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.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Kate,

    Happy Thanksgiving! Thanks for the cool insights. Do you think the Cubans are happier than we are? Do they have peace of mind and time to enjoy their lives? People in Thailand don't have the material wealth that the average American does, but they also don't seem so frazzled and weighed down.

    However, we are free to indulge ourselves in just about any way we want, we can eat cheese for weeks!

    It makes me think of an article about the importance of play, how the brain is most creative, and most productive when it is in a relaxed state, that kids need to be bored so they are forced to used their imagination and created their own realities. The point was kids need room and most importantly, time to grow and let their brains develop.

    I think adults need recess, too. Adios.