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Thursday, 11 June 2020

Santiago de Cuba 2020 2: In The City



Week two of our trip: Off we go to Santiago de Cuba, the island's second largest city. We got lucky with the Melia Santiago de Cuba hotel. Scored a great, corner room overlooking the city, with huge floor to ceiling windows. A whirlpool bath. 

Like much of Santiago de Cuba, the Melia seems lost in time. It's a glittering steel and glass, post modern artifact protruding over the sleepy, centuries old barrio of District Reparto Sueno. Even at the best of times, it's 5 star pretences are hard to convincingly pull off, with any aplomb. 

Usually the Melia's pricey. Not really worth it. But this trip it only cost $800 Canadian each, with breakfast included. It soon became clear why. Despite being high season, the Melia was nearly empty. 

Occasionally, a German or Italian tour bus would arrive for a day or two. We regularly rubbed shoulders with the sweaty, tired guests, in the crowded hotel elevator, and at the breakfast buffet. Think nothing of it.

On vacation, far from home, nobody including ourselves, was much aware of the Covid-19 virus. Nor the risks we faced.



At the time, we were happy for a great deal. Plus I've known Gretel, the concierge, since she was a toddler. We brought her a suitcase of baby clothes. Gretel's father, Aurelio, was a teaching colleague of mine during the 1990's. Later became a tour guide. Lotsa fun. We go back a long way.

Our porter, Rene, is another familiar face. Seemingly has been there forever, at the front door. Lending a helping hand, as we come and go, during our many visits, over the years. Making sure that we're always welcome, safe, and comfortable during our stay.

There was a breakfast buffet. And a dinner buffet, when the tours arrived. The menu? Very limited. They'd try to get fancy with it, but invariably fail. Rather miserably. The service? Downright awful. Totally, a lost cause. 

Still, the Melia's sprawling pool complex is magnificent. We'd enjoy a refreshing morning, and/ or late afternoon dip. Work on our tan. Lying under an umbrella with a good book. A cold drink. Maybe just surfing the net. Pretty much had it all to ourselves too!

The towel service was dicey. So too, the linen in our room.



Like the Brisas, the Melia was built in the 1990's, but it's still in pretty good shape. Sadly, it's 5 star services and amenities are now indefinitely on hold. For the foreseeable future. In the tight, deadly vice grip of the US sanctions.

No matter. Most of the week was spent visiting our teacher friends. We'd go house hopping during the day, inbetween visiting the old familiar sights. 

Unfortunately, they were feeling the squeeze too. Professors Jose y Martha are retired now. It's hard to make ends meet. There are chronic shortages of food. Toiletries. Even the most basic, household necessities. Also medicine too, as the US sanctions kick in.




With Jose!

Their grandson Ernesto, has finished his military service. Begun first year at the medical school. He lives at their home in the city centre, helping out as best he can. Queuing up at the shops. Hunting down much needed supplies. The necessities of life.

Even everyday items like soap, shampoo, detergent, and toothpaste are once again very hard to find. Milk is now rationed, for the young children only. Flour and bread are in very short supply. Medical prescriptions hard to fill. The lack of painkillers and anathestics is even holding up surgery at the local hospital. 




At Aurelio y Jamie's Casa!

Aurelio still takes tours about the city. But nowadays, they are few and far between. The US sanctions have blocked most of the cruise ships. Leaving only the leaky, old tramp steamers which are still willing to risk Trump's wrath, on a desperate supply run, to the once bustling port of Santiago de Cuba.

With wife Jamie, he's bought a 3 bedroom house, in the city centre. The owners left for South America. Leaving their furniture behind too. Perhaps someday, if the tourists return, they can run it as a B+B. Run their own tours. Better support their family. But for now? No.




At Jose's y Martha's Casa

We brought everybody a few suitcases of clothes, medicine, household supplies. Mostly just our own stuff, as we downsize for our retirement years. It certainly helps. 

Dinner wasn't a problem. We'd visit one of the many local particulars. These popular, family run restaurants are giving the big hotels a real run for their money. No bad service or limited menus here.



At La Narajana, we'd get heaping plates of fried shrimp or a tasty chicken dinner for a few dollars tops. Ditto, at the Rock cafe. A night out with pizza, pork and fish plus an endless array of finger foods and party drinks, cost about $100 US for our group of 10.

Our favourite city sites, were mostly devoid of tourists. We'd laze unbothered on the terrace of the downtown Casagrande Hotel, overlooking Cespedes Park. Or leisurely stroll along Enamarados Avenue, it's usually bustling stores and bars, as empty as the barren shop shelves. Late afternoon would find us at the Case De Trova for a fabulous Cuban musical matinee, in a roomful of empty chairs.



A drink or shot at most restaurants or bars cost about a dollar or two. Maybe $3 at the tourist hotspots. 

Beware! Cannabis is strictly forbidden in Cuba. Hard to find. Not worth the risk. 

My doctor in Canada prescribed Naboline and Sativex instead. Both are very discreet. And are also legal in many places one might travel too, for various medical conditions. 

Bottom line? Prescription drugs come with a prescription label, from the pharmacy. Look perfectly legit along with all the other assorted medicines and what not, in your kit bag. 




Maybe someday ...

Quite frankly, few custom agents will recognize them. If they do, the risks are minimal. Perhaps they'd confiscate them. But basically, they're very unlikely to create any suspicion at all, a big plus, when travelling outside Canada.

It's too bad. Cuba grows the best tobacco. But unfortunately for the Cuban economy, that just isn't very much in demand anymore. 

On the other hand, think of all the great weed Cuba could produce! And the much needed dollars it could bring.

Hmmm. Maybe some day?



Anyway, in the evening, we'd head to classes at the [TFS] Toronto Friendship school

Nowadays, attendance is down to about 50 students. Ironically, the TFS has largely become a victim of it's own success. Very leading edge in the 1990's, lots and lots of these nongovernmental, English language schools now dot the city. 

The TFS is the only school where I still like to teach. I always like to drop by when I visit Santiago, to help the students and teachers with their Engllsh speaking skills. 

I noticed Janet would always soon retreat to the back row, near the window and door of the tightly packed classroom. With the Cubanas. Decked out in their finery. Toying with their make-up. Yakking away.

That's very insightful, from a teachers perspective. And as her mate. I can see her doing just that, back in the good old days too. Irritating at times. But pure Janet. A very human touch.



During my school visits, I often ask the Cuban students why they are studying English. They usually say to get a good job. 

Now, most just expressed curiosity. They want to learn more about the outside world. Sadly, with the US economic squeeze, the work opportunities are just no longer there. While our world grows more distant. So far away.

I donated some school supplies. While covering the start up costs for a new revised edition of the Ingles para Ti English instruction workbook. 

My fundraising days are now long over, but I still make a few personal donations on my own. 

A lot of charities are pretty dubious. I like to know for sure where my dollars go. How they are spent. So I'm sure that they directly help those in need.



As we flew out of Santiago de Cuba, I gazed at the city disappearing among the mountain tops and clouds below. Lost in my thoughts.

Tragically, despite all the progress made in Cuba, US President Donald Trump is cruelly tightening the US economic sanctions even more. 

He's really putting the screws to them. Driving Cuba back into another horrific "special period". As even the most basic medical and humanitarian aid to the embargoed island grinds to a halt.

Considering his high praise for such dubious, hell holes like China, Vietnam and North Korea, that's extremely hypocritical. It's unjust. Unnecessary. And impossible to accept. 

Back to Toronto now, we still keep in touch. Facebook Messenger and email are very common in Cuba nowadays. Both work great.



The Covid-19 pandemic has made the shortages there a lot worse. While, we are all distracted. Looking the other way.

Trump's sadistic attack on Cuba is hardly newsworthy anymore. As the horrors continue to mount at home and abroad, Cuba's become just another outrage among many. It's people's plight, an overlooked, forgotten tragedy. 

I can only hope that my Santiago de Cuba 2020 blogs put a more everyday, human face on this awful crisis. Hopefully, as social justice activists we can help spread the word. Come up with other ways of helping out too.

Please stay tuned! Teacher Free Speech News and Views will continue providing more important Cuba updates during the critical daze ahead ....


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