Sixth time is the charm

18 Apr

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I recently returned from my sixth trip to Cuba, spending 10 days working as a tour leader for a U.S. company. One of my passengers asked me a good question—what has changed in the past three years since I’ve been traveling to Cuba?

The question made me stop and think because Cuba has changed (a little bit), but then again, I have too.

Now, my relationship with Cuba is complicated. I think I feel the way a lot of Cubans do…there is an inexplicable draw that keeps you coming back, that stays in your soul and makes Havana home, yet at the same time there is something immensely frustrating and heartbreaking about the island.

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Maybe it’s something in the salt air wafting off the Malecon, the sharp sweetness of a cafecito that jolts you into action, the smell hitting you before the taste. Maybe it’s the wiry toughness of the people, the way their mouths chew the words a little bit before spitting them out.

Maybe it’s because the sun seems a little brighter and under the crumbling grit you can see the beauty of the country that still brings so much pride to it’s people.

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Perhaps the energy of the musicians—pounding the congas like it’s their last chance—or how no one ever seems to be in a particular rush regarding anything.

Some of these things are what brings me back, what keeps me drinking from my Havana Club and Cubita cups, made me frame and hang up Cuban artwork in my home, made half my music library Cuban, made me learn how to relax more.

But at the same time, there is a certain tension and feeling of entrapment when I’m there. Frustration at the crippling inefficiency…the difficulty in finding basic items, the amount of time it takes to get from Vedado to Old Havana, even though it’s only mere miles away.

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Everyone says Cuba is stuck in time and that’s one of the frustrations.

Novel though it may be to bump along in a 1950s Chevy that has no shocks and spews smoke, that’s no way to live daily.

We may enjoy unplugging and disconnecting from our busy lives, but it’s no fun to be unable to contact your family in another country because of prohibitively expensive phone and internet access.

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Sure, it’s great that Cubans produce most of their food organically, but when you have to search weeks to get a carton of eggs, do you really care that they are technically free range?

I was talking to one of my dear friends, Ariel, about how frustrating it is for me to see the propaganda touting the triumphs of the revolution, the promise that socialism is here to stay when life is so difficult for most Cubans. He pointed out that it’s like a religious ideology—deep-rooted and slow to change.

So back to the original question: Has Cuba changed in the last three years?

Sure. The way anywhere changes in three years. Now there are more private businesses—restaurants, salons, clubs, etc.,– popping up in every neighborhood and more and more Cubans are toting iPhones. Buildings are being renovated and restored, almost garishly clean next to their sometimes dilapidated neighbors.

There are more tourists, particularly American tourists, and the streets of Havana are congested with tour buses and groups, an influx that the island doesn’t have the infrastructure to support.

You see more foreign cars on the streets—mostly Peugots and Kias—and more “For Sale” signs on houses, thanks to regulation changes allowing for both the import of vehicles and the buying and selling of property.

IMG_1116No, the changes aren’t drastic. Certainly another revolution hasn’t overturned everything and I think the changes will continue in degrees as relationships between Cuba and the U.S. are (hopefully) normalized.

The refrain I keep hearing is “I want to visit Cuba before it changes.”

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Guess what? It’s not going to change overnight. The embargo isn’t over. Cuba hasn’t “opened up” all of the sudden. The fear that there will be McDonald’s and Starbucks in Cuba anytime soon is bullshit. It’s actually a little offensive to say “I want to visit Cuba before it changes.” It would be like after ObamaCare passed, people from Germany saying “I want to visit the U.S. before it changes.”

It’s going to take a lot more than Obama and Castro having discussions, for an American Embassy to open in Cuba, for Cuba to change so much that it’s unrecognizable from it’s current state.

I believe that the parts of Cuba that make it special aren’t going anywhere. The attitude of the people, the architecture, the music, the art, the culture—all the things that I love are the essence of Cuba and will stay. The impending changes will make life better for everyone on the island—people will not have to spend so much time waiting for the bus or searching for daily necessities and will be able to spend more time well, being Cuban.

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All I can ever really do is share what I’ve learned, what I’ve seen and experienced… you’ll have to go to Cuba yourself to draw your own conclusions. Just remember that anytime an American visits Cuba, he or she goes as an ambassador. Travel with respect, an open mind, and lots of patience.

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4 Responses to “Sixth time is the charm”

  1. Carolyn Butler April 21, 2015 at 7:44 pm #

    I’m contemplating a trip to Cuba in 2016, and I found the article you wrote for “What’s On Havana” titled “PTC ‘Practice ’til cardiac arrest’ at the Cuban ballet class. One of the things I hope to do while in Cuba is to see a performance of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Do you know if they have regular home season? I know they tour a lot, and I want to be sure to visit during a time when they will be performing at home. I don’t speak Spanish, so their website isn’t too useful for me. I’m hoping you may be familiar with their schedule. Thanks for any light you can shed on this for me. By the way, I enjoyed reading your article. You are a more courageous dancer than I am!

    • gschrubbe June 5, 2015 at 2:54 pm #

      Hi! Sorry for delayed response. Yes they have a season, but I’m not 100% sure where they post it right now. Do you know when you’re going? Hotel concierges and tour guides can usually help you get tickets 🙂

  2. Aysha Griffin June 22, 2016 at 7:40 am #

    This is a beautifully-written post… and it describes precisely my experience, saving me the trouble of writing the same. Thank you! I too have been to Cuba six times, and led a group of U.S. writers to meet their Cuban counterparts. And in late November 2016, I will be leading another group of independent travelers as we dive deeper into La Habana (www.CubaForWriters.com). I too note, on each visit, what has changed – more organization at airport arrivals, more paladars and some products in stores that weren’t there before. But mostly, so far, I’m not seeing changes in the lives of my Cuban friends, in the access to basic over-the-counter drugs, to lines waiting to buy any goods or services, nor a diminishing of despair and stress. And yet, as relieved as I always am to leave after a month or two or three, I am also always eager to return. Perhaps that is the magic of Cuba.

    • gschrubbe November 21, 2016 at 10:31 am #

      I am sorry, somehow I missed this comment! What an amazing trip, I hope the November one goes well, would love to hear more about it.
      Yes– the every day lives seem largely unaffected, except maybe for a privileged few, but there are small changes. I’d love to hear how things are now, and in the next few months, especially with so many US airlines starting flight services in the next month or two.

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