Tag Archives: tourism

Smell the Skin Cancer: An All-Inclusive Experience

Years have passed since I’ve been to a Cuban all-inclusive resort. As you may have guessed, resorts are not my thing.

Friends back “home” are incredulous when I regale them with tales of Varadero (AKA Cuban Cancún) or the cayos – small islands off the coast made accessible by environmentally-disastrous causeways built to bring the tourist hordes. With some 20 Lonely Planet guidebooks under my belt, treks into jungles where no solo woman before me dare tread, intrepid back-country camping and off-the-grid surviving, their first questions, inevitably, are: you?! At a resort? Why? You don’t drink, the beach bores you and the sun wreaks havoc on your Irish complexion – do you really need more freckles?! What’s the draw?

I understand their confusion. They know me, but they don’t know Cuba, these well-meaning friends. They do not know August with no air conditioning or eating some kind of pork product daily – or more often still. They’ve never been jarred awake at 6 every morning by the pop and buzz and blare of recorded trumpets followed by live young communists screeching principles. They know not of living with no telephone and only four channels (now five – woohoo!) of state TV, or cohabitating with termites to the point of total closet/bed/living room furniture collapse. Intrusive neighbors, migraine-inducing regguetón. Blackouts. Noxious, obligatory fumigations. The sprint for a guagua too full to stop for more passengers or lugging a propane tank, bicycle or sack of yuca up five flights of stairs. They know none of this. But I do. Intimately. Maddeningly. Ad nauseam.

But rather than describe the attraction of an all-inclusive in similar pitying detail, I’ll boil the attraction, for me, down to three things: cheese, hot showers, and ESPN. So when a friend (who shall remain nameless) suggested we spend a weekend at an all-inclusive, I jumped.

Here are my impressions of the Cuban todo incluido experience, circa Christmas 2015:

– Cuban tourism authorities are completely clueless that non-Christian (or non-Christmas-celebrating) visitors travel at this time of year. The resort where I stayed was festooned with every nöel-themed cliché you can imagine, from the plastic tree with gaudy metallic balls to faux snow and giant Merry Christmas banners. The quartet even played carols each night at the buffet. I was embarrassed for the Cubans (how fast they appropriate some of the worst of US consumerist culture!), while cringing for the Sikhs, Jews, Muslims and others who probably thought coming to Cuba would spare them this onslaught. Think again: it’s only going to get worse.

– I dub those tourists who only know Cuba through the resort lens the “masses of asses.” And they’ve earned the moniker for the shiterature they’re reading on vacation. Granted, about 20% were reading on digital devices – but even if every single one of them was diving into Dickens or Dawkins, that leaves 80% who are reading complete crap. The 50-tome library dominated by Danielle Steele, Ken Follet and other straight-to-paperback scribes. The poolside sunbathers with their Barbara Taylor Bradford. The guy smoking a stogie in the garden engrossed by Clive Cussler. I get that they’re on vacation. They want something light. But since when does light=formulaic and mindless? Ever since light became lite, I guess. So I dub this holiday reading by the masses of asses: (Lite)rature and suggest they check out Bill Bryson, Pico Iyer or Junot Díaz next vacay.

– Man titties: pink and hairy, glistening with sunblock and sweat. Overall impression? Gross.

– This particular resort was fairly, refreshingly light on jineteros/as and their janes/johns, but this doesn’t seem to be the case everywhere, if these experiences relayed by Here is Havana readers are indicative. Nevertheless, Cubans are (almost) always on the prowl. To wit: a nahwey from Centro Habana tried to pick me up when I entered the water near where he and his friend were lying on the beach. He took it as a sign. Not an illogical assumption, but incorrect: I just had to pee.

– One question which kept occurring to me as I surveyed my surroundings was: when did Deadheads quit tour and start designing resort wear? (Probably once Touch of Grey was released). Psychedelic and sexy but supremely comfortable – stealing into hotel rooms to rob wardrobe never crossed my mind before this trip.

– Streams of people made their way to the beach each dusk to watch the sunset. I’m happy for them. Happy they’re doing it. Everyone should be as fortunate as me – to have seen so many Cuban sunsets: from valley to sea to summit, coast-to-coast. But never before from a boat, which is odd indeed. Especially on an island. Especially for an ocean-faring waif like myself. It puts the ‘no boat’ rule and resource scarcity into sharp, stark perspective. I’ve lived here for 14 years and have never seen a sunset from Cuban waters. WTF?! [note to self: must rectify].

– Then there’s what I call the Tourist Tabula Rasa. Most folks in resorts haven’t a fucking clue wat Cuba is, was, or where it’s headed. Granted, none of us really has a grasp on the last, but the all-inclusive tourist bubble and how it dovetails (or doesn’t) with the Cuban reality is a dangerous thing. And scary. I imagine the guy with bigger boobs than me and his wife brandishing the schmaltzy zirconia necklace back home at a cocktail party: “Cuba? There’s awesome cheese and great hot water showers. Plus, there’s satellite – I thought it was going to be just government TV!”

They’re wrong, of course, but for me, at least for this weekend, they’re right: the cheese – blue, Manchego, Jarlsberg – was sublime. I stuffed myself full of it, took a long, hot shower and kicked back on the bed to watch the B James/S Curry Cavaliers/Warriors showdown. Conner Heaven.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban beaches, Cuban customs, dream destinations, Expat life, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

Want to Help Cuba? Travel Responsibly

I’ve got my knickers in a twist and if you know me, you know how ugly I can get when my ass is chapped.

Today’s topic? Ethical, responsible, and sustainable travel to Cuba.

For those who don’t know me (let alone my knickers), a bit of background: I’ve written some 20 or so guidebooks – almost entirely to Latin America and Hawai’i. That is, contexts where vulnerable communities and environments depend on critical tourist dollars. And it’s not always pretty. Importantly, I’ve also borne witness to the continuum of change in Cuba, from my first month-long volunteer stint in 1993 to right now, after nearly 14 years in residence. So I know intimately the ‘bueno, malo y regular’ that tourism can heap upon a place. I also know painfully well the challenges facing Cuba as it navigates a tumultuous domestic reform process, while facing the oncoming tourist ‘tsunami’.

When I launched Cuba Libro in 2013, I designed it as an ethically- and socially-responsible business – relevant and responsive to local communities’ needs, which would also serve as a cool, cultural space for visitors to dig below the surface of this increasingly complex society. I also wanted it to shine as an example of how the private sector can (and must if there’s any hope for the Cuba we know and love) support and strengthen the public sector.

I recently participated in a Temas panel and debate dedicated to sustainable and responsible tourism. If you’re unfamiliar with Temas, it is the intellectual publication of reference here and its Director, Rafael Hernández – regularly published and quoted in the western press – can often be found on speaking tours abroad. In short, Temas is a heavyweight when it comes to critical debate in Cuba.

So despite feeling like shit with what turned out to be the onset of dengue, I made my way with some 50 colleagues to the lovely Parque La Güira in Pinar del Río to learn about what’s happening around sustainable tourism in Cuba.

I should have stayed home. While the panelists were informed, experienced, eloquent, and educated, there was a general pall over the proceedings. Despite a formal invitation, no one from the Ministry of Tourism showed up. Nor were there any representatives from the Ministries of Health or the Environment. So much for intersectoriality. What’s more, various presentations and exchanges revealed there is no national strategy, no community voice or participation, not even a consensus on what constitutes sustainable and responsible tourism and therefore no evidence base upon which to measure progress. I wasn’t sure if it was the dengue or lack of policy/political will making me shudder, but I (and others I spoke with) came away from that panel depressed.

Why? Because responsible and ethical tourism is a two-way street. Recipient countries have rights and obligations and it’s unclear what Cuba is doing about it. The emphasis on golf course and resort development (did you know Cuba is in a crippling drought? We certainly do: it’s on the news and in the papers all the time) and cruise ship tourism (I was hoping someone on the panel would provide cost-benefit analysis on this issue. File under: Wishful Thinking), are troubling. Even more troubling is this trip report from a frequent traveler to the Oriente, and this report from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which while long, lacks substance.

But individual travelers also have rights and obligations and since I can’t do much in the short term about the government’s role, I wanted to write about what you can do to help Cuba while you explore this fascinating country.

#1: Respect the laws of Cuba – If you are a reporter, blogger or freelance writer or filmmaker and enter Cuba on a tourist visa with the intention of writing about or filming here, you’re breaking the law. If you participate in sex tourism, you’re breaking the law (and if you have to pay for sex, you’re a loser). If you couch surf, you’re breaking the law. If you drive drunk or with an open container in your car, you’re breaking the law. If you put up the money for a business or house with a Cuban on the paperwork, you’re breaking the law. Do people do these things all the time? Yes, every day. But people OD on heroin every day, too – that doesn’t mean you’re going to go out and do it, right? I know, I sound like someone’s curmudgeonly mother.

#2: Reduce water usage
– The drought is so dramatic it’s affecting our fresh food supply (although upwards of 70% of food is imported, none of it is of the fresh fruit or veggie variety). Plus, there are millions of Cubans, even right here in Havana, who do not have running water every day. Can you let a faucet drip or run knowing that? Would you do it at home given the same circumstances? Californians know full well what I’m talking about.

#3: Reduce plastic waste – During our team meeting at Cuba Libro yesterday, one member opined that we should sell bottled water (even though we give out gallons of purified water for free every day), because ‘tourists don’t trust boiled water.’ And he’s right – some folks don’t believe boiled water is safe for drinking. But they’re wrong: check the scientific evidence. And the plastic waste 3 million (and counting) tourists create when they drink countless plastic bottles of water during their stay is doing damage. This is an island ecology, where use is outstripping recycling and we don’t have landfill enough for all the plastic waste you leave behind once you return home. So what can you do? If you’re in a casa particular, boil or otherwise treat (drops, chlorine, iodine, filters) water and use a refillable bottle. At the very least, buy the 5 liter jugs of water and refill with that. When all else fails, switch to beer – anything to avoid the half liter bottles overfilling our landfill.

#4: Adapt – My Cuban friends make fun of me I’m so anti-pingüino. ‘The penguin’ is local slang for air conditioning. But it has been unbearably, record-breaking hot this summer, and I’ve had to resort to sleeping some nights with my Russian tank of an AC on ϹИᴧЬНО (that’s ‘high’ in Cyrillic, I think!). So, it’s hot, I get it. But the all-too-common tourist practice of leaving the AC on all day long while at the beach or out sightseeing so the hotel or casa particular room is ‘a lo pingüino’ upon return is totally irresponsible – not only does it sap the local electrical grid and damage the environment, but it contributes to global climate change as well. Besides, in AC-challenged Cuba, adapting is a much more practical survival strategy (just yesterday a US tourist said to me: ‘quite frankly, I’m used to my US comforts, like AC’). In short: suck it up and use your AC judiciously.

#5: Do not, ever, request Guantanamera, Lagrimas Negras, or Chan Chan
– Already Cuban musicians and artists are dumbing down their magnificent repertoire to cater to perceived tourist tastes. Respecting the patrimony of Cuba includes letting these musicians rip on compositions they haven’t played a thousand times for a thousand tourists. Your travel memories will be richer for this expanded listening experience. And don’t forget to tip.

#6: Learn some Spanish (or even better: Cuban) phrases
– No matter where you travel, having a couple of local phrases and vernacular up your sleeve opens doors, minds, and hearts. Get a phrasebook or app. Use it. Trying to communicate, even in the simplest way, in the language of your host country is a sign of respect. It’s not easy, I know this in the marrow of my bones. But it’s also not terribly hard once you start and is immeasurably rewarding. Do it!

#7: R-E-S-P-E-C-T
– Speaking of which: visitors, especially from the USA (who Cubans love for cultural-historical reasons, but also for being big tippers), have to tame their egos. This doesn’t apply to everyone, obviously, but there’s a tendency for some US folks to push the “America [sic] is the greatest/most democratic country in the world” point of view, combined with a cringe-inducing perspective about “how to fix Cuba.” This happened just yesterday at Cuba Libro and got Douglas’ Irish up in a major way – and he has not a drop of the Emerald Isle in his blood. Travelers, from everywhere, frankly, should be conscious that they are visiting a highly-educated, cultured, and professional context, which is no way intellectually ‘frozen in time’ and that Cubans have spent a long time analyzing and living with their problems. No matter how erudite you are in your own life and field – and I include myself here – you don’t know as much as people living here day-to-day, who have spent a lifetime in this complex country. Can you enrich the dialog and provide perspective? Definitely. Can you solve Cuba’s problems after a ten-day or two-month trip? Definitely not. Show respect for your hosts’ intelligence, triumphs, and challenges by listening and learning. No one likes a dogmatic pontificator.

Lest I am accused of being a hypocrite, I will sign off here. If you have something to add about responsible/ethical/sustainable tourism, please write in; I’m starting to put together evidence, documents, and experiences related to what works and what doesn’t regarding this issue with an eye towards action.

Happy travels!

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, dream destinations, environment, Expat life, Hawaii, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba