Caribbean Contrasts - Part 2

published 05 Jul 2013
Photo: 
Nouhailler (flickr)

Jamaica is a country of great social chasms.  In Kingston, the villas of uptown and the ghettos of downtown occupy separate social universes, connected only by the battalions of service personnel who, among their other duties, maintain the social wall. Most of the tiny country’s interior is covered in lush rugged mountainous terrain where a small population of peasant farmers eke out a living in simple, old-fashioned religious communities. The small coastal plains are dominated by sugar-plantations.  Each of these worlds shares almost nothing with the others – shared public space and common infrastructure are almost totally absent. 

The beach resort that we arrived at, Negril, is itself divided into three distinct communities.  The first community comprises the resort-tourists, occupying the Northern half of the 6 mile long beach. The resorts are encircled by razor-wire fences, which stretch from the seashore to the one-lane road that runs parallel to the beach.  All of the resorts are in the luxury bracket.  The twin specialties are honeymoons and nudism – areas of beach with couples basking together on sun-loungers at a discreet distance from one another are interspersed with areas full of corpulent middle aged naked men.  The resorts take every step possible to ensure that their guests do not have to stray beyond their enclosed world.  Many of them use an ‘all-inclusive’ model, whereby the price of a stay includes whatever food and drink.  In our week in Jamaica, we never once encountered a resort-tourist straying outside their fenced in compounds. 

The second community comprises the service workers who cook, clean, build, mend, guard, cater for and wait hand on foot on the tourists.  They inhabit simple compounds set amid the bush on the far side of the road from the resorts and beaches.  Their world intersects that of the tourists in their work interactions, but such contacts are typically fleeting and superficial.  Their non-service lives are firmly segregated from the resort life by service entrances, dawn-shift changes, distant-living quarters and deferential manners.

The third community lives on the fringes.  The touts, drug-dealers, prostitutes, hustlers, beggars, scammers and rastafarians who compete for the scraps of money that escape from the resorts – and provide services that are not otherwise catered for.

Myself and Simon had assumed that in Jamaica the basics: food, beer, lodgings and transport, would be cheap.  We had based this on the logic that poor countries are necessarily cheap, and, as Jamaica was a poor country, ergo it would be cheap.  We had a budget of about $15 per day each, more than the average Jamaican daily wage, and we expected it to be more than enough to survive comfortably.  We were totally wrong.  It was significantly more expensive than US cities.  And, I’m not talking about the luxury resort prices – they were far out of our league – almost everything: food in the local shops, roadside food, fruit stalls, beer, everything was far too expensive for us.  The only thing that was cheap was the marijuana, big clumps of which were available for a few dollars

Typical Hut, Negril road, Jamaica image: gailf548 (flickr)

The only lodging that we could afford was a small hut made from boards and corrugated iron, in a compound 4 kilometres out of town, run by a middle-aged man with impressive dreadlocks.  It was home to several manual labourers from the resorts and three or four extremely stoned Italian Rastafarians.  For breakfast each morning we would walk the 8km along the sun-baked road to and from the only shop in the vicinity in Negril village.  We could afford a triangle of cheese each along with a couple of slices of the local sickly sweet white bread.  Lunch was a shared mango, bought after much haggling with roadside vendors.  Chewing on sugar cane filled in the gaps.  Dinner was a piece of chicken or pasta with tomato sauce and a beer.  It was one of the very few times in my life where I remember being chronically hungry. 

I initially assumed that the high cost of living was a result of our tourist status and that there must be an alternative local economy – how else could locals survive with their meagre wages?  There was definitely something to this: services in Negril were geared towards high-spending tourists.  However, that was only part of it – the cost of goods really was high.  The country’s economy had always been based on export-based cash-crops: primarily sugar plantations, and relatively little food was produced locally. Almost all manufactured goods and products were imported from the US.  The character of the economy is best illustrated in the market for coffee – which is widely grown in Jamaica’s hilly interior.  Two products are available in shops and cafes – Blue Mountain coffee, based on a connoisseur bean grown on the mountain slopes behind Kingston, retailing at as much as $20 a cup, and instant Nescafé imported from the US retailing at $5 for a small jar.  Complaints about prices and the economic subservience to the US were reasonably frequent topics of conversation with Jamaicans, who dealt with the high-cost of resources by having very limited interactions with the cash economy – relying on small farms and family networks, often funded through remittances by emigrants, to provide many of the staples.

Living outside the fenced in tourist domain, and being reckless enough to walk the public roads, we were easily accessible to the thriving community of hustlers, pimps and scam artists.  It took us a few days to convince this community that we were too poor to bother with.  Our poverty was not looked upon kindly – we were “cheap” - and our lack of interest in prostitutes was cause for suspicion, a position that was robustly expressed on several occasions.   The three women who we had encountered on the beach on the day that we arrived maintained a sense of hostility towards us and abused us for being allegedly gay – “batty-boys” - whenever we met them.   Our hut contained nothing more than a wide platform with a mattress on it: so somebody spread the story that we were sleeping in a double bed together. That was dangerous territory – Jamaica is easily the most sexually aggressive and homophobic place I have ever been.  Happily, we found a way out before things came to a head. 

We found a cheap flight, on Cubana airlines, from Montego bay to Santiago de Cuba, and managed to slip onto one of the airport shuttle buses operated by the resorts. One of the workers who was staying on our compound, decided on a whim to come with us – he had never been to Cuba but had distant cousins in Havana and had money saved for a holiday.  Apart from his family connection, no Jamaicans that we came across knew anything about Cuba.

Santiago De Cuba

Santiago De Cuba image: David Pedler (flickr)

In one sense, arriving into Cuba from Jamaica is like arriving back to Europe from the third world. There are familiar houses of brick, stone and concrete, paved roads and motorways, public infrastructure, office buildings, footpaths and traffic signs.  It is a Europe where everything is decaying though.  The crumbling bricks, flaking paint, cracked concrete and patched-together antique machines combine to create an atmosphere of slow, nostalgic, decline.

Cuba’s nationalist movement ousted the dictator Batista in 1959 after a long insurgency.  Since then, the country’s history has been dominated by one thing – the determined and protracted efforts of the US to stamp out the non-compliant regime on its doorstep, principally through economic embargo.  From the early 1960s, the Cubans were able to use the Soviet bloc as a trade lifeline, but when the USSR disappeared, they were left isolated and stuck.  GDP declined by 35% from 1989-93 and didn’t recover fully until 2005. The 1990’s were a period of emergency for Cuba – the economy was never too far away from disaster and food shortages were ever-present. It seemed as if the regime might collapse at any moment.

Havana - mural against US embargo image: sashafatcat (flickr)

One way that the Cuban government responded was to build up tourism as a source of foreign currency.  In order to insulate the local economy from the injection of tourist dollars, the state established a parallel economic system – shops, restaurants and hotels for tourists which charged in dollars and provided consumer goods that were not available to locals.  In the mid-1990s, particularly outside of Havana, the infrastructure of the dollar-economy was still fairly rudimentary and it was possible to avoid it altogether and use the local peso economy.   This was fortunate, because prices in the dollar economy were comparable to US prices and far beyond our budget.  On the other hand, the exchange rate was such that when it came to pesos, we were rich. The only problem being that it was difficult to find things that one could buy with pesos.  Accommodation was no problem – we found a charming old colonial hotel that was normally reserved for locals. 

Spanish Colonial Archtecture, Santiago de Cuba image: dasnake (flickr)

The biggest problem, by far, was finding food.  There were no peso food shops.  There were no markets or stalls.  There were a small number of restaurants, dining halls and cafeterias in which locals could buy food.  However, most of the time, these places didn’t have any supplies.  A significant proportion of our time was spent wandering around looking for food.  On one occasion I walked into a restaurant to find the entire, implausibly-large, workforce asleep on the tables.  Whenever supplies arrived, word would quickly go around and crowds of people would materialise.  The menu was “whatever arrived.”  We got to sample pigs’ brains and a variety of pastries with suspiciously unidentifiable fillings. Transport was not much better – getting the bus to the beach meant squishing into a container on the back of a truck and hanging on for dear life.

The only products that could easily be purchased with pesos were rum and tobacco. The cigarettes were so badly made that the tobacco often crumbled away to nothing before they could be smoked.  The rum was better: home-made, fresh and sweet, widely available from bars and open-air counters. A whole bottle could be purchased for less than $1.

Salsa! image: andre_smits (flickr)

Despite the attempts by the government to insulate tourism from the local economy, an informal society of hustlers, guides and fixers had formed around the hotels and bars where tourists were to be found.  Rather than having to constantly fight off such attentions, we employed one of them as our unofficial guide and made him responsible for protecting us from hassle - a nice young man who called himself “Mike” got the job. It proved a good investment, even though he wasn’t, strictly speaking, a very good guide – he was good at pretending to understand English.  His major contribution was in bringing us to some very good salsa and rum parties.  We played our role as big-men with gusto – the one and only time in my life that I’ve been able to use such enjoyable phrases as “a bottle for the house, I’m paying” and “a drink for everybody in the bar, it’s on me”. 

Pink spandex: de rigeur image: Barnaby (flickr)

There are many things about Cuba’s modern culture that are eye-catching.  There are numerous antique cars and trucks on the roads. There is an almost complete lack of a retail sector.  There is no advertising – political murals decorate walls.  There is almost no television or media – one state channel that runs for a few hours a day and a daily paper which reports about cane harvests.  Chess clubs are pervasive and wrestling is a popular pastime.  However, I was aware of most of these features in advance and expected them.  The aspect of Cuban culture that confounded my expectations most sharply was the sexual harassment.  Sex was everywhere – explicit propositions, enthusiastic flirtations, cat-calls and lewd comments followed us wherever we went and while it wasn’t threatening, it quickly became annoying.  Only a small proportion of the sexual advances came from professional sex-workers. In Cuban culture the provision of gifts is often seen as an integral part of the male’s role in a relationship and, particularly in a time of economic stress, men with money become more attractive.

However, economics doesn't explain everything – sex seems to be closer to the surface in Cuban culture than anywhere else I 've ever been. Salsa dancing, as it was introduced to us, seemed to consist mostly of a determined attempt to have sex while standing up and fully clothed. The most common fabric we saw on Cuban women was skin-tight pink spandex. Perhaps the relative importance of sex has something to do with the retreat of Christian morality following the revolution, or maybe it reflects the lack of competition from consumerist activities, or maybe it has always been like that.  I don’t know, but it came as a shock to me.

Havana

Crumbling Havana image: Nathan Laurell (flickr)

After mooching around Santiago de Cuba for ten days or so, we traveled to Havana.  We brought our guide, Mike, with us, as he wanted to visit his mother in the capital.  This brought us into mild conflict with the state, which aims to prevent the emergence of an informal economy of hustlers and guides around tourists.  Mike thus had great difficulty obtaining a permit to allow him to travel to Havana with us.  He had to take a different bus.  Once there, whenever we strolled around, he followed several steps behind us lest he be spotted by a policeman and arrested for harassing us.  He resented this situation and was very critical of the regime.  That attitude held true of almost everybody whom we met in the informal tourist economy, unsurprisingly given the state’s hostility to their activities. Resentment typically centred on the repressive role of the undercover police and, most especially, the government restrictions on mobility. In practice, since the 1980s virtually no Cubans have been able to leave the country legally. Many became refugees by fleeing on boats to the United States, but that was more or less the only way to leave the country. This confinement naturally creates considerable mystique about the outside world - very few Cubans have ever really felt cold: a very simple but startling example of the consequences of the restrictions.

It is very difficult to give an honest assessment of the merits of the Cuban regime - the state obviously exercises considerable control on communication and movement and in doing so fails to respect many of the rights that are taken for granted in Europe.  On the other hand, the pressure of US hostility is such that the state might be overwhelmed were it to remove its levers of control. Without having a very detailed knowledge of the specific pressures faced by the country, which are immense, it's hard to condemn the counter-measures that have been taken.  Cuba without Castro could easily look more like Jamaica than like Sweden. 

One of our Jamaican friends had given us the name of a cousin who had a private residence in which we could stay cheaply in Havana.  The occupant turned out to be a senior figure in the communist party – a very pleasant man.  His residence was an old Spanish colonial building, with marble floors and delicate internal courtyards, situated in the heart of the city, just beside the president’s palace. It was a far cry from Mike's family's shack in Santiago. The city around it was simultaneously spectacular and catastrophic – fine, intricate colonial buildings were collapsing into the streets at a steady rate.

El Ché image: @Doug88888 (flickr)

We travelled briefly from Havana to a beach resort to the East of the city.  Until then we had only come across small numbers of other tourists – a few dozen in total.  Most of the state’s tourism strategy is based around beach holidays and the majority of tourists spend their holidays in seaside resorts that are fairly isolated from the local population.  It was not a pleasant sight.  The holiday makers were predominantly Italian, male and middle-aged. Many had very young attractive Cuban women draped across them – it was an entire beach-load of sex-tourism.


We had to return to Europe via Jamaica and, on our way back, we stopped off for the night at the compound where we had earlier stayed.  There we met the worker who had also visited Cuba.  When he saw us, he was so excited that he was unable to express himself and just stood there gesticulating and saying “did you see? did you see? “  What had got him so excited was, unsurprisingly, the sex.  “but you can nah do dat with Jamaican girls, you can nah do dat? “  It was not just the permissiveness of the Cuban women that had got him so excited– it was their youth and affordability too. As we were leaving he was regaling a group of his friends with tales of his adventures – “dem girls be 14 and 16 – me say - nah problem, however many you dun want”.  I still worry that the one long term effect of our trip to Cuba might have been to open up a brand new route in International sex tourism.

Comments (8)

Rob Kenny

great travel writing, gives an excellent insight into the countries you have visited ... another great read !

Reddy

Great read - quite a different approach to Cuba than Frank Connolly's piece in the latest Village. Have you read that?

chekov's picture
chekov

Thanks rob!

Reddy, I haven't seen Frank's piece in Village - any good? My stuff here is very impressionistic and based on my observations - it doesn't really aim to give an objective overview of the political situation. For what it's worth, I reckon it's changed significantly enough since I was there. The resurgence of Latin American independence since 2000 has given them a new trade and aid lifeline and the economy is growing fast - which must make a big difference from the height of the economic emergency when I was there. With the economic noose loosened, the state appears to be have embarked on a process of gradual liberalisation without any major signs of instability.

Stephen

Great writing, Chekov. I particularly like the way you contrast Jamaica with Cuba.
An Irish friend visited Cuba a few years ago. Seeing as she is of the liberal left, a non-consumerist and 'into' the arts, I was expecting a glowing report. I didn't get one. Overwhelmingly what came across was how the whole place was ground down by poverty and how this affected even the most ordinary, everyday activities. You seem to portray the same but in a somewhat diluted form.
I look forward to passing on your piece on Jamaica to my Jamaican friends in London - I've never been there,Jamaica, this is, but I have a horrible feeling you're telling the truth. If 50% of Jamaicans are living outside the their own country, it's hardly a good advertisement for the place.

Simon McDonnell

That’s a great account of the Caribbean trip. In Cuba outside of Havana most people thought we were Russians - a hangover from the days when the USSR and Cuba were close. We didn't speak any Spanish, but quickly found that my Leaving Cert German was often more useful than English as many Cubans had spent time in the former DDR.

chekov's picture
chekov

I forgot about the Russian stuff - I remember that now - it was pretty funny speaking German to Cubans alright and being approached by people who launched straight into Russian. I'll work that into my next draft.

Anonymous

Another great read - thank you.

Mark Conroy

That just about sums up my experience of Cuba as well (from 2006).

Very hard to work out what the state of the place would be (for better or worse) if there wasn't so much pressure exerted from the United States.

Very interesting post.