With all of the recent news of Cuba becoming more accessible, I’m revisiting ancient history. In January 2000 I spent 2 weeks in Cuba traveling with George Mason University. People ask me “how was it?” and I’m floored for a tidy response. I will say what it WASN’T: the cliche version of cigars and old cars barely scratches the surface. Sure, people smoke (and sell) good cigars…I even visited a tobacco farm. And yes, the cars are old and held together with duct tape. But I don’t remember that. I remember this:
Percussion: drum, maraca, tambourine, hand against a guitar, stomps on the cobblestones, the slap of dominoes.
Dancing: with street vendors, a Santeria priestess, and our bus driver.
What follows are some journal entries, minimally edited:
- (After attending a lecture at the University of Havana): One of Castro’s 1st actions was to close the universities. Not for the reasons I would think (well, maybe those, too), but to send the students out into the countryside to eliminate illiteracy among the populace. So I guess everyone can read the sign saying the hospitals have no doctors? This was presented by the professor as a noble act- no mention of the lives thrown into chaos.
- Speaking of doctors, the bellman at our hotel in Varadero was one. He made 5x more as a bellman because he is tipped in dollars, not Cuban pesos which trade officially at 1 to 1 but trade 20 to 1 on the black market. Our tour guide? A university professor who makes 3x as a tour guide.
- Poor people aren’t “cute” but how do you maintain culture and promote development at the same time? The pride that comes from mere survival is so ingrained here that financial success might make the backbone go away.
- Varadero is beautiful but it is amazing how much 3rd world beach towns look alike, down to the stray dogs. At least here they appear well fed.
- Lunch for 2 people: black rice and beans, horse, yucca, and a beer. Bill in dollars? 15. We pulled out pesos and were charged 28: $1.40.
- Calvin peeing on a Lada: Best. Bumper. Sticker. Ever.
- Strikes me that the signs at the municipal museum in Trinidad are all handwritten.
- The Cuban people have been friendly, patient, and most of all proud. And it’s not the same lifelessly mouthed shit you see in Beijing- these people mean it. And they deserve it. It’s a cliche to talk about what money can’t buy, but I don’t think many Cubans would take prozac, even if they could get it.
Have you been to Cuba? Do you want to go? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
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