Just Back: On a Cuban guilt trip

The winner of this week’s travel writing competition in London’s Telegraph was Chay Hawes for describing a coach trip in Cuba. Here is his report.

It is only after we pass under the seventh or eighth bridge that I realise their curious flaw. We are cruising down a wide, nearly deserted motorway through the heart of western Cuba. There are only a handful of other vehicles in motion; many more are broken down by the roadside, waiting for tow-trucks that seem unlikely to arrive.

“Ah yes, the bridges; there is a funny story about them,” says Manuel, our guide.

“They were built in the Seventies with Soviet money. Hundreds of bridges, to reunite communities divided by the road and give the people easy access to the highway.” He smiles sadly. “The mistake was in building all the bridges first – the money ran out before we could build the roads to the villages.”

As we pass under the next bridge, the folly is clear. The giant concrete columns are there, supporting tiny sections of road, but each bridge stands unconnected; monumental white elephants.

The dysfunctional bridges have been repurposed with typical Cuban resourcefulness. They are meeting places for dozens of hopeful commuters, who enjoy shade from the hot Caribbean sun as they wait for a ride. Officials with yellow shirts and clipboards flag down the infrequent cars, lorries and tractors. Willing passengers are found for every spare seat.

I ask our guide how people get to work on time, using this unusual car-share system.

“Well if they start work at eight, then perhaps they have to come here at six,” he suggests. “The system works. Everyone gets a lift… eventually.”

Our half-empty touring coach doesn’t stop for anyone and I ask Manuel what the Cuban people think of us, with our privileged status, tearing through their country in comfort – fully-fuelled, well fed and air-conditioned, flashing our cameras and our Cuban convertible pesos. After all, isn’t this the inequality that the revolution set out to address?

He considers my question for a moment, choosing his words carefully. “I think the Cuban people understand that our country must welcome tourists to survive,” he states diplomatically.

“Tourists have certain standards of comfort. They would not come and spend their money here if those standards were not met. Tourism is good for Cuba.”

He seems more satisfied with his answer than I am; he knows which way his bread is buttered. Our guide and our driver will earn more in tips this week than Cuban doctors and teachers earn in three months. I wonder how many of the Cuban people working outside the tourism industry share his enthusiasm.

After a long day’s travelling, we are running very late. It is eight in the evening and the sun has long since set. The rural landscape is rendered monochromatic by a radiant full moon.

As we approach a crossroads, miles from anywhere, our headlights illuminate a tired, heavily pregnant woman and her sleepy young son. Her eyes look briefly hopeful, but our coach does not stop.

The young family fades from view, as our air-conditioned guilt trip continues on into the night.

For the original report go to http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travel-writing-competition/8193593/Just-Back-On-a-Cuban-guilt-trip.html

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