From boutique homestays in Havana to rustic country-houses, it’s an experience that brings one to the heart of a people who are full of joy. Why are they happy?
Starseed Betty L Khoo-Kingsley reports
Betty (centre) with homestay host in Playa Laga (in orange) and her helper.
Isn’t Cuba a communist country with first Fidel, and now Raul Castro as dictators? A third-world country with crumbling villas, decrepit hotels and shop-houses with peeling paint? Yes, Cubans still get food handouts and they ride around in 1950s and 60’s bomb-shakers. And yes, their homes, hotels and Cathedrals were once rundown, but now in 2017, in cities and towns the length and breath of this Caribbean Island, they have been lovingly restored.
But what makes Cubans happy, healthy and carefree?
Why would a Cuban home-stay be promoted as a desirable experience? I have been to Cape Town, Delhi, Mexico and Acapulco and the poor there are crammed into wretched zinc sheds. One just cannot imagine staying in a hovel, much less having an American-style breakfast prepared and served by one’s host!
Well, there aren’t any starving Cubans. In fact, they are too well-fed; a big meaty burger in Havana costs very little and Cuban men like their rum and punches, and their Senoritas plump like broiler chickens!
So, why is Cuba among the number one tourist destination today? Certainly not because it is cheap. It’s only cheap for Cubans.
Well, two main reasons the world is converging on Cuba and straining her hospitality resources – especially in the capital Havana – is because in many affluent countries, pristine nature areas have given way to a tangle of sky-scrapers. I was in tedious traffic jams in England going to Gatwick and Heathrow airports.
And while people in first-world cities are all-stressed-out, the Cubans seem so relaxed and happy-go-lucky: I soon found out why. They work very sane hours!
Even when University lecturers choose to work in the hospitality industry, they work only seven hour stretches. When they have to work from 7 am to 11 pm, for every two days of work, they get two days off!
Even taxi drivers work only during the day. Dr Francis a Cardiologist and his Pharmacist wife Gina run a homestay and own a taxi in Holguin. When we wanted to go to a restaurant for dinner, it was Dr Francis who drove us there in his taxi. He explained that his driver works only from 8am to 7pm.
No wonder they have time for family and friends. No wonder they sing (even working in the fields) and dance, day and night, and the doors of their homes seem to always be open.
Crime is rare…I walked the streets alone at night a couple of times, after a solo night out; the streets thronged with merry-makers. Why are Cubans ever ready to break into song and dance?
It’s that blending of race and culture. After Fidel Castro, lawyer turned guerrilla fighter and Che Guavara, (a Brazilian doctor turned guerrilla fighter) ousted Spanish dictator Baptista (and the mafia and rich white Cubans fled to Miami), there seemed to have been a lot of inter-racial marriages.
Cubans are proud of their mixed ancestry. Most Cubans below 55 are a mix of Spanish and Afro-Asian.
The Spaniards who invaded Cuba decimated the native Indians and they brought in Africans to work as slaves. Then the Chinese came and they also inter-married. But the predominant cultures – Spanish and African – have rhythm in their blood so sea, sand, song and salsa are the big draw for tourists.
But it was only going through that ‘Special Period’ in 1987 when the USSR (Cuba’s main supporter and trade partner) collapsed, and overnight Cuba faced fuel and food shortages that brought out the best in the people.
The US tightened its embargo, Cubans faced famine, transport and tractors came to a standstill, and they had to import 1 million bicycles from China. Everyone, from engineers to teachers and doctors had to learn how to cycle, grow their own food and share what they grew.
To the aid of Cubans came Permaculturalists from Australia and America and they taught the Cubans to dig up their car parks and turn them into organic food gardens; to bring back the plough and the oxen.
While tightening belts and working their gardens, Cuban men and women became semi-vegetarians; they lost weight and gained health! (watch: The Greening of Cuba & Cuba the Power of Community: by Permaculture Solutions – USA).
In 2010, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) named Cuba as the only sustainably developed country in the world!
So Cuba holds many lessons for the world today. In all the uber developed countries, waste (fuel, food and plastic) and sickness have become ‘growth industries’, Cuba is now showing us all that it’s the opposite that creates happy and healthy citizens.
Today, besides pristine nature drawing tourists, it’s Cuba’s advanced bio-medicines that are another big attraction. In the wake of Obama’s visit in 2015, Americans diagnosed with terminal cancer have been flying to Cuba for a bio-cancer cure. Cuba now has a vaccine to cure lung cancer and is trialing this for other cancers.
Even Fidel Castro got into the picture. Google Fidel Castro and moringa – the miracle tree – and you will see Castro in a Hawaiian shirt harvesting moringa from his garden and crediting it for giving him a 10-year lease of vibrant life.
I have been wanting to go to Cuba because, as an environmentalist and permaculturalist, I wanted to experience for myself the Cuban miracle…up close.
As it is impossible in one article to show the many fascinating facets of Cuba, I have decided to focus on just one for this article. So, here are some pictures of memorable Homestays and my warm and friendly Cuban hosts and eco-guides. I travelled with my old friends – Soo & Evelyn of Green Circle Eco-farm Singapore on a special itinerary and everywhere I paid for single occupancy in large rooms with double or queen size beds and en-suite bathroom so yes, I paid a fair bit more than most other tourists.
Our hostess in Santiago de Cuba was a great cook.
Breakfast on the patio of Teresa’s homestay cottage.
Grilled fish fillet with fresh organic salad.
My cosy bedroom with en-suite attached at Teresa’s homestay, Vinales.
Gina (Dr Francis’ wife) with Patrick their long-term homestay guest. Patrick is a taxi driver from Canada, in Cuba for a scuba diving holiday.
Dr Francis cuddles his Son before leaving for work (Holguin)
HOMESTAY HOSPITALITY with HEART
It’s authentic. Cubans are truly a very warm and friendly people and so hospitable.
What also struck me, coming from countries with absurdly tight security, (Singapore and Malaysia), is that the Cuban home – whether in the city or country is always open.
Even in the brief stay we had with each family (one or two nights), we watched in amazement as Grandpa, neighbor, Aunt, friend, Sister trooped in and out – seemingly at all hours of the day and night.
No wonder they can run bed & breakfast homestays. There is always a relative coming by to help with breakfast or dinner. We were more demanding than most as we are vegetarians but on this trip I had to relax and eat fish as otherwise our Cuban hosts just wouldn’t have known what to prepare for us.
At every breakfast, there were fresh and organic fruits – and fresh juices galore. Pineapple, pink guava, banana and papaya. There was toast and eggs and organic guava and pineapple jams.
Floor Crouzen of Cuba Travel Network gave me the inside story of why she, a Dutch citizen and her Cuban husband returned to live with his family in Trinidad, Cuba after living in Holland for nine years.
She had come to Cuba as a tourist and had fallen in love with a Cuban visual artist. They got married and decided to live in Holland where they had two children. Her husband worked as a piano technician there.
“We returned for two main reasons,” explained Floor “The family unit here is much stronger. I can stay and chat with you even though at this time (5pm) I have to go fetch my 7 year-old daughter, because I have just rung up my father-in-law and he will be picking her up”
“Imagine this. In Holland, you have to make an appointment to meet a friend at least two weeks in advance and the friend would say, ‘Maybe we can meet for an hour. Everyone is so busy.’”
Floor seems to be quite happy to live with her in-laws saying, “We are four adults and two kids.”
The other reason they returned to Cuba was because Holland is in the temperate belt. Unlike sunny Cuba, one may not see the sun for weeks, and this is “very depressing for a Cuban like my Husband”.
Smiling Floor does not seem to mind living back in a country where they get subsidised food – like every other family. Medicines (the Green medicine is Mede china Verde) and education are free.
Cubans have everything they need to be happy and healthy – but only if they live in Cuba. Their wages and the Cuban peso are not enough for them to travel. While the world is flying in, to enjoy Cuba’s many charms, highly educated Cubans are leaving their jobs as doctors, lecturers and engineers to become bartenders and waiters so they can earn precious dollars and travel or work abroad ! What irony.