It wasn’t exactly breaking the fourth wall as is usually defined, but it was a moment in our trip to Cuba where the wall between the lives of the villagers and the rich tourists on the air-conditioned bus was momentarily shattered.
Sitting on the bus weaving through a number of towns and villages was exactly what we wanted to see. “Today,” the tour guide intoned, “You will see the real Cuba.” It took me awhile to think about the implications of this: In other words, what you’re seeing in the tourist resorts is not the real Cuba. Actually both tour guides on both days used “the real Cuba” phrase.
Our guide the second day was more than willing to talk about every aspect of village life. What things costs. How the free university education system works. The age to vote. The parliamentary system. Asking us questions about how similar things transpire back home. Sitting at the front of the bus each time so that we had access to the tour guides was strategic on my part. It meant being able to engage in conversation and ask questions throughout the entire 9 hours (the village tour) or 11 hours (Havana).
In a very strange way, the tour guide was, in my mind at least, slowly becoming one of us. Speaking perfect English (in the first case) or both English and French (in the second case.) It was easy to forget that the well-dressed young man sitting one row in front of me holding a microphone was actually a member of the culture in one of the towns where stopped.
That is until…
I was looking around and not fully paying attention when he picked up the microphone and said, “My house is two blocks that way. You can all come for dinner; we’re having rice and eggs.”
It took a minute for that to sink in. I quietly whispered to my wife, “Did he just say…”
In that moment I was totally wrecked…
…When we got back to the hotel I told this story a few times to some other people we had met from Canada. But I couldn’t do it without breaking up.
It’s one thing to sit on a tour bus — the analogy we used a few times was of people traveling to Pennsylvania to look at the Amish — but it’s a whole other thing when you’ve spent several hours getting to know personally one of the people who is part of the tableau spreading out before you.
It wasn’t a particularly attractive neighborhood.* Not one you or I would choose. And for dinner that night, back at the resort, we would be eating far more than rice and eggs.
I’ll write more tomorrow about the impact the poverty had on me.
*We didn’t take a lot of pictures in that particular town. The one at the top is borrowed from a tourism site. It’s a contemporary image, not something out of a movie recreation. The image below is one we took in Havana. We’re 99% sure that’s someone’s home. She was talking on the phone up to a 30 seconds before we took the picture.