a country of extremes

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it’s been more than a month since I returned from a weeklong trip to Cuba, and it’s taken me this long to get my thoughts together about the entire ordeal. in fact, my thoughts are still scattered more than a bit. but it’s killing me not to talk about it.

for the first few days and weeks after the trip, I couldn’t stop telling anyone who would listen about the amazing things we saw. the people we met. the food. the artists. the music. I was part of a people-to-people exchange … an organized tour. I’m American, after all, so this is how we do it. this is, by law, how we have to do it.

once home, I had several personal stories to share. things that happened only to me or were unique to my visit. dancing with a Cuban gentleman. getting sick enough to need a shot in the ass. falling in love with rum. going against the rules and dipping my toes in the water. I made the most of the bus tour scenario, a type of travel I would never usually take. but this was fantastic. a great way to become fast friends with your fellow travelers, for sure. I tried as well as I could to make the trip all it could be. I listened and took photos and recorded lectures. hey. it’s Cuba. I may never get back here. I soaked it up.

on the first night, during a walk along the Malecón, which is a long seawall drive where the locals come and hang out (it’s affectionately known as “Cuba’s living room”), I was called over to talk to three young men who were sitting on the wall, people watching. it was easy for them to notice me as a tourist, I’m sure. or a traveler, as we liked to call ourselves. anyway … they wanted to know how I liked Cuba, would I stay, would I move here, why I haven’t moved here yet, etc. I laughed and told them I had been in the country all of about 6 hours at this point, but yes, I was enjoying it so far. the conversation started well, but I would learn very quickly that there was something else to what they were saying and how they were saying it. “We are not a communist country,” the young man from Jamaica said. yes, it was a young Jamaican man who was “selling” Cuba to me on this dark, very humid night along the Malecón. “We are free. We are not a communist country. Why don’t you live here if you like it?” again, the questions were now coming at a fast pace and he kept repeating that Cuba is NOT a communist country and that all people living in Cuba were free to do anything they like. I just repeated that I had only just gotten here and that I had a life back home in America and was not really interested in moving anywhere … just yet. I thanked them and shook their hands. we exchanged names. I walked away to catch up with the rest of my bus tour friends.

but this conversation stuck with me throughout the rest of the trip. I told my new American bus tour friends that it seemed as though the people were brainwashed into saying things like that. the Jamaican man almost seemed robotic in his speech. though friendly for sure, and always laughing. he was kind and gentle, not pushy at all. he seemed genuinely interested in swaying me to move to Cuba. and immediately. but it was this conversation that made me think there was something more to what people were thinking and what they were saying to us. we all knew we needed to take everything said to us “with a grain of salt.” and this saddened me and made me question everything. but it didn’t stop me from wanting to talk to more people and see more of the rugged beauty all around me.

I was happy and enjoying everything about the trip. the people were kind and welcoming and seemed very happy, even though we had been told most of the population lives in poverty and that as “travelers,” we were eating like kings and queens–food that Cubans are not even permitted to eat. beef. lobster. most Cubans have a ration card that gets them rice and beans. but it’s not enough. people are still hungry. I felt a bit guilty to be eating so well and seeing things I knew the locals weren’t able to see.

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during our trip, we also learned that 97% of the population is literate, but that books are expensive and all newspapers are under government control. we were told “we can access anything on the internet,” but then found out that most young people have learned how to “jailbreak” their phones so they can access anything they want … a trend that is very much against the government’s monitoring and limiting of the internet. Cubans have free education and free medical care but too many live in houses that are mostly unsafe to inhabit. three buildings crumble to the ground every day in Havana. and when I say crumble, I mean to dust. families live in dilapidated buildings that once were mansions–full families in one-room apartments. no kitchens. there often is no electricity and running water comes for only an hour or so a day for many families. Cubans stand in long lines for everything they do, whether it is to get a cell phone card or to use a bank. (and using a bank is all but unnecessary since the average income for a Cuban is $20 US dollars a month.)

and yet they are all smiling. walk along the streets and they are striking up conversations and laughing together. everyone seems so happy.

was I using American standards to judge how the Cubans should be feeling in their own country? was I being too critical and questioning too much? even if they are living under communist rule, wasn’t it possible that they were happy and getting what they need, even if I thought they deserved and needed more? better pay? safer homes? a car to drive?

who am I to question how the other half lives?

but if everyone had access to free education, why were there so many educated people who thought it OK to live like this?

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I kept looking around me at what once must have been an incredibly beautiful and ornate city. the entire country has seen so much devastation during economic hard times. one such hardship: the US embargo. it’s brought up countless times, of course, since us even being here is a sign of change in the US-Cuba relations. but there is talk of how the embargo keeps the country down. how they can’t get any goods from the United States, or anyone else for that matter, since there are penalties against any country doing business in Cuba. so about that embargo … we kept asking, “why don’t you hate us?” and we kept hearing: “Cubans love Americans. Everyone here loves America and all of us have family or friends who now live there.”

everyone has someone “on the other side.”

also, they told us: “Cubans understand that average Americans are not politicians.” meaning they understand that for the most part, all of us, Americans and Cubans, think this nasty little war we have going on is absurd and needs to end and is being played out inside our governments by people who most likely have money or reputations to lose.

so there’s this embargo. but they love Americans.

it’s a country of extremes. extremes on every topic, and at every turn. from the beauty of crumbling buildings to the bright and beautiful 50s American cars that sputter and stall at every stop.

we love you, but you have hurt us.

we aren’t Communist. we are free.

we are poor. we aren’t allowed to own anything. and we don’t get enough to eat. but we are happy!

we want you here, but we don’t want our country to change and become unrecognizable because of tourism and new money and new things, such as skyscrapers and businesses.

(it is, of course, important (and obvious) to note that America is not at fault for all of Cuba’s problems. the “Special Period” in Cuba came to a head in the 90s after the fall of the Soviet Union. when the Soviet Union fell apart, so did Cuba, as the Soviets stopped buying sugar cane from Cuba and also stopped selling cheap gas to Cubans. suddenly, there was no money. no gas. nothing to sell. food was scarce. everything changed. so the US embargo is only one notch in the problems of this country …) 

anyway … visiting Cuba brought about a whirlwind of emotions. and it’s still so hard for me to explain. I loved it so, so much. it pains me to question anything. it pains me to think that maybe I had romanticized Cuba a bit too much. and the realization came after reading more about the country and looking at other people’s posts about their visits to Cuba. Especially Americans’ posts and photos. I didn’t want to let their words and images sway me. but do you know what did it? do you know what I noticed?

everyone goes to the exact same spots.

it seems obvious to me now that this is all planned. they are showing us what they want us to see. they are not taking us down alleys to see real families living in their own sewage. they are showing us museums and controlling which musicians we meet and keeping us on the tourism track. of course this makes sense. sell your country’s best features. in some ways, every country does this. it’s what makes tourist traps tourist traps. but to go off the beaten path tells you so much about a place when you travel, and as Americans, we were kept ON THE RIGHT PATH. no swaying. and you should know that some of the highest-paid Cubans are in the tourism industry, working at the resorts or as tour guides. they sometimes make more in one day in tips than a Cuban doctor makes ALL YEAR. they are carefully vetted by the government and know what to say to tourists. you will hear what they want you to hear. you will have no other option.

now I would be lying if I told you we were only given the sugar-coated version of everything. of course, I have pointed out several facts that were told to us during lectures and tours: of crumbling buildings, people living in poverty. but there were several questions we asked that were dodged, mostly about human rights and health care. and I understand this. I do. but it makes me sad and angry. but also hopeful that someday things will change for the Cuban people. there are so many smart people fighting for a better Cuba. things have changed. for starters: people are allowed to have their own businesses. and if you are Cuban and have the money to spare (about US$300 a night, which most people do not),  you now can visit the fancy beach resorts in your own country (which in the very recent past was against the law. which is so incredible to me).

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I also would like you to know that I did what I could within the law to pump as much of my American money (converted to CUCs at a very high conversion rate) into the Cuban economy as possible, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. for I feel that this embargo is ridiculous and needs to end. I am pissed off that a friend of mine from Germany was able to backpack around Cuba and see whatever the hell he wanted to see, no questions asked, at the exact same time that I was there, being kept away from anything too touristy (such as the resorts, the ocean). I am angry that our neighbor, a stunning and beautiful island with so much potential, is struggling and in large part to a decades-old embargo that needs to be lifted. no matter what people say or what we were allowed to see, I still saw the beauty there. I still think that the people of Cuba are hurting more than anyone should. I felt safe and welcome in Cuba. and I should be allowed to go there anytime I like, for business or pleasure. and they should be free to go as they like as well.

I will forever have a soft spot in my heart for Cuba. because even though I now realize that maybe, just maybe, what we saw was a little too planned and clean, it was beautiful. and still so real. because they couldn’t hide the crumbling buildings. and we saw change happening in front of our eyes. newly painted buildings and construction happening all around. new roads. historic buildings being rescued.

and we also saw the happy faces.

so much is working here. and so much isn’t. and I am thankful to have seen it while it’s on the verge of change. good things are coming for Cuba. I feel it. I hope for it. I will keep watching for it. and I will continue to tell people about my experiences and how much I loved every minute of my time there. the cobblestone. the history. the beauty. the aqua water. the rum. the music. ohhh, yes. the music. the music makes everything better.

maybe that’s why everyone is so happy in Cuba. their music will touch your soul. and even if you don’t dance, in Cuba, you will.

 

 

 

 

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