TRIP REPORT: Cuba in March 2023
As I begin to write this, I’m still in Cuba, spending a quiet morning at the casa de renta where I’ve been staying in Pilón, awaiting the arrival of a friend for “one last visit” before I leave. I’m not sure if he’s coming by bicycle or hitching a ride from his home in a village about 15 km away. Public transportation is negligible these days, so it’s not a reliable option.
Presumably, he’ll call me when he gets to town, since he couldn’t provide an ETA. Sometimes, however, people just show up. Calls can be expensive when you’re on a tight budget. As well, both cellular and internet services can be erratic. I’ve often had messages fail to fly for no discernable reason. It can be maddening.
Cuba itself can be maddening. I used to say “Cuba is teaching me patience.” In the last few years, the lessons have gone far beyond patience. Every time I visit, I learn something new.
Sometimes I learn practical things. For example, I’ve known for a long time that it’s important to take T.P. with me wherever I go but, now, I perpetually carry water purification tablets and plastic bags too. Bottled water is no longer readily available, and it’s expensive, if you can find it. The tap water is safe for locals, who are used to it, but it can be problematic for us foreigners, especially when trying to drink enough to stay properly hydrated in the irrepressible heat! And the plastic bags? Well, one never knows when one will be given a piece of fruit, for example, that one doesn’t want to have smooshed inside one’s backpack or purse!
In December, full all-inclusive accommodation is scheduled to begin, if the stars align properly. Tourists who have been visiting this resort for decades are eager to return but are skeptical that it will really and truly open this winter because, for the last two years, Sunwing has sold flights and packages, only to cancel them later. Thus, people are distrustful. It’s hard to plan a trip, if you can’t be certain that your destination will actually be available. And, it’s hard to plan your life, if you think you’ll be able to return to work, then you can’t.
The realization that hope is fading from people’s eyes is hard to accept, but that’s what I’m seeing on this trip. Change is desperately needed on many levels but there is no viable way to reach the top of that cloud-shrouded mountain. So, people are leaving in droves – leaving the area and leaving the country.
They may not really want to go to abroad but many Cubans see it as the only way to provide a better future for their children. They want to be able to work and live without constantly looking over their shoulders for coming trouble while, at the same time, navigating around obstacles and roadblocks as they try to move forward with their lives. They want the chance to be as productive as they could be, if things were different. The grass looks greener in the land of greenbacks and perceived opportunity.
Opportunity is an important word here. Very few doors open easily in Cuba these days. Financial support from off-shore family or friends is key, if you want to create opportunity here. A new bar and paladar (private restaurant) is on the cusp of opening in Pilón, thanks to the determination of a young man who made his way to the U.S. five years ago. He told me that he wants to show his family they can make money here but, without his injection of cash, it wouldn’t be possible. Seed money is vital for starting up a business anywhere but, in Cuba, support won’t be coming from banks or government programs.
The government is struggling to provide basic services and supplies in many areas. Frozen meat (chicken, hamburger or hotdogs), dry goods and other necessities one would normally expect to be available in stores seem to come and go. Sometimes, there’s no toilet paper. Other times, there’s no cooking oil or vinegar. This week, in Pilón, boxes of chicken legs didn’t appear when expected, although they did arrive belatedly. For some communities, the legs were unavailable for several months in a row, even though they’re supposed to be part of a monthly allotment, supplemental to the “libreta” or ration book program that provides a limited assortment of necessities at reduced prices.
The erratic arrival of supplies makes it hard for individuals and families to cope. People have become experts at “inventing” solutions. For business owners, it’s an even bigger challenge, and it’s vital to have good connections, as well as to be creative. When there are no rolls of toilet paper, give your B&B clients paper napkins instead, assuming availability of course! Many households have stashes of paper in their baños – the ubiquitous Granma newspaper and old school notebooks are most common – or scraps of cloth. In one outhouse, I saw a paperback book being gradually consumed; that’s a harsh review.
One writer and artist I talked with on this trip had just opened a tattoo studio. His path to this business endeavor is quite interesting. I first met Gilmar Naranjo close to a decade ago, when he was, essentially, a talented kid who was part of an art show/sale I arranged for one of my travel groups. Although he’s a gifted artist, he was not able to seek formal university-level training. So, he studied on his own and received some coaching from local art mentors.
He’s very skilled and he learned fast. However, materials were often in short supply. That led him to pick up wine and rum bottles as alternatives to canvas. He found a magnificent niche! He now paints incredibly vibrant and textured scenes on the entirety of these empty bottles. Gilmar’s unique art creations are available for sale in a gallery in Bayamo or in Pilón, directly from him (you can find him on Facebook). Eventually, he plans to have some on display at his tattoo studio, along with some of his paintings.
How did he make the jump from bottles to tattoos? Well, he saw an opportunity and seized it. He continues to work as a part-time art teacher, along with juggling the bottles and tattooing. Gilmar enjoys blending art with social interaction, since he’s a gregarious guy, and there’s decent money to be made in the tattoo business. He’s not the only Pilón artist to shift into tattooing. Yes, even though food is expensive, people seem to find the money for body art! That gives me hope.
Where do people get extra cash for things that are not necessities? It’s hard to say. I can only guess that they might have a generous friend or relative, but it’s also quite possible they have a business in the shade, shall we say. In my informal observation, capitalism seems to be thriving in the shadows in Cuba and, it would appear, the government just winks. But, it can be challenging and frustrating to navigate a system that is in flux. What new problem will arise in the morning?
There are many reasons for frustration in Cuba these days, and many unfulfilled needs. The country is in rough shape in most areas. Are things as bad as they were during the “Special Period” of the 1990s? Maybe not, or not yet. Tourism has been restarted in some places but not in Granma, although it’s desperately needed. There just aren’t many work options beyond tourism in the Pilón and Marea del Portillo region. Even if you’re able to start a business, it won’t do as well as it will once the local resort reopens and tourists roll into town once again. People are waiting for that to happen, hanging on by nails and teeth.
During this trip, I often thought about the Samuel Beckett play, Waiting for Godot. The characters in that classic piece of absurdist fiction keep waiting and waiting, expecting the mysterious Godot to come and something to happen. Cuba is waiting and waiting, expecting change to come and good things to finally begin happening. I sincerely hope Cuba is not waiting for a Godot who never arrives.
I always strive to remain optimistic. Tattoos give me hope, as do the other new businesses that have popped up in Pilón in recent months. There are several new restaurants and bars. I ate at as many different places as I could, but I discovered that they sometimes run out of food. Nonetheless, they are making a go of it. Any food I ate at the local paladars was prepared well and, to a foreigner, the prices were reasonable.
I also had a very nice lunch at the Club Amigo Marea del Portillo resort when I was finally able to visit there near the end of my stay. They offered two entrée options for lunch: lobster or pork. I chose lobster and it was both substantial and delicious! As part of the day-use package, one also receives sandwiches before and after lunch, and a beer or other beverage at lunch. Although there weren’t many guests that day, there was a full complement of staff. It was nice to see some familiar faces back at work, finally.
Having the resort open again, even though it’s only in a limited way at this point, is the biggest reason for optimism. It will survive. The people will survive. The resort will be ready for tourists in December and our Cuban friends will be ready to give us huge hugs! I’m already mentally packing.
Thanks for reading my report!