Yarelis was upset. Resigned to her reality, but upset.
“My only grandson is a Gringo,” she explained, pointing to a photo of a little boy called Brian, which took pride of place in her home.
“He lives in the United States and speaks English like an American boy – and I can’t see him,” she continued, wiping a tear from her eye.
Her husband, Ramon, sat stoney-faced and stared into the middle distance. He had fought for Cuba’s freedom alongside Che and Fidel, he had told me the day before, and his reward was a grandson he may never see.
Ramon and Yarelis lived the reality of so many Cubans. Resigned to the isolation bought on by the actions of their communist government and its relationship to the rest of the world, particularly its neighbour, the United States.
Neither of them expected to ever visit the US. They were both entering their twilight years. Cuba may have one of the best free health systems in the world, but the human body, and the human mind, can only withstand so much austerity.
Nor was it likely that Brian and his parents would ever visit Cuba. They were US citizens and the sanctions between the two countries, at the time of my visit, prevented most Americans from entering Cuba.
For middle-class, suburban Westerners like myself, it’s easy to humorously celebrate the dearth of American tourists in Cuba. Some might even point to this factor as an attraction. One traveller I met suggested it should have formed part of the country’s official tourist slogan, in order to attract more visitors and bolster the economy.
For Cubans, though, it was a sobering reality. They were cut off from large sections of the world economy, and from family.
Yarelis and Ramon were hosting me in their house in Santa Clara for a few days. Santa Clara is a relatively nondescript city, but hosts the burial site of Che Guevara, and thus attracts visitors. They were one of the many Cuban families running a ‘Casa Particular’, or private house, which provided cheap and comfortable lodging to visitors.
The official government program provides visitors with affordable and comfortable accommodation and allows them to interact with locals directly. It provides the hosts with valuable extra income, something that is very hard to source in Cuba.
As well as getting to know locals, and improving one’s Spanish, staying in casas particulares takes a lot of the stress out of finding accommodation.
My first hosts in La Habana certainly saved me from a great deal of stress, when I nearly ran out of money. I’d taken foreign currency, including Pounds and Canadian dollars, but the credit card upon which I was planning to rely turned out to be owned by a US company, despite coming from an Australian financial institution. As a result, my card was rejected at every ATM and it was only after my amicable host took me to a Casa de Cambio, and explained my situation, that I was able to withdraw sufficient funds. Otherwise, I still don’t know how I would have survived the remaining four weeks in the country.
Staying in casas particulares is also stress free because it allows the traveller to tap into the network. My helpful Habana hosts phoned a friend in Trinidad, my next port of call, and I stayed in their house during my stay. Every time I moved on, my hosts would call to another casa in the next city. Not only was the house in Trinidad comfortable, cheap and friendly, but the food was tasty and I was greeted like a VIP.
Yes, every time I stepped off the bus, my new host was standing at the terminal holding a sign with my name on it. Never was my name spelt correctly, but I always felt welcome. In fact, anticipating the newest variation of KIERAN was a little game I played as the bus approached my next destination.
There were so many variations, because Kieran simply does not translate well into Spanish. Once, I was called Mr Kiren, which felt very official, and one one occasion I was even called Sir Kairen; very important indeed.
Thus, in Trinidad, Santa Clara, Bayamao, Santiago and other destinations, I was greeted like a VIP.
The most creative spelling, from memory, was at Santiago. After a very long, hot, restless and frustrating bus trip, during which I was forced to watch five Jean Claude van Damme movies in a row, I arrived bleery-eyed late one night to find a sign with a C, an R and an N, plus a collection of vowels. I deduced, from the absence of fellow travellers on my bus, that it was for me.
The casas particulares were always welcoming. They were clean, comfortable and cheap. The seafood dinners in Trinidad were tasty. The stories in Santa Clara were fascinating, and the air-con in Santiago was very welcome, especially after an evening enjoying the carnival, or a day exploring the fort.
Best of all, though, were the people, and the chance to converse, especially if you speak Spanish. Admittedly, conversations did suddenly stop if they strayed into controversial territory – Cubans had to be very careful what they said. However, with a dose of common sense on behalf of the visitor, a stay in a casa particular is very rewarding and an insight into the life of Cuban families.