Pack for the locals
Workers in Cuba welcome donations from tourists
Mary Ellen Kot
CanWest News Service
When my family was getting ready for a recent trip to Cuba, my sisters,
who had been there before, advised me not to pack much — just
sunscreen, a bathing suit and a sarong. But then they added a final
category: "Don't forget to bring donations."
This last item is not officially mentioned anywhere — but everyone who
travels frequently to Cuba seems to know about it.
I checked out reviews on www.debbiescaribbeanresortreviews.com and was
happy to read that most people were pleased with our resort, The
Iberostar Daquiri in Cayo Guillermo. (So were we.)
Many of those reviewers also referred to the practice of bringing items
to share with the hotel staff.
And so we packed, and packed some more.
On our flight, passengers were allowed to check two pieces of baggage
(weight allowances vary depending on destination and airline.) We told
our three children, all in their 20s, to go through their closets and
find some summer clothes with which they were willing to part. My
sisters dropped off clothes, I went through the linen closet and three
extra suitcases were overflowing in no time.
Once at the resort, we faced the question of how to give away these
items in a discreet and sensitive manner. Most people leave gifts for
their cleaning staff every day. You simply leave a gift bag or package
on your bed, with a note: Gracias.
You'd think that means only housekeepers get gifts, but in fact
employees pool their tips at most resorts and distribute them to all the
staff. As the week went by, I started carrying around pesos and various
items in my knapsack. That way, when one of the gardeners would offer us
a lovely bird or grasshopper woven of palm branches, I would have
something with me to give in return.
Our resort employs so many people, there always seemed to be someone
offering us something. At no point did they ever look for anything in
return. But I felt better when I could return their kindness.
Near the end of our week, I asked our morning waitress if it was OK to
give her some clothes for her young cousin. I was afraid of insulting
her, but she replied enthusiastically.
"Yes, it's OK. We have many friends from Canada who bring us clothes and
A young man also reassured me that I was not insulting anyone. He
explained many of the housekeepers at our resort were doctors and nurses
who felt very lucky to work in tourism because of the possibility of
gifts and tips. I had wondered why shampoo was often mentioned as a good
gift until he told us that a bottle of shampoo costs about one-third of
a month's salary.
The practice of taking gifts to Cuba has been in the news recently, with
a Quebec travel agency offering clients a $300 discount for taking a
suitcase of items supplied by Cuban expatriates wanting to send goods
back home. But the Association of Canadian Travel agencies cautioned
against the idea, saying travellers should not carry luggage they
haven't packed themselves.
But there are plenty of guidelines for safely taking items you can
supply and pack yourself.
Since returning from Cuba, I have scanned the Internet and felt humbled
by the sites I've found. If you search for "Cuba donations needed," you
will learn about dozens of projects and ongoing work by such groups as
the Canada-Cuba Farmer-to-Farmer project, or a Toronto organization
called Recycle Your Bicycle.
Under the title "Donate and Help Cubans Survive the U.S. Blockade,"
you'll find information on non-governmental organizations such as
MOVPAZ, the Cuban Movement for Peace and People's Sovereignty. While
visiting towns and cities, many travellers link up with organizations
such as MOVPAZ that deliver aid where it is most needed.
Other tourists take their donations directly to schools or medical clinics.
Some of the most commonly requested items are bike tire repair kits,
Aspirin and other pain relievers, bandages, vitamins, medical gloves and
masks, thermometers, toothpaste, toothbrushes, school supplies,
Spanish-English dictionaries, art supplies, musical instruments, guitar
strings, baseball bats, balls and gloves, footballs and sport helmets.
Many sites are devoted to collecting medical supplies.
For many Canadians, visiting Cuba is like going to a friend's home for
dinner — you really shouldn't arrive empty-handed.
© The Edmonton Journal 2007