I was a very small child during the Cuban Missile Crisis but I was old enough to know that my parents were quite upset about something. I knew what “bomb” meant and when I heard that word I was very frightened. It is, in fact, one of my earliest memories. I am from the generation that grew up with families installing bomb shelters and in school we used to have drills where we “ducked and covered” in the hallway (I am not sure just how that was supposed to help in case of a nuclear bomb).
But even as a child, I knew that there was more to Cuba. Its history is fascinating, with stories of the original inhabitants, the Arawak people, emerging from their villages in 1492 to greet Christopher Columbus with gifts of thread and parrots. Sadly, his log also notes on October 14th that they apparently had little notion of fighting and he was able to capture seven to bring to back to Europe.
Cuba then became a Spanish colony for hundreds of years until the Spanish-American War lead to withdrawal of the Spanish in 1898 and the establishment of an independent government in 1902. It is interesting that the United States fought for Cuban independence but then just a few decades later, became completely estranged amid hostilities. It just underscores the complicated nature of our relationship with our close neighbor to the south.
As a forbidden place, it holds allure. We hear stories about the classic old cars still in use because new cars are not an option. In school we learned about the Cuban revolution, Batista, Castro, and “Che” Guevara. There have been air and boat lifts of refuges in the news periodically. The country seems beautiful, mysterious, adventurous, and tragic all at once.
In the early to mid 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cubans entered their “Special Period.” This time may illustrate the resilience of the Cuban people more than almost any other time in their tumultuous history. Without the input of petroleum from the Soviet Union, and faced with hunger and enormous deprivation, Cubans demonstrated their resourcefulness. They learned to live with reduced transportation and completely overhauled their agricultural systems, using fewer tractors and fertilizers produced from petroleum products. They developed a creative organic agricultural system that included not only fields of crops, but urban agriculture in vacant lots and rooftops.
When President Obama lifted some travel restrictions, allowing U.S. citizens to visit Cuba on a special license, and when a representative of Holbrook Travel, the company that UWBG worked with last year to offer atour of Chile, mentioned that they were able to organize these tours, I jumped in! I applied to the U.S. Department of Treasury for one of their “People to People” licenses and, after waiting, providing more information, and waiting some more, it was granted.
Holbrook has planned a wonderful trip for us. We will be visiting botanic gardens, meeting their staff and scientists and consulting with some of the urban farmers in Havana to learn how they make the most of every square inch they farm. I am really looking forward to our visit to the Zapata National Park, which is part of UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, where we will be guided on a walk by a professor from the University of Las Villas. In addition to the great plants and animals we will see, I am looking forward to the walking tour of Old Havana, seeing those old cars (and maybe a ’56 Mercury Monterey – my grandmother’s car that I drove in high school!), and maybe going out to hear some Cuban music.
I am not expecting to be able to send emails from Cuba, so I won’t be able to blog from there, but when I return in early March I will describe some of our adventures. So don’t go too far!