Tag Archives: Lung Kong Society

Living as the elderly in Cuba…

Living (if you can call it that lately) as the elderly in Cuba is getting harder and harder – hell, living as a young Cuban isn’t much better at times.  We saw that especially with our recent visit to the Lung Kong Society in Havana last month.  It’s been getting noticeably harder and harder for people in Cuba’s economy over the past few years, and it’s getting more and more noticeable every time I / we go down.  And so, I have a video to share here.

One of the people I enjoy meeting up with is Nino, who invited us in with the Lung Kong visits (previously and this past trip).  Nino put up his own report on our recent Lung Kong group visit, with some great pics from fellow Canadian traveller John Reiner.  This support to Lung Kong is close to Nino’s heart as a fellow elderly person (sorry Nino – had to get that one in there! LOL.)  While I may joke with that, his passion has rubbed off on many of us, and re-kindled our own desires to help.  For example – the effort is close to Tom’s and Edward’s hearts; I began missionary work and volunteering in high school in the mid-90’s, and I have lost so many of my elders lately (only 1 grandparent remaining); so many others just have an urge to help.

Sometimes, turning around a new-to-us street corner in Cuba gives you a proverbial bitch-slap-in-the-face.  Here we are, a bunch of privileged foreigners, on a trip to indulge in cigars, rum, and food at restaurants that most Cubans can’t even dream of eating at, and then we run into the sometimes-hard-to-comprehend realities of modern life in Cuba.  You see it everywhere, that the disparities in modern Cuba illustrate the gross realities of the “haves” and “have-nots”.  Those that have access to tourist dollars – be it through the cigar industry, hotels and tourism, nightclubs, prostitution, etc. – have a good standard of living, supplementing their monthly “allotments” from the State, and hopefully are sourcing enough additional revenue to help support the rest of their family.  Sometimes, families that don’t have access to this are left on the sidelines, living in near- or abject-poverty, while the State is becoming more and more powerless to assist (for various political and economic factors that I’m not going to delve into here).  Unfortunately, sometimes these elderly people are left on the sidelines.

And yet, all of them, the Cuban people as a whole, have this bittersweet zest for life that infects us all, and continues to pull us back.  They have this heartwarming openness that makes us all feel like long-lost members of a larger family, gladly welcomed home.

A while ago, Nino shared with me a documentary made in 2011 about life for the elderly and pensioners in Cuba.  The reality they face is living off of about 200 Cuban pesos a month (not CUC’s, but CUP’s) – that’s only about $8 US currently!  From grocery store staff, to former commanders in Castro’s revolution, they get pennies a day to survive.  Not enough money to pay the bills at least.  The video, called “At The End of The Road” can be found here, in Spanish but subtitled in English:

Not much has changed since the making of that video.  In fact, it’s my understanding and observations that things have progressively got worse.  Prices get higher.  In-demand items are harder to obtain.  Salaries/pensions stay the same.  Tourism (a huge source of generalized income across the nation) continues to wax and wane in the post-2008-recession world.

Hopefully this video will help illustrate some abject realities of modern Cuban life to those new to Cuba, either thinking about travelling there for a first time, or going back and staying away from all the resort and cigar festival hub-bub.  That’s why many of us, when we can, overload our luggage with gifts and donations for whomever we can (careful – donations is a dirty word to Cuban customs!)

If you go down, don’t bring the pencil crayons and toiletries and such for your maids.  While that’s a nice gesture, it’s not what’s most needed – everyone brings that stuff.  Do something different.  Bring a nice bottle of wine or two, step out of the resorts, and give it to someone who you know likely hasn’t had a drop of a nice libation in a year or more.  Bring some cooking or baking goods, and give it to someone in need (I love to bring maple syrup, cliche I know, and Aunt Jemima’s just-add-water pancake mix).  Bring a horde of chocolates or candies, little everyday-to-us delicacies, and donate it to an overlooked school to use as treats / rewards for the students (mini Mars bars or Cadbury Creme Eggs, Canadian-centric goodies that are certified nut-free are good ideas).  Bring some everyday items, and give it to a social club or a church group.  Bring car parts, bicycle tires, OTC medicines, home reno items.  Since we’re all linked through cigars, visit a finca, visit the countryside (something I admit I don’t do enough), get out of the resorts and such – tip well when out in these outlying areas, as sometimes the financial support doesn’t flow too well outside of Varadero and Havana.

It’s a flawed system, no doubt about that.  The Cuban government has to figure out a solution.  And no one says that what myself or others are doing is the right measure anyways.  But in the meantime, we can do what we can.

Cheers all.

An international visit to the Sociedad Lung Kong in Havana…

Additional photos courtesy of Tom MacDowall / "tmac77" and John Winston Reiner / "cigarsurgeon"

Ah, the joys of being in Havana, and bringing some good cheer to others.  That was basically the first order of business for us as part of this year’s trip for the Encuentro de Amigos de Partagas.

A little over a year ago, good friend Nino Munoz brought some info to light to many of us about this Cantonese society in Havana.  It started with a gentleman by the name of Mr. Pok Chi Lau happening upon meeting a lady by the name of Caridad, and her relating to him the story of her adoptive father, a Cantonese opera performer, and her adoption as a little girl in the Barrio Chino in Havana oh so many decades ago.  What evolved was a lovely documentary that Mr. Lau put together, illustrating the frustrating confliction of a zest-for-life and also the desparation that’s faced by many of the Chinese diaspora in Cuba.  The write-up and documentary videos, found here on Nino’s blog, are heartwarming and enlightening.

This was followed by many of us in the Canadian cigar community from FOH, and more specifically by many in the Toronto area directly, wanting to participate in some way.  Many of our members and friends are Asian, some have Asian spouses, and the Chinese community in the Greater Toronto Area, at just under 500,000 people, is the largest outside of China and Hong Kong themselves (take THAT San Francisco and Vancouver!!!)

In November of last year then, during last year’s Partagas Encuentro, a number of the Canadian travellers were able to meet the society members there, and bring some gifted donations.  Unfortunately, I missed that trip, but I heard from all the others about the continuing need.

So, in February/March earlier this year, a few of our Toronto area cigar-smoking-circle friends wanted to participate further, Edward and David.  They were able to meet up with Nino, and go to see Graciela Lau, the President of the Lung Kong Society there in Havana, and bring some more gifted items and cheer.

Onwards and upwards it would continue.

This past spring, when co-ordinating the planning for this past summer’s 2014 Toronto MegaHerf IV, it was agreed to by Art, Tom, Frank and myself that we would split the proceeds going towards charities, and include the Lung Kong Society in Havana to a 50% share (with the other 50% going to FOH friend Rob Schildt’s Nicaraguan Children’s Feeding Mission, a charity that we have provided for since the inception of the Toronto MegaHerf charity event).

So, as this August’s MegaHerf IV raised many thousands of dollars, we had some good will to bring last week to the ladies and gents of the Lung Kong.  Many suitcases were stuffed to the brim.  A generous benefactor from Hong Kong (thank you again, kind sir), who has donated in the past and has an emotional connection to the people we’re helping, even assisted us in providing some traditional Chinese items and assisting in shipping arrangements to Nino so that we could hand these items over in Havana.  Tom and Ed here in Toronto co-ordinated a gargantuan task of sourcing out needed and wanted items – a vast conglomerate of stuff from within the Chinese shops and communities in Toronto, kitchenwares, foodstuffs and seasonings, medical items, etc. – and they then led the co-ordination with other trip participants to ensure everything was transported safely and effectively.  Enough can’t be said of these two, and the pathway that they have led for the rest of us in this venture, as their heart’s are tied to the cause incredibly so.

And so, Nino (with his travel-mate-cum-partner-in-crime Yannick) assisted us in being welcomed by Graciela and the ladies and gents of the Lung Kong Society on the Sunday afternoon, after arriving in Cuba the day before.  We were treated as slightly-embarassed guests, welcomed at a head table, honoured to be allowed a little window into their daily lives, and able to bring some much needed items.

They are continuing renovations on their society’s building, in the hopes of opening up a small restaurant to become a somewhat self-sufficient revenue source for the society.  We were invited to their shrine, and requested to light incense sticks in honour of both the gods above and of elders gone before (both theirs and ours – miss you Dad).

It was an enlightening visit.  A stark reminder of the frustrating contrasts that exist in Cuba – of the happiness that Cubans (of all ethnic groups, ages, and persuasions) can have no matter how much or little they may have, and then, on the flip side of the coin, simply how little they do have to even be happy about.  I was exposed to these ironies many years ago while working as a missionary in the Dominican Republic while in high school, but these little reminders help to keep one grounded in today’s evolving world.

I’m happy to be a part of this small bit of cheer that we could bring to the Lung Kong.  I was able to witness the pleasure that our visit brought to them, and how much it seemed to energize them.  Prouder still that I was allowed a peek into this interesting side of Havana that was first opened to us by Nino and Ed and Tom, etc.  And as Tom stated so eloquently, and Nino assisted us in translating, we feel happy to help as much as we can and did, but sad in that it’s only a small piece of what’s needed.

I will say this…those ladies and gents have a great sense of humour as well.  They refer to Nino as “Santa Claus” – it seems somewhat unfathomable to them that some white-haired crazy gringo from a northern land of snow, and outside of their social or ethnic circle, would be simply gifting them with resources and items from their traditional culture.  So, it surprised me when I, lucky or not, got given a nickname as well – hell, I was simply a passenger on this visit, more so to be there to document all the work that Tom and Nino have put in for this.  But somehow (potbelly aside, I have no idea why – well okay, maybe I don’t have much hair left either), Graciela and a few others took to calling me “Buddha”.  LOL.  She said it was because I was part of a great group of givers.

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Well, as my wife would say, it wouldn’t likely be because I was “the enlightened one”!

Cheers all.