Ecotourism for Dollars Only - Hiking in Cuba's Nature Preserves or Touring Spanish Colonial Cities, Visitors Are Constantly Aware of the Average Citizen's Daily Struggle to Make Ends Meet in a Dual-Currency Economy

Article excerpt

When I decided to join a group of hikers to study preservation efforts and ecology in Cuba, I was prepared to encounter one of the world's remaining communist stalwarts. Indeed, I entered a split world, fittingly described as steeped in contradiction.

Our national tragedy of September 11 cast a long shadow that quickly reached Cuba. My group traveled with a certificate from the U.S. State Department and had planned to stay in licensed private homes, called casas particulares. The families provide food and accommodation; thus, we would support ordinary people, rather than the state-owned hotels.

After last year's events, tourism dropped dramatically; both the smattering of legally visiting Americans and other nationals stayed away. Cuba's economy relies heavily on this income, and the government attempted to fill the dollar gap by canceling our private arrangements. Unless we stayed in official hotels, we were told, the entire trip would be canceled.

While all fourteen of us were in the air, or already landed in Havana, the trip leader was still negotiating to salvage the original schedule. Compromise was refused, however. The casas particulares were off limits, and our itinerary would be renegotiated on a daily basis.

The upshot of this conflict was that the National Tourist Office could find no conveyance smaller or cheaper than a lavishly appointed air- conditioned Volvo bus, with velvet-covered, fully reclining seats, washing facilities, and icebox. I immediately thought of the proverb: "There is an ill wind that bloweth no good. ..."

Traveling in this luxurious bus offered the first insight into the polarization of Cuban society. Each of our two drivers was well into his fifties. Through the translations of Spanish-speaking trip members, we were treated daily to ever-fiercer arguments regarding the merits of Castro's regime.

One praised the social equality--a figment of his imagination--free health care and education, and "doing things our own way, not mimicking the decadent West." The other driver called him a blockhead. "Don't you see," he insisted, "you are only putting enough food on your table because you are salaried in dollars and get tips from the tourists." Their mind traveled on parallel tracks, destined never to meet.

The sights of havana

We spent several days in Havana, a city remarkable for its beauty and contrasting decay. Side by side were perfectly restored Baroque buildings, such as the Gran Teatro de la Habana, elegant hotels, offices of foreign businesses, and quite a few private houses. Close by, not even separated by a street, were numerous buildings in various stages of dilapidation. They lacked doors or windows and often even front walls. Laundry hanging from a balcony was the only sign that people inhabited these ruins.

The reintroduction of private ownership allows those who can raise the capital to restore such homes. We were entertained in one of them on our second night in Havana. The house belonged to an actress; she got some dollars from relatives, drew up the plans herself, converted the inside shell into an exquisite, multilevel hanging garden, and now rents spare rooms to tourists. It was a pity that the government canceled our lodgings there.

The following day we toured the old city landmarks and came across a group of puppeteers. Colorfully dressed, they were waddling down the narrow cobbled streets on tall stilts. Some held umbrellas, while others played Latin music. Harlequin-costumed clowns collected tips.

We ate very well in a state-owned restaurant, though beef, lobster, or chicken breast were not available. The price of a three-course meal was six or eight dollars. The espresso was excellent.

I was introduced to the favorite national drink, the mojito, made with a good measure of rum mixed with ice water, sugar, lime, and fresh mint. …