Magazine article The Spectator

I Should Never Have Gone

Magazine article The Spectator

I Should Never Have Gone

Article excerpt

THERE are holidays you shouldn't have had. I should never have gone to Cuba. Before I went to Cuba I was a kindly, left-- leaning person, full of respect for the valiant island population clinging to its ideals despite the bullying of its humongous, bloated neighbour. Now I am proud to call myself bloated.

Of course I'm no longer liked. Everyone else who's been to Cuba loves it, even my brother-in-law, who would faint if he was called left-leaning. He said I would love it. He had such admiration for the schools, the hospitals, the safe streets, the deprivation but no poverty. 'What they want most of all is soap,' he said.

The important thing was to get there before Fidel fell off his perch and McDonald's moved in, to get there while it was still unspoilt. So I went. Two daughters had gone ahead of me to explore its glorious history and I thought what fun it would be, as sympathisers with the revolution, to visit the place together. In a way, it was. In an even bigger way, it wasn't. Sympathy wears thin in the face of what starts to feel too much like contempt for comfort.

I'm not saying that 1, too, wouldn't feel contempt for foreigners who thought all I wanted was soap, but to be at the receiving end of it is ghastly. It turns you into a contemptible thing; in my case a bloated, mean woman with luxury-food items smeared all over her face, stinking of French perfume, dripping with dollars, telling everyone who wants more of them than I feel like giving to sod off.

I report this to my brother-in-law and it upsets him. He did business in Cuba for 20 years and loved the place so much he was on the first charter flight to Havana in 1994 as a tourist. He says maybe the best days have gone. Maybe the rot set in with his charter flight. Maybe it did.

The problem is the dual economy. Cubans who have only pesos to spend can buy just the bare essentials; Cubans with dollars can shop at the dollar shops and buy most things. Tourists arrive with dollars. The aim of the valiant island population is to extract as many dollars, from the tourist as possible. And if I was earning $20 a month and knew tourists earned that much per hour at the very least, it would be my aim too. But sooner or later, in my case sooner, a tetchy tourist might start to feel ripped off. I was tetchy before I left Heathrow.

I had begun to feel ripped off when I booked two rooms at the Nacional, reputedly the best and most glamorous hotel in Havana. I used a specialist company where no one could say how much it would cost. The price they quoted went up, went down, went up, so I was thinking what was wrong with down? My brother-in-law said that I should have taken a package deal and he was right.

The cheaper flights to Havana are in seats that will accommodate just the one buttock, and, seven hours out of Paris, the lad next to me, with two medium buttocks, stopped moving. Even so, he was better off than I was. For the price I'd paid for my ticket, he was getting his flight plus ten days at a beach resort.

I had my first taste of communism on arrival. We landed at 8 p.m., were still in the immigration hall at 10.30 and finally collected our luggage at 11.30. In the departure lounge, we were assailed by young men wanting to push our trolleys the ten yards to our taxis. …

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