Cuba is the hottest topic going these days. The island is in the news daily and things are changing quicker than I can change my orientation speech to each new group of travelers I take there. Many journalists, anchormen, talk show hosts and food writers have made the foray in the past few months, spending a few hurried days compiling a crumb of understanding of the island long forbidden to those of us living in Los Estados Unidos.
I have enjoyed reading their thoughts. I’ve cracked up watching Conan O’Brien’s clips over and over. For the most part, their exposes have brought a semblance of superficial knowledge and reinforcement of the icons we all know from our days of watching Desi Arnez. It’s been fun.
I have been fortunate enough to return to Cuba over and over the past 18 months. I feel blessed to have shared the frustrations of the past and the joys of the present with my new Cuban friends. I’ve also had fun introducing them to foods they don’t get like Oreos and Tortilla chips!
I was just learning about Cuba when Cubans were taking a fierce stance on the return of the Cuban Five and I cheered with them in Havana on the day of the return of the second of the prisoners in February of 2014.
My friends and I shared looks of disbelief and then tears when I arrived at the Havana airport on December 17th, just hours after the exchange of prisoners and the incredible news of the announcement to open diplomatic relations between our two countries. We raced to the TV to hear the speeches of Raoul Castro and President Obama. On that day, I went out into the streets and spoke with Cuban people. One taxi driver told me it was as if the Berlin Wall had just fallen.
I have celebrated The Day of Workers on May 1st and have spent a quiet Christmas Day in a country taking baby steps to remember the traditions of a holiday long forgotten. Also, a couple of birthdays with Cuban friends making me WAY too many cakes!
I don’t pretend to begin to fully understand Cuba and the Cuban people but having the opportunity to be an oft returning guest, my knowledge of Cuba and love for it’s people have grown tremendously.
I thought it was time I shared some of my insights. Below are a few impressions I jotted down on my first trip to Cuba in 2013 followed by thoughts a year and a half later.
Reflections of Cuba – October 2013
I am on the proverbial tip of the iceberg. I arrived 3 days ago on the one Caribbean island that I have never been allowed to see. And of the next 10 months, I will spend a total of three of them here on Cuba, learning, watching, listening, exploring the minds, the culture, the way of life and glimpsing inside the hearts of the Cuban people.
And this is why it’s important now, before education clarifies my thoughts and brings this forbidden isle into sharp focus, to record my infantile impressions.
And my first impression is that I like this place. And what I like about it is it’s purity. I like what it’s not “yet”. Cuba, like any country, is not without it’s problems, it’s struggles, it’s turbulent history and it’s troubled present but to look simply upon it and not within it you find a peaceful and inviting Caribbean paradise.
Cuba has very few large hotels, golf courses or tourist traps. There are no billboards that aren’t political, commercial billboards are not allowed. Small cities are not crowded with souvenir shops. The lack of a free market economy has, in terms of runaway tourism, kept the island pristine.
I’m driving now down the national highway from the central provinces to Havana. There are precious few cars on the road and most of them are American made relics from the 1950’s, the iconic symbol of Cuba. The road is 3 lanes now and will bulge to 4 as we near the capital city but there won’t be rush hour traffic to clog them as we arrive about 6:00 this evening. The extra lanes are a bit of a joke here in Cuba.
Homes for the most part are simple, the people hardly pretentious. Life is difficult yet simple and there is time for dominoes on the street or to sit in the park and people watch.
We visited a school of the Arts, Music and Theater for gifted children. Run and subsidized by the government of Cuba, all children with enough talent can audition and be admitted to study for free. It’s not just the children of the wealthy who can afford to study the arts and have a chance at a professional life like in the United States.
And the children are not caught up on their cell phones or texting and downloading apps so there is plenty of time for the arts, practically no one owns cell phones. It’s refreshing.
Understand that I am hardly naive to the causes of this life. I understand why there are no cell phones and why there are no cars. I get that if you have a lack of consumerism you’ll have a lack of trash crowding your roadways and gutters. I don’t want a world where people are oppressed and lack basic freedoms.
But for now, I look at it with a child’s eye. The beauty of this yet unspoiled, last standing Caribbean island is a breath of fresh air. The mangroves stretch to infinity and the beaches beckon. Oxen still plow the land and horse and carts still move the masses. Men still use poles and wedges to upright rolls of paper!
Underneath the crust of this place is a roiling, boiling hot molten core. Cracks and crevices in the crust allow for some seepage of the firey gut of political and economic turmoil which trembles below the surface. And it seems impossible to describe Cuba without this.
But for now I want to only look at the surface, the beauty of the place and the smiles of the people.
Reflections of Cuba -May 2015
Above are words I wrote 18 months ago, when I was fresh to Cuba and my mind was unburdened with the “knowing” of such a place.
Since my first visit to the island, I have returned 17 times. My impressions are more fined tuned, my knowledge more vast, and yet, my feelings in some ways remain the same as when I first stepped off the plane. I still feel a sense of stepping back fifty years to a simpler time, a time of horse buggies and lazy afternoons in the park. I feel that saying Cuba is an island is not just a geographical term, but a place suspended in an isolated state as the world spins around it.
But what has changed mostly are my feelings for the people of the island. Simply put, I love them. Not that I didn’t love them before, I simply did not know them. Each trip, friendships have deepened and solidified and I feel more and more like family. And in Cuba, this is not a throw away phrase as family is the most important element of Cuban life. So when I am told I am “family” it’s special.
The Cubans have picked up on my Spanish middle name and prefer to use the easier to say Anita, rather than, Carin. I have to admit I hated my middle name all my life. Being named after one’s grandmother makes you think you have an “old” name. But upon learning that Anita is an endearment of the name Ann (by adding the “ita” it becomes “little Ann”) and hearing it said with that wonderful Cuban accent, made me proud to be “Anita”. I like it.
I have learned some amazing things about the Cubans in Cuba. First of which I have learned that Cubans in Cuba are very different in than Cubans living in the US. What I have discovered most is that they are a delightful contradiction. Let me explain.
Cubans are very educated people with a wonderful naivety. Every Cuban fully understands their history and their place in the scheme of the world. They are full of hope and joie de vie. They can fully disagree with the ideas of a country’s government yet still love it’s people. They can separate these two. When a baseball player defects for the US Major leagues, Cubans are not jealous that they “made it out”, they are happy that the player has found a good life for themselves. If you ask a Cuban how much money their President makes, they look at you funny. Why would they care? The President is running the country and he uses what is needed to run the country and take care of themselves. What is more important is them is how they can make their own lives better and not spend their time worrying about the bank account of the president. They have this amazing ability to use their energy in positive ways and not dwell on the negative.
Cubans have tenacity yet have their own sense of time. Cubans know that change is coming and they are very tied to the outcome of the change. They hold steadfast to this and are educated about it. In the meantime, they push forward always in making a better life for themselves and let the change come in time. Cubans run life on a very relaxed sense of time. Being “on time” in Cuba means anywhere within 30-45 minutes of the designated hour.
Cubans enjoy life while it’s falling down around them. I mean this literally. Havana is falling down. Time and lack of resources used to renovate the city, mean that buildings collapse, sometimes with people inside them. Money is in short supply as are resources but I have found more people smiling in Cuba than in most countries. At night they enjoy socializing on the sea wall (Malecon). They enjoy time with family, art, music and laughter.
Cubans are the epitome of making lemonade out of lemons. If you talk to a Cuban about lacking freedoms, they will tell you that they have free education and free healthcare. If you talk about how the newspapers are fully state run and education curriculum is completely guided by the government, they will calmly explain that the Triumph of the Revolution gave every Cuban the opportunity to learn to read and write. Cubans are always working towards greater freedoms, towards more personal liberties but they are grateful for what they do have.
Cubans, while wanting better opportunities for economic gain are proud to be Cuban. Most Cubans these days who choose to leave Cuba do so for economic, not political reasons. They want better opportunities, yet many of them want to go away for financial gain in order to bring it back to build a better Cuba.
Not all Cubans want to leave Cuba. This is something that many people do not understand. Most Americans believe that all Cubans are fighting to “get out of Dodge”. This is simply not true. Many have left but I have spoken to many, many Cubans who want to be a part of building a new Cuba, a new generation dedicated to their own country.
As I write, I sit in Miami. Tomorrow I will return to Cuba for my last trip before the heat of the summer season. I will enjoy my summer season in another part of the world with my head underwater, fish and sharks swirling around….as I do.
Tomorrow I will begin to say my goodbyes to my Cuban friends, but I have eight days to do it. In some cases, it will take that long. There will be lots of hugs and tears, lots of well wishes and more hugs and tears.
And when I return next December, Cuba will have changed again. And I look forward to celebrating the changes and continuing to learn about Cubans. And making more great friends.