For this Canadian, Cuba was like going to the cottage or summer house except this getaway was filled with dancing, the Caribbean sea, the distinct smell of fresh bread, and strangely aromatic – road tar.
It’s taken me a long time to do this post about Cuba as I have so many strong emotions about the country. For me, Cuba was a place I visited 6 times, 3 times with others including my honeymoon, and 3 times alone. Its beautiful beaches, fascinating history, and friendly people gave me more than I really know how to express. It gave me presence, hope, curiosity, and gratitude, I had sadly never had before.
And it was within my reach.
Cuba for many Canadians is a short flight and reasonable price away from the daily grind and cold of the long winter months.
I met some travelers on my flights that made the trip to somewhere anywhere in Cuba every five weeks. It was more fun, less work, and cheaper than having a cottage on one of Canada’s many lakes. So, they would stock the fridge for their teenage kids, warn the neighbors they’d be away, and be off to stay at one of their favorite resorts or try a new one.
I met so many characters on my trips to Cuba and will one day write a book about it. In fact, I’ve tried to write this book, but much like this blog post don’t know where to start. Nothing I can say genuinely captures my feelings about Cuba. But to give you a clue. My Orthodontist’s assistant in Barcelona is from Cuba, and whenever I see her, I get choked up and feel like crying.
Cuba saved me by accepting me and making me feel safe.
I felt welcome in Cuba and after meeting other women traveling alone realized how rare crimes against tourists happened. It was freeing to be in a place so different from my home and feel like I was well taken care of.
I didn’t do anything risky like walk random streets at night, but I did drink wine or cervezas and go to the resort dance area without incident. On some occasions, I stayed out late into the night talking with staff members or fellow travelers -and always made it safely back to my room.
I really don’t think I would have ever had the confidence to travel alone especially, to far-off places like Chile and Easter Island, or take another crack at living abroad, this time in Spain if I had not had such positive experiences in Cuba.
Cuba taught me to be grateful.
Gratitude is such a catchword these days with every yoga teacher and spiritual practice mentioning we should have it. But what does it mean? How does one live in a state of gratitude?
Well, for most of us whether we learn the word and understand the concept, it’s hard to practice gratitude when we live in cultures that are always trying to encourage us to buy more, be more, and want more.
But Cuba helped me slam on the breaks of my self-loathing and confusion and say even on a bad day, life was good and hopeful. Wherever I was, whatever I was doing, I could start over and over again.
I could take a course, change my career, move to another country, stay home, change my hair color, get fit, gain weight, read a book, choose not to read anything, fall down and when I was ready or bored enough, pick myself up and try again.
As a Canadian I could keep trying repeatedly until I found something that stuck.
I could speak my mind, remain silent, lose friends, make new friends, break up, stay single, get married, anything I wanted, until I got it right.
That’s not a luxury that everyone has. The political and social politics of many countries makes this concept of regular reinvention impossible. But that reinvention is what I thrive off. That many travelers, especially digital nomads need to feel truly alive.
Many of us want to experience more than one life.
So many of us have felt the fascination of experiencing change, of knowing innately, that life was not a journey to painstakingly try and keep the same. But a path that took us mentally, spiritually, and physically to places unknown.
This might seem like a lot of introspection from a place that is barely remembered by many after a drunken week at one of its resort bars. And my experience and wisdom learned are a result of my citizenship and privilege.
Unfortunately, the Cuban people do not get to experience the feeling of freedom, transformation, or safety that foreigners do. That dental assistant I mentioned hasn’t been back to Cuba since she was a teenager, and many of her friends and family are sprinkled all over the globe.
I met many talented, very well-educated locals who after careers in translation, medicine, law, the arts had chosen to work in tourism because the money was better. Some Cubans have Spanish passports because of past generations, so they were able to travel, but most don’t. These are the difficulties some Cubans experience, and these are the lucky ones.
The one’s who had transferable skills to work in tourism and access more money and foreigners. I met quite a few people who regularly visited Cuba and were close friends with locals. They would bring them clothes, money, electronics anything they could. Some foreigners even paid the hefty travel tax so their Cuban friend could visit them in Canada.
So I can’t write this post about how special Cuba is to me, how transformative my experience was, without talking about the stark contrasts with which the majority of its citizens exist. Anyone who loves Cuba wishes there was something we could do, but there isn’t much.
The current and political history of Cuba is so complex and drastically varied depending on who is narrating. The US embargo allegedly in place to promote democracy and end human rights violations has done little to change the government and everything to oppress the people.
A tour bus driver pulling over to pick up boxes of toothpaste at a roadside market, because it’s hard to come by and he heard this place had some that week.
Road and hotel signs in Spanish and Russian or mass amounts of authentic Cuban tourist souvenirs produced in China are just some of the tell-tale signs of life with an economic embargo on one side and communist friends on the other.
So what can I do? What can anyone who cares for this beautiful country and some of the most funny, charming, people we’ve ever met? Well, we can encourage people to visit. To be kind. To take extra clothes, toiletries, books, magazines, money, and give it to the locals.
To be respectful and if you happen to become close enough to some other tourists or locals, listen to their stories but don’t ask too much. Remember them and encourage other people to visit this island oasis.
I have so many stories about Cuba and the people I met. The conversations I had the beauty and talent I experienced. But, I will save them for other posts because there are so many themes and ideas, situations that can’t all fit into one post or else they will get lost.
I miss Cuba. I can’t wait to go back. Sometimes, when I want to give up on learning Spanish, I think of Cuba and how great it will be to go back one day and speak to people in their native tongue.
I can’t wait to show my son this wonderful place. To show him my favorite spots and as a family discover news frontiers. But for now, on a rainy day in Barcelona, I can only dream of Cuba, the people, the colors, the fresh baked bread and that strangely intoxicating smell of road tar.
Leave a Reply