Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Sister in Santiago

One of the reasons that we got talking to Alicia was that she has a sister in Santiago. "Oh my sister, she's so talkative," Alicia told us. "You can't shut her up!"

Well, Sandra, the sister, wasn't all that talkative. She only had two or three topics of conversation - all sob stories. How sad and lonely she is to be a widow. How she wants her daughter, studying to be a psychologist, to marry a foreigner and leave the country. How broke she is and how hard life is in Cuba.

"Do you like Cuba?" she asked me, with genuine curiosity. Well sure I do. Cuba's great - unless you're a Cuban who has to live there. "What's not to like," I said, trying to be diplomatic. Sandra smiled sadly, wonderingly. She can only imagine what it is to experience Cuba the way we were seeing it. Eating a good restaurants, sleeping in comfortable hotels where everything works, going to the beach in taxis, paying street musicians to entertain us - even on the beach, drinking cocktails made freshly by obsequious bartenders, going dancing every night to the country's top live music spots. There is only one way for Cubans to get this kind of life - via foreigners.

Alicia and Giovannis had enjoyed the 'good life' with us for a few days in Havana. They managed to keep a straight face when they saw that the bill for our lunch at La Bodeguita de Medio was around 2 weeks wages for most Cubans. They didn't ask us for money - ever, not even by hinting.

Sandra was different. Maybe she's much poorer - she isn't a primary school teacher, but ekes out a living taking in clothes to repair on an ancient olf sewing machine. She wasn't all that interested in being treated by strange foreigners. Her 'sob stories' were immediately focused on the bottom line - money. No money to visit her sister - only a 30-dollar bus ride away. No money for her daughter's glasses. Yes, the wonderful free health system wouldn't deny anyone glasses. But in Santiago no optician had functional equipment. So everyone had to go to Havana.

I offered her the money for the bus ticket. I know what it's like to miss your family. Only later did I think through the implications - how would Alicia react to hearing that I'd given her sister money and not her?

Sandra's daughter is dating a gorgeous, 24-year old music student, Yulieski, with the sharpest cheekbones I've seen on a Hispanic man. He must have some genes from one of those tall African tribes. Yulieski put some salsa music on the restaurant's music system and we danced a little. His girlfriend isn't much of one for salsa, but Yulieski wants to be a salsa singer. That's his plan for how to get out of Cuba and see the world.

Marry a foreigner, work for UNESCO or a foreign embassy, or become a star of the Cuban salsa scene: these are some of the only routes by which young Cubans can do what young people all over the world take for granted - travel.

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