Six words that describes my experience of Cuba and Cubans:
Friendly: People we met seemed genuinely friendly and open, and wanted to know you with no other agenda.
Safe: I can’t say I was ever scared or felt threatened, even walking on the streets at night.
Pulsating: People living in the moment, enjoying the company of each other on the Malécon, looking out into the ocean, people goofing around and live music playing close by and another rhythm in the distance.
Unique: The culture formed by their history is a unique mix of religion, people, rhythms, music, dance, colors, cars, architecture and art. It was an experience unlike no other. You were drawn to beautiful colonial architecture, to tennis being played in a backyard, to the hungry kid running towards the park bench to eat his food, to his mesmerizing blue eyes and golden brown skin and to the kids playing soccer wearing white martial arts uniforms.
Unpredictable: A Surprise guide, a new itinerary, the elevators not working…just go with it, don’t stress, it happens and it is okay. We couldn’t have planned the days better, we had a schedule to keep up with, but unforeseen and uncontrollable events or situations could always occur.
Affectionate: “I just met you, but I’ll jump over the fence to get you a flower, because you are you” – was a sweet gesture by a Habanero. In informal settings, they would kiss you on the cheek to greet you, it didn’t matter if you were acquaintances or it was the first time you met. They were warm and welcoming from the start and had an attitude of not holding back. I got the impression that they were living in the moment and showed an appreciation of what was in front them.
The most difficult thing to understand about Cuba, but something I also admired was their ability to mix different genres of influence from all around the world and maintaining this despite outside forces. This I thought was evident in many aspects of Cuban culture, but especially within their religious believes and music.
Syncretism, the combination of religions that seems to contradict each other, like Catholicism and other religions of African origin, was interesting, but difficult to understand how it became or rather is maintained and accepted when the majority of the population are Catholics. I’m a Catholic, but I find that it can be a religion that doesn’t always follow or adapt to the developing society, as the Catholic Church maintains that the doctrine of faith that it represents is infallible and definitive. The Church for instance states that sexual intercourse should only take place between a married man and a woman and does not allow the use of contraceptives. Cubans though seem to have easy access to these (after all condom balloons were dispersed along the Malécon one day).
Cubans are exceptional when it comes to including all in a mix, neglecting no one, this was my experience of their culture and I believe we have a lot to learn about being:
– open and open-minded to new people, cultures and appreciate diversity, about seeing what’s important and what’s not, about patience, about seeing the person and differentiating between people and politics/religion, about mixing rhythms; jazz one day, rock and country another, hip-hop and rap on the street, pop in the bus, afrocuban son, salsa, merengue and bachata.
What differentiated this travel with other travels that I have had in the past was having a guide, a daily schedule and daily meals planned. I have traveled twice where the trip included a guide. One time to Poland, where the purpose was visiting the concentration camps from World War II and learning about the history, another a pilgrim trip to Fátima in Portugal. The biggest difference with Cuba and other travels was how sheltered we were from Cubans and their lives, how we as foreigners had access to food that the Cubans didn’t have.
When I have travelled to the Philippines, I’ve been living in the house that my mom grew up in. A house where the toilet doesn’t flush, where water doesn’t come out of the facet and shower, but required that you collect water manually from the hand-powered “pitcher-pump” conveniently located outside, where dinner is alive and still well in the early morning, where you sleep on bamboo beds without mattress or on the floor and the electricity more often than not can go out during the day and where soda is more accessible than clean drinking water and ice is delivered with trucks. It seems to be the first trip I have had, where I have felt so sheltered from the “real life” at the place that I have visited. The closest I came this time, was through conversations with our guide. This trip was a perfect experience of “what money can buy.”
When I spent three months in the Dominican Republic, I worked and observed side by side Dominicans. I ate the same lunch, from the same canteen, shopped groceries where they did, and saw how their lives and environment affected them. Although it was only bits and pieces, and I spent money I had earned from Norway and slept in a Hostel, it became easier to make the effort to empathize with them and try to understand their country, way of life and thinking. There is only so much you can read about, and unless it is actually experienced, you will never grasp and understand a country and its people. There will always be a gap between you and them, but as a traveler I think this gap eventually gets a little bit smaller.
We were tourists on this trip. I don’t think anyone can disagree with that. Even as a traveler, trying to reduce the distance between you and wherever you are, takes time and you’ll only get bits and pieces of reality, but a week let us only peek behind the curtain. We occasionally captured a small glimpse, captured in the photos such as drying plastic bags on the balcony, and maybe some of us tried to imagine what else was behind there.
Commonalities between Cuba and other parts of the world…
They seemed to have the rhythms of the Caribbean and African and the attitude of people in countries where poverty is more evident than our part of the world. They seemed to have a positive outlook on life, grateful for what they had, but with hopes for the future.