There is a lot of excitement in the US surrounding Cuba these days. Since President Obama announced at the end of 2014 that he would take several steps to put an end to the embargo with that country, it’s been a recurrent topic in the news and Americans have reportedly been traveling to the island in increasing numbers…everyone wants to go there first! Even Mr. Obama has scheduled a visit next month, making him the second US president to do so in over 80 years.
I’ve had the luck to visit such a charming and special island twice, both times when I was living in Mexico. The first time was about 12 years ago and I only spent a few days in the magnificent but very much deteriorated Havana…I was really transported in time, to say the least. There are countless reports on the feeling that time froze in Havana so I won’t focus on that. Instead, I’d like to tell you how much I enjoyed staying at a “casa particular” in El Vedado, very close to the famous malecón and, ironically, a few blocks away from the US embassy.
Getting to spend time with a Cuban family was such an incredible experience! I will never forget the discussions over lunch or dinner about their daily struggles and how they felt regarding Castro and the regime. It was pretty obvious then that the older generations, faithful to Fidel Castro and the revolution, had such a different perspective from the younger ones, eager to have social, political and economic freedom. To me, that was definitely the highlight of this trip.
Then I went back at the end of 2008 on a work trip, which took me to other places in the island aside from Havana, such as Trinidad (a magical colonial town) and Varadero (home to the best beaches in the Caribbean and, hence, all the resorts where tourists get to spend their vacations).
On both visits, I had the opportunity to interact with locals and I was constantly reminded of how privileged some of us are to have options. Essential things that we take for granted on a daily basis when you live in a democracy and/or a strong economy are true luxuries in other places, from electricity and drinking water to the clothes you wear and the food you eat.
In that respect, the Cuba I got to know also was definitely no place for picky people and I’ll illustrate this with the following stories.
On my second trip’s last day in Havana, one of my fellow travelers suggested we get ice cream. Out of excitement, I said “what flavor should we have?” He looked at me and, on a patronizing manner, pointed out that there was only one flavor to choose from. Indeed, they only had this sort of pinkish beige ice cream and, interestingly enough, I couldn’t decide whether it tasted like chocolate, vanilla or strawberry. It was actually several flavors in one! Or perhaps, it was my imagination that created those savors in my mouth? Maybe that is how it works when you have no choices…
Back in Mexico, a couple of weeks after that trip, I ran into a Cuban colleague and his mom who happened to be visiting from Cuba. I told them about my recent trip and how much I had loved the island and its people. I also said to them, sincerely, that I thought Cuban flan was the best one I had ever tried and that I had been told that the secret was that they used three different types of milk to make it. The lady sweetly smiled at me and replied: “in reality, we use whatever ingredient we are able to get.”
I love telling people the above stories because the first one shows how simplicity can make you happy and even trigger creativity while the second one summarizes the resilience that characterizes Cuban people as well as how they approach everything with humor, resourcefulness and, of course, some resignation. I am very anxious to see what will happen to Cuba once it truly opens up to the rest of the world and we open up to its people but I sincerely hope that Cubans’ feisty and happy spirit never goes away!
Puedes leer este artículo en español aquí.