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Building Houses - One Bullet at a Time

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuban oil imports fell to 10% of their pre-1990 levels. They went from cars and large farms with fertilizer and pesticides to bicycles and community gardens. The annual 8-10 million ton sugar cane contract that Cuba had with the Soviet Union disappeared and the GDP of the country contracted by 35%. As a result Cuba put a much greater emphasis on tourism among other things. Building the infrastructure to support a larger tourism industry took time. Our beach, Cayo Santa Maria, is a part of an archipelago that stretches 40 kilometers north of mainland Cuba and the two lane road from the mainland was built from limestone quarried at the source of the road. All water is also piped from the mainland.

Everyone who works in the tourism industry, from waiters and chefs to chambermaids to bartenders have trained at a post secondary school that was remade for that purpose in the mid 90's. My experience last week was a direct result of that training.

The resort that we stayed in, Melia Las Dunas, is just 3 years old. Cayo Santa Maria, was developed less than 10 years ago and has roughly 5000 rooms in 6 resorts. The resort itself was beautiful, 950 rooms spread over about 50 bungalows. Cayo Santa Maria is a white sand beach with unbelievable turquoise water. The coffee in the huge open air lobby was the best I've had anywhere and I drink way more coffee than most rational human beings. The grounds at the resort were immaculate and our chambermaid left towels rolled in the shapes of hearts or cute animals along with a note and a fresh hibiscus flower every day in our spotless room. Kathy left her a little gift every day too of children's clothing, old prescription glasses, a couple of her handmade glass pendants and a convertible peso. We gave stuff that we used but no longer needed.

The house band played 5 nights a week on a small outdoor stage. That band was terrific. They played everything from Cuban standards like 'Chan Chan' to Santana to rearrangements of Beatles tunes.

When I think of Mariachi bands, I imagine Mexican restaurants in Dallas and sombreros and enthusiastic, if not always listenable, renditions of 'La Cucaracha'. Therefore I hesitate to use the term to describe our dinner entertainment, The guys who played at our tables were very good professional musicians. I was listening to, and seeing, fast, accurate leads played on acoustic guitars, and perfect 3 part harmonies. I couldn't dig my pesos out fast enough.

Cuban citizens are paid by the government according to their job in Cuban pesos with which they buy electricity, food, clothing and other necessities. Tourists use convertible pesos that have roughly the same value as a US dollar. The convertible peso, or CUC, is also used by locals to buy luxury items. The US dollar is not in circulation as of Nov. 2004.

We took advantage of a couple of excursions, one to the mainland, passport required, to two of the larger towns in central Cuba, Remedios and Santa Clara. The resort was an idyllic setting and it was possible to forget that Cuba is a 3rd world country, but it is, and going back to the mainland in our big, Chinese made tour bus and maneuvering the narrow streets lined with people, bicycles and donkeys really drove that point home. In central Santa Clara, Kathy and I went by ourselves down a main street open only to pedestrians. There weren't any tourist shops along that street and only a couple restaurants selling a large folded pizza sandwich to locals. People didn't give my wheelchair much attention but on more than one occasion strangers came to help us navigate a curb.

Every small town has a baseball stadium and each of the 14 provinces takes the best players for the provincial team. The best of the provincial team players are on the national team. Aroldis Chapman, a young left handed pitcher that throws 100 mph defected last year and signed with Cincinnati last month for $25 million over 5 years, which must seem like Monopoly money to him. I hope he handles it better than I would have at his age.

There were some small tourist shops around the central squares of Remedios and Santa Clara as well as the airport and the resort that sold identical, government produced symbols of the Cuban revolution. I don't know how it is elsewhere in the country but in central Cuba it seems that the government is anxious to put the face of Che Guevara on the revolution and not the face of Fidel Castro. Every little shop sold t-shirts, postcards and calendars with various iconic photos of 'El Che' and one had to look pretty hard to find anything with Fidel. It's also useful to bear in mind that our trip to mainland Cuba was along a route that was approved by the government. We didn't see beggars or any outward signs of unrest but largely rural central Cuba isn't Havana. How much of that is by design and how much is reality is something I can only guess at but my guess is it simply doesn't exist. Tourists don't just go wandering about the Cuban countryside and my brief interaction with locals in the towns or the resort was friendly but utilitarian. Still these are educated, literate people.

I've never been to another 3rd world country so I have no ability to compare Cuba directly, but there are a few things Cuba has going for it. Illiteracy was eliminated in the 60's and today there is a 98% literacy rate. The infant mortality rate is just a step behind Canada at 29th in the world, which is remarkable for the 3rd world and according to our tour guide there is a doctor for every 175 people. Cuba has a very low crime rate, especially for violent crime and is considered by experienced travelers to be one of the safest destinations in the world.

I read a bit about the history and culture of Cuba in preparation for our trip but being in rural Cuba is quite a different experience. It was like traveling back in time. I hope I get another chance to do it.


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