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SEA Currents: SSV Corwith Cramer
March 11, 2017
Bienvenidos a Cuba
El Puerto de Santiago, Cuba
32 degrees celsius, and no wind at all.
"Bienvenidos a Cuba," - Welcome to Cuba - says a man in olive green as he searches my bunk. "Bienvenidos a Cuba," says a man in a red-starred hat as he searches my backpack and pockets. I'm wearing my best shirt for the arrival in Cuba. We all are. Polo shirts and modest skirts are pulled from bags as the few articles of clothing that don't smell like sweaty sailors. We're also all on our best behavior as we welcome a myriad of officials onto our boat, being quite unsure of our relation with this country and it's citizens.
"My bank is not a friend of your American bank," says an apologetic woman later in the day as I attempt to withdraw money from my bank account. "But I will try anyways." Such is the atmosphere as we roam the streets of Santiago and tentatively search for our place in an unfamiliar world. It's a world that's also unsure of how to accept us. We're both pleasantly surprised and
somewhat guilty when a single U.S. dollar will buy you a meal of chicken, rice, and plantains. It's both flattering and odd when a man in a 1980's Kia taxi offers us a ride for 50 cents.
Nevertheless, we are surprised by the warmth with which some residents greet us. This is a country in which we all expected the worst (or at least prepared for it), yet were ushered through customs with relative ease, welcomed with the camaraderie of a samba band, and waved into stores and churches with smiles and nods. It seems as though the same buttoning-up we performed on arrival has gone both ways. The people here are just as eager to impress us as we are to impress them. And something unique has arisen from that mutuality.
In a way, Cuba is a country with a gaze turned to its past. Still cars from the golden age of hot-rods roam the streets. Still statues of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, leader in the Cuban war for independence from Spain; Jose Marti, revered poet and proponent of the Cuban revolution; and, of course, Fidel Castro, insurrectionist, respected revolutionary, and recently deceased leader, line the public squares in busts and iron silhouettes. This historical gaze, however, is not completely mired in nostalgia. Instead, there is an effort to relive the past - to project it in their future - and this effort extends beyond the cars and the figures mentioned here. The people are hungry for another revolution - a global one. "In a couple of years there will be big changes for Cuba," explains our tour guide in earnest. "It will begin with our pay."
Unfortunately, a ten minutes' walk in any direction away from a tourist hub reveals that poverty is, in fact, a unifying factor for Cuban citizens. It is pervasive, rearing its head in wrought iron homes, unrecovered from hurricane Sandy, and in mere figures: the average monthly wage in Cuba is 400-500 pesos, or $20. After seeing this, it is clear why most Cubans desire radical changes in their global status.
What is less clear, though, is the degree to which this fact affects our interactions with the citizens. Figures also state that tourism is the leading industry on the island. Naturally, the vendors and inhabitants around the port welcome us with cheek-to-cheek smiles. The skeptical side of me says that these smiles are transactionary - they want the pesos in my back pocket. A closer look reveals more nuance. "Somos de los Estados Unidos" is a phrase we utter ten times each hour - we're from the United States. Without fail, this warrants grand reaction. One man pulls out a pad of paper and a pencil and sketches a portrait of me. I offer him money, but he refuses. "Es un regalo," he exclaims, "a gift! For you to put in your home. To show American friends." Another woman invites us into her home, where she urges Will to play her piano. She is proud of it, and asks if it compares to the pianos we have in the states.
In these interactions one finds uncanny beauty and uncommon connection. This city evades the stereotypes we attempted to find here. It is more than just the remnants of a political history. It is more than a struggle to create industry through tourism. The only thing I can confidently say about this city is that it has too many facets to ever fully understand.
It's hard to explain all this mere hours after returning from the city. The folks here are a gregarious bunch, and us students have hundreds of tiny interactions to process. It's tricky to apply a value judgment or even to summarize all these new experiences. What is simple, however, is the gratefulness I feel for the opportunity to explore such a culture at a time when few others are allowed - for the opportunity to, in a class titled "Colonization and Conservation in the Caribbean", so immediately observe the effects of American policy and history on a country and its people, through such personal interactions. Undoubtedly, this experience will live with us for quite some time as we return soon enough to the American world and ways. Undoubtedly the cars and the statues and the people and food will carry on without us, and undoubtedly I hope to return one day.
"Bienvenidos a Cuba," says our tour guide for the next morning, and the words hold so much more weight than they first impress. "Gracias," we say, and with the words we embark on our second day of tours, sightseeing, and most importantly, surprise, on this anomalous island of Cuba.
P.S. Sorry Mom and Dad that I didn't text you today! I promise I'm still alive and well and haven't done anything too dumb just yet. I'll save that for when I'm back home. See you soon!