Cuba moves to a tropical beat. On a week-long trip around the island aboard our yacht, we traveled to a mysterious land lost in a time warp that has left it back in the mid-1950s. There is no doubt the 54 years of economic embargo has taken its toll: the average wage of a doctor or engineer is just $75/month and teachers earn less than $50, buying a new pair of shoes takes 6 months of saving, but because of this, Cubans are the masters of fixing anything. Not only their famous 1950s Chevys, but even shoes are handed down from family member to family member, repaired over and over.
The country presents so many dichotomies. It’s one of the sleepiest places imaginable and yet music is in the air and you feel the streets pulse with life and friendliness. The importance of music is partly historical tradition, but also because musicians, artists, and athletes are among the few people ever offered a chance to travel outside of the country. Today, a musical group playing in a restaurant or on the streets for tips can easily earn four times what a local professional might. The same goes for restaurant owners, waiters, bed & breakfast owners, tour guides, and handicraft sellers. In just the last six years the country has gone from no private enterprise to one-fifth of the population being privately employed. A huge income disparity has developed between those in the private sector and government employees. How this will all work out is anybody’s guess, but when the manager of a factory makes less than a street vendor, I can’t help but think it will be a bumpy road.
Certainly not all is dire on the island. Despite the aforementioned hardships, education is free and available to everyone, all the way through university. 99% of the population is literate! Medical care is quite good and is also completely free. Crime is almost non-existent. The pace of life is relaxed. Very relaxed.
On our trip, the people-to-people exchanges provided the biggest highlights. Having the chance to meet locals and discuss the differences between their lives and ours was not only fascinating, but also fun- like meeting and chatting with Grammy award-winning members of the Buena Vista Social Club!
The camaraderie that developed on the yacht over the week between the group members was wonderful. I don’t think we would have come together in the same way if it had been a hotel based trip. I had a great time and I think that all of our shipmates felt the same. My takeaway is that Cuba is well worth visiting and you should go soon while it remains unique.
-Photos and text by WT President, Bill Abbott, Cuba Cultural Adventure