Cuba is a country filled with “what might have been.”
It’s a beautiful country, we’ve all heard that, surrounded with beautiful beaches and filled with beautiful people. But, it breathes a constant, “What might have been.”
Cuba is also a land where little is as it seems.
Expectations live a very short half-life, if at all. And it is in that spirit that I will report on the trip to Cuba that might have been, had the US policy on Cuban travel by Americans not contained that fine of $250,000 (per person) for tourist travel.
Had Mikah (my 17-year old grandson who speaks Spanish far better than I) and I been able to travel to Cuba openly and legally, here is what I might have noticed.
Of all my world travel, Cuba was the first that kept me in the same time zone. I would have liked that, I’m sure, had I flown that three-hour flight from Canada. On the subject of time zones, please note that Cuba also follows the US’s schedule for changing to Daylight Savings Time.
I would have thoroughly enjoyed the bright morning sun and clear night sky that let us see Orion’s belt directly overhead.
I would have noticed that the Cuban passport folks, upon my arrival, asked if they should stamp my passport. But when they asked me again, on my departure, I’d have had a different answer.
“Is this your first visit to Cuba?” he would have asked me upon my arrival (I’m sure).
And when I’d answered, “Yes, I’m an American,” he’d have returned my smile.
“What is your purpose, your motivation in coming?” he’d have asked me next.
“I want to meet the Cuban people.”
“Do you want me to stamp your passport?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I’d have naively retorted. “I’m not here as a tourist.”
He just smiled and handed it back to me. Unstamped. Err, he would have . . . had we . . .
Yes. Things are not always as they seem.
Had we been in Cuba, we would have heard Chi-Chi explain that the horses Mikah would have ridden were skinny because otherwise they would “fall over with the heat.” Fortunately, we didn’t have to see such skinny horses.
Still, here’s a photo of those horses that I might have taken:
Had we legally been in Cuba, we’d have surely signed up for the two hour “nature walk,” led by two strolling, guitar-playing singers.
We wouldn’t have learned anything about the plants we would have seen, but we would have had a glorious morning hike, seen the nearby onion farms, and enjoyed the complimentary Cuban coffee and the chance to talk with the families that live and work the land.
The Cuban people are, just as I found in Kazakhstan, a most hospitable people.
We would have learned about the orange harvest a few years back, that sat in the fields and rotted because there was not enough gasoline to power the trucks to pick them up and take them to market.
Had I been able to go to Cuba openly, I’d surely have been impressed with the resourcefulness of the people. A resourcefulness brought on by the US enforced trade embargo. Here’s an example we would have seen often (had we . . . ) — a fence, in this case to hold in pigs, made entirely of sticks.
There would be very sad embargo tales as well, I’m sure. Like this horse tethered in the shade.
I would have funny stories to tell, too. Like how I wished everyone a hearty Felice Nueve Año, on New Year’s Day (Happy Nine Day), rather than the more appropriate Felice Nuevo Año. Yes, that would have happened a lot, had I been able to go to Cuba. And I would have laughed, now, at the memory.
I’d also have noted the irony of seeing the many workers waiting for a bus to take them to work while we westerners, in our air-conditioned and not-at-all-full bus sped by on our way to La Plata (Fidel’s mountain top 50s-era headquarters).
Yes, I would have loved to have noticed the irony of so very much.
Like the evening Mikah and I would have had dinner at a local’s home, as I’d hoped. While there, we’d enjoy a fabulous black market lobster dinner and look through the ration card the person used each month for sugar, flour, rice, beans, coffee and other staples.
Or the afternoon I stopped up at front desk of the “other hotel” to discover I could sign up for dental services.
“Special services of the dentist” include two kinds of cleaning, a fluoride treatment, extractions, and protheses. The hotel also offered medical consults and care and I often saw white-frocked personnel roaming the grounds. (Or would have, had we . . . )
We have all heard of the excellent medical care that Cuba has; the irony is that most of her doctors are sent around the world, often the first to arrive at disaster scenes, or offering medical care as barter for other products and services needed (like oil from Venezuela).
Or the evening I (would have) learned we were not the only Americans, after all. There was another couple, one that had flown directly from Miami. I ran to meet them (or would have, had I . . .). They were an older, friendly, Cuban-American couple who’d lived in Miami for over 35 years.
“What do you think of the embargo?” I’m sure I would have asked them, eventually (had I . . .).
“There is no embargo,” I might have heard one of them say. And, when my eyebrows cleared the top of my forehead, the woman (would have) added, “It is very complicated.”
What I could do, no matter on which side of the Caribbean I sat, was to read Marc Frank’s Cuban Revelations, which I recommend to anyone about to jump off this particular high dive. He gives background on the Cuban-American connection to the embargo and names those Cuban-American Congresspeople who have fought long and hard to maintain the embargo against this small island of fewer than 12 million people. And much more.
In hindsight, perhaps Eric Berne’s Games People Play would have been equally pertinent.
Adios, mis amigos y amigas. Hasta luego.
Did you miss last week’s Pre-view of my Cuba trip? If so, here’s the link. The password protection glitch has been removed.[box] Interested in reading At Home on the Kazakh Steppe? I hope so.
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There’s still time to take that survey everyone loves to take. 🙂 Here’s the link. No need to subscribe first. (and yes; I plan to take away that annoying pop-up about subscribing. All in good time).
January 16: Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday
January 18: Staying Involved, a post in anticipation of the inauguration
January 25: My Proposed Mission Statement and what I’ve learned from the survey monkey questionnaire you filled out.
What a shame you weren’t allowed to go there!
What is it with the US government restoring ‘diplomatic’ relations but continuing with a senseless embargo that has benefited neither side? Given how inventive the Cuban people have been and how well they’ve managed to continue using what they have to extend its life and get full value out of their investment, I would have thought the profligate people of America could learn a lot by interacting freely with them. Being open minded, you would certainly have seen and understood all that and lot more.
But you’d have needed to be allowed to go there. Sigh. Well, maybe one day, but with the new incumbent in Washington, don’t hold your breath. Just dream on.
Playing a game, that’s the phrase that comes most easily to mind. Politics is such a game, but one as we know only too well, that has some very tragic consequences.
Thanks for stopping by, Ian. I’ve missed you here.
It’s too bad you couldn’t go. It sounds like you might have seen some fascinating sights and had some good discussions with people there–if you could have visited. Perhaps some other time.
Felice Nueve Año! (Maybe this should be a new traditional greeting.) 😉
And a Happy Nine Year to you, as well, Merril.
Frankly, I think the spot I hoped to get to would make a great writer’s retreat —some day. 🙂
Such a shame to miss out on such a rich experience, Janet. An experience of a lifetime. Thanks for sharing “what could have been”. To meet the people and experience their resourcefulness would have been so gratifying. Maybe next time…
I consider myself fortunate that Mikah had a Fodor’s travel book on Cuba with him (before we left). That’s where I read about the $250,000 fine imposed. Quite the shock, as you might imagine. 🙂 Leave it to me — another one of those jumps and figuring it out on the way down. Thanks so much for stopping by.
It really is a silly situation – many people I know in the UK travel to Cuba on holiday regularly. They love the people, the food, the climate…..
is sad that the Cuban medical system is outstanding and yet the medics have to travel the world for work. I know in our little town in Portugal that our Cuban medical team is well respected for their quality of work.
You raise a new angle on the Cuban medical situation, Carolyn. Thank you. I was told (of course, before we left …) we could avail ourselves of medical and dental care while down there. I wonder if that service is one more way to provide jobs for these highly skilled folks.
Silly? Crazy is more like it. I grew up being taught that in the Soviet Union, the people were restricted in where they could travel. It was one more reason I loved my country. The fact that I am now restricted is just unacceptable. Inexcusable, really, given it’s not for my own safety.
I’m so glad you stopped by.
I learned so very much about Cuba from the previous post (was locked out before) and this one. Like a true scholar, you do your homework and we benefit so much from the research.
Floridians and Cubans are practically neighbors: I winced when I read about the rotting orange harvest. Heavy sigh!
I did complete your Survey Monkey and await the results, Janet.
Yeah, I still haven’t quite figured out how that password protect happened. And of all days. I had seen it on my phone at the Montreal airport, but could do nothing about it until I got back on my laptop. I relied on my readers to roll with the proverbial punches. As you did. Thanks for reading it. It wound up being the only post in the last few years (since you began following me) that got 0 Comments.
My granddaughters, Mikah’s sisters, went to Florida with their other Grandmother (their Nana) over New Years. I told the 10-year old (before I knew, of course 🙂 that if she drove to the end of Florida, the Keys, and I drove to Havana, we’d be less than 100 miles apart, closer than where we both live now by a long shot. I dream of the day when there will be swims — open swims, a competition perhaps — between Cuba’s north shore and Key West.
And thanks for your comments in the survey. Always good to put a face with a comment.
Joan Z. Rough
Great post, Janet, and eye opening. For someone who couldn’t make the trip, you have done your research well and have provided an amazing experience for your grandson!
Thanks, Joan. Imagine how much more I could write and I only been there. 🙂
I seem to be veering into politics from multiple angles of late. Hoping to get back to my original theme — staying curious about cultural differences and the importance of newly acknowledging the impact our own culture has on us.
Absolutely loved this review of a trip you would take if you could. Wish I could go also!
Thanks Susan. It’s actually really easy to go … from Mexico or Canada or Jamaica, most anywhere other than the US. It’s getting back into the US without lying that is the challenge.
I’m glad you enjoyed the post.
Good stuff, Janet. I’m glad that you would have been able to provide your grandson with such an incredible experience, had it been possible. I hope to not-be-able to get there myself some day 🙂
Hey Tim. I’m trying to figure out how my WP.org site (where my website is, thevpaid one) interfaces with this WP.com site. I see your recent comment here. Did you post it twice? Thanks.
Your comment made both Woody and me laugh out loud. St separate times. Thanks for “getting it.”
Glad I finally found you here – it’s a bit confusing, because it seems that both of your websites are WP.com. ?? Anyway, this is a fascinating post – if you’d been there. 🙂 I have a good friend who traveled to Cuba (with her husband) on a ‘group’ trip, so they could see the things they were allowed to see. Interestingly, the wife loved the country, the people, the vistas, the colors, etc. The husband was totally turned off by the poverty and restrictions. They had two completely different experiences, even though they went on the same trip.
Hi Pamela, I’m so glad we’ve reconnected here. Your comment about your friends and their varied experience reminded me of the way Woody (my hubs) and I talk about our Peace Corps time. It’s the main reason (I tell him) I don’t bring him with me when I give talks about that time. I had a great experience (eventually). He had expectations. 🙂
I’m so enjoying your weekly posts on http://www.roughwiting.net
I wonder how your grandson might have reported this trip? Might a younger pair of eyes have viewed the place and its people differently, had he been able to go there? 🙂
Well, at 17, he would certainly have much to say about the 18 year old young lady from Montreal he would have surely met. 🙂
But we did have a great conversation about what he’d learned while there. What stood out for me was his appreciation of the resourcefulness he saw. That they can find a use, a good use, for so much of what we’d just throw away. At least, he would have …
Might you ask him to comment? And if you did, would he? 🙂
Hi Ian. If I had been able to make it all the way to the gorgeous land of Cuba I might have noticed how much differently Cubans interact with each other, especially outsiders, compared to Americans. Also just as my Grandma mentioned there resourcefulness with objects many would throw away from where i am from would have been very mind opening. If I could pull one very crucial thing that I would have learned if I had went, I would say that I learned that everybody needs to try and understand the world by visiting different cultures instead of falling into the social bubble that feels so safe and comfy. I think this is important because I was very ignorant about the Cuban culture before I went and probably still am in many different ways. I had this prejudice of the Cuban culture because of lots of stereotypes that you hear and even in class learning about what the country has done “wrong”. Sorry if this comment is very disorganized but I decided not to go through and edit it to much because I sometimes end up changing how I feel about things by using different words that sound better and I think having my real impression is what you are after. Sorry for commenting so late. I hope you read this.
I know exactly what you mean here, Mikah, on several fronts . Firstly I agree that a bit if discomfort does your soul good. It wakes up the attention and says “Hey, there’s more out there than you are aware of,;other ways of doing things, and you don’t need all this comfort crap to be happy.” I’ve seen this in so many different forms in Africa and throughout the Middle East (where they aren’t all rich oil sheikhs, there are simple peasants too) and never ceased being amazed by people’s ingenuity.
More than that, those people seem so much more alive than prosperous, comfy westerners who take everything for granted. They can’t do that and have to be always attentive and creative. As a result their cultures are more vibrant in a truly elemental way. I’m not saying here that there’s no vibrancy in western cultures, there is, but all too often it is dependent on technology or artificial support provided by the trappings of convenience and comfort, and it lacks that elemental human element.
The other thing is that in the west we are so accustomed to the convenience of modern life that we never consider what it might be like to do without and live at a basic level. You would certainly have experienced this close up, had you been able to go to Cuba, and one of the most evident illustrative icons of this can be seen on any street. Where else in the world do they have 1940s and 1950s cars still running and making up a large proportion of the vehicular traffic? You might even have had a ride in one of them, had you been able to go and used a taxi.
More people should get out of their armchairs, leave behind all their modern acoutrements, and go out into the real world, for it is far bigger than our developed, ‘civilised’ countries and there is so much to learn there. You, at least, have tried this. Well done. 🙂
Thanks to all who’ve left a comment here. Know that my heart does a little happy dance each time I see someone has taken the time to share their thoughts on what I’ve written. And thank you to those of you who read this every week. It’s OK if you don’t comment; I’m just glad you keep coming back.
I wanted to leave you with another story, this one about Rxxxx (I’ll keep her privacy) who fixed my Teva sandals when the glue dissolved the day after they had gotten soaked with salt water. She took them home with her and when she brought them back the next morning, they had a perfectly stitched edging around each shoe. She didn’t want any money; but she wondered if I might have any clothes I could spare. I did. I wish I could post a picture. Perhaps, when next I write about Cuba (and I hope that won’t be too long), I’ll add the photo of my 15-year old Teva Sandals and their new stitching.
People’s generosity never ceases to amaze me. It’s often those who have least that give most, but the most important part of that is that they share something of themselves which one can treasure for a lifetime, such a personal a gift. Bravo Rxxx! 🙂 Lucky Janet. 🙂
So true, Ian. I certainly saw this in Kazakhstan too. I’ve long compared this to the attitude prevalent in the upscale suburb of Cleveland where I lived through the 70s and 80s. (Where “He who dies with the most money, wins” was the prevailing notion.). And it reminds me of the message my grandmother taught: the more we give away, the more we receive. Thanks for coming back.
I’ve never been away I just got slightly pressed for time, so read without responding. But I’ve been watching you! Like Big Brother’s eye! 🙂
I love the learnings in this post, Janet. I always come away richer after visiting your site. Thank you!
You are very welcome, Laurie. And thank you for all that you bring here and all those Twitter shares you do for me. Much appreciated.
Sounds like you certainly would have had a lovely time in Cuba, Janet! Since I’m Canadian, it’s easy for me to go regularly and lead groups to my “second home” in Marea del Portillo or for bus tours of the island. If anyone else wants to ponder a trip, they are welcome to contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) to talk about it, or they can just go to my website (www.jennicacuba.com) and look at photos!
Hasta luego, mi amiga,