Other People Aren’t Your Tourist Attraction

On seeing Cuba “before it’s ruined.” 

I appreciate good art direction just as much as anyone else, and I see that Cuba looks like a beautifully destroyed photo op. But it’s not your photo op. The old cars are not kitschy; they are not a choice. It’s all they have. The old buildings are not preserved; their balconies are falling and killing people all the time. The very, very young girls prostituting themselves are not doing it because they can’t get enough of old Canadian men, but because it pays more than being a doctor does. Hospitals for regular Cuban citizens are not what Michael Moore showed you in Sicko. (That was a Communist hospital for members of the Party and for tourists, and I, for one, think Moore fell for their North Korea–like propaganda show pretty hard.) There are no janitors in the hospitals because it pays more money to steal janitorial supplies and sell them on the street than it does to actually have a job there. Therefore, the halls and rooms are covered in blood, urine, and feces, and you need to bring your own sheets, blankets, pillows, towels, and mattresses when you are admitted. Doctors have to reuse needles on patients. My mom’s aunt had a stroke and the doctor’s course of treatment was to “put her feet up and let the blood rush back to her head.” That was it. And this is in Havana, the big city. I can’t be sure, but I’d imagine things there are a lot better than they are in more remote parts of the country.

I get the desire for an authentic experience of a place. I do not understand the people who eat their way through the world one Hard Rock Café at a time, who go somewhere else and bitch it’s not home. When Mr. A and I went to Jamaica we stayed, on purpose, in a locally owned hotel. When we went to Paris I was comically excited to be shacking up in someone’s rented apartment instead of in a Comfort Inn (and not just because it was a fraction of the cost). I get the desire to really see a place as it is, and not just as the brochures present it.

But there’s a line you cross when you decide what “authentic” is, and publicly pine for a backdrop for yourself, ignoring the desires of the people populating that backdrop for the 51 weeks out of the year you’re not there. Your vacation doesn’t trump someone’s daily life. Your vacation photos will survive.

Would it be sad to see a Disney Store in downtown Havana? We have one in downtown Chicago, and it doesn’t seem to have done dick for anyone living south of the Loop, so I’ll leave it up to the Cubans as to what they want where. If I need poverty porn for my Instagram there will always be somewhere miserable for me to pose.