Thinking Out Loud

February 20, 2017

Two Worlds: The Cuba Caste System

poverty-in-veradero

Perhaps it’s not a caste system the way we normally use the phrase, but there was something eerie about the way two worlds seem to coexist in Cuba: The tourists and those who work in tourism.

In one resort at Varadero, a tunnel is used to get workers from the street into the basement level of the hotel. There were no doubt staff entrances at all of the 40-or-so resorts on the peninsula, but it was the tunnel that caught our eye.

Workers arrive by bus, not the air-conditioned ones known to the tourists, or even the double-decker versions, but older, hotter, more crowded ones.

For the non-tourists, there is also a different currency. We paid for things in CUCs, the convertible, tourist version of the Cuban Peso. Residents pay in CUPs. One Cuban Convertible Peso equals 24.728383 Cuban Pesos. Some stores accept the one, some accept the other, some accept both.

So we find ourselves in a country where there are two sets of currencies, two sets of buses, two types of taxicabs, etc…

…Another lifetime ago, I worked for a musician who played a number of Jewish venues including the banquet halls of major hotels as well as synagogues. It was customary to unload and load equipment through a service elevator or even through a kitchen. I am personally acquainted with what it means to be part of the service staff in a place where, on the other side of the wall, wealthy people are enjoying unlimited food, drink and entertainment.

There was something about this trip however where it reflected differently. I was, for seven short days, one of the rich tourists. As noted in yesterday’s article, for our tour guide to stay one week in this place, he would have to spend the equivalent of 19 months’ wages. As noted the day before, there is something unsettling at the fragility of the curtain which separated our tour guide from we tourists.

I say that not because I’m not wanting to associate with the waiters and chambermaids, but rather because I don’t want them to be invisible; don’t want them to have to be quietly ushered in through a tunnel…

…Last week in the Canadian parliament, a member stood up and mentioned in passing that before his government career he was a bus driver. And guess what reaction that got?

The members of the opposition party laughed at him.

I want to emulate the Nazarene who “humbled himself, taking on the role of a servant.” I want to be able to come alongside the waiter who is carrying too many plates, or grab the other corner of the bed-sheet while the maid makes up the room.

But the world doesn’t like it when those barriers are not firmly set in place.


Thanks for your indulgence during these 3 articles. There’s one more which will come a few days later, as I want to share our impressions in a tourist environment that is devoid of Americans and consider the potential of an influx of US tourists on Cuba.

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February 19, 2017

Third World Exposure

havana-back-streetsI have been privileged to work in a variety of areas of ministry: For a local church, for a Christian book distributor, for a Christian music distributor, for a Christian book publisher, for two Christian camp ministries, for a Christian television ministry, for an international Bible distributor, as a teacher in a Christian school, for a local Christian newspaper, for two nationally distributed Christian magazines, for a Christian arts organization… well, you get the idea.

Always missing from my resumé was what I termed “third world missions exposure.” Essentially, I am a missions trip that never happened. I became aware of this at one of the camps I worked for:

The mission agency people knew very little about Christian camping or even youth ministry in general…but their third world exposure meant they had good organizational skills, an ability to adapt, and a variety of gifts. Overall, I think the kids who attended that year got their money’s worth from this diversity, even if things at the senior staff level were a constant tug of war…Parachuting people from other ministry disciplines into unfamiliar contexts is not always a great idea. I felt that within their own missions-and-development tribe, there were probably reasons to respect some of these people, not to mention their willingness to take on the camp challenge at the last minute.

As I mentioned yesterday, we finally had an opportunity to go to Cuba last week. Our first time on an airplane in 28 years. We debated whether as a nation, Cuba can be considered “third world.” My wife suggested “second world.” Political science is not my long-suit, but given Cuba’s ties to the former Soviet Union, it might fit the definition. These days however, the term describes economic status, not political alignment. Cuba is not undeveloped; their education system alone ought to be the envy of many western countries.

veradero-back-streets

Regardless, it was definitely my first direct exposure to poverty on a scale I never envisioned. Further, I never imagined how much it would affect me, seeing this now, at this stage of life. Would it have shaped my life differently to have this experience much younger? Perhaps, but in ways I will never know.

Posting a number of pictures to Facebook, my wife wrote:

When we got home, we calculated that for our tour guide to stay one week in this place, he would have to spend the equivalent of 19 months’ wages. Even the tour he hosted would be a months’ work.

I think knowing that helps me to appreciate the experience and to enjoy it more, while recognizing my privileged place and being humbled by it.

We are forever changed.

havana-downtown

 

 

February 18, 2017

Breaking the Fourth Wall

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:44 am

cardenas

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.

habana

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