Most Patient Husband and I just got back from a wonderful National Geographic trip to Cuba. For a woman who spent most of her childhood hiding under her school desk for five minutes once a week in emergency-we-might-get-bombed-by-the-Soviets-who-have-a-toehold-in-Cuba, this was a big deal.
We don’t often get to go on big trips like this. It’s hard to leave the farm, but my terrific “little” brother came down from Ithaca to be on standby for Dad – and to farm-sit for us so that we could travel worry-free.
I suppose because I was one of those children who had too much imagination, while under my particle board desk it occurred to me that the Cuban children had desks too, and they probably spent time under them wondering, as I did, if they were strong enough to deflect bombs. So when Cuba opened up for cultural exchanges, I thought I’d better go find out.
Right now official travel from the US to Cuba is restricted. You can’t hop a flight from Houston and sip the ubiquitous welcome cocktail at Hemingway’s favorite bar an hour later. Right now you have to go prepared to learn through a cultural exchange that requires a 40 hour-a-week program. (The tour guide said that they have to document attendance and that the only reason for absence from the sessions is for illness. But there are plenty of welcome cocktails!) Or you can fly to another country that allows travel to Cuba and fly in and out from that location. But not officially. (OK, so as of 3/15/16, right after I posted this, the law changed. Stay tuned, more changes to come, I’m sure.)
So, we flew to Miami to catch the charter flight with the rest of our group. Once there, we had the opportunity to catch up with some extended family, who happen to be Cubanos in exile. These family member’s baby brother was our brother-in-law. (Sadly, we lost our brother, Ralph, and their brother, Mike, many years ago.)
These two, brother and sister, also still hate Fidel with such a passion that it transforms them when they talk about all that they lost in the revolution. It is hard to me to imagine how, in one day, the family went from privileged to pariahs. Their father was arrested and hauled off, and the family home and his medical practice became community property. Aside from one impassioned short outburst, neither wished to discuss what they had gone through beyond expressing gratitude for the Catholic church, which got them out through a program that helped to transport 1,000 children to America. The sister said that she prefers to dwell on the good life she’s had here, and the fact that she worked hard and was successful in that work. They no longer have family in Cuba itself, and have no wish to go there while “The Monsters” are in charge.
Man playing a Cajon in Trinidad
With this in mind, Cuba was a revelation. Or, as our tour coordinator, Carol, said, “In Cuba, everything es complicado.” The people there, far from appearing to be under the heavy fist of a Monster, looked happy. The free health care, minimal subsidized food rations, and excellent free education in a wide-range of subjects were frequently mentioned during our tour. The fact that there are long lines for everything and that there are shortages thanks to the 60 year-long economic blockade were also mentioned multiple times. Our guide, Rigoberto, “Rigo” for short, was amazingly open and honest with his answers to some pretty tough questions our group asked him. While even five years ago his answers to things like, “Are there shortages?” would have resulted in a response of, “I love my job,” now he is able to respond honestly with, “Yes.”
In his early 30’s, Rigo lived through what the Cuban’s euphemistically call “Período especial” or the Special Period in Times of Peace. This began in 1989 when the Soviet Union’s economy went boom. Imagine a world in which there was no gasoline, not much food available, and that your immediate neighboring country had a blockade in place that prevented many other countries from coming to your aid. It was dire. Rigo joking said he would have been over six feet tall if he had been able to have adequate nutrition. But it’s not funny because it’s probably true. I imagine that Rigo’s generation will exhibit many of the traits that children of the depression era here in the US have. When he mentioned that many of the animals in the zoo were airlifted out of Cuba because they were starving, my heart leapt. “Oh good. They saved the animals!” Then I realized that standing before me was a boy who was not saved. A boy who was not sheltered from that deprivation and who indeed had suffered greatly. This very child grew into a young man who is willing to work taking tourists around Cuba because he recognizes the difference between governmental policy and the people who live in the country which wielded it. Such is the spirit of the Cuban people.
My guide at the Little Beehive after school program in Havana
We went to several schools and after-school programs, both government-supported and private, where the arts flourish.
Music is everywhere. The Little Beehive is a government sanctioned after-school dance and singing program for youth who are interested in becoming dentists, engineers, teachers and other professionals. (We asked.)
The Benny Moré Art School in Cienfuegos is a feeder school for the professional colleges. The program we saw there featured second grade dancers who choreographed their own really cool contemporary dance piece, an eight year old guitarist who nearly made me weep, and paintings done by school children that were so good I couldn’t take my eyes off of them.
Art from the free program at the Water Tower in a neighborhood center in Havana
One private arts organization in Havana had taken over a former municipal water tank and created a community arts center with free arts and music classes. Their education system works.
Can’t speak personally for their medical system because happily we did not need it. But…free health care. Not rationed. They send medical teams throughout the world to both teach and provide health care and they do it for free. Gotta say, that sounds better than good to me.
And music. Every single restaurant we enjoyed had people singing. (And getting a living wage for it! Imagine that.) The sound of music was on every street corner and people danced everywhere.
Our last night was truly special. A rooftop farewell party at the hotel. Then down to the street to go to a Paladar for supper. Our guide surprised us with a fleet of colorful Buicks, Fords, Chevys and even a fire engine-red Edsel (our ride!) We cruised the entire length of the Malecón and back again. We arrived at our destination, a crumbling specimen of the architectural grandeur that is Havana.
Up we went, following an Italian marble staircase through a once-grand receiving room, and up to the top floor where a bustling restaurant serves elegant 5 star cuisine from a very modern commercial kitchen. Keeping in mind that four buildings a day collapse in Havana, (Note: My wonderful brother, an engineer, pointed out that this was probably an exaggeration. 4×365 is a lotta buildings going boom. So, while I did hear this statistic while in Havana, it’s probably four a month or four a year rather than four a day.) I was happy that this one at least seemed to be sturdy, even if the windows lacked glass, the marble handrails had fallen into disrepair and that most of the decorative details on the walls desperately needed varnish or a coat of paint. The photo I took of our group enjoying this feast summed up Cuba for me. Cuba’s buildings may be decaying, it’s people may have suffered heartbreaking loss and deprivation, but they are strong, and celebrate what they have rather than what they have lost.
While I never remembered to ask about the desks, and how sturdy theirs were, I learned quite a bit.
For goodness sake, ignore media blathering about what’s going on down there. Go. See it for yourself. Make up your own mind about what Cuba is and is not. Heck. Go anywhere and do the same. Learn stuff. Think for your own self. You’ll come home with a new appreciation for what home means and how very lucky we are to live where we do.
Tags: Cultural Exchange, Hemmingway, Inspiration, Travel