Like many other Manitobans in mid-winter, my wife and I recently vacationed in an impoverished country that has great beaches.
We went to Cuba and, for the first time, stayed in an all-inclusive resort. We would not normally have chosen such lavish accommodation, but we accepted the invitation of another couple whose company we enjoy and they made the arrangements.
For people who have never stayed at an all-inclusive, it’s like this: we purchased the illusion that we are special. Wait staff everywhere treated us like royalty, rushing to fulfil our every whim for food, drink, games and entertainment.
I returned home to Winnipeg with an uncomfortable feeling, and it wasn’t just sunburn.
In essence, we lived high off the poverty of others. In a country where the average monthly wage is about $30, the prized jobs at tourist resorts go to Cubans who can best pretend they enjoy being servile in exchange for the piddling pesos we leave them as tips.
Cuba is a socialist/communist country, so it’s likely our Cuban staff who follow the Marxist-Leninist ideology have strong personal views on tourists from capitalist countries. To them, we must seem like the upper class that gained privilege by exploiting the lower classes. They couldn’t tell us that, of course. They had to pretend they enjoyed scrubbing our toilets.
Some of our fellow resort patrons justified our profligate spending by rationalizing we were giving Cuba an economic boost it badly needs. But, the fact is, little of our money remained in Cuba.
Our resort, the Iberostar Bella Vista, is foreign-owned, like many of the huge hotels that monopolize the gorgeous beaches. The company we patronized, Iberostar, is 100 per cent owned by Spanish billionaire Miguel Fluxà Rosselló, the third-generation heir to a shoemaking business. Yes, we spent money in a socialist/communist country, but — go figure — the profit went to a Spanish capitalist.
So, aside from concerns about income inequality and class struggles, how did we enjoy Cuba? I don’t know. We didn’t encounter the real Cuba.
Like most resorts, ours was geographically isolated. It took 20 minutes by bus to reach the tourist town of Varadero. We purchased a daylong tour to the capital city of Havana with a professional guide who was a communist government employee. She herded us around like a school class on a field trip.
At no point during our week’s stay did we escape the tourism bubble.
I would have relished a coffee with a Cuban firebrand who is committed to communism and open to a spirited political conversation, but we were only offered snorkelling trips to look at pretty fish.
Our inability to escape our posh playpen seemed to be common with our fellow resort tourists, many of whom seemed content with marinating poolside with a series of rum cocktails.
Our artificial fantasyland with its hedonistic pleasures could have been duplicated in any warm country with nice beaches. Yes, we sang along with the nightly renditions of the popular song Guantanamera, but that didn’t bring us any closer to the real Cuba.
I love travelling, but I’ve learned my lesson. I hope to avoid isolated tourist resorts from now on.
Instead, I aspire to be the type of traveller who lives like the locals, experiencing different countries as they really are.
This would mean staying in local communities at family-owned bed and breakfasts, or personal homes advertised on websites such as Airbnb.
Meals will be taken in local restaurants. No need for crystal goblets, six-utensil place settings and the imported food we were served at our Cuban resort (we were served chicken one evening, and when we asked the source, they told us the chicken came from Canada, like we did).
For souvenirs, we will buy only art and crafts produced locally, and pay a fair price to the artist (we were ashamed to be Canadian when, at a market stall in Varadero, a craftsman showed us some unusual currency. Someone had ripped him off by paying with Canadian Tire bills).
Living like locals means trying to meet people who are not professional handlers of tourists. Befriending local people isn’t always easy, but we can try to initiate encounters in parks or cafés, by attending local sporting events or religious services, or by taking a local cooking class.
The highlight of such a trip would be finding local people who are open to an experience with a foreigner. For example, it would be a privilege to get invited to the neighbourhood café and included in heated arguments and light-hearted joking, perhaps kissing each other on both cheeks, perhaps singing and dancing together.
That would be a dream holiday.
Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.
Senior copy editor
Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.