By Gloria Kersey-Matusiak, PhD
Our trip to Cuba was a nine-day whirlwind of action filled experiences that I will never forget. It was, at times, a series of sharp contrasts, an emotional roller coaster for me during which I experienced the full range of my emotions. I wish to thank Nicole Stokes-Dupass for her leadership, encouragement, preparation, guidance, and support throughout this journey.
I share these experiences with the reader, but not in the manner in which these events actually happened, but as snapshots retrieved from the swirling collage of impressions the trip has left on my mind and heart forever.
So, for me Cuba was:
• First and foremost, muy caliente! Relentless sun, oppressive humidity that had me searching for a light visor, clenching a ton of wet-wipes, sun screen, and anti-asthmatic attack inhaler, just in case, but equally imperative were my insecticide sprays, especially for day trips in the country.
• Unpredictable skies that suddenly darkened, opening up, releasing buckets of cooling rain at a moment's notice, stopping as suddenly as it had begun. A brief respite from the scorching heat.
• Having Yenny, a wonderful young Cuban woman as our tour guide, who was funny, and informative, thoughtful, and sometimes painfully honest about life in Cuba from her perspective. She clearly loved her homeland. Yenny spoke English fluently and was well able to translate for us when our hosts were unable to speak English.
Most importantly, Yenny was a hardworking, knowledgeable, historian and travel guide who was sensitive to our needs and dedicated to ensuring that her "babies" (as she referred to us) enjoyed the most meaningful experience of Cuba. Mission accomplished, Yenny!
• Clean, comfortable hotel rooms, we stayed in three in different parts of the country. The one in Cienfuegos was my favorite, the balcony outside my room overlooked the clear blue-green waters of the Caribbean Sea, but a few places to change dollars to Cuban Convertible Pesos or (CUCs), but no ATMs. We could not use the pesos used by Cuban citizens.
When entering my hotel room, in Cienfuegos, I experienced my first, cucaracha (muy grande), in the corner, yikes! My travel buddy even encountered a lizard. But, the magnificent vista, abundant breakfasts each morning, and wonderful Cuban coffee more than compensated for those brief encounters.
• Long walks over cobbled streets in the heat of the day, interspersed with cool fun-filled bus rides to new adventures.
• Air-conditioned seats on the bus where I wrote, read, thought, talked, laughed, or just watched from my window the beauty and the urban blight that was Cuba.
• Palm trees everywhere and the fiery red flamboyant plant dotted the landscape, dense forests, exotic plants. Magnificent countryside, generally flat, but with tree covered hills and mountains in Trinidad, a town in central Cuba. Sugar cane, avocado, mango, and papaya trees and other succulent tropical fruit could be found, at times for sale by roadside vendors.
• City landscapes filled with a myriad of pastel colored houses, from dilapidated high rises to single level dwelling places for Cuban families crowded in tiny living spaces. Clean laundry hung from clothes lines draped outside of nearly every dwelling place. It was a return to a time before washers, dryers, and Laundromats. Cars and taxis rolled by representing the same era, circa 1950s for those who could afford them.
• Tiny, well-kept, urban gardens, and the absence of trash, garbage, or graffiti throughout the most impoverished neighborhoods.
Once architecturally grand municipal buildings, now crumbling vestiges of days gone by and did I say, no ATMs. Some city centers where people gathered on park benches surrounded by old theatres, state buildings, restaurants, and hotels, much like Rittenhouse square.
• Occasional beggars, pleading in Spanish for monetary gifts from the visiting Americans, but mostly there were polite, smiling, waving, Cuban citizens welcoming us, the American strangers, some areas tables for vendors on city side streets and imagine, did I mention, not an ATM in sight. As my CUCs dwindled, I nearly became panic stricken. How does one live without them?
• Cuban children sitting quietly in classes or walking in line through city streets clad in purple or brown colored uniforms indicating their ages or grade in school and
• Talented, artistic children engaged in community outreach programs, singing, dancing, performing acrobatic feats with great fervor, skill, and sophistication far beyond their years; entertaining their American visitors, heartwarming and sad all at once,
• Stories of Cuba's history, its revolution, love for Fidel and Che Guevara, and other national heroes. A multi-racial society, we heard stories too of racism that has existed since the time of slavery in Cuba and still lingers, much like in the U.S., impacting opportunities for employment, economic, and social status for Non-white, Afro-Cubans, mestizos, and mullatos. Generally, everyone seemed to be getting along just fine, but the theme was sadly familiar.
• Visits to schools, a hospital, a National park, a sugar cane mill, a pottery plant, museums, libraries, churches, and mausoleums all a part of our very interesting and informative journey.
• On other day trips, we learned about religious practices like a folk tradition called Santeria beyond the traditional Catholic Church, which most Cubans practiced. I was surprised to learn that Cubans enjoyed some degree of religious freedom despite the Communist political influences. Like in the U.S., Protestant, Jewish, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religious tradition are also practiced.
• The exotic sounds of Afro–Cuban music, singing and dancing with abandonment were intoxicating experiences as was the Cuban rum infused, Mojitos (although I prefer Pina coladasl). All were plentiful and offered at nearly every meal.
• An award-winning, local choir sang for us, both popular Americana and some Cuban standards, their voices were heavenly.
• Scrumptious meals of shrimp, lobster, or the local fish of the day, and for meat lovers, beef and pork to heart's content, black beans and rice, salads of shaved cabbage, tomatoes, and carrots, with oil and vinegar, a white sweet-flavored potato, Cuban style bread and desserts of flan and more flan, a light custard, or arroz con leche, a rice pudding, pineapple and ice cream, or other delicious treats, A variety of soft citrus drinks, bottled water, and of course, rum complemented each meal.
• A few Irritating encounters with other unfamiliar insects, undernourished dogs and cats, and roosters, roaming freely around city streets and in restaurants, perhaps, waiting to be served?
• Still, despite my uneasiness with dogs, cats, insects and such, fortified by a glass of one of those delicious rum cocktails, nothing could stop me from jumping at the opportunity to hold a pretty decent-sized alligator in my arms for the camera, just for laughs.
But, my most poignant memories were, the handful of tiny pink posies handed to me by a tricycle driver in response to a rather small tip I gave him for pedaling us for miles across the city streets in the hot sun. And a blind man who asked someone to bring him over to me to kiss me on my cheek after I purchased 4 bags of peanuts at 25 centavos or 4 bags for 1 CUC the equivalent of $1 U.S dollar I thanked him, saying Adios Senore, "no adios," he countered, "hasta luego." I was deeply touched by each of these experiences.
At journey's end, I departed our tour bus tearfully, embracing Yenny, our tour guide, and telling her in my very best Spanish that because of her this had been the trip of a lifetime for me. Through my conversations with Yenny, I had developed a strong kinship. We both cried as we embraced.
I headed toward the airport at Santa Clara, saddened to leave this magical country of paradoxes. I was happy and sad all at once for the people of Cuba. I was saddened by the abject poverty I witnessed. Yet, despite the poverty and daily hardships they faced, their faith had fueled a passion and resilience, the likes of which I had never seen.
Inspired by their kindness and the hope that the Cuban people I met exuded, some part of me longed to stay to see the future of Cuba unfold.
As much as I learned about Cuba, I learned so much more about myself. How much had I taken for granted, while others around the world manage every day with so much less? As much money as I had brought along to buy coffee, cigars, and trinkets for family and friends, I had run out of both American dollars and CUCs by the time I reached the airport at Santa Clara, only minutes from Miami. I was very nervous about there being even the slightest chance I might be held up at customs for any reason that I could not pay my way out of. Like an extra charge for my now much heavier luggage.
I returned to Miami, ever grateful to God for having had this opportunity to experience Cuba and to see first-hand what it really means to have been born in the United States of America. I counted 4 ATMs and quickly withdrew a several U.S dollars, just to hold it in my hands. I heard in my head the rhythm and lyrics of one of my favorite popular songs. Recently, J. Lo performed a remix entitled, Bajo El Mismo Sol. The song's lyrics remind us that we are all the same, living under the same sun. I thought of the Cuban sun, its powerful heat, my transient discomfort, and the daily conditions under which most Cubans live and considered, but for the grace of God...