Enriching my life in so many ways

2CubaNote: I’m sifting through a blur of memories and facts to put this blog together, trying to remember events, ideas, trends, issues, and statistics (sometimes with the help of online resources, when I can find them). If you come across any errors, please let me know so I can correct anything I misunderstood or mis-remembered.

The photos have been inserted at random. I’ve posted the itinerary for the Cuba trip and the links for the photo albums on a separate page.

It seemed like forever before I wasn’t dreaming about this tour every night. Or waking up with Guantanamera stuck in my head. Weeks after the end of the trip, the colors, textures, and feelings are still with me, cemented and enhanced by the time I’ve spent straightening, cropping, cleaning up, and color-correcting the 2392 photos I took there. Perhaps it helped that I was exhausted by my time away from home, and too tired to do much else for at least a week after I got back.

I promised this blog to everyone who asked me “So… how was Cuba?” and who deserved more than a one-word superlative as an answer, although that’s a handy place to start: fantastic, delightful, wonderful. But there is no single adjective that can adequately convey the breadth of experiences we crammed into a week, much less the intellectual and emotional impact these experiences had. I’m still processing everything I learned and can barely condense it all to a blog, much less one word. So maybe I’ll just share some of the strongest insights and impressions I experienced during this eventful week.

How I got there.

I was having lunch with a friend earlier this year. When she told me she was thinking about going to Cuba through a “class” offered by the University of New Mexico Continuing Education program and asked if I wanted to go with her, I said yes with no hesitation and no real thought beyond checking my schedule to make sure I’d be free.

I was excited about the prospect of adding Cuba to my bucket-list goal of vising 100 countries and was likewise inspired by the “WOW factor” of going to a place that has been off-limits throughout most of my lifetime!

The tour left on a charter out of Tampa. This surprised me as I had no idea there were any direct flights from the US and had only heard about people going to Cuba by way of other countries, usually Canada or Mexico. But the program coordinators had jumped through more hoops than I can being to imagine to obtain a license to take people over for an Arts and Culture tour, programs that can now travel to Cuba directly from the States.

There were sixteen of us on this tour, the youngest of us in our sixties or thereabouts, plus our two wonderful tour guides from the university. The variety activities was incredible, and included an architecture tour, a visit to an organic farm, two Afro-Cuban music and dance performances, details and destinations reflecting Cuba’s rich history, a tour of the national art school, a lecture on racism in the country, visits to artists’ studios and homes, a carriage ride through Habana Vieja (Old Town), plus time to walk around to shop and interact with the locals. (Click here for our itinerary and links to photos.)

A true learning experience.

Building1I don’t know exactly what I expected beyond a lot more humidity than I’m used to. Most of my impressions of Cuba were formed in the TV glare of newscasts from fifty-some years ago. I had no idea what any of those crises meant at the time, but my association with Cuba from back then, was pretty scary and dark, a dreary, repressive place I imagined more like North Korea than what I discovered instead. (Not even close!)

From everything I saw, from every discussion we had, and from every person I met, there was an unexpected openness, encouragement to ask hard questions, and a genuine attempt to give an honest and balanced response. I read a bit of Cuban history before the trip and a good bit since. I often found that every answer I got led to more questions, and there are many doors I still wish to open.

Having witnessed (and, on occasion, experienced) anti-American sentiment abroad, I pictured the Cuban people holding a pretty solid grudge against the American people and government. Although there is some activism against (and impatience with) what they call “el bloqueo,” what I experienced on a person-to-person basis was an understanding that does not hold the American people responsible for the current situation. In fact, in our orientation meeting when we first got to our hotel, one of our guides assured us that the locals are very curious about and welcoming to Americans. They do not see us as the enemy, we were told, and realize that this embargo is a standoff between governments.

But the more I learned about Cuba, the more I wondered how many folks in the US, outside of a relative handful of Americans with ties to this country, give much thought to the sanctions we have imposed, which continue to impact people’s lives over there. How many Americans are even aware of this embargo, much less the more recent stories of the Cuban Five or Alan Gross (neither of which I’d never heard of before this trip), or the significance of Guantanamo from a Cuban perspective? How many of us have learned about this country with information that is neither distorted nor out of date?

Yet the mythology continues. At one of our lectures, this one with a representative from ICAP which translates to Cuban Institute of Friendship with the People, a member of our group shared a recent and highly biased article from USA Today that portrayed Cuba as a backward and repressive country. (This organization, which we visited twice, was formed out of Cuba’s isolation to “reach out to the international community and form ties of friendship between Cuba and citizens of other countries who were either sympathetic to, or open minded about, Cuba’s post-revolutionary ambitions.” (1)) So for me, this was an incredible learning opportunity, one that I especially appreciate in light of my next point.

I really don’t have much of a grasp on politics and economics. 

Local1I’ll admit it. I have a hard time anticipating or understanding political maneuverings, even on TV shows I watch. My lack of political savvy (or interest?) has proven a disadvantage in some work settings and I find that the deeper I dig into the topic, the more cynical and depressed I get.

That said, while I certainly appreciate whatever clarity I gained on this trip about various “isms,” I am still inclined to put more faith in people-to-people connections than in political doctrines. The big picture escapes me and I find myself far more interested in how people navigate the rules and realities that guide their lives. So take my “political observations” with a grain of salt.

For one thing, I was surprised to see as many privatized businesses and cooperatives, and to learn that not all enterprises are government-owned. For example, many of the 1950s American cars have been maintained by individuals who now use them as taxis. (Riding in a ’52 Chevy from the Hotel Nacional back to our hotel was a highlight of my trip.)

There are state-owned taxis as well, which I would have anticipated, but somehow room for both groups to operate successfully. This privatization was something I didn’t expect to see in a Communist country. Clearly a good bit of what I thought I understood about this economic model— ideas already shaken up on a visit to Beijing a few years ago— were challenged once again.

Even details about fairly important moments in history had gotten lost. Remember the Maine? I remembered the question, but if I ever knew the location or historical context of this event, not even a shadow of either remained until both were discussed on this trip. Sad, really, but now I have a reason to remember that story after all these years.

Visiting a third-world country requires some flexibility. 

We knew this going in and for the most part, everyone just went with the flow. Not being able to drink the water was mostly an inconvenience, and we kept a bottle of water in the bathroom just for brushing teeth. And sure, the electricity cut out on occasion (with at least one person being stuck on an elevator for a while) and having water throughout an entire shower could be a bit of a gamble. I didn’t have a problem with either (my roommate did get cut off halfway through one of her showers and had to rinse off with a liter of bottled water), but my version of a third-world challenge centered around an attempt to connect with Jerry by telephone.

clothesUS cell phones don’t work there, which we also knew beforehand, so one day mid-week, I decided to summon available Cuban resources to contact him. This convoluted process involved a walk to the “casa azul” a few blocks from our hotel, buying a $10 phone card with incomprehensible directions and long strings of numbers—it took the hotel clerk four tries to connect me for about a minute and a half before the call just cut out— and Jerry’s inability to reach me despite four tries to call back because the ringer on the phone in my room was broken, something I had no way of knowing as I sat in my room wondering what was keeping him.

This would all be a lot funnier except that the woman at the hotel told Jerry I must not have gotten back to my room, which freaked him out wondering what the hell could have possibly happened to me along the way, and me with no way to get back to him. We’ve never gone this long without talking and that minute and a half was wonderful. Not being able to connect again after that on top of our mutual concern for what the other was thinking, not so much. (There may be alternate ways to pull off communications with the States, none that I discovered on this trip. Do they sell pay-as-you-go phones there and do they work calling the US? I saw nothing that suggested this as a possibility while we were there.)

Accessibility will be an issue for some people. Havana is not a wheelchair-friendly place and even walking required a certain degree of attention to holes in the pavement, high thresholds and stairs into buildings, and uneven blocks in the street. Our hotel had one of a very few ramps I saw anywhere, but once you got into the lobby, there were two steps down to the elevator, which was necessary to get to the guest rooms.

flowerEven in our room, we had to be careful. A small leak from our shower flooded the hallway in our room and coated the super-shiny tile with enough water that one step and both my legs went out from under me in a cartoon-like fall, landing me flat on my back. (You could barely see the water even when you knew it was there.) I realize that this could have ended far, far worse than being a bit stunned and soaking wet, and we were much more cautious about keeping the floor dry after that.

Little things like paying for toilet paper in restaurants (or leaving some change even when you had brought your own) quickly take on a certain normalcy, especially when you realize that you’re contributing to the quality of someone’s life at very little cost. Likewise, I don’t think anyone begrudged the subjects of our photos a dollar or so for the privilege because for many people, this was how they made their living. We were advised to be prepared on both fronts, and made sure we had a good bit of change (and a travel pack of tissues) at the start of each day.

Staying connected is not easy. 

Internet access is slow and expensive when you can find it. This is one piece of the Cuban infrastructure they really don’t have together yet, one that will probably become a priority for businesses and the hospitality industry, if it isn’t already. I am in touch with some of the people I met there, but I understand that it is difficult and costly for them to maintain contact. I have pictures to share with them, but downloads are out of the question, so I’ll be mailing them a DVD in the next few days.

Even mail can be iffy. I stayed offline all week, but I did send out a handful of postcards and a month later, Jerry has not gotten his, nor have I heard from other friends to whom I wrote. We were warned by our US guides that postcards can take weeks and will likely look like they’ve been underwater for part of the trip to their destination, so I’m not holding my breath, but I took a chance and will update this blog when and if the card arrives.

Not your (grand)parents’ Cuba. 

The glitz and glamour of the casino age disappeared with the revolution, and what I’ve read about the history during and after that period was pretty grim. One political speaker tactfully described the post-revolution years as being fairly black and white in order hatsfor the new regime to be taken seriously. However, things have loosened up considerably in past years. A few examples:

I received a friend request on Facebook from someone I met while I was there, so social media seems to be restricted only by a lack of up-to-date technology and bandwidth. In 2009, I could not get on FB in China, and I don’t think that’s changed significantly. This does not seem to be a problem in Cuba.

Our tour took us to John Lennon park, a couple blocks from our hotel. The area includes a statue of Lennon on a park bench, which was unveiled on the 20th anniversary of the musician’s assassination. I have since read that Castro’s initial contempt for the Beatles as symbols of western “mindless, vulgar consumerism” gave way to respect for someone he came to see as a “political dissident hounded by the U.S. government.” (2)  Could this possibly have been influenced by earlier protests by young people wanting access to some of the music that had been banned? Perhaps, but whatever influenced Castro’s decision to “inaugurate” this park, there does not seem to be a prohibition on music from outside of the country.

Although access to cable TV is probably too costly to be available in many individual homes, I did not get the sense that it was restricted. The TV in the hotel lobby mostly showed sports— baseball even more than soccer, which is also big but not quite as much— I was surprised to see animations on the Cartoon Network playing one night. Although I rarely turn on the TV in hotel rooms, when I checked, we also got CNN and a bunch of other familiar stations. Apparently this is not uncommon in hotels. Much more openness than I would have thought.

Same for religion. We had several discussions about the Santeria religion as it is practiced in Cuba and two fabulous, colorful, and lively Afro-Cuban dance performances that, in part or whole, featured dancers representing the Orishas, each one deity in the Yoruba spiritual system. (3)  We visited Catholic churches and saw Mass being observed in one. I also visited an Orthodox Synagogue, not far from the Russian Orthodox Church. So honestly, I saw no signs of repression in this arena.

churchI appreciated the fact that education and healthcare account for 50% of Cuban government spending. One of the events that touched me the most deeply was a visit to the Literacy Museum, discovering how thousands of volunteers, in one year back in 1961, raised the literacy rate from 60-76% (depending on where you were) to 96% throughout the country. Learning about the impact of this project, whether uniting people from the country with people from the city or building a sense of national identity and pride that came with being able to read and write, was incredibly moving for me as an educator. (4)

Cuba is changing. Fast. 

By the mid-1960s, the tourist industry had all but collapsed. Sixty years later, tourism is now one of the main sources of revenue for the country. With over a million tourists from Canada alone last year and recent constitutional changes that will allow an increase in foreign investors, I believe that Havana (at least) will look and feel very different in a few short years.

Our US guides, who had been there two years ago to explore contacts and possibilities for making this trip happen, noted that they saw significant growth and change in just that time: more new cars, more traffic, improvements in services and accommodations, and a great deal of rebuilding and architectural renovation. New revenue streams will change the feel of the place, and that will probably be good for the Cuban people, the ones who apparently have been most strongly and negatively impacted by the embargo.

From an economic perspective, Cuba may be suffering from the absence of American corporate institutions, but from a cultural perspective, I loved the break from the golden arches and Starbucks, and fear that their (likely) inevitable appearance will detract from the uniqueness Havana currently offers without their distracting familiarity.

carAccess for Americans is still harder than (I think) it should be, but with at least four groups planning trips there this year from New Mexico alone, clearly there is a curiosity and hunger for contact, connection, and exploration. And I’m thrilled that I got to go when I did, because we seemed to hit Havana after the hospitality industry started getting its act together but before the possible extinction of all the wonderful things that make the place so special and unique.

The food was better than I expected.

Because our US guides had cautioned us to be flexible and not really expect much (based on their experience two years ago), I think we were all surprised at the quality of the food we were served. I missed having salads (that pesky water thing again) but found the food filling and pretty tasty.

Early in the journal I kept while we were there, I noted that “nothing I’ve had here has really rocked my world except for maybe that chocolate mousse [at the Hotel Nacional the night before],  but we’ve had a few meals that I definitely enjoyed.” I took a couple days to get a sense of what the restaurants had to offer and how to make better choices when I ordered, so in retrospect, my memories of the food are positive.

There was a lot of beans and rice, though not as often as I would have thought, and their “ropa vieja,” shredded beef in tomato sauce was tasty. Not much in the way of spices, which surprised me, but good, solid food. During the week I had mostly fish, chicken, and beef, and generally enjoyed whatever I was served. (I really appreciated that their animals are raised without hormones or chemicals.)

dancerOther than one delicious croissant, the only bread I saw was regular white bread, often served as hard, dry toast with the crusts cut off. Not much to miss there. Our hotel stay included breakfast and I discovered that I liked their French toast, made from a thick egg bread and served with a syrup-y peach or strawberry jam, which I happen to prefer to maple syrup, which didn’t seem to be available.

So while I would have preferred a bit more diversity— I was not only craving a salad by the time we left, but also something Asian or Mexican or Indian— I never went hungry and one of the only times I really dipped into the emergency stash of nuts, cheese sticks, and protein bars I brought along was one night when a few of us were just too tired to go out and sat in the rocking chairs on the porch of our hotel and ate a nice little snack instead.

It helps if you like rum. 

Bacardi moved to Bermuda after the revolution, leaving a beautiful Art Deco building in Old Town that is now used for offices. Havana Club has taken over and it’s served everywhere! Our orientation meeting, that first day, started with a Cuba Libre, rum and their version of Coke. (No US products there.) Mojitos on the roof of the Hotel Ambros, where Ernest Hemingway lived when he first came to Cuba. Daiquiris somewhere else. And a lot of pineapple juice with rum, sometimes with coconut, sometimes without.

coffeeIt might help to know that I really don’t drink much and probably had more alcohol in that week than I’ve had in the past ten years. I doubt that it was more than 8-10 ounces when you total up what I actually finished, but there was at least one day that included three different rum-infused drinks in three different places. Very unusual for me, but it just fit with the time and place. Refreshing local fare (and no, I haven’t craved it a bit since I’m back).

Cuban tobacco. 

Of course there were plenty of shops and stalls that sold cigars, but I was surprised to encounter very little actual smoke from cigarettes or cigars while I was there. I assumed people would be smoking everywhere but in reality, it was fairly rare to smell it in the restaurants, hotels, or even on the streets. The cigars, what we saw of them, seem to be more of a prop for tourist pictures than anything else. (Many of the local women who made themselves available for their pictures for or with tourists posed with unlit cigars.)

I never really had much of an appreciation for cigars, even when I smoked. Still… this was Cuba and we decided it would be silly to leave without indulging. We never bought a cigar and figured we’d just take a hit whenever someone who had one lit up, but that never happened.

So instead, on our last night there, we bummed a couple Cuban cigarettes off one of our new friends and sat in the courtyard, winding up the trip with my first smoke in 38 years. The experience reminded me of why I loved smoking when I did and that it was, at the same time, a little gross. Again, appropriate for the time and place, but not an experience I’m likely to wish to repeat anytime soon.

A good place to speak bad Spanish. 

posterOK, ideally I would have preferred to recall a good bit more vocabulary and grammar from four years of Spanish classes than what immediately came back to me. (Sure, that was more than 40 years ago and those classes included some of the worst teachers I’ve ever had in my life.) But for someone who once dreamed of being an interpreter, this is an area in which I’ve often felt frustrated and a bit intimidated. So connecting with people who spoke little to no English was a challenge for me on several fronts.

Reflecting on my experience of chatting up the locals still has a very strong emotional impact on me, both personally and professionally. Seeing the power of even a bit of encouragement, not to mention the apparent excitement and willingness to help from people who seemed delighted with my clumsy attempts to communicate in their language, was amazing. The locals were patient and wonderful teachers, each one of them creating this safe, understanding, and welcoming environment in which I found the courage to just keep going—learning and remembering bits and pieces along the way. So one of the greatest gifts of this trip was that after only a week, ya no tengo miedo de hablar mal español!

Leaving behind a piece of my heart.

Trying to nail down my favorite part scans a whole lot of territory. Do I start with one of the most diverse collections of architectural styles I’ve ever encountered in one place, accompanied by a commitment to preservation and restoration? The resiliency and creativity in the wake of an embargo in which people have managed to keep cars as old as I am not just running, but often in beautiful condition? The colors and textures and vibrant energy that spoke to my artist’s heart and photographer’s eye? The opportunity to learn and grow in ways that only travel can truly offer?

jb-jsAny one would be a reason for me to return, but  all of these enticements pale in contrast to the people I encountered. Our two local guides were fabulous—knowledgeable, funny, down-to-earth, and as real as anyone I’ve met anywhere. The speakers were passionate and committed, welcoming our questions and comments, and each one leaving me with a deeper understanding of their topic as well as the context in which it was presented. I was extremely impressed with the group of young people in a local grassroots program that is working on numerous aspects of community improvement. I got to dance with one of the performers at a show we attended that spanned the range and history of Afro-Cuban dance from Santeria to Salsa. Each one touched my heart in a very special way.

Some of my favorite memories were created on the one day I spent walking around the neighborhood by our hotel alone. I felt safe and very much at home during that entire time. I loved those brief moments of connection with people in the market or on the street, many of whom came up to me to ask where I was from. When I said I was from the States, people were curious about where—I got pretty good at describing the geography, as everyone had heard of Texas and most knew where Arizona was—and everyone had his or her own story to share.

One musician told me about the time he had gone to play percussion in a band in Massachusetts. A long conversation with an older gentleman taking a break from yard work started with him asking me why Obama hadn’t lifted the embargo, and telling me about many of the problems they still have in Cuba. Two teachers managing a foot race between several dozen ramped-up second graders, the comments and looks they shared with me would be universally familiar to anyone in the field. A young man asking how to say a certain phrase in English, enthusiastically helping me with certain Spanish words I’m not likely to soon forget.

And almost every contact, even the 20-second exchanges, ending with a hug, and a feeling of welcome and warmth that will stay with me for a long, long time.

To go or not to go?

When we first arrived, one of the local guides described the contradiction in Cuba as one in which the country is economically poor but socially rich. Arts, music, education, health care, and the general emphasis on people take priority over things like improving the infrastructure. I found this fascinating, but I also saw evidence that suggested a shift to include increased attention to the infrastructure with this anticipated foreign investment income.

So for people with a traveler’s heart and curiosity, I’d recommend sooner rather than later. This is especially true if seeing the old cars is a priority. These vehicles, especially American cars from the 1950s, have become, as one young man described them, a symbol of Cuba, national treasures that are likely to become increasingly rare in the rush of foreign imports.

sunsetCertainly there are higher-end places than where we stayed (although for our purposes, our hotel was just fine and yes, I’d stay there again), and much that we simply could not cram into our already-full scheduled that would be worth a return trip. If development extends beyond Havana—which I’d expect as there seem to be many places just ripe for beautiful beach resorts—or if you need good internet access or more first-world accommodations, then wait. And if you’re put off by different cultures or politics, go somewhere a little more familiar.

Just today, my aunt asked if I thought that she and my mom would enjoy a trip there (at almost 82 and 90 respectively). I know my mom’s love of learning and her enthusiasm for meeting new people, so as long as she’s with a group and watches where she’s walking, I’d say yes. Absolutely. (In fact, if UNM gets their license renewed and goes back again, I’d love for my mom and aunt to go with their next group.) An Internet search of “Tours to Cuba from the US” yields dozens of resources for individuals or organized tours, and from cheap government-owned hostels to 5-star hotels, so take your pick.

Just remember that travel offers incredible opportunities for growth and learning, and despite apparent differences, I find that visiting new places and interacting with the people there is where it’s easiest to realize that regardless of politics or language or religion or anything else, when we connect with another person’s heart, we start to see just how small the world really is, and just how similar we all really are.

© 2014, Dr. Jane Bluestein

(1) http://londonprogressivejournal.com/article/view/1138/the-cuban-institute-for-friendship-with-the-peoples
(2) http://www.slate.com/blogs/atlas_obscura/2014/01/10/the_story_of_the_john_lennon_statue_in_havana_cuba.html)
(3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orisha
(4) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuban_Literacy_Campaign

Itinerary for this trip and links to photo albums.

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