Category: Travel; Biography & Autobiography; History - Caribbean & West Indies
Format: Trade Paperback, 320 pages
Pub Date: May 2003
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.