Is There a Doctor in the House?

20 May

I’ve had some pretty interesting experiences in the health and beauty department in Cuba. I’ve had my hair cut in four different places, including sitting on gym equipment on a rooftop and the back room of a house, had my nails done in a government institution, gone to a woman’s apartment at night for a wax, and can now add getting a massage in a privately owned salon to my list of adventures.


            The massage was nice, but what it demonstrated to me was how much more lucrative the private service industry is for the average Cuban—more so than any other profession including being a doctor or a lawyer.


            Oscarito, a lawyer who is the son of the couple that I’m renting a room from during my stay, owns the salon I visited, located on the first floor of a beautiful early 20th century mansion in the Vedado neighborhood. He repainted the walls and trim in the high-ceilinged rooms and it has an airy front porch with white wrought iron rocking chairs where you can sit while waiting for your appointment. His wife cuts hair and the salon also offers pedicures, manicures, facial waxing, weight loss wraps, massages, and facials.


            During a break in the tour schedule, I took two of the ladies to the salon and while they got their nails done ($0.50 for a manicure, $1.00 for a pedicure) I went for a massage, figuring that since it was only $10 CUC (which is basically $10 or $12 USD) I had nothing to lose. I was introduced to the masseuse, Yane a brunette dressed head-to-toe in fire engine red spandex, a la a Cuban Olympiad. We were already off to a great start.

            She led me into the massage room, a small space that had a massage table covered in a white sheet and a “Cuba” bath towel. She had the most professional manner of anyone I have met in Cuba, except for maybe one of the Cuba guides that I worked with last year who spoke English with a British accent (and maybe I only thought him professional because of that). She was courteous, telling me to get comfortable and leaving me to disrobe and hop on the table. When she came back in, I told her that I wanted a full body massage and she set up a playlist on her iPad mini and got to work.


            I’ve met some pretty forcible Cubans (like my ballet and yoga teachers) but she was gentle, almost too gentle, lightly rubbing honey-scented massage oil across my back. I didn’t want to be a diva American and demand more pressure, so I just went with it. I was too distracted anyway by what seemed to be piano instrumental versions of all of the hits from the 40s through the 80s coming from her iPad to say too much. I mentally sang along with “I will always love you,” Lionel Richie, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” some upbeat renditions of a few Beatles songs, and I’m pretty sure “42nd Street” made an appearance.

            She picked up the pressure some on my arms and legs, and spent a solid amount of time massaging my face and head, which was unexpected but delightful.

            At the end of the hour, during which I almost fell asleep, she gently woke me up and told me to take my time coming back out.

            After the massage, I talked to Maira, Oscarito’s mother, curious how long Yane had been working as a masseuse.

           “She used to be a doctor. General medicine and really good. But she has a daughter and spent too much time taking care of her and this is better money anyways.”

            I was completely shocked. A doctor turned masseuse? Not to follow a long held dream of relieving muscular tension, but because the money is better. As crazy as it sounds, unfortunately stories like that aren’t uncommon. Like anyone working in a government job, doctors in Cuba don’t make much, somewhere in the neighborhood of the average $20 or $40 a month salary, so of course Yane would work as a masseuse where she could clear her doctor’s salary in just one day of work. Though the other beauticians saw a mixture of locals and tourists, Yane mostly works with tourists because few Cubans are going to pay $10 CUC for a massage since $10 CUC used correctly can probably feed a family for a week here.

            I spend that much money on one or two cocktails in Charleston and think nothing of it, and felt a little bit ashamed that $10 is such an easy amount of money for me to spend. To relieve my guilty conscience, I tipped Yane $5 and thanked her profusely. I didn’t ask about any of the other girls in the salon, but I wonder if the esthetician that does facials used to be a chemical engineer…



One Response to “Is There a Doctor in the House?”

  1. Tyler Lahti May 20, 2014 at 8:31 pm #

    Part of me is wants a $12 massage, and the other part feels bad about that.

    The building, and especially the fence, looks so good in that picture.

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