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Published: October 29th 2019
An hour from now our group will load like the pairs of animals into Noah's ark, two by two, but for us into some of the vintage American cars that are so common in Havana. It's our last night, our farewell dinner, and we will be riding to the restaurant in these well preserved cars, that the men have been ogling since we arrived. There are all makes, all colors (with a surprising brilliant pink predominating), dating from between the late 1940s to the late '50s. I asked one man in our group who seemed smitten and knowledgeable about old cars if he had seen any Packards here, and he said there were, so I kept on looking for one. I never saw a Packard. As a very young child, four years old, I remember standing in the middle of the front seat of our Packard as my father drove to pick up my older brother and sister (and whatever other children were around) at school to give them a ride home. Our Packard seemed so big and sturdy; we could fit a pile of children into the back seat and squeeze a couple more in beside me in the front. No one ever thought about safety beyond the weight and sheer mass of their cars. It was a simpler time (or so I thought as a little child). And now many of those moving museums live in Cuba, and tonight we are about to ride in some of them again. But as of tomorrow afternoon our group will disperse all over the US. We have travelled throughout most of this tiny, troubled country, but we still don't understand Cuba. Several Cubans have told us they don't understand Cuba either, so maybe that makes our continued ignorance and confusion a bit more forgiveable.
And I have had a fine time! I have learned to enjoy mojitos, and, because of the lack of bottled water and wine in many restaurants, to happily drink Cristal, the Cuban beer. We have met many many people from all walks of life, and even though everyone in this country is supposed to be equal, of course they are not. Cuba continues to be a work in progress. The generosity of poor and hard-working Cubans, as I've seen in many other countries, is still unexpected (to me). Just today the young hotel maid, Ana, who has been cleaning my room, stopped to talk a bit, to practice her English, and to tell me she hoped I was enjoying my visit to Cuba. The first day she wrote me a note, welcoming me to this hotel, partly, I think, in thanks for the tips I leave her each morning. When I told her we were leaving tomorrow she said to wait, went quickly over to her cart full of cleaning and bedroom and bath supplies, dug underneath some fresh sheets, and gave me one, then two magnets depicting scenes of Cuba. I wanted to hug her but could tell this was not something she expected, so I thanked her, and went back to my room to give her something more in return. By our standards most Cubans have so little, and yet they are a warm and loving people, musical, generous, kind, friendly. Every time I travel I am reminded that meeting each other is the best way to learn about a country.
There are, of course, those who give us the finger as our half-empty bus passes them by; seeing their disappointment (and acceptance) in our not stopping for them was the thing I found hardest during these weeks. Public busses here are usually jammed full of riders; they have no air conditioning and very small windows, so when we don't stop (legally we are not allowed to do so) some would-be riders get quite angry. I do not know the solution to this situation, but as more visitors (from Canada, from Europe) come to Cuba I hope the population will become much more familiarized with tourist busses and will learn to differentiate between them and public transit, and accept that yes, foreigners are visiting their country and receiving special treatment, but we are also bringing in much needed money, stimulating Cuba's economy. This will take time, but I think in ten years or so Cuba will be almost unrecognizeable to the country it is today. Whether this is positive or negative for Cuba is debatable. But it is happening.
Postscript: Just recently I learned that Americans will no longer be allowed to fly into Holguin, as we did on this tour; Americans will only be able to fly into Cuba via Havana, further restricting access to the public, the rest of the country, and the beautiful countryside. Poor decisions continue to separate us from people who could dearly benefit from our help, our money. People all across Cuba invited us to come again, asked us when we would return; many do not seem to realize that it is not so easy for Americans to visit Cuba. Hopefully this situation will change again, opening Cuba up to any American who would like to visit, to meet the Cuban people, to help private businesses, but that might be a few years away. I am so glad I went when I did, before this latest restriction was put into place.
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