September 2, 2014 – Santiago, Cuba
On the afternoon of our second day of our recent trip to Cuba, we said to our guide that we would like to spend some time walking around some of the residential neighborhoods in Santiago that were not too far from the center of the city.
It was the middle of the rainy season and the sky at 5 in the afternoon was beginning to darken quickly with evidence of rain in the not too distant future. Notwithstanding, given our tight schedule, this was likely to be the only afternoon they we would have this opportunity and so our guide dropped us off in an area that looked rich with photographic opportunities agreeing to pick us up about 90 minutes later (or potentially sooner if the rain began to fall).
After walking down what could be described as one of the main roads (imagine that we are describing a street that was filled more with horse driven carts, bicycle taxis and trucks and buses, as distinct from the usual array of Japanese cars you might find in most cities, carrying the locals from one end of the city to the other), we decided to head down one of the side streets where we found a colorful “Old Timer”, the name given to the American cars of the 50s and 60s that remained in Cuba after the Revolution and which today are brightly painted and often used by tourists to drive around Cuban cities for fun. Despite huge prices that are often offered by vintage car collectors from around the world, the Cuban government do not allow these vehicles to leave the country as they are considered part of the identity of the country.
After taking a number of pictures of the brightly colored vehicle, its owner, a man in his 20s, proudly invited us to look inside the beautifully restored vehicle and was more than happy to let us take pictures of him standing next to the car. I offered to send him a copy of one of the pictures via email but the absence of internet in Cuba makes this almost impossible.
We continued walking in an area that had the appearance of a relatively low income area in a third world country where most of the residents were sitting out on the street in the late afternoon, especially given that the temperature was probably still over 90 degrees and with probably 80% humidity in the air. Most of the houses consisted of a front room that had an iron door facing the street which allowed cool air (to the extent there was any) to flow through to the kitchen/dining area and bedrooms that existed in the back. Given that the temperature rarely cooled down until after 11 at night (and by “cooling down” I mean dropping to the high 70s or low 80s and still with a high degree of humidity), in almost every neighborhood people sit out on the steps to their houses or in chairs that are strategically located inside the iron doors and windows.
Everywhere we went, people smiled at us and particularly the young children would come running when they saw our cameras and insist that we take their photos, laughing and smiling when we would show them the images on the screen on the back of our cameras. We were very respectful of the locals and rarely took pictures without first asking for permission. Almost no one said “no” and there were only a small number of people who would ask for a peso, which is roughly the equivalent of a US dollar.
Despite what appeared to us to be somewhat challenging living conditions, almost everyone was smiling, happy and appeared content with their lives. There was a tremendous sense of community on the streets with the children of different families all playing together while their parents or older siblings sat and talked to each other which was clearly part of the daily ritual.
We asked our guide if people were generally happy with their lives and he confirmed that in large part, they were, especially for the older people, many of whom had struggled badly before the Revolution and now in the post “Fidel” era, all have decent medical coverage, the children had good access to education even at the university level which helps create a large number of engineers, doctors and other professionals that contribute the slow growth of the economy.
Perhaps the one thing that Cuban’s lack is the ability to leave the country. Even though the government over the last few years has relaxed this restriction, certainly, unless you are a Cuban/American with dual passports, you cannot travel to the United States, and most other countries around the world are reluctant to give Cubans tourist visas for fear that they will remain in the country and not return to Cuba. The other factor that is relevant is that most Cuban’s probably make less than $10,000 a year which after covering their living costs, does not allow a high level of savings to be spent on vacations out of the country.
Despite this, as mentioned above, we found that virtually every Cubans that we spoke to did seem content with what they had, focusing less on what they didn’t have, an attitude and approach to life which is something that we could all learn from.
(Photos taken in Santiago, Cuba – August 2014)