|Photo by Raymond L. Blazevic|
In Key West, only ninety miles from Havana, Cuba, we hear a lot about the island. In fact, frequently we read news stories about Cubans who've attempted to reach the US in a variety of homemade, unseaworthy vessels— even windsurfers. “Cubans who do not reach the shore (dry land), are returned to Cuba unless they cite fears of persecution. Those Cubans who successfully reach the shore are inspected by Department of Homeland Security and generally permitted to stay in the United States.” (Wikipedia)
Whether it’s fair or not, it saddens me when they take such a risk to attempt to make a new life, get so close, but get sent back to whatever they were running from. Or worse yet, die of exposure or rough seas. At any rate, that line of news has led us to an intense curiosity about Cuba and what life could be like for its inhabitants.
As you may know, Americans are not allowed to visit that nation on our own. However regulations have recently loosened up to allow American tourists to visit as part of an educational group. So when the chance came to travel over with the Florida Keys Tree Institute, we grabbed it.
I thought I'd share just a few things that after this trip, we realize we take for granted in our country:
We can leave the country any time we have the money and a passport.
We can start our own businesses. As Cuba is not a democracy, entrepreneurship is not officially condoned. However, the regulations about running a private business are also loosening, of course with the understanding that the government taxes them heavily. Raoul Castro apparently cares much less about the specifics of what people do than that they pay their taxes. He was aware that things had to change for the island to thrive. But the government still owns many hotels, restaurants, and museums.
We expect good food and good service in a restaurant. We ate several unimpressive meals at a government buffet or restaurant. But when we visited private restaurants, called paladars, the food was immensely superior to the government buffet.
We expect email, and wifi and iPhone service. More about that tomorrow, but though the Cuban folks who could afford it were answering phones and checking email, we had none. Nada, nothing.
We expect roads that can be traveled and trains that run and horses on farms. In Cuba, every kind of transportation shares the road.
In Havana all the old cars are a big draw, many of them serving as taxis or else as stages for tourist photos --for the right price of course.
We expect doctors to make a lot more money than waiters. In Cuba, everyone is paid the same salary regardless of their job—an amount that is roughly twenty-five dollars per month. Of course, underneath the surface is a thriving black market and system of barter. The folks who work in the tourist industry and have access to tips do much better. (And by way, we expect the same money to be used for everyone--not so in Cuba, where tourists must use a special money called "Cucs".)
We expect Hemingway's home to be in Key West! But one of my highlights was visiting Finca Vigia,
|photo from Wikipedia|
|Photo by John Brady|
We expect art to be on walls in museums. One of our last stops brought us to the neighborhood of Jose Fuster, whose ceramic work pays homage to Barcelona architect Antonio Gaudi. He has gradually replaced the facades of the homes in the area with the most fantastical ceramic murals. We were enchanted!
|Batista's Gold Phone|
I can say that my impression of Cuba as a land where people are suffering and waiting their chance to escape a communist dictator has many more shades of gray than expected. But I can also say that the people were thrilled to hear Obama’s speech on immigration while we were visiting, especially this line: “We were all immigrants once.”
And I'll end with our fabulous guide Renier's steady refrain over the week: "In Cuba, everything is possible, but nothing is guaranteed." (Kind of like life, right?)