Petersburg resident gets an American’s view of Cuba
Twylla Crosby, Norfolk Daily News
“Expect a Third World country’’ is advice that Petersburg resident Helen “Blondie” Baumgartner would give anyone going to Cuba.
And expect to see a lot of military since half the population is in the armed forces, working for the government or in plain clothes, she added.
When Cuba, for the first time since the 1950s, recently opened its doors to American tourism and Baumgartner found an ad for a Cuban tour, she thought it’d be a good place to go.
She spent about a week in January on her Cuban adventure.
Cuba was the only port of call for the smaller cruise ship, which carried about 700 passengers. As it turned out, rough seas and a tendency toward sea sickness made the trip uncomfortable for her.
Once in port, she booked tours of the island nation from the ship and returned to the ship each night. She toured Santiago, Havana and Ciefuegos.
“If you exchange $100 (U.S.) you get about 87 CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos),’’ she said. According to www.tripadvisor.com, when exchanging American dollars there is a 10 percent penalty charged and a 3 percent currency exchange fee.
The smallest bill given in the exchange was a 5 CUC, which made tipping more expensive than if she had 1 Cuban bills. “Those were hard to come by,’’ she said.
So was toilet paper. “A short piece of bathroom tissue cost 5 CUCs,’’ Baumgartner said.
Meals in Cuba always had rice. In Santiago for dinner one evening, she had two types of rice — one regular white and one with a gravy. Salad was raw cabbage and cucumbers with a star fruit in the center.
There was also a piece of cooked chicken, shrimp or a small pork chop. Custard was often the dessert.
Santiago, her first stop, is the home of Bacardi rum. The Bacardi family is still well thought of in Cuba.
“They claim the real Bacardi rum recipe remains in Cuba,’’ Baumgartner said.
She saw the former slave market where 10 million slaves once were shipped, though most were for Cuba.
Each day’s bus tour brought a new guide and a new group of fellow tourists.
“There is no smoking because it is considered a drug,” she said.
Typical wages are very low, around $10 to $50 a month, with college professors and doctors making about $500 a month.
Everyone has a house.
“If you do not have the money (to purchase a house), the government will rent you the house which you pay off and it becomes your home and there are no taxes on it. However, you must purchase the land the house sits on. Some residents go to Havana or Miami to work for enough money to purchase the land,” she said.
Cuba uses the ration system and books created by the Russians.
“The government gives everyone enough rations to survive and rice seems to be the staple,’’ she said.
“We did question if people in the rural areas have their own meat and received the answer that if you kill a cow, it’s 20 years in prison,” she said. “But there is a black market for meat.”
Some people have a pig or a couple of chickens, which sometimes live in the house, she said.
Traveling through the countryside, she noticed many of the farm homes were falling down and most roofs were made of corrugated tin.
“Many (roofs) have been blown part-way off or are rusted. We did pass several fields consisting of a couple acres each where men were apparently breaking the sod with hoes and the ground seemed very hard,’’ she said. “They plant a crop until the ground is worn out and then move to another spot.’’
Baumgartner said it would be interesting to go back in six or seven years and see what changes have been made, she said.
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