Hurricane Mathew’s recent Cuban rampage made me think back to February 2009, when I visited in the wake of hurricane’s Ike and Gustav.
I had just finished a TEFL course and Googled, ‘volunteering’. ‘Three weeks teaching English in Havana’ came up. I pictured creaky pianos on dusty verandas and old Cadillacs wheezing on shampoo. I was curious to see if the clichés were true, see what was really left.
The location was central Havana, I didn’t need to drive, and I could use my new TEFL skills – no former experience required…
The arrivals conveyor belt was empty and still. Our luggage hadn’t been stolen. It had been hidden. In corners, behind doors, in bins. I found my plastic-wrapped suitcase, conveniently just outside the women’s toilets. It was shaken up, but intact.
The airport staff, bored out of their lively Cuban brains after 5 years of seemingly futile university education, had given we tourist-voyeurs our first taste of Cuban wit.
I am met by my tour guide and find we are taking an exclusive ‘taxi’ that looks like someone’s car, driven by her friend. Not an old Cadillac but the new shiny fruit of last season’s tourist dividend. We arrive at an expensive hotel and make our way to the cool basement whose menu could have been from anywhere in America – hot dogs, hamburgers, chips, ice-cream sodas, club sandwiches, etc. She orders profusely and eats ravenously.
It’s the very beginning of the tourist season and, like many, she’s still haunted by low-season austerity. I pay for us both, on her recommendation. I would have offered first, had I not been confused by her smart manicured appearance, had I realised where I was – in Cuba, with a Cuban. For any time spent, I felt I was expected to tip, as I would a waiter, for a tasty plate of conversation. It’s not that they didn’t enjoy the exchange, but that’s what it is, an exchange – Cubans need food and loo-roll and crave treats like a glass of beer once a month, something that the state never supplies, and their wage of £30 a month cannot buy.
The next morning. My first day. My hotel was a high rise 90s eyesore, complete with dusty fake ferns. My room was on the top floor, had cold running water, a fridge that worked well as a tepid storage cupboard and a bird’s eye view across city and sea.
I drank in the hurricane-blistered rooftops, windowless apartment blocks and the seawall called ‘The Malecon’. It draws a grey line between Havana and the rest of the world, curving slightly against every passing wave. At its midpoint, the ‘Hotel Nacional de Cuba’ stands out with the loud confidence of New York in the late 20s, once mafia HQ. Florida might even be visible now from the top suite…
So, down to my dusty fern-decked hotel lobby. I was late. The group was already sitting comfortably. I was the only non-Canadian, the youngest by at least 40 years and the only one, it seemed, not to have retired from head-teaching at a renowned education institution. No doubt my fellow volunteers had all been a punctual 5 to 20 minutes early. Had I missed something on the website? I was obviously not its target group. Anyhow, the Canadian-Cuban company I’d paid had welcomed my sterling with open arms and here I was, with everyone smiling at me with that ‘can do’ magnanimity particular to philanthropic Canadians on volunteering ‘vacation’ in Cuba.
In my mornings I taught at the university. As the sole Brit on the trip, it had been deemed apt for me to take the Anglo Saxon history class, on my own. There was only one book, one physical book, for the class of 60. I knew no more about Anglo Saxon history than that King’s names often ended in ‘red’ and had vague memories of Alfred, whom I confused with King Arthur and the Knights of the round table. Needless to say the Cubans, as in all other physical and mental respects, gained the upper ground, quizzing me intensely on Anglo Saxon involvement in Byzantine trade routes. My responses were garbled and evasive. Requests for repetition were frequent, “It’s difficult to understand your German accent” they chorused in pitch-perfect Canadian. My Queen’s English was new to them, brought up on a constant maple-barked volunteer stream, with no access to the BBC. Anyhow, without me, books or broadband, it seemed they were managing to quite well.
After a particularly gruelling lecture, I found myself sitting on the steps outside the Law Faculty. A student walked pointedly up to me and asked me if I was a student. I was shocked. I had been spoken to in Spanish. I had never been mistaken for anything other than a pasty Aryan, in Cuba, or anywhere else. I said no, carefully. I said I was a teacher, unconvincingly. I wondered if I had enough Spanish in the tank to carry me through this conversation sprint. I did.
Soon after, we were in a cafe he claimed had been a favourite of the young Castro. We weren’t paralysed by choice: chicken with rice and or beans. These were delicacies craved by the children I taught in the afternoons. All had chimed “Rice and chicken” in joyous unison to my question “what’s your favourite food?” two mischief-makers daring to add “beans” to the decadence.
It occurred to me, looking around the cafe, opposite this Cuban aqua-physiotherapy student, that I was blending in and not because I was developing a mahoganous Caribbean tan. My lunch companion was the only Cuban who wasn’t working behind the bar. Customers, as in most ‘Cuban’ bars I visited, were tourists – For Cubans a glass of beer once a month was a treat to be shared, once a month, maybe, between two.
He explained his frustration at being a student of aqua physio with no real access to still water, the pool they practiced in was dry. I thought of my hotel pool, cracked and economical with chlorine, but full nonetheless. Seemed Havana had two faces, one for me and one for him. After lunch he bid me goodbye politely and returned to his empty pool on a full stomach, hunger abated for another day. I felt regret, perhaps naively, that I had no spare things or money to give him and wondered what he needed.
I later looked back and thought how nice it was that we had managed to have a meal without bartering. My later experiences taught me that everything I was wearing or carrying, down to my bra’s underwire, was on the market, to the highest bidder, and the currency is banter. The sweetest talkers are the best dressed – they can be your best friend in 5 minutes, in any one of the world’s top 5 languages.
One afternoon we had a tour of the university from the head of the law faculty, who carefully stuck to architectural did you knows about the faculty’s buildings and mentioned he had been a translator for Jimmy carter, but was careful not to elucidate. He finished his tour with a plea for toothpaste and loo-roll, he said, since the hurricane, his wife and he struggled for the bare essentials. We were all apologetic that we hadn’t thought to bring any out with us. Some of the Canadians, indeed, studied veterans of former trips, had brought these with them in extra suitcases and distributed them as and when they could.
The next week we visited a hospital where we were told that Venezuelans came to learn to be doctors in exchange for oil. It was like a garden centre, with large glass roofed plants, sourced from all over South America. Cuban scientists are leading the way, our guide informs us, with pioneering research into local sourcing and cheap production of herbal cures and preventions, circumventing costly imports of patented drugs and vaccines. It sounded utopian, evocative of Huxley’s “The Island” – One morning, I stumbled into a square with a troop of octogenarian chicas practicing Tai Chi. In my best, newly acquired Canadian-Cubano confidence, I asked, ‘Where are the men?’, ‘Not dead, just lazy” one called out cheerfully, mid flying-crane.
The last morning, my last afternoon in the school. The electricity was off, again. The children’s planned performance ‘to music’, their parting thanks for our teaching, was now a little tricky. Without hiatus, however, their collective Cuban brain shortcut resourcefully to a percussive solution.
Pencils and chair legs doubled as drum sticks. Table, wall and floor morphed into drums. Stamp, click, stamp, click, cluck the tongue, snap the finger. Repeat. All while curling spines and swinging tiny hips. Those who weren’t busy being the band paired up: chiquitos with chiquitas, and moved their toes in sync, like professional, post-pubescent pros. In the audience their parents swayed their approval, in perfect time, smiling with the relaxed futile pride unique to Cubans.
These ‘street’ children were as academic as they were physically adept. Their English already very good, aged 7, they were writing in cursive script that puts Oxbridge graduates to shame. Indeed, between their Cuban teachers and Canadian volunteers, someone was getting something right. As for me, they certainly didn’t need my help when it came to perfecting their Canadian accents or indeed, lifestyle tips. Fuelled by innate rhythm and, arguably, austerity, these children and their, seem happier and healthier than I’d thought possible.
I got the sense that Havana was a party that keeps dancing, challenging the band to play on and on and inviting whoever is listening, to join in, even though the taps have run dry and the night is over. Doubtless things have changed over the past decade. Cubans seem to act quickly with steps as ingenious and spontaneous as the music that fills Havana’s many cracks. Obama came in during the second of my three weeks and already the lightening mood and arrival of some newish looking furniture, suggested change had already begun to seep through. I wonder how resilient this change will be, in the wake of horrendous Mathew.
I have hope, however. Cubans are masters of survival, used to emptying everything and float lightly, like Hemmingway’s Old Man, only to fill up again, and see how much won’t sink them. I hope this resilience sees them through Matthew as it saw them through Ike, Gutav and their predecessors.
One day I would like to go back and mark changes, mourn Cadillacs. See if glassless window holes have been filled and shuttered and Cubans are unhappier or unhealthier, or if they still smile and sway their hips while queuing all afternoon for a single scoop of state-supplied ice-cream.