Woke up in Cuba at 5am in the morning on Friday. There was a bit of flight havoc, in that our flight out of Santiago was delayed 12 hours and we would have (obviously) missed our connecting flight in Miami. Gabriel did a little magical combination of charming and bribing the agent of HavanaTur, who somehow got us on a different charter flight out. Can't really blame her for taking the bribe. Cuba is beautiful, musical and full of romance, but the beauty is crumbling, and you can't eat a song. Cubans either hustle, or get help from friends or family outside Cuba. If you're not willing to do one of those two things, you pretty much don't stand a chance at survival-- confirming my thesis that virtue is a feature of privilege.
Anyhow, we were grateful to be able to buy our way out, as sometimes, in Cuba, you really can't get what you want no matter how willing you are to throw money around. We arrived home in California at 1am Saturday morning. I slept til 6:30am, when little Nano, in his reckless cuteness, ushered me out of bed to play. I was fried but couldn't resist him. He is 4, and arises with the enthusiasm of a labrador puppy, oozing affection. He was a champion traveler, as was Zavi.
They were infinitely adaptable, sliding into step with the Cuban rhythms, and entertaining themselves easily. They are still fairly immune to any deeper reckoning with the implications of the differences in cultures/socio-economic situations, etc. There were many moments when we had no food, no water, and were uncomfortably hot, with no respite, no place to escape. They are pretty used to me having snacks available for them whenever they need them. This was one of the only times in their lives, I think, that they got hungry here and there. Again - in Cuba, even if you have money in your pocket, you can't always get what you want. It's common to go into a restaurant, pore over the menu, decide what you want, and then have the waiter inform you that all they have is ham shank. Sorry, vegetarians.
There is no instant gratification in Cuba. You don't get what you want when you want it. You have to take what life gives you. You quickly learn to eat when you can, drink water when you can, sleep when you can. My kids had never really faced a reality without toys in it. We didn't really bring any and Cubans don't really have any. Somehow they accepted the present moment realities and found the capacity to play with whatever they found -- handfuls of nuts became game pieces in Havana, a 1 inch tall wooden owl I bought them in Santiago became their action figures, and they plopped themselves in front of Cuban cartoons with glee, not at all concerned that the dialogue was muffled and utterly unintelligible.
I'm a combination of grateful, fried, and confused. I am confused in that my psyche is re-organizing itself as to how to integrate this latest experience of having my mind blown again; blown again by the incredible discrepancies in justice, socio-economic equity, and opportunity. But also blown away, yet again, by the Cuban people. They are thick-skinned, big-hearted, and quick-witted. Despite the embargo - the 57 year old 'bloqueo', which has Cubans at an extreme disadvantage in the global marketplace, the Cuban spirit is strong.
Cubans are soulful and scrappy at once. They are miserably poor, but marvelously educated, and far healthier, more beautiful, and sexier than the European and American and Canadian travelers you see roaming amongst them. Despite this disparity you see many a Cuban on the arm of a traveler. They are called 'jinoteros' - hustlers. They will escort the traveler about the country in exchange for whatever the traveler might 'tip' them at the end. They are not guides - they are not hired. They are hustlers. But they are also friends, because Cubans are endlessly social, affable, amiable folks. They can't help but relate authentically, even if there is an agenda underneath the friendship. So they are friends. And sometimes they are friends with benefits, who have their sights on a spouse, and a ticket out.
Cubans live clamped in a vice, with little chance of escape, and they somehow have the wherewithal and the gumption to do so with a sort of elegance, and with their own self-respect far more intact than the average American. Cubans, in their own estimation, are the shit. They have radically strong self-esteems. They are a study in self-confidence.
I've been to Cuba lots of times. This was my 6th trip. For some reason I had a bit of a rough time, in the midst of loving it. It was a very mixed bag. I suspect that in part this is because we stayed in Gabriel's dad's house and there was no AC and it was beastly hot. He also lives on a massively busy street, so between street noise and the kids, I didn't sleep well at all. But it was silly to complain, or figure out how to change my lot; they live in that intensity every day, with almost zero chance of improving circumstances.
They console themselves with song, and art.
Strangely, despite the fact that the trip was challenging for me, I find myself simultaneously wanting to go back immediately. I still can't figure it out -- why it felt so challenging - and why I'm feeling so ill at ease in America, the land of plenty.
I have this feeling that Cuba was doing some work on me, at a soul level. I'm pulled to go back and further the work.
America. The land of the free and the home of the brave. It makes us fragile, I guess.
I'm tempted to land at the conclusion that the American culture of consumerism and instant gratification is repulsive. But it doesn't make sense to dwell on blaming a system, and bitterness is just another cage, another suit of armor that we wear to keep ourselves separate. I believe we have to squirm around in discomfort until we find a chink in the armor where light comes through.
I have always had the attitude that one should not squander their vacation time on luxurious destinations. Vacation time should be spent getting to know the realities of life for those who struggle, so that when we arrive back on the gilded soil of the US, we are aware of what blessings we have, and have more capacity to dwell in a place of gratitude rather than our usual conditioned, myopic, "never enough" mindset, striving for more. This trip did not fail to deliver that teaching.