A Trip Inside Cuba 2016: A Study in Everyday Contrasts

 
A Trip Inside Cuba 2016: 
A Study in Contrasts

Visiting American Embassy in a classic Ford
I didn't know what to expect as we embarked on our Cuba "Face to Face" adventure two weeks ago with 17 other travelers. What would the next eight days reveal? Would we be looked down upon as Americans, ignored, or welcomed? I hoped I was doing the right thing by encouraging my daughter and granddaughter to go with me.

Our travel group got off to a shaky start in Miami. We were belted into our seats on the charter airline to Cienfuegos. Some of the passengers could view the luggage and cargo being stowed in the plane. After a while those same passengers could see suitcases being taken off, apparently the plane was over its weight limit. That is when the riot broke out. Passengers were screaming in Spanish to the non-Spanish speaking flight attendant, Pola, who in turn was demanding that the most vocal of the leaders, a hot tempered woman, be removed from the plane! Others shouted, "We have rights!" It was an ugly scene with perhaps 20 passengers fully engaged in the battle. We watched in amazement at a spectacle we had never before seen. After a very long half hour or so of yelling, the captain ejected all of us from the plane. There was more shouting as our little group circled the tour leader. "You are a coward!" one of our new, not very well mannered, tour mates yelled. He demanded that the tour manager decide whether we were all going to get back on the plane or stay in Miami until everyone had their luggage.

Some four hours later, we all got back on the plane, taking our chances on whether luggage would arrive with us or not. As it turned out six of our group of 20 had no luggage and never did get it until the next week. Upon arrival in Cienfuegos, while the plane was in motion, taxiing to the gate, about twenty passengers got up and started removing their bags from the overhead bins! They were walking about on a moving plane! Yes, a strange and shaky beginning. Clearly I was already privy to a bird's eye view of a dissimilarity in cultural norms. Well, I wanted an adventure, I just didn't know it would be in the very first hours!

My elderly mother, a devotee of the Sunday travel section of the newspaper, had been warning me for months that Cuba was not ready for tourists, that I must carry my own roll of toilet paper and take shampoo and soap, that it was Third World. So what a lovely surprise to discover that the rooms were clean and up to American standards and that we did not need toilet paper. They have lots of toilet paper! However, we did need a certain inner toughness as Cuba is a study in contrasts. Here are a few:

l. Government workers make $12 a month. All Cubans are given a monthly ration card for five eggs, a pound of coffee, one pound of sugar, soap, etc.; the essentials. It did not seem like much, and the women in line in the ration store told me it was not enough, but everyone we encountered seemed well fed and adequately dressed. The government provides free education, mandatory through the 9th grade, excellent free medical care, and housing on paved streets. However, the citizens are not free to travel to other places. 

2. Our luxury air conditioned motor coach speeding through the lush green countryside was another contrast as I noted the ubiquitous horse drawn carts and water buffalos working in the fields of sugar cane.

Chatting with the Locals in the Bay of Pigs
3. We visited Girone, the beach at the Bay of Pigs where our American forces invaded Cuba in 1961. It is the home of the anti-American war museum where we watched a black and white news film depicting that losing invasion. We were continually referred to as "Yankee Imperialists." Two hours later, my daughter, Julina, and granddaughter, Jaycelin, and I were swimming in the Bay of Pigs with another tour mate when some children came to join us. Soon the little band included about twelve Cuban youth ranging from perhaps six years of age to 25. We floated in the warm water for an hour or more laughing and teasing in a mix of English and our inconsistent Spanish. Two of the youngest climbed on my shoulders (once an abuela [grandmother] always an abuela, I guess.) That impromptu face-to-face was a delight as we learned more about their lives. One youth, a 25 year-old engineer, shared his dreams and opportunities with us. Their excitement about us and the warmth toward us were in stark contrast to the name calling in the war museum's film.
Anti-American Billboards

4. The Cuban government is tightly monitoring visitors as it is "hyper-sensitive about sovereignty" as we were told during a university professor's lecture. The government does not want Cuba to become a tourist place like Cancun. We were permitted to visit only under the controlled conditions of meeting Cubans "face to face." Careful records were kept of our visits to a boys and girls club, several senior centers, art studios, community clean up campaigns, music projects, mural and literacy projects, and more. Our visit included a lot of dancing, singing, listening and eating with the Cuban people, and never a mention of Guantanamo Bay. 

5. To my delight my granddaughter had us rent a bright pink 1950's classic Ford Fairlane for our visit to the newly opened American Embassy. My eyes filled with tears at the sight of our American flag waving freely. Today there are still four United States laws in place stating that Cuba is the enemy. However, it did not feel that way. The Cubans seemed to be very excited about us as Americans, and very interested in our politics!

6. Our eight days were filled with colorful and poignant observations. Standing near Ernest "Papa" Hemingway's favorite typewriter at his home held meaning for me as a writer, but the fact that no one seemed to know or say that he may have run guns for Fidel was striking. There were monuments and pictures celebrating Che Guevara all over Cuba, but we were told that he died in an airplane crash, when in fact he was probably executed. I observed oral history being rewritten...

7. The last afternoon of the trip is imprinted on my memory. I was resting in my comfortable waterfront room in the Nacional Hotel, when I heard a light tapping on my door. I opened it to find the middle-aged woman who was the maid for my room. She spread her arms wide and I stepped into her embrace. She hugged me and kissed my cheek goodbye. Was she digging for tips? I don't think so. Earlier in the week I had been in a too warm room and she had helped to move me. At that time I offered her two CUC ($2.00). She would only take one. We encountered many helpers along the way who would only accept the minimal tip they thought was appropriate. 

8. A last common practice we discovered revealed another aspect of the Cuban character. When we would ask a person for directions, they would stop what they were doing and escort us to our destination, sometimes a few blocks away. What a generous and accommodating people!

We found them to be warm, welcoming, articulate and surprisingly informed about our politics. They don't have freedom to travel, to watch more than the four government sanctioned TV stations, or to hear world news from several points of view. They do not have freely accessible Wi-fi nor the material goods that we take for granted, but their hearts are full of love and they very much wish the embargo would go away. I'm glad I made the trip. I don't see how Cuba can remain the same for too long with the influx of Americans eager to meet their neighbor.
  
One of the most important life lessons my travels have taught me is that happiness resides within the individual. Over and over again I see my fellow humans delighting in the smallest gifts of life when by our standards they seem to have so little. It warms my heart. I always love to hear your thoughts. 
My best, donna

Write a comment

Comments: 0