The greatest gift of all
When I opened up the large box that had been placed on my lap on Christmas morning, I had no idea that my little world (and little brain) was going to undergo a shift.
That morning, I opened up some travel documents that had photos of a lovely, tropical locale on them, and simply said on the front “Cayo Coco.” I haven’t travelled anywhere exotic since my eldest was nine months old (she’ll be 20 in April), and although it looked delightful, it meant nothing to me. My puzzled look must have prompted another daughter to finally holler “You’re going to Cuba, Mom!”
Cuba. My little brain kicked into high gear instantly, over a whole bunch of things. Because the flight out was only 24 days after Christmas, I had a lot to do to organize things at the newspaper. I had to organize my two kids, who would stay home on their own. Oh, and I had to reconcile myself with the fact that my husband’s incredible gift to me meant I was travelling to a country that I had vowed I would never visit. Cuba is a communist country, I had always maintained, and I would never voluntarily take a trip there and support a country that lived under an authoritarian regime.
I kept my thoughts to myself, and threw myself into the excitement of preparing for our holiday. We looked at the resort we were going to be staying at online, tracked the weather there daily, and started counting the sleeps. By the time the flight took off, I was vibrating, I was so excited.
The resort (Melia Cayo Guillermo, for those intrigued) was fabulous. Not too big, gorgeous beach, fabulous pool, great (and quirky) room, all inclusive – for a week, our life was going to be envied by even Riley.
I had learned, before we went, that those who work in the tourism industry in Cuba greatly appreciate it when visitors bring items to leave for them, as many items are simply not available to them (more on that later). I was worried that doing this would be patronizing, but I was assured that, no, the Cubans would be genuinely grateful. So I prepared seven little backpacks with goodies for a mum, a dad and kids, and we left one each day on the bed for housekeeping. I took some extra treats along for any other occasion that might arise, as well.
I was, however, confused. The staff at the resort looked slick, put together, healthy, even – not what I guess I had expected (I don’t know what I had been expecting, but for some reason I was surprised).
On our first morning there, our breakfast server, Eduao, motioned to my husband to accompany him outside the restaurant, where he then asked Grant if he could, at the end of our stay, buy Grant’s Nike runners from him. I quickly looked at Eduao’s feet – they were quite a bit smaller than Grant’s. He was going to take them and sell them elsewhere. Interesting, I thought. They obviously have side ventures!
The next day, we took a trip to the nearest “city” called Moron. I use the term city loosely, because Moron, with a population of around 65,000, is nothing more than a giant collection of hovels and lean-tos, with a few decrepid old large buildings thrown in the town centre to resemble ancient grandeur. I read somewhere that there is virtually no homelessness in Cuba, and that 85 per cent of Cubans own their homes and pay no property taxes or mortgage interest. How can one pay property tax when you have a postage stamp for a property? A mortgage on crumbling cement building and a corrugated metal roof that measures maybe 20 square metres? Of course there’s no homelessness, there are no homes.
While in Moron, we ran into one of the servers from the resort. He was just boarding one of the many buses that ferry the various resort employees between Moron and the cayo. “This is my home,” he explained happily. “I go to work now.”
He, who looked polished and healthy, lived in one of the many ramshackle houses that we had been driving by all morning. I was embarrassed by my first-worldness.
We visited a farm just on the outskirts of the “city.” The farmer proudly boasted of the 1954 International-brand tractor that they used to sow crops, and of the very old John Deere that held pride of place in the garage. Grant, a dairy farmer, had been looking forward to talking shop with a farmer in Cuba, but upon seeing their machines, he decided to stay quiet and let them bask in their simple glory.
I told Grant my never-visiting-Cuba resolve during our holiday, and we discussed it at great length. The people are disgustingly poor, but incredibly kind, and apparently happy. Happiness and communism make strange bedfellows, but bedfellows they are. Our visiting there may have put money in the government’s coffers, but my little gifts maybe put some rare, and much-appreciated, goods in a family or two’s hands. Getting over myself and being reminded that not everyone lives the same way I do was, by far, the best gift I have ever received.