Waking up was hard. Rum was banging against the walls of my brain. OUCH. We bagan to wonder whether agreeing to a tour of the city wth a guy who doesn’t speak a word of English was the best idea. What the hell? We sit at the table of our Casa with other tourists eating breakfast. Why do people talk so much in the morning about politics? We eat what we can, as quickly as we can (breakfast in a Cuban Casa, by the way, is beyond delicious and the Cuban Coffee is incredible).
Betty and Miqael both pull up outside our Casa in the bicycle taxi and take us to Miqael’s parent’s home a few blocks away for coffee.
The coffee is black, there is no milk in the house. Milk is considered quite the luxury item. Many people can’t afford it, relying mainly on rations from the State – another thing I learn here. Any other food that comes in to the family home needs to be paid for out of other money earned. We learn that the average monthly salary is $25 CUC (£15) per person who works for the State – so engineers, doctors, teachers etc. One chicken costs approximately $4 CUC – you get the picture. It explains why so many engineers and doctors have abandoned their careers to work in restaurants, making more money from tips than from the government. Some people stick to eating what is cheap and available mainly through the ration system; rice, beans, eggs and some meat and oil. If a woman is pregnant extra rations of milk are provided until the child is 7 years of age.
Day 2 and we’re learning a lot.
Miqael gets a DVD and sets up the rocking chairs in the living room so that they are all facing the television and motions enthusiastically for us to sit down. Before he presses play, Betty explains the content of what we are about to watch, whilst Miqael sits with a cigar hanging between his lips, waiting eagerly to press play.
Here in Cuba, explains Betty, people are good at knocking things up out of junk and bits of machinery – anything they can get their hands on. For example, the mirrors in the house are framed using bits of old magazine and newspaper.
Miqael, his brother and his friends built a raft designed to cross the Straits of Florida and escape to Miami, so they could live a life of ‘Freedom’ in America. The footage Miqael was about to show us was of a journey to Miami his brother made in the raft with his sister and friends, and was shot using a mobile phone.
Every day Cubans attempt to flee the country, risking their lives to touch American soil to receive amnesty and live in the US. Many die or don’t make it far and have to return in failed rafts that can’t withstand the pressures of the sea. Many get caught by Miami/Florida coast guards only a few hundred meters from shore. We learnt that a little than over a decade ago the Cuban Government handed out a death sentence to a group of Cubans who had hijacked a boat in an attempt to sail it to Florida. A few years later in 2005, Cuba refused to cooperate with a mandate for a UN envoy to investigate human rights abuses on the island.
Travel from Cuba is not easy – unless you have money, dual nationality or connections. Up until 2013 it was not possible for a Cuban to travel as a tourist, and even today Cubans are high on the terrorist and illegal immigrant list and so obtaining a Visa from other governments to enter their countries is not so simple.
Relations between Cuba and the US have improved somewhat since Bush but The US Trade embargo which prohibits trade and travel between The United States and Cuba, is still in place and felt widely across Cuban society.
All I can think of as I listen to all of this is – The Truman Show.
Betty explained that people are scared to utter the name ‘Fidel’ in their homes or to say anything negative against the government, paranoid that government spies might have placed bugs in their homes or paid neigbours to spy on them. Betty laughs, after all, Fidel is no longer in power but when I heard that over 100 people were still held as political prisoners in 2008 for speaking out against the government (I don’t know if they still are), I’m not surprised that these people are paranoid and want so badly to leave. Damn – even I felt paranoid towards the end.
In Cuba, to speak out against the government (again I’m not entirely sure if this is still the case today, but it certainly was 5 years ago), is a serious and heavily punishable crime that if it doesn’t lead to imprisonment, will almost certainly lead to social ostracism.
I couldn’t help but get goose bumps as I watched Miqael’s video. This apparently was attempt number 17. Miqael made it to attempt number 7 but something went wrong along the way and Miqael cut his foot. The wound got infected and hypothermia set in and he ended up losing some of his toes. He vowed never to go on another expedition. 10 attempts later and his brother, sister and friends made it across to Miami.
I watch as they mark in the sand, using empty cola bottles, pieces of debris and junk from the batterd raft, the word ‘Freedom.’ His brother now lives in Arizona. Miqael’s mother has a calendar photo of him hanging on her wall.
I like his parents. They are very warm and love their family and are proud of their home. I can tell because when I ask questions about the decor and compliment their furniture they beam! The mother unhangs a picture from her wall of all her children and tells me their names. She misses her babies, she tells me.
Their apartment reminds me of my Grandmother’s home in Warsaw in the 80s. Same small balcony, tiny kitchen, same washing machine – although they don’t use the machine here in case it breaks down. Machines, like toilet seats, are also expensive to replace.
Check out my highlights and travel tips for everywhere I travelled to in the world: Cuba, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, The Galapagos Islands, Argentina, LA, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia and Japan.