[Note: Because last year I blogged about the various legs of our trip and activities, and this year had many of the same events, I am taking a wider view. However, Joan Wells, one of our 2013 trip members, is blogging about her experience. You might want to follow along for Joan’s vibrant descriptions]
At the end of February, another band of intrepid adventurers joined me for my return trip to Cuba. Since my last reflections on the previous trip, I have continued to read about Cuba and 2012 previous travelers have had two reunions and traded numerous emails and articles about this fascinating and confusing country. I was very curious to see what my reactions would be for this trip.
What was the same? We went to many of the same places and heard from many of the same people. Even when there were different people, the impressions were often the same. For instance, I was again impressed with the musical abilities of so many people. Again, we almost always had live music in restaurants and it was common on the streets. Last year we saw a rehearsal by a very talented group of young people at the KORIMACAO Project in Zapata. We did enjoy them again this year, but we also saw a powerful performance in Havana of the Opera de la Calle. This mix of professional and amateur artists has a great musical show that starts out telling the story of Cuba in Spanish, and then somewhat surreally breaks into “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen (in English), as shown in this video from a previous performance. Following that song, they moved into a beautiful rendition of “Imagine” by John Lennon. This is always a powerful song, but tears came to my eyes when the Cuban singer looked out into the small, almost entirely American audience and sang:
“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace”
Indeed. Imagine what these young people’s lives could be. Should be. I never understood that song more than in that minute. Imagine what the last two generations of Cubans could have become and done if U.S. and Cuban politics had not hijacked their options.
The beauty of the country is also unchanged. Havana has marvelous colonial architecture in states between ruins to restoration. The countryside is still gorgeous, even though we had some very Seattle-ish rainy weather while we were in the countryside. Everyone’s spirits were up and no one complained, though hiking in red Mil Cumbres mud resulted in impressive accumulations of mud on our boots, leading us to drag our feet like we were wearing 10 lb. ankle weights. I had particularly been looking forward to seeing ethereal Viñales again and sharing it with the group. It was still beautiful, but our desire to explore the town and surrounding areas was…dampened.
What was different? It is a little hard to say, but it seemed like Cubans felt more comfortable with us. I did not sense the anxiety about tips from our group. Yes, they wanted and needed them, but it seemed like they were less concerned that they might not get them. They seemed more giving in talking about the political situation there. Perhaps less concerned about the consequences of being frank with us?
One notable discussion was arranged by our travel partner organization, the Fund for Reconciliation and Development. Our speaker was a retired former diplomat for the Cuban government, with friends obviously in high places. We had a very open discussion about the rights and wrongs of both the Cuban and American governments over the past 50 years and beyond. Last year we danced around the subject of the Cuban Five and Alan Gross, but here we laid out the arguments. I felt emboldened to raise the issue about the lack of free press and access of almost everyone to the Internet (there are no Internet cafes and even at our very nice Havana hotel, the Internet was not available most of the time we were there, and out of the price range for ordinary Cubans). He quickly agreed with me that Cuba will not advance without either and surprised us by saying that since he is retired, he also no longer has access to the Internet! Imagine that – we have smart phones that allow us to access the Internet anywhere, but in Cuba even retired government officials have limited access to it. That we were even having this conversation, however, made me hopeful for their future.
There are still lessons we can learn from them, however. The visit to the Alamar Organoponic Gardens and the National Institute for Research on Tropical Agriculture [note that I am not linking you to the actual institutional websites because they do not have them] was again inspirational. Their practical attitude about food security and food sovereignty may have been born of necessity from The Special Period but it is taking them in a direction we could learn from. And at Las Terrazas, we heard from the Director of the field station that they have 30 years of data about the phenology (timing of plant flowering, leaf growth, etc.) that gives them a good record for tracking climate change. Not many places here have that.
On this trip we also had a wonderful time bird-watching. Bee hummingbird? Cuban tody? Pygmy owl? Sí! More about that next…