Cuba. What’s not to love? Who wouldn’t want a cheap holiday in the sun on a beautiful, beach-fringed island? Okay, who besides my husband? He would prefer a cheap holiday in the sun on a beautiful, snow-covered mountain. He’s aberrant, in my humble opinion.
Ski-toting hubbies aside, most people enjoy escaping Canada’s too-long winter every now and then. That’s certainly what I was doing a few years ago, when I discovered Cuba, well after Chris Columbus originally did in 1492.
Cheap? Beach? Sun? Fun? I’m in! And, so was one of my dearest friends and favorite traveling companions; Martine understood cheapbeachsunfun. We were off. And, before the year was out, I found myself returning to cheapbeachsunfun with other gal pals. Soon, I was adding other happy words to my growing collection of reasons to visit Cuba, and to revisit repeatedly.
Since that first tour of no duties in Cuba, I have begun holidaying there twice a year for two weeks at a time, and that’s beginning to seem like not nearly enough! But, I want you to know that my reasons for regularly returning to Cuba may not be what you're thinking.
For instance, I rarely ever sprawl myself on the beach and remain inert. When I’m at a beach, it is with activity in mind -– swimming, strolling, collecting seashells by the seashore, taking pictures, exploring what’s around the next beachy bend, bending into a yoga pretzel (only in the early morning, when no one’s around to view my graceless, butt-to-the-sky stretching), more immersion in the warm salty waves, further photography, etc.
And, please be advised, I not a party animal seeking booze-soaked fun. Nor do I have a secret Latin lover for sweat-drenched fun. (I did mention my husband, right? Although he has an irrational snow fixation, he’s pretty close to spousal perfection in most other ways. He rarely forgets to take out the recycling and, 99.9% of the time, he puts the cap back on the toothpaste. The rate is slightly lower for putting down the toilet seat.)
I do enjoy the Cuban coffee and rum, and I have returned home with more than one gift box of cigars, but these consumables would not be nearly enough to keep me going back. As I’m well aware, cheapbeachsunfun can also be found along other southern coastlines and warm Caribbean islands. I quite enjoyed spending time exploring Costa Rica in the past and was very envious of the trip some of my girlfriends recently took to my favorite old stomping ground in Guanacaste.
Cuba, however, is different – beyond the perplexing politics that sets it apart from many countries. Cubans are different. The people make the country special. Their culture captured my heart. That, in a coconutshell, is why I can’t get enough of the place. Cheapbeachsunfun was the original bait but I’ve moved on to other lures. What I’m now getting while I’m in Cuba is less tangible than a tan. I’m learning heart-expanding lessons on living. Spending time in Cuba is helping me become a better person in Canada.
I’ll give you a recent example of this unexpected phenomenon. Yesterday, as I was locking up my shop (reVIBE!), a little old lady appeared on my darkening doorstep. I’m not being euphemistic in any way – she was about four-foot-nothing and, in subsequent conversation, she proudly told me, “I’ll be 92 this year.” And, since I live in Muskoka and it’s February, it was getting dark at 6 p.m.
Grandma had just gotten off the bus and, as she explained, was several hours ahead of her ETA. Her granddaughter wasn’t expecting her to arrive until about 11 p.m. Thus, if she couldn’t reach her, this tiny, feisty senior would be facing a long cold wait in the dark. After calling the granddaughter’s number four times, we finally got her and she promised to scurry into town from her rural home, a good 20 or more minutes away. Grandma was clear that she did not want to put anyone out, so my store manager (Kathie) and I reluctantly left her to stand beneath a light by our front door.
After I dropped Kathie off at her home, however, I had to go back downtown to do some banking, necessitating a trip past the store. Granny was standing tall, so to speak. On the return trip from the bank, her granddaughter had not yet arrived, so I made up an excuse to stop. “Forgot to check for mail,” I told her, then began chatting with her as we both stood in the cold pool of light by the store door.
I didn’t have to wait. She had assured me that, if anyone bothered her, she’d “give ‘em one of these,” brandishing a gnarled knuckle sandwich. However, she quickly warmed up to the conversation and, before her granddaughter got there, I’d learned a lot about her thoroughly independent life. (By the way, if a reputable repairman says you need to replace your gas stove, you should probably do it...unless you want a fiery reason to remodel your kitchen.) Finally, by 7 p.m., I was happily heading home, feet frozen but heart warmed by granddaughter’s grateful hug.
I would have made it in 10 minutes flat but, as I was passing one of the last street lights, just beyond the funeral home at the edge of town, I had to stop. There, on a dim mound of mud-crusted snow at the side of the road stood a slight figure, thumb out. “What child is this, hitching a ride on a cold, dark night in the almost-boonies?” No self-respecting prison escapee would be wearing a pink pastel plaid jacket, I reasoned, so I stopped.
The person I’d mistaken for a wayward teen turned out to be a woman of nearly my own semi-advanced age. She was hitchhiking home from Huntsville to Hoodstown. (It’s more or less a ghost town in the northern Muskoka sticks!) She frequently did this, she said, but admitted that she often did more hiking than hitching because she typically finished work after the traffic had died down in the evening. However, like Grandma, she did not want to put me out; she assured me she would be fine if I left her at the intersection where I would normally turn off for home.
Well, I knew there would be fewer lights and less traffic beyond my turn-off, so I just drove her home. I didn’t even tell her when we zoomed by my road. She was genuinely thankful. It was close to 7:30 when I eventually rolled into my own driveway.
How does this relate to Cuba, you might well wonder. Have I wandered from my intended topic? No. The link was in my mind the whole time. While I was assisting these strangers, images of Cuban people were dancing between my ears. They regularly, readily help others, generously giving their time and energy, sharing their limited resources. They were my inspiration to go out of my way for the people in need I encountered yesterday.
I could have done the typical North American thing and driven past that hitchhiker, softly whispering “good luck” as I safely whisked by, double-checking that the car doors were securely locked. But, in Cuba, it’s downright rude to pass by a hitcher – at least along the less-traveled roads I frequent in the Granma region. My driving experiences in Cuba inspired me to think twice when I saw an unassuming wayfarer beside Ravenscliffe Road on my way home in the dark. I’m glad I stopped. If I see Wanda walking with her thumb out again, I will certainly give her a lift. She’s a nice person, whom I’m happy to have met.
Regarding Grandma, going out of my way for her was more specifically inspired by my Cubano friend Maykel. One incident in particular dominated my thoughts last evening, and has bounded through my brain at other times too. When we were driving together one day, heading out of town – in this case, it was his hometown, Pilon – he suddenly demanded that I stop the car. He’d recognized an old man at a bus stop. I barely had time to pull the rental jalopy off the road before Maykel had leaped out of its door and settled himself on the bench beside the little old man, who turned out to be an elderly uncle he hadn’t seen lately.
I couldn’t hear the conversation but I watched their interaction and read their body language. Maykel touched the uncle’s shoulder affectionately. They both nodded, smiled, and angled their bodies towards each other convivially. At one point, Maykel took out his wallet. Uncle shook his head. Maykel nodded firmly and pressed some money into his palm. They shook hands warmly. Perhaps they hugged. My memory is fuzzy on that last point because a large truck was growling up behind me and a bus coming the other way meant the beast would not be able to pass; we were blocking traffic. I beeped the horn but Maykel was already heading back to the car, jovially waving at the truck driver to deflect any potential ire.
The image of my friend giving his time – a more important gift than the money – to his elderly relative so spontaneously and generously is seered into my mind’s eye, tattooed on my heart. That is why I love Cuba. That is what spurs me to be a better person in Canada. I am now paying closer attention to how I interact with people here because I have witnessed how people relate to each other there, and it’s truly beautiful to see.
This blog's title means "Cuban-hearted woman" (very loosely translated!). I settled on this name because it had a nice ring to my unschooled ear and, more importantly, because I think the Cuban people seem to have so much heart, and they're in my heart for that reason. In general, the people I've met in Cuba are quite consistently open-hearted and big-hearted in the way they relate to each other or to visitors in their beautiful land. A piece of my heart now resides in Cuba, with the warm, wonderful friends I've made there. This blog is not intended to be a guide to Cuba, just a forum for my eclectic bits of writing – poetry, opinion pieces and information gleaned from my personal experience and reading.