By Sophie Vodvarka
I jolted awake in the passenger seat of a 1953 Chevrolet speeding past farmers in horses-drawn carriages. Our driver texted while blasting music, steering the seatbelt-less American antique to Havana. I glanced at the rear-view mirror. My friend was passed out cold.
That morning, we’d awakened before 5 a.m. to walk the star-lit road into the town of Viñales to meet our guide, who was to take us up a nearby mountain so that we could watch the sunrise.
We climbed the mountain, Los Acuáticos, with flashlights on the muddy trail. Our guide told us all about the land and the families who live on the mountain, which can only be accessed on foot. After 45 minutes, we reached the peak, where a simple house stands, and watched the misty mountains host the arrival of dawn.
It is moments like these in my travels abroad, that are the most striking in my memories, and that stay with me throughout the years, when other memories fade.
A week in Cuba produced many of these moments: trotting on a horse named Lucero through tobacco fields, sipping rum from a coconut on Playa Santa Maria, lazily observing Habana Viejo from the balcony of our casa particular, and listening to the sexy salsa band Bakuleye one night at a Havana club.
I came home after a week in Cuba with an open, full, heavy heart. Days later I’m still sorting out all of my experiences, sights and conversations. I still feel the weight of wading in and out of my own, and the country’s vulnerabilities. Because the backdrop of all of this beauty and adventure is the reality of two countries, both run by narcissists and their cronies, and the relationship between the politics and the people – between me and my friend as tourists from the United States, and the Cuban people, who opened for us a whole new world.
One week before our trip, US National Security Advisor John Bolton announced that new travel restrictions on tourism would be placed on Cuba. Though he was unspecific about what it meant, after working in immigration during the rapid-fire travel disaster that was the 2017 Muslim Ban, I knew rules could change quickly, and I was wary. However fortunately, we had no problem getting to Cuba. But the US aggression set the backdrop of our trip, and led to frequent conversations started by Cubans about Mafioso Trump, and the sanctions that could wreak even more havoc on their already difficult lives.
From everything I read and watched about Cuba, I did not fully understand the kind of repression people live under, and I also didn’t understand the monetary poverty. We learned that in Cuba many people only make $30-40 per month working for the government, which is the only entity most people can work under in their communist country. Nearly everyone has a second or third or fourth job, usually technically illegal. A secret police force (modeled after the soviet KGB) serves to control the citizenry. We were told that if you have information on your neighbor – if he’s said something contrary to the government, you can turn him in, and the government will look the other way when it comes to your semi-legal second or third job. We learned the jails are packed, and it is very difficult to re-enter society (sounds familiar.) We learned about food shortages, and multiple times we saw people lining up outside of bread stores at night.
We also learned that there is one industry that has opened up for privately-owned business in the past several years: tourism. Owners of homes where visitors can stay – casas particulares, as well as cab drivers, restaurant-owners, tourist guides and other tourism-related industries can be run privately, and can make more money. But that’s about it.
So what is the an appropriate role for the American tourist in Cuba? I suppose it depends on who you ask, and how you’d like to spend your time. There are certainly beautiful beaches, hotels that (supposedly) have free, easy access to wifi, and resorts where a traveler can avoid the sticky realities of day-to-day life. And I am not knocking it. Sometimes it feels so good to just lay on a beach and forget your troubles.
But on this trip, my friend and I opted for a more salt-of-the-earth kind of vacation. So, we stayed with locals, we took guided tours, we spread our money around with taxi drivers, restaurant owners, people selling stuff on the street. We asked people about their lives, and really tried to understand the country. I think probably that is all we could do, but I still had gnawing bouts of guilt throughout the week knowing that the country is about to face even more problems due to the sociopathic plutocrats running the United States, the country where my middle-class existence was born.
One fun way to get to know people was to accept the unofficial “Taxi” system. Sharing rides in communist and post-communist countries is a safe, communal experience. We saw hitchhikers constantly in Cuba, and back in the day I used to do it occasionally in Eastern Europe. In Cuba rather than hitchhike however, we just accepted the fact that locals driving around in their cars, yelling “Taxi” at tourists, was as good as the marked cars.
On our first night, we took one of these unmarked “Taxi’s” home, and I remember thinking, in what looked like a run-down batmobile, that we most certainly could just jump out of the 1950s-era beater if it turned out we were being kidnapped. Of course, we weren’t. The ride was hilarious, with the driver stopping multiple times to ask people on the street where our casa was located. At one point he stopped to ask four people sitting at a table on the street playing dominos.
“They’re the GPS!” he said.
This brings me to an important point. The communal aspect of life in Cuba, the freedom of movement children seemed to have, and the total lack of product advertisements, all felt largely superior to our ever-so-scared, corporate life in America. It was amazing just asking people for directions, and not being constantly sold products. So relaxing for the mind.
And like you probably have heard, health care is free in Cuba, schooling is free in Cuba, and everyone has a place to live. Of course, we have heard these systems are in terrible shape, and apathy has resulted for the utter lack of opportunity. The housing, we also witnessed, in some places is utterly decrepit.
But, at least the idea of the right to housing, education and health care for everyone is still a dominant societal value. Americans can learn something from Cubans as far as this is concerned.
Sanctions and Tourism
On May Day, after catching the tail end of a pro-Cuba, anti-U.S. sanctions demonstration, we stopped in a pizza place. Bolton was once again on the television, ranting about Venezuela and threatening Cuba with a full-on embargo if they didn’t stop helping Venezuela, in whatever ways the U.S. corporate media/state department says they are.
What do sanctions, what do embargoes mean? They mean hungry people. They mean ration cards. Sanctions are violent.
All of these realities are not exactly relaxing vacation conversations, but they are the state of the country we were visiting on vacation. It was with this understanding that our interactions with Cubans felt so much more meaningful. At times, in the backdrop of an economy which now relies so heavily on tourism, our interactions with Cubans working in the tourism industry felt false. In Viñales, especially, we could tell some people were just tired. We heard from multiple people that in the 7 years since private restaurants could open, tourism in the region has skyrocketed, and the people in town were not the same, now that they had a competitive market and many tourists from which to make money.
But, as soon as we took a step closer, and just asked the guide about their lives or the reality of the country, the faces of countless professors, engineers, IT professionals and so many other educated people with an utter lack of opportunity, would change, would open, and any kind of false sense of status or inequality would dissolve. I can’t fully explain the grace of a moment when a person whose life is trapped in poverty, under a repressive government, just talks to you about their reality. Not with any kind of pity, but the frankness of reality in our shared humanity.
“I just decided not to live in fear.”
One of the people we encountered on our journey has really stayed with me. The whole story of our meeting is a wonderful tale but it feels wrong to put the individual in any kind of risk for publishing a piece about how we met, or what we were told. But during our conversation, I asked why they were so open, when, even talking to us openly could be risky.
“I just decided not to live in fear,” they said.
How much we can learn from folks like this. The courage to let your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. People living in repressive governments from throughout history have been prophetic witnesses to the depths of humanity, making clear what matters above all, no matter the state of your state or home. We can chose to live in fear or we can chose to be vulnerable, open, courageous.
This courage must be opening up throughout the country, because we were told that just in the past few years, Cubans were starting to be more open about how unhappy they are with the government. People are talking to each other, trusting each other, a little more than before. But change comes slowly, even more so when it is illegal to start an opposing political party, access to outside information is still limited, and the population lives in fear, not just of the government, but of each other. And yet, so many offered their greatest gift: vulnerability, to help us understand their country a little better.
You can travel as a tourist, on the surface of places, or you can travel close to the people, close to the earth. I have done both and both are gifts in the time and in the moment. But the big difference I’ve found is the presence of vulnerability. When you travel close to the people, it is more difficult, produces more anxiety, and forces you into a place of pure presence–when nothing works as you are used to, and discoveries are made slowly and not as you would have seen coming. But like in love, vulnerability while traveling produces the biggest changes, the largest heart-openings, the longest afternoon you wish would never end.
But despite it all, the crazy communist bureaucracy and state of the country, Cuba was an absolutely killer vacation. I highly recommend it, if, that is, you can be ok with this quote which happily came to me during our sunrise hike:
“If want to do anything interesting in this world you’ve got to be ok with peeing in a hole.”
Sometimes bathrooms are weird abroad. Sometimes you don’t have hot water in the shower. Sometimes you get the runs for days on end. Now in general, bathroom things were fine in Cuba, but you know, we went hiking, we went horseback riding, we stayed with locals. You just don’t know what’s ahead sometimes.
Slowly, after so many uncomfortable experiences in Kenya, South Sudan, Bolivia, Ukraine, I’ve gotten better being comfortable in the discomfort–comfortable being vulnerable abroad. Though I generally find travel abroad very relaxing overall, I often forget that the first days in a place I’ll usually feel a little anxious, a little overwhelmed. Havana’s bustling streets and diesel fumes (still in the back of my throat) caused me some stress at first. I had some thoughts those first days that I’d made a mistake about coming here for vacation. I was tired from a busy start to Spring. I wanted to relax.
“If want to do anything interesting in this world
you’ve got to be ok with peeing in a hole.”
– Sophie Vodvarka
But I came down after a few days, and eased into the challenge. I eased into taking things slowly and being present in the moment. Because, in so many ways, Cuba’s absolutely breathtaking buildings, and total lack of corporate advertisements, make a very relaxing environment away from America. The lack of ads, other than for the communist party, was certainly a huge advantage of Cuba. How wonderful would our world be if we weren’t constantly told what to buy or how to look or what to do by some asshole corporate entity?
Are we in 1980s Eastern Europe?
On one of our last days in Havana, my friend and I went to a Russian restaurant on the 3rd floor of a building facing the coast, called Nazdrowie (Cheers). The restaurant was decorated with soviet kitch, some of which highlighted the relationship between the soviets and Cuba. The food and view were fabulous. And it was a great familiarity for me, as I lived in Poland and was frequently in Ukraine 10 years ago. But the experience in itself was so odd, seeing as earlier in the day during an architecture walking tour, we’d gone past the current Communist Party offices in Havana, and had seen similar artwork on the side of the street. Of all of the old-timey aspects of Havana: the cars, the lack of internet, the bread lines . . . seeing this functioning Communist Party headquarters, and all of the propaganda billboards throughout the country, was just so strange.
I wonder how long it will stay this way. On Anthony Bourdain’s 2016 episode in Cuba, he suspected things would change dramatically in the next few years. I’m not so sure it has, but who knows what the future holds. Fellow Americans, I hope you can still travel to Cuba in the future. It is a fascinating, unique, achingly beautiful country. And yes, the rum and cigars are fantastic.
Guest blogger Sophie Vodvarka enjoys writing about creative living, particularly spirituality, art, travel and current affairs. She has an affinity for gypsy music and lives joyfully in Chicago, Illinois, with her partner. Follow her blog @ Straight into oblivion and on Twitter @SophieVodvarka.
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