‘Solo in Cuba’ or ‘Death of Paradigms in the Sexier Vogsphere’
“Calor,” he said, at me for fanning my eyes, not having seen the tears. Yea, sure. That too. Another sentimental moment pierced by the the pungent obviousness of my foreignness. Sigh. But I was also a little self congratulatory that I even understood him. It only took ten days of trial-by-fire Cuban-Spanish immersion. Do you know how fast Cubans talk? And with the vibrance of a beat poet in Queens. My taxi pulled away from the lights of Havana. I never cry. But after two weeks in Cuba I wasn’t anywhere close to wanting to leave, or to missing home. So, involuntary tears.
Mi corazon! Why was this place tugging on me so strongly? Two hours earlier I had been swallowing 1950’s car fumes, stuck between a very large chain-smoking cab driver and a sweaty tourist sleeping against my shoulder for the two-and-a-half hour ride back from Vinales, the shifter jammed into my left thigh every time we had to go back to first and second. Meanwhile, I made friends of and plans with the three incredible travelers in the back seat. But that is Cuba. Every sensation dialed up to nine.
I travel to uncover what I don’t know I don’t know. I want to learn something, reveal assumptions, be uncomfortable, understand a different way.
(And please, while I’m at it, could I get a world away from the most ridiculous of the commercial holidays? Buying plastic things for kids who need nothing, the face of an old white dude and elves to whitewash and commercialize the birthday of a Middle-Eastern spiritual guru, the date having actually been moved to this spot on the calendar by the Romans to dilute and eliminate my very own ancient Germanic indigenous celebrations. *Hums “We didn’t start the fire.”*
Thus, ten days proper in Cuba from Dec 25th through Jan 3, capped by a travel day through Miami on each end.
And they were so gloriously full that, GASP, not a single one of them ended up at the beach. Enough stories for a novel.
Days of biking through the neighborhoods of Havana… dodging open pits and potholes that could eat a 1949 Chevy.
Family-style food at a tiny cafe with a group of local capoeiristas.
Balancing sideways on the bar of a bike frame getting a ride home from a Cuban triathlete.
Swapping sweat with an incredible salsa dancer until the weeee hours of the morning to a live band under an open sky (my gaaaawd Cubans can move).
Learning about Afro-cuban spiritualism (and being strongly cautioned not to attend a Palo ceremony I was invited to… I didn’t go, but I might regret it forever).
Losing skin to the crystal and limestone cliffs in Vinales with one of the five (only five!) incredible professional Cuban climbers.
Swimming in the river and jumping off boulders and climbing trees with awesome Cuban country kids.
Running through the streets of Havana with other tourist friends for the New Year and getting soaked from the water fight that has become of one Cuban New Year tradition.
Learning Spanish conjugation from Susel and her hilarious poet buddies who graciously translated the raciest of their work 🤣.
Getting growled at by a pack of dogs in the elaborate 122.5 acre Havana cemetery with over a million interments. A million.
The woman who spoke no English but walked next to me and shared her bananas. And then asked me to be her penpal.
The pig head in the center of the intersection.
The ocean splashing over the walls of Malecon.
Poet Mary Oliver (who died today, January 17, 2019) wrote:
“When it’s over, I want to say all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument. I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world”
Tanto amor, Cuba.
Me gusta muchísimo, Cuba.
Te quiero, Cuba!!!
Habla muy poco español, so I use ALL the words I have in hopes that some will land, be understood, by the ears of the listener. And charades. I suppose I do this anyway; we do this anyway, even in our native languages. We use all the words, then give up on words, and watch the eyes, the energy, the corners of the lips, the tilt of the head, the dilation of the pupils, the proximity in space. And for all my messy efforts I was gifted the gorgeous, messy, vulnerable heart of her. I felt Cuba smiling back, returning the focused gaze, curious at my enthusiasm, teasing me with peeks into the depths of worlds I barely new existed (things got weird), parading me from one incredible person and place to the next. In a parallel world I never left. She allowed me.
Let’s back up for a minute.
Some people acted like I was going to die when I said I was headed for Cuba. (I’m so, so, so utterly bone-weary of the US culture of fear.) I am from the USA, I’m female, I didn’t know any Spanish when I got there, and I went by myself. And Cuba is one of the safest places I’ve ever been. Two other women I know had made the trip solo in the last few months, and another woman I know captivated me with her Cuba adventure plans. And when I found out about the climbing there I hit my tipping point. It ended up being virtually the same process as any other travel I’ve ever done, other than extra forms to fill out where I chose the category for my travel.
If you are planning a trip (you should), it’s worth looking at a few of your category options. I met a guy traveling under the Humanitarian category because he was donating a lot to the local climbing community. I chose to travel under Support for the Cuban People, which generally stipulates that you don’t do anything that supports the Cuban government; you buy everything from locals, stay with locals, … things I would already be doing.
In Cuba, for people from the US, everything has to be in cash. (Nerve-wrecking deciding how much cash you think you’ll need. PRO TIP though: hook your Paypal up to Airbnb because even though I was blocked from even opening my financial apps, I could miraculously book things through Airbnb via Paypal from Cuba.) Since it’s all cash, if you do go to the government owned museums, who would know? But after a couple conversations with locals I chose not to anyway. I stayed at particulares, ate at the dinner table of farmers and at the local “cafeterias” (WAY better food than the tourist places), didn’t eat fish at restaurants (all government controlled), avoided the government taxi’s, and a dozen other little things. My passport was stamped, and there weren’t even any questions when I came back.
And be prepared for A LOT of Canadians! One local joked that Cuba was going to give all people from Quebec honorary citizenship.
So go. Go to Cuba.
The American Dream on planet Vogsphere.
I travel to change. To awe at understanding. And surely enough, one of my paradigms broke. Education and affluence are absolutely not correlated. Perhaps it’s a fairly reliable indicator in the states,… maybe. But in Cuba?
My tour guides, Salsa teacher, Spanish teacher, the musicians I met… all were brilliant, with incredible educations. But when you are a neuroscientist and your salary is thirty dollars a month, you barely get by. So you are also a tour guide. When you are a microbiologist and make twenty-something dollars a month you become a salsa teacher. When you are a university professor/lawyer/linguist/professional ballerina/economist… you pay for life through extra gigs in the tourist industry, government licenses permitting, of course. So there’s no way to judge by economic status or immediate occupation whether you’re talking to the most educated person you’ve ever met or someone who squeaked by secondary school. But you can certainly bet more on the former.
And pair that with stubborn ingenuity. Because Cubans can’t get much of anything from the outside world they have to creatively jerry-rig everything from car parts to recipes to business transactions to climbing gear.
Because of the education and creative ingenuity, just about any local you encounter (at least raised since 1959) is probably more brilliant than you will ever be… no matter the condition of their shoes or color of their skin. (Ha! Oh wait, wasn’t that equality supposed to be the American dream? Hmmm.)
Yes, there are MAJOR problems with the system in Cuba, but there are also things that work really well. While I was all over Centro and Vedado and Old Havana (you should see my Gaia tracks) and I never encountered homeless, never encountered a person in obvious need of mental healthcare, never encountered an addict or a weapon or a drunk or a needle in the street… things that are endemic and pervasive in urban USA. This doesn’t mean they’re not there, but it’s certainly not like it is in the states with homeless in seemingly every doorway, half of them self medicating. I quickly realized walking around at night in Havana was not a big deal. Be smart of course. But there is a limit to the desperation that I saw in Cuba because the social net catches, while here in the states, I have definitely felt afraid for my life in some neighborhoods in the dark, even been nearby when people were shot in mid day in downtown Seattle.
So you tell me… which is better? What can we learn from this?
I’m not trading in my Corporatocracy membership yet. It was damn nice to walk into the Miami airport that Friday and order an almond milk latte, download an audio book, and start shopping for replacement climbing gear online. I’m also thankful that we in the US still, despite the current threats, have the right to protest (like the Women’s march on the 19th), can openly pen and share posts like this one.
Old school big-brother vs Alexa?
Yep, there ARE police watching your every move in Cuba. In some neighborhoods where politicians and diplomats live, there are literally police booths on every single block. Literally. There are security cameras watching everything. Big brother. Not cool, but then again, what about in your home in the US? What about Siri and Alexa and Google and Facebook and the permanent digital trail that is your life? Thank goodness our surveillance is still separated from the government we live under (in theory, *nervous laughter*).
And the Cuban socialist fabric is maintained partly through very stiff penalties. You can spend ten years in prison for butchering a cow you raised without being authorized to do so. Because it’s not your cow. Or your land. You can go to prison for listening to illegal music. And even though you’re a trained engineer, you might be called upon to help with sugar harvest. Or maybe you’re a good candidate for your chosen major, but they need more lawyers.
There are many societies around the world that make sacrifices to ensure everyone has at least a bare minimum, to make sacrifices to put the good of the group ahead of the individual. In some countries (the Nordic are the typical examples) the “Democratic socialism” or “compassionate Capitalism” puts these social nets in place through Democratic choices. In some countries, like Cuba, they’re prescribed by the Socialist dictator. So it’s important to keep in mind the difference between socialism and welfare here. I’m not talking about economic governance, I’m talking about social safety nets. (I don’t like the connotations of the word welfare for this particular topic either, but only one tangent at a time.)
I’m definitely on the free market side of the line. And even if socialism did work, the bureaucracy involved in controlling an economy completely is laughably absurd! Talking to locals, I got the sense that their lives are more like that of the Vogons on planet Vogsphere than you could ever believe! With better rhythm, of course.
The permanent revolution is democracy. Real democracy. The revolution of ideologies and values as determined by the people, again and again.
Dear Cuban government,
The brutal punishments serve no one.
Your social experiment has produced some of the most brilliant people in the world. Give them opportunity to influence the world.
On second thought, please drag your heals, because your Corporatocracy can’t wait to buy all the waterfront, import your herbicides, and suck out all the profit. (Trump himself violated the embargo in 1998 to buy in via his hotel and casino company.)
BUT I did leave Cuba deeply considering how much I actually need in life, and hugely reconsidering many buying habits, like how far my food comes to get to me. The embargo is a forcing function for hyper localism, sustainable farming, energy conservation: all the work is done painstakingly by hand, organic practices, slow food, etc. And you simply can’t get what’s not in season, or products from elsewhere save a few. The world would be better off if we all had to live so sustainably!
Cubans do want to leave Cuba, but like one person explained (when I was surprised one of the most famous climbers from Cuba is moving back), “Most people don’t leave Cuba because of politics. Most people leave Cuba because of money.” They go elsewhere, earn and save enough to improve their life in Cuba, and maybe return.
They CAN buy land, cars, homes. Think of it as a swap. They can trade with others and pay the difference to upgrade from whatever their family got stuck with during redistribution sixty years ago. And since the recession there in 1990 and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, markets loosened, which is great for people in the tourist industry, but overall is causing issues because inequality is again on the rise. Inequality being, of course, one of the greatest drivers of the revolution in the first place.
And I do have to wonder, how much of the poverty is because of the politics and how much is because of the embargo? The assumption is that it’s mostly the embargo. If it’s NOT due to the embargo, and the USA opens the doors, the Cuban government can no longer blame all the country’s poverty on the Yankees. From the oracle (Wiki): “The UN General Assembly has, since 1992, passed a resolution every year condemning the ongoing impact of the embargo and declaring it in violation of the Charter of the United Nations and of international law. In 2014, out of the 193-nation assembly, 188 countries voted for the nonbinding resolution, the United States and Israel voted against and the Pacific Island nations Palau, Marshall Islands and Micronesia abstained. Human-rights groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have also been critical of the embargo.”
The end of the world.
Cubans just got a new president but some locals didn’t even seem to know, let alone care. Their lives are so dictated by, and yet so completely removed from the politics that the the whole thing feels like a satire only Voltaire could dream up. Cubans are used to treading around the elephant, so much that the monster seems not to use any air in the room. They care about each other, about art and music and land and craft and literature and love, and they are so wrapped up in life, the vibrant vibrations of existence, that the existential challenges of the framework around them seem as forgotten as the sea-hollowed colonial buildings on Malecon. If the world ends, I will go to Cuba, because they have figured out how to live it up, while it’s all falling down.
Viva Cuba Libre (2013) is a great place to start if you want a look at struggles in modern Cuba. Pair it with Return to Cuba (2016). Both free on Amazon Prime Video right now. Because Capitalism. Haha. :)