Have you ever tried bringing donations to Cuba? I have. I had incredible difficulty giving my filled suitcase away to anyone, anywhere, at any time.
Cuba has its share of beggars. There are exactly as many people begging in Cuba as in the U.S. and most other places in the world, save Denmark, where most everyone is socialist, well-educated, socially conscious, and income secure. In Denmark, roughly two to three people a day hold out a cup to collect spare euros. They’re taken to jail for violating the anti-begging law. By all reports, Danish jails are lovely, so the imprisonment is far less dramatic than one would expect.
Now, as I say, some people in Cuba beg for money. Most, however, offer something up in return for your cash. They draw your portrait, give you some other artwork they’ve created, show you on a map how to get to your next destination, or even lead you to that destination. It’s kind of entrepreneurial and industrious if you think about it.
The problem comes in when you try bringing donations to Cuba. Before I arrived, I did hours of online research. I reached out to Cuban aid organizations and people on Cuba travel forums. I couldn’t find any Cuban organizations accepting donated items of any sort. Finally, someone on Trip Advisor suggested I contact Caritas International. Over a period of two weeks, I left several voicemails and sent emails into the ether. No response.
I was determined to bring the donations, so I dragged a beat-down suitcase ($20 from ARC Thrift Store) filled with school supplies, Barbie dolls, games, medicine, personal hygiene products, and candy — all items hard to come by in Cuba. My friend LuAnne joined me on the trip, and she brought her own bag filled with deflated soccer balls, as Cuban kids are desperate for sports equipment.
We made it to Havana. And then … what? What were we going to do with all that stuff?
Neida, the friendly lady who owns the amazing Havana apartment where we stayed, pointed out the window to a church and suggested we take our stuff there.
We showed up at the church on a Sunday morning around nine a.m. The gates were locked. A guy on the street directed us to a nearby house where the pastor lives. We knocked on the door. No answer. We returned to the church a few more times and finally found a woman who told us to return the following morning.
The next day, we hauled our donation-filled luggage to the church. En route, the wheels on my rickety ARC special broke off, so I had to cradle my bag like a big, unwieldy baby the way they used to in the ’60s before common sense was invented.
The church lady who barely greeted us couldn’t have been less impressed with our stash. She gave it a once over with seen-everything eyes and shrugged.
We left our bags behind, found the nearest bar, and ordered ourselves several cocktails. We had earned them. Bringing donations to Cuba is hard work.