This blog's title means "Cuban-hearted woman" (very loosely translated!). I settled on this name because it had a nice ring to my unschooled ear and, more importantly, because I think the Cuban people seem to have so much
heart, and they're in my heart for that reason. In general, the people I've met in Cuba are quite consistently open-hearted and big-hearted in the way they relate to each other or to visitors in their beautiful land. A piece of my heart now resides in Cuba, with the warm, wonderful friends I've made there. This blog is not intended to be a guide to Cuba, just a forum for my eclectic bits of writing – poetry, opinion pieces and information gleaned from my personal experience and reading.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Fresh from my fifth visit, I’m eager to begin work

I’m back in cool Canada, fresh from the warmth of my fifth visit to Marea del Portillo, Cuba. I am tired but energized. I feel incredibly blessed and enriched by my diverse experiences there.

I now see much more clearly what can be done to support and empower the people there, what should be done and what I can do. I’m eager to begin. I have been doing some things to help families in this rather isolated rural region, and I will be doing more.

The individuals I have come to know and trust are teaching me about how things work in Cuba, showing me what is most needed in the community surrounding Club Amigo Marea del Portillo, a minor resort operated by Sunwing in the Granma province, at the southern foot of the island. It’s just about as far away from the hustle of Havana as one can be in Cuba, which has both pros and cons.

The largest con is that the location means this area is lower on the food chain when it comes to supplies; it’s often harder to get the most basic necessities like deodorant here. Sometimes it’s even difficult to get rice, an absolutely essential part of every Cuban diet. Somehow, they always cope, and continue to smile.

What I’ve been learning is that even the smallest things can make a big difference. The peso that is left on the pillow for the chambermaid each morning adds up. To the Canadian leaving the tip, that’s seven bucks for an entire week of service. It’s next to nothing. It’s less than a bottle of semi-decent wine or a meal at many fast-food joints. For the maid and her family, it’s huge.

Keep in mind that the average Cuban, working six days a week, earns roughly $10 per month – but that’s not enough to live on. When pressed for a number, a close friend finally said, “Well, one really needs about $20 each month.” I had to gently push for that figure for several reasons. First, Cubans are generally very proud. Second, it’s hard to calculate what a single person needs because most people do not live alone; the households are typically comprised of several generations of blended families, pooling their resources.

Wages alone are not enough to cover the cost of their basic needs. That’s why tips are vital and many people have some sort of sideline business. It’s about survival. They do what they need to do. And, from what I’ve observed, they routinely help each other.

Life is not easy in this land of sun and smiles but one does not hear a lot of complaining. That’s just the way it is – “Es Cuba,” as the title of a very evocative book by Lea Aschkenas states. It’s Cuba. One copes.

I’ve decided to do what I can to make coping easier for the people in the community I’ve fallen profoundly in love with – Marea del Portillo and the surrounding area, including Pilon and Mota. Of course I know I can’t save the world. I’m not trying to do that; I’m just trying to do a few small things to make a difference in some lives, to inspire more smiles. I love to see people smile, genuinely smile. It does my heart good. It feeds my soul.

Want to help? I’ll tell you how. To date, I’ve been reticent to overtly seek financial support for my endeavors in Cuba. Now, I’m ready to come out of the donation solicitation closet. I can’t issue you a charitable receipt but I will promise that it will all go to good use. I will continue to pay my own way to Cuba when I travel there twice a year. I want to make it clear that I am not trying to make money for myself through these projects; I am trying to help more people than is possible out of my own pocket.

If you don’t trust me to handle your money with wisdom and integrity, don’t worry, I can suggest other ways for you to help! For instance, if you have a reasonably good used bicycle to donate, that would be great. Thanks to the generosity of Algonquin Outfitters and other individuals, I’ve been able to supply four families, so far, with coveted and much-needed bikes. Transportation is such a challenge there that a bike is as essential as cars are to most Canadians.

AO's Mark Sinnige (left) adjusts Henry's bike seat.
When someone donates a bike, my friends at Algonquin Outfitters will tune it up and put in a box, ready to ship to Cuba. A Sunwing passenger can take one boxed bike on the plane for the modest fee of $30. On my last trip, I took one and was fortunate enough to find two agreeable people in my tour group to transport a pair of donated bikes – and their shipping cost had been graciously covered by the donor.

You should see how broadly someone smiles when you give him or her a bike! Mountain bikes are best but they are happy to get any kind. As well, they are glad to get extra tires, tools and accessories, so I always stuff the bike boxes with whatever I can, up to the maximum allowable weight of 20 kg.

Bikes are just one example of the things I have begun to routinely take with me to Cuba. I also take clothing, school supplies, basic medicine-cabinet supplies, pens, pencils and candy, as almost every Canadian tourist does. Beyond that, however, I’ve made a special effort to figure out what other, slightly more unusual, items are particularly useful.

Maya takes her bike for a test ride - thanks Raylene!
 Number one on my must-take list is this: solar-powered yard lights. They are relatively cheap – I watch for off-season sales and stockpile the better quality models ($2.50-$3/each for boxes of 20) but dollar-store versions are also okay, if that’s all I can get. If you think that lighting up one’s yard is not essential to life, you’re right. In Cuba, due to frequent power outages, people use them inside their homes at night, when the lights go out, for reading and other activities. These simple rechargeable lights are much better than trying to rely on cranky flashlights or failing batteries.

Although solar power is available for larger commercial applications (such as at the resort for heating water), as far as I know, I’m the first tourist to provide solar yard lights for families to use at home, at least in this underserved area. I’m rather proud to think that I had such a bright idea!

For me, thinking out of the box and simply looking around to see what might be helpful is great fun. I particularly like getting to know people personally, then surprising them with special gifts that will enhance in their lives – without them even knowing I had observed the need. I love to hear my new friends respond, “How did you know?!” I just shrug and smile. They smile back, even more warmly. Perfecto!

So, that’s what I’m up to. If you want to assist me with such life enhancement projects and small-scale, careful and discreet micro-lending endeavors, I would welcome it. You can contribute through the PayPal account attached to my blog (the yellow “Donate” button in the right-hand column). You are also most welcome to contact me with any questions or offers you may have:

I plan to continue organizing group trips to Club Amigo Marea del Portillo each October, for women only, and each April, open to anyone but with a loose theme. This year it was writing; next year it will be art and spirituality. The second annual All-Girl Posse trip is tentatively set for the last week of October. I will announce prices and booking deadlines in the next few months but, if you’d like to be added to my “I’d like to go” list, please send me an email or give me a call: 705-788-1791.

My dear and patient husband teases that I’ve become a Cuba-vangelist. Well, hallelujah and amen to that! It does feel like a calling to me.

Peacefully smiling,
My pal Agustin, onion farmer and all-round good guy.


  1. I'm not sure whether the idea is more enlightened or brilliant. I've used outside solar lights during power outages myself. Next time I go down, I'll take some for sure. Maybe send some in October, too. If departure time is Oct. 24 or later, I could go myself...

  2. I'm just in awe of how lucky we are to share the world with you, Jenny! You are one of the most generous, thoughtful, loving humanitarians I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. I look forward to traveling to Cuba with you in the future, and getting involved in the miracles you're working!

  3. Thank you. Your support is helping to make more things possible. Abrazos y besos, querida amiga!