Friday, November 27, 2009

Cuba #3, Los Cubanos

It has been impossible to post since we left for the provinces on Tuesday, and we have been so busy and so consumed with the interchange of ideas and philosophies that there has been little time to write and reflect. I expect to be slowly processing this trip for some time and will write about my experiences as the opportunity arises, even after I get back to the States on Saturday night.

I do not want to leave. I often feel this way about returning home but this time it is especially strong. I have been presented with so much to think about and to take in and it seems unjust and incongruous that I will be processing much of it outside of its context. I have learned here in Cuba that context is vital to the truth of everything.

That is not to say that truth is relative, only that each truth can be lived differently by different people without sacrificing the fidelity to that truth. Freedom, what it means to be liberated and free, is one that is perhaps most apt to the Cuba/U.S. dichotomy. The Cubans I have met openly acknowledge many of the difficulties that they face and many of the contradictions of their society, but they embrace these not as handicaps but as challenges. I have never witnessed people so ready and willing and capable of working together for a common goal. My new friends are joyous and engaged in life.

I do not say this wearing rose colored glasses. Nor do the Cubans portray themselves through an idealized light. In fact, this is the only place I have ever been in Latin America, maybe anywhere in the world, where I have witnessed profound humility and honesty rather than a strong dose of hubris and bravado. The system here is not perfect, but they seem dedicated to working towards a perfection bit by bit as best they know how. I am inspired by much of what I have seen and although I readily acknowledge that it would not be applicable to the United States, that does not negate its ability to be applicable to my own self.

One Cuban professor who participated in this conference worded it so well..."We Cubans are a people who love peace...We are living as we have chosen...We do not have more than we need. What we do have we are willing to share with the world."

As I said today in a presentation to my fellow conference participants, one of the greatest things I take away from this experience is a deeper understanding, an understanding as a result of actively doing, of my own ability to see and live beyond the black and white paradigms we establish in our minds when faced with difference. Establishing and truly embracing the context of any event or idea does not make it less applicable but rather encourages appropriate and effective applications in other contexts. Ultimately, as a result of this conference, I think I have connected with a basic human love for learning and for engaging in a social learning process, and I have done so in a context unlike any other I could have found.

And here I have also found colleagues with whom I expect to work again in the future, among both the U.S. and the Cuban delegations. I have found other students, scholars, and policy makers who are following the same life of questions as I am, who readily share their research and finding with me, and who encourage my interests and my identity as an individual in a diverse world.

No, I do not want to leave, at least not yet, but now I know that I will most certainly return.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Cuba #2 La Habana, First Impressions

I am back in Latin America, but it is so different, too. It feels so natural to be here, and yet not at the same time. I can not integrate into daily life here, and there are certain parts of reality that I can only glimpse.

The jet took off from Miami. About a half hour late. That didn't bother me; I already felt like I was in Latin America. Time had started to become ephemeral again. I forgot how much I missed that. And then it dawned on me...the jet is off the ground, it's really off the ground, and this is really happening!

Walking through Old Havana isn't like stepping back in time. Realities are still present. The old 1950s cars drive past the old Soviet cars driving past the newer buses from China. I passed by the Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemingway so often stayed. The bar there was playing a latin pop song I recognized.

As we flew over the brief but expansive waters of the Florida Strait, I kept thinking I was seeing a man in a skiff being dragged by a marlin, but just when I thought I'd seen them, they would disappear into the horizon again. Ironic, huh?

I stopped to play ball in the street with a few boys. I hitched a ride in the side car of an old motorcycle. I saw castle walls that have stood for centuries and old men and women stooped with age and hard work.

And then we were over the island's coast and I was looking down at agricultural fields. Fields were laid out in orderly, right-angled plots of land. What appeared to be a hay harvest had taken place in several of those plots, but I could see no sign of a single important crop. Here and there a few trash or brush piles were burning, but everything seemed well laid out and orderly.

I sense immense differences here from my experiences in Honduras. People of all colors mingle. A man takes a break from fishing off the seawall to write something down. The few time I am asked for money, it is done with a certain grace. I glimpse well cared for homes inside the run-down exteriors. I watch parents playing and laughing with their children.

When the airplane's wheels touched down my heart skipped a beat. I nursed my cough all the way through immigration and into backage claim with constant cough drops. The nurse in a classic, white uniform took my flu symptom checklist (which I had dutifully marked “no” to every symptom” and must have confused my strained look for fear rather than a strained resistance to a deeply needed coughing fit. She smiled warmly at me and said, “Pase, amor.” I forgot how much I love being called Amor by old ladies. I waited for my bag to come out on the conveyor. They must have checked it thoroughly but there was no X on the tag, so customs lets me right through. At the airport to greet us was not only transportation directly to our hotel but a small contingent of some of the highest representatives of the Cuban Teacher's Association, the group hosting us. They welcomed us so warmly and were so genuinely glad to have us there.

They have bookstores here...whole stores devoted to nothing but the sail of books! I always miss bookstores when I am in Honduras. I found an original copy of the Great Campaign for Literacy's manual for teachers and a book on Che Guevara's thoughts on pedagogy. I've never seen some of the photos of Che I see everywhere. He's incredibly handsome. I wonder how many young Cuban girls secretly dream of Che. Papa Smurf looked good too. No wonder the Revolution succeeded.

I've met the US and most of the Cuban participants. We met this morning to register and go over the schedule. Our Cuban coordinators have gone to great strides to involve as many of the top thinkers in the fields of our individual interests. Tomorrow morning I will be visiting the Institute for Pedagogical Research and in the afternoon we are all going to visit the Medical College.

Things are clean but nothing is fancy. In most places the paint is chipping but the basic structure seems sound. Just from the graffiti I can see that art is taught in the schools. Kids ride down the blocks long Paseo de Marti on hand-crafted scooters and two sisters share a pair of skates, each wearing just one. It strikes me that, at least for some, the joi de vive isn't “in spite” of the Revolution but is part of it, perhaps. No one's life is markedly better than that of anyone else. No one is seems to be suffering so that the life of someone else can be unjustly easy. The people I see are literate, articulate, and in decent health.

There are two worlds here and I can feel it when I pass by Cubans on the street. Two realities that slide past each other silently and push tentatively back against each other, too. I use the Convertible Pesos or “kooks,” which are roughly valued at 1 to 1 against the US dollar, but Cubans use Moneda Nacional, the non-convertible pesos, which value at something more like 20 to 1. My dinner tonight cost 20 “kooks.” That is what most Cubans make in a month.

Meals are beautiful but limited. Butter and hard cheese are sliced thinly and served frugally. One nurse drives an illegal taxi to make ends meet. But people seem proud of who they are, rather than ashamed of what they are not. There is meaning to say, “Soy cubano,” that I have never heard in the phrase “Soy hondureno.” Cubano means flamenco dancing and breathtaking art and salsa music and baseball prowess and beautiful poetry and scientific research standards.

The propaganda posters really don't feel so strange to me. They really feel no different from the advertisements that blanket our senses in the U.S., and I respect their forthright honesty, at least in comparison to the ads, which I frankly do not miss.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Cuba #1 - Fatwas from Camp MIA

Dong dong. The. current. local. time. is. twelve. o'clock. am.

I can't decide whether the 15 minute reminders of earth's rotation are making time go faster or slower here in Camp MIA.

Camp MIA was originally the the row of chairs that Tiesha, my equally frugal classmate who also refuses to pay for a hotel room, and I had commandeered in Concourse G of the Miami International Airport. With a blanket kindly but unknowingly donated by American Airlines, I formed a bit of a bed for myself with my feet propped up on the seat of a chair and my head resting on a lumpily comfortable carry-on bag, I was good to go for at least the first portion of my FIFTEEN hour layover.

Yes. 15. Hours. (said in the always chipper voice of the time lady). That is what happens when one is expected to start checking in at 8am for a 1pm flight. A one hour flight across a fairly small strip of water takes 5 hours to check-in apparently. I'll let you know more about that tomorrow.

After an hour and a trip to the far away ladies' room, I discovered an even better location for Camp MIA, so Tiesha and I went M*A*S*H (Mobile Articulate Smart Hotties.) We now have upholstered benches upon which to lounge.

I am enjoying the airport's nightlife. We are hardly the only people here for the evening. Airport staff, security, a number of other travelers. The old dude who drives the mini-zamboni back and forth to polish the floor taps out a great rhythm to go along the jazzy elevator music that intersperses the many safety reminders and “Nombre apellido, venga a un telefono blanco de cortesia, por favor.” I have seen a couple of stylish camoflauge outfits (but distinctly not military camo...think ooh-I-wish-I-was-as-tough-as-this-stylish-black-and-white-camo-outfit-makes-me-look styles.) Dunkin Donuts is open 24 hours and they start putting out fresh donuts at 4am. Currency exchange opens at 5am. TerminalDR (yes there is a doctor's office in the terminal) opens at 7am. I've found the free wireless network and nearby outlets to charge my electronics. Now that I'm not trying to relax on the cold floor, Camp MIA is darn good for the price of NADA.

I am enjoying where my mind wanders to at these late, sinus-congested hours. Nothing is sacred, I'm afraid. I might start telling people I have a frontal lobe disorder that has damaged my ability to inhibit saying my thoughts aloud. It's pretty much at that point.

As I've indicated, I'm still getting over my head cold from earlier this week. It is on the exceedingly gross “evacuation” stage. Several people have made an exceedingly wide berth of me when I've been coughing. Given that swine flu jokes are definitely off limits (don't want to jinx myself...a news article said that Cuban immigration was quarantining people with swine flu symptoms) I've settled for drug resistant TB jokes instead.

Then there's the actually Cuba related thoughts. My mp3 player has provided some good fuel for my cerebrum. “Children of the Revolution” from the Moulin Rouge soundtrack takes on new meaning. And when the Muppets song “Manamana” comes on I like to imagine that it is Fidel and Jose Marti singing back up with Che (in his signature beret) being the beat-nick dude in the middle who wants to improvise on the song.

The current fatwas coming from Camp MIA are:
- “Al Queda is ruining my life.” --Tiesha (This is a long story having to do with how the airport is not as convenient as the bus terminal in an old movie where Madonna went to jail.)
- Fidel's code name for the rest of this trip will be Papa Smurf, or PS. --Kate
- 4am donuts will be written off as educational expenses on this years taxes, and calories from tax write offs don't count. --Kate

Off to a benadryl induced slumber now.

Dong dong. The. current. local. time. is. one. fifteen. am.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Me 'n Che, man! We're tight!

That's right! I've been granted permission by the US government to do research in Cuba! So, for eight days, over the week of the arguably capitalist holiday of Thanksgiving, I will be observing and researching teaching practices in one of the last Marxist strongholds. It's been an iffy process at times, getting all the documents put through, but its all finally approved and tickets have been purchased.

My research is going to center around how Cuban teachers choose to teach students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Cuba has the highest achieving primary level students in Latin America, and I want to know more about why this is when they have faced so many material disadvantages.

I've chosen to travel through Miami, FL, even though I could have gone through somewhere even warmer (like Cancun, Mexico) but I want to document what it is like to go through the US Customs and Border Control directly before and after being in our estranged neighbor nation.

I'm busy researching socialism, socialist education, children's cognitive development, compensatory teaching methods, etc. A big issue will be how to define disadvantage...material, health, intellectual, cultural, lingual, nutritional, etc. etc. Hopefully this research will be able to be combined with research in Honduras (and maybe Brazil?) and DC Public Schools to become my Masters thesis.

I promise to keep you all apprised and to post pictures and impressions of a land so many North Americans aren't allowed to visit.