Friday, March 24, 2006

Cuba on my mind

Written by: Isadora Tattlin
Category: Travel; Biography & Autobiography; History - Caribbean & West Indies
Publisher: Broadway
Format: Trade Paperback, 320 pages
Pub Date: May 2003
Price: $12.95

Recommended Reading: Cuba Suspended in Time (Lost Angeles Times)

Interview with the author on NPR

OK, so I'll admit it, Cuba is one of our countrymen's favorite destinations. Almost everyone I know, has either been to Cuba or is planning to go. Yours truly falls in the latter category at the moment. With all this hankering for a trip to Cuba I could be forgiven for imagining that although Cuba is poor and ruled by a dictator, the low crime, free health care, free education, balmy violet waters and lush green tropical paradise had succeeded in lulling the Cuban people into some sort of of a reverie - dreaming of a better life, but not exactly detesting the one they had at the moment. How wrong I was (apparently)! It took Isadora Tattlin's (a pseudonym) book, "Cuba Diaries", a memoir and travelogue of her four years in Cuba, to help me realize my tourist friends and I don't know squat about the real Cuba!

When you live there, like Isadora did, you realize how bad the food shortages are and a shopping list is just a wish list. Most Cubans subsist on rice, beans and squash. Ever since sanctions were imposed on Cuba, getting anything else is next to impossible. There are separate stores or "diplomercados" for foreigners only where sometimes tomatoes may be priced at $17 for 1/4 kilo , but the Cuban people have to head for the state-run-pesos-only bodegas with ration books to buy staples (when available) at subsidized prices. I guess this is why "Tienda de los Novios" or "Store of the Fiances" is such a popular concept. In Cuba, engaged couples are allowed to shop for basic home items at half price at this store between the time of their application for a marriage license and the wedding ceremony! They are also given, following their marriage, two free honeymoon nights in selected hotels. Cubans can use these privileges no matter how many times they may have been married before, and indeed, some locos get married just for those precious sheets, pillow cases and the free honeymoon nights!

She also writes about how most Cubans are moved to thieving or prostititution because their lives are so poor. She describes in detail the colourful "Jinetera" or the young girls in Cuba who prostitute themselves, very often with the permission of their husbands or fathers and become long-time girl friends of Western tourists when they visit Cuba. Often, these jinetera are the soul bread winners for their families and are treated with special affection by the families.

She describes the rundown, near-empty malls and stores (apparently the local Cubans don't have money to use in these stores) and the hopelessly inefficient "paladares" or local restaurants which are usually run out of someone's home. They are not exactly encourged by the government because they compete with tourist hotels, but nor are they completely banned.

As interesting as the book is, after all she hobnobs with Ana Maria Guevera (Che Guevera's step-mother) and has Fidel Castro over to dinner at her house, you cannot help but notice that Tattlin (not her real name) paints a very dismal picture of Cuba and it is apparent from her writing that she cannot wait to leave the place. She comes across a little like a spoiled American princess, who, instead of enjoying a new and novel experience, wishes it was more like "home". Nothing like a homogenized America, is there?

As I arrived at the latter chapters of her book I grew a little ambivalent about her true intentions towards Cuba - can Cuba really be as bad as she makes it out to be? How come she doesn't mention the world famous Cuba National Ballet? The incredibly popular Bueno Vista Social Club for their Latin Jazz? The The beautiful architecture? Cuba's love for baseball and the many baseball stars that Cuba has produced? Why no mention of the free medical education that Cuba offers students from all over the world, the only charge being that they sign a bond stating that the first two years of their careers will be spent helping the less fortunate ?

But, like I said at the start of my review, tourists do not get to see the whole picture, people that live there do. Still, how much would the wife of a diplomat, who lives in the most expensive suburb of Havana and drives expensive Land Cruiser and a Mitsubishi truly get to see of the real Cuba?

This book has left me craving for more of Cuba - the real Cuba- if only it wasn't so elusive.

Cuba is considered a "Museum on Wheels" because it hasn't allowed the import of a single car since the 1960's. Its cars are a vintage-car lover's dream.


Guinness_Girl said...

I would LOVE to go to Cuba - some friends went a couple years ago, through Mexico (stupid US restrictions on travel!), and their pictures were amazing.

If you want another Cuba book, I highly recommend _Finding Manana_ by Mirta Ojito. Excellent, excellent read!

hellomelissa said...

wow, a fantastic review! so many juicy topics to consider. t's best buddy is cuban (americanized) and i'll have to grill him more on his home country.

Lotus Reads said...

Oh, yes, guinnessgirl, Cuba is very high on my travel list, too!

I have heard a chorus of enthusiasm for Mirta Ojito's book and now that you recommend it so highly, I am definitely going to have to have to pick it up. I will begin my search at; hope someone has it.


Lotus Reads said...

Thanks M!

That's great about T's friend. I would love to know how he views Cuba today. Does he ever get to visit? Does he even want to? I can think of a ton of questions to ask him! :)

Susan in Italy said...

Lotus, your prose is wonderful! I've read a lot about Cuba and find that no matter how many books I read, the "truth" about the place is elusive. I've never been there either so reading is all I have to go on. For some reason, the subjectivity that clouds anything that anybody writes about is thicker with Cuba; the pro or con politics are too strong. Take "Before Night Falls" by Reinaldo Arenas as an example.
BTW, I don't know if you take requests but have you thought of reviewing "Shalimar the Clown" by Rushdie? That one's on my list!

Lotus Reads said...

Hello Susan!

Thanks for stopping by. It's true, Cuba does have its many admirers and an equally large group of detractors. I have never visited the country either, but I am fascinated with it.

Have you watched the movie version of "Before Night Falls"? I would like to rent it but was wondering if it was too graphic?

I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I have never been able to read Salman Rushdie - I have tried but his writing just doesn't hold me. I will admit I haven't tried "Shalimar the Clown" but I don't mind giving it a whirl. Can't wait to hear what you think of the book once you finish reading it.

Guinness_Girl said...

Lotus, if I could find my copy to save my life, I'd send it to you!

Ralphee said...

You review the book as an "ambivalent picture", and my travels to Cuba left me with the same impression: absolutely beautiful at one hand, depressing at the other. I fear that over the time Cuba has lost (and still looses) a lot of it's heritage and culture, because Fidel Castros regime really doesn't encourage the people to get self-responable.

Here is a blog about Cuba's trademark: vintage cars.