We had been told in all of our documentation (and in articles online) that the Cuban people have a lot of trouble finding and affording some basic things like: soap, hand creams, notepads, pens, etc. So I had gone to a dollar store and brought with me a small bag of these things, along with candy for kids.
We asked Tony, our guide, over and over about how to give these gifts. He would say things like “give them when someone has done something nice for you.” But the problem is we didn’t have a ton of reason to interact with people who weren’t: A) our guides, B) our hosts, or C) people selling us things. We were told that the hosts tend to be among the wealthier people in the town, so they don’t need these things as much. And of course our guides are getting huge tips from us at the end. And then people selling us things are already getting a potentially largely marked up price. So, then, who??
We started leaving our gifts to the hosts and hoping that they would get distributed somehow. But it felt wrong. Like one of our hosts just watched as Tina, Deepak, Dave, and I sortof unloaded our bags of dollar store stuff onto her table. But it felt almost disrespectful as her home was well-equipped and she was clearly not poor.
We saw beggars only a couple times, asking for soap and pens. I gave one beggar a notebook (I didn’t have a pen) and she pocketed it quickly and went back to begging for a pen. Again, didn’t feel right.
Also, Barbara had asked me when we left for the bus trip (knowing that we would be back), “You didn’t leave anything in the room, right? Nothing like soap or money?” I answered no, wondering if she meant that I should be leaving something…
There were 2 things we brought that ended up being useful.
One was guitar strings. My dad mentioned it right before we left so I grabbed a couple packs the day before our flight. Dave gave them to a guy who let him play the guitar and he seemed genuinely happy.
The other was over the counter painkillers. I talked a bit to Barbara about gifts and told her I’d like to find a clinic to give pain relievers to. She explained to me that medicines were incredibly hard to find and then were very expensive. She said that “Motrin” specifically is around $1 per pill. So I ended up giving her some individually packaged Tylenol and Ibuprofen. She and her brother looked so happy and hugged me.
In a funny coincidence, I had brought some stickers I found that had Mickey Mouse on them. It turns out that Barbara loves Disney, so when she told me that, I pulled out the stickers and she lit up! And then as we were leaving, I gave her some money and then pulled out a single US dollar. She smiled and kissed it and put it on her altar (presumably to bring more US money to her).
Also, at Barbara’s house, we had a miscommunication with the agency about where we would be staying. Barbara was able to convince the agency to let us stay at her place even though the room was taken, so we stayed in her bedroom and she slept with her daughter. In her bathroom, I noticed she was not lacking for soap, cream, razors, etc. All the things we had been told them couldn’t get!
On the last day, we were alone, the tour having ended a day earlier, we went to an alley that was beautifully painted. On this last day I decided I would carry candy around with me to finally find somewhere to leave it or gift it. The alley was right by a playground, so I saw tons of kids. But how do you approach them? I can be a little shy, especially when I don’t really understand the cultural implications of literally being a stranger who is giving free candy to kids. So I saw a sweet 8 or so year old girl and just handed her a whole bag of jawbreakers and walked away. Her eyes lit up and she ran away with her friends to eat it.
I found this fantastic article about gifting, I wish I had read it before we went to Cuba. In the end, I wish I hadn’t brought those things with me. The Cuban people are not as poor as we think. They have their basic needs cared for and those who are enterprising have much more than the basics.
So if you’re going to Cuba, bring: things useful to a specific type of person (musician=guitar strings, artist=paints, student=dictionary, reader=literature in Spanish) and pain relievers in small packages.