“Try to enjoy my country but not to understand it”. – Abel, our Cuban guide
There are many oddities about Cuba since el Triunfo de la Revolución, the triumph of the 1959 Cuban revolution as Cubans like to call it. However, perhaps the most peculiar is the sheer lack of necessities and goods, and the ability of the average Cuban to afford them. Nothing can prepare a foreigner for the stark reality and contrast of the tourist life compared with Cuban life while visiting Cuba. It was during my first morning in Cuba that I experienced a shockingly wide realization that el Triunfo de la Revolución was quite frankly all a farce.
I rose early as always to grab a leisurely breakfast in the hotel dining room. I normally am not a big eater for breakfast however I do like my coffee in the morning and our breakfast was included with the price of the room. I had heard that Cuba was not a gastronomical place and to expect the bare minimum during our week’s stay on the island. Not expecting much, I entered the hotel dining area and looked around with utter surprise. There was tray after tray of food. Anything and everything your heart could ever desire. Pancakes, french toast, eggs, meats, cheese, yogurt, smoothies, fruits, smoked salmon, pastries and even a omelette bar. I was stunned by the sheer quantity of food, much of it left uneaten on promptly cleared plates off table-clothed tables. Being in Cuba, our beautiful four-star hotel had a four-star quality spread to make anyone feel just the least bit guilty.
It wasn’t until I left the beautiful hotel Melia Cohiba in Vedado, a tree-lined middle-class neighborhood of Havana, and walked across the street into the grocery store that I realized something was not right. The floors were stripped of tiles and showing dirt, the lights were dim, the walls were grungy and most of all, almost all the shelves were less than half-way stocked with goods. In fact, there were columns and rows of shelves that were simply bare with absolutely nothing.
An enormous guilt crept through me, thinking about what a sharp contrast the grocery store was compared to the layers and layers of food just across the street in our hotel. I grabbed a large bottle of water for my hotel room, paying the 6 CUCs, realizing that the cost of the water was a week’s worth of salary for the average Cuban. My heart sank. This is Cuba.