But we were also interested in experiencing the “real” Cuba as well. One day we hired a driver with a 1953 blue Chevy. It appeared to be in splendid condition. Talk about turning back the clock! The Chevy was the exact same model as my very first used car, purchased in Cornwall in 1956 for $2,000. And, like my first car, it didn’t let us down. We contracted with the driver to transport us to a nearby rural town, Santa Cruz del Norte, recommended by the resort’s concierge, where we met up with an English-speaking tour guide.
We spent a morning meandering around a town that time forgot. Except for a smattering of people, it looked like a deserted village after a nuclear plant melt down. There were no stores, businesses, or service centres that remotely resembled those in any small town main street back home. One barber set up his shop outdoors between two tiny, shack-like houses. An old pedlar, with long strings of onions slung over his back, roamed down the middle of an empty street loudly announcing his product for sale. Tiny houses, no larger than our backyard sheds, lined each side of the main street. An odd house here and there had been refurbished, but most appeared in need of repair. Surprisingly the nicest looking building along the few streets that we saw was a small, brightly-painted church. Haggard-looking old men and women, with sad, vacant expressions, sat forlornly here and there on front porches staring out at the street.
Fidel Taxis (my terminology) were everywhere in the town. These contraptions were three-wheel bikes made from bastardized bicycles and transformed into two-seaters with a driver upfront to pedal local residents around town. Scattered around the streets were parked vintage cars similar to the Chevy that we had hired. Near the riverbank was a large weather-beaten billboard memorializing one of Fidel’s highly-celebrated commandants, and hero, Camilo Cienfuegos, who had died just after the revolution in a plane crash. Neither bank of the Santa Cruz River, running through town, showed the slightest sign of commercial activity. Although there were few indications of how people made a living, our guide informed us that people were employed at a rum distillery, a power generating plant, an oil extraction site, and fishing.
Santa Cruz del Norte was about as far removed from the opulence of our vacation resort as it was possible to imagine. These Cubans only had access to the bare necessities of life. They lived in extreme poverty, poor housing, and had few options to better themselves. The Cubans lucky enough to find jobs at the resorts such as ours, count themselves fortunate. But even there the communists’ insistence on controlling every aspect of people’s lives is clearly evident. Even though the foreign resort owners pay wages to staff, the salaries are first submitted to the government, and it decides how much each worker receives. Fortunately it cannot control the tips they receive from generous guests who appreciate their excellent service.