popular resorts such as Cayo Coco, Cayo Santa Maria and Varadero into sandy chaos.

My Cuban friend Julian, who lives in Santa Clara, some 50 km inland from the northern coast, hunkered down with his family – his wife, 100-year-old mother, son and daughter-in-law – to wait out the storm. This was not their first hurricane. They had water and food, lanterns and flashlights, a gas cooker, a battery-powered radio… Here are excerpts from his emails, which started arriving as soon as the storm had moved on.

11th Sept. There are some fallen trees like these (see above) in Santa Clara, but not too many. Fortunately, as a security measure in the days before the hurricane, the most dangerous branches near houses and power lines were cut. … The power supply is a short-term problem and will be solved within days, but the destruction of agriculture will cause major difficulties. 

13th Sept. Thank you so much for your messages. It is encouraging to know that we have friends who care about us. After 5 days of blackout, electricity returned early this morning. Water had come the day before. So, now we have the basic conditions for a civilized life. Everywhere people are working hard to repair the damage. Saturday (Sept.9) was perhaps the longest day in our lives here in Santa Clara. Heavy rain and strong winds began around 3 a.m. and continued until Monday morning. As soon as this situation began, there was a power cut and a water cut that continued until yesterday and today. The lack of electricity was the worst consequence for most people … Fortunately, I had a very good transistor radio with rechargeable batteries  – a present from a German friend  – that made it possible to listen to news about the situation all the time.
However, it is important to mention that the human losses were minimal compared to the power of this hurricane. In Cuba only 10 people were killed, 6 of them in Havana, and mostly because of imprudence or refusing to be evacuated. …The Cuban Civil Defense is very well organized to fight these disasters. Hundreds of thousands of people who live in vulnerable areas or houses were evacuated to safe public or private buildings, where food and medical assistance were provided.

22nd Sept. At home I may say that our daily life is back to normal, though there are some people who must be having a harder time. Yes, both at the peso markets and CUC stores there is basic food to buy, though in some cases there are long lines. …It is encouraging to know that a number of Canadians have also come to Cuba to help with rebuilding and rewiring. The reconstruction and repair work is going on well: more than 90% of homes have electricity, and a high percentage also have tap water. The subsidized food is also almost normalized, though we are already feeling the shortage of vegetables, as almost all crops were lost. Elementary schools have begun classes, as well as most universities.

For me, Julian’s emails illustrate Cubans’ lack of self-pity in dealing with major difficulties. I admire their courage and their concern for each other in the face of so many obstacles.