Lessons from Havana

The images coming out of Haiti are horrifying and heartbreaking. I cannot imagine how a country that is so poor, so fragile in everything from infrastructure to food and water supply can survive such an unimaginable tragedy. I am grateful and proud that the U.S. will take the lead in the world’s recovery effort —  that is how it should be. Events such as these, though rare, remind me of a trip I made to Cuba in 2003 and what I learned on that trip about human spirit, ingenuity and the power of family and faith.

I traveled to Cuba, Havana specifically, legally as part of a cultural exchange program that was at the time still encouraged and allowed. I am not going to get political and go into great detail about why I think these programs should still exist but suffice it to say, I do.  I went on the trip because I was working as a professional photographer and had heard that the opportunities from a photographic and artistic perspective were unmatched. For several days after I returned to the U.S., I was unable to sleep. I had been deeply touched by all that I had seen and by those whom I had met; I could not close my eyes without revisiting those experiences.

We visited a school as part of our tour. The purpose of this stop was to show us how great Cuba’s educational system is. What stuck with me, however, was that children, regardless of what type of structure they grow up in, thrive or don’t thrive primarily because of who they live in that structure with. They also universally want to laugh, play and enjoy childhood.

Cubans, for obvious reasons, don’t have a lot of stuff. No iPhones for them. 

I cannot emphasize enough how moved I was (inspired too!) by the spirit and ingenuity displayed by the people that I met. This woman, an entrepreneur, charged me for the right take her photo.  I had no problem with that.

It bothered me to no end that the Cuban people are not allowed to do the things I was allowed to do while visiting their country. They can work in hotels and bars, but cannot be patrons. This photo was taken at the famed Tropicana Club, one of the few institutions to survive Castro’s revolution.

Cubans are not allowed to travel freely, not even around Cuba.  As a result, they often live with extended family or nearby. There is a generational closeness that you rarely see in the U.S. From what I could tell, grandparents in Cuba are revered. 

 Cubans, as most of us are aware, don’t have easy access to medicine and food. Yet, they share what little they have with their pets. Says something about how much happiness a pet can and does add to our daily lives.

The boys in Cuba are passionate about baseball. While there, I saw numerous pick-up games being played without the benefit of equipment. Bats were made out of wooden planks and balls were tattered. That didn’t seem to matter.

The infrastructure in Cuba looked to me to be one really bad hurricane away from crumbling into the ocean.  I hope that the next time the U.S. has to take the lead in rescue and rebuilding efforts it will not be because this is what has happened.

It is easy, as it should be, to feel grateful to be an American citizen living freely (though ironically, I am not allowed to travel to Cuba anymore) and well in this country. Sometimes, it takes events such as the tragedy in Haiti to remind me that not everyone lives the way I do. My trip to Cuba taught me a lesson I doubt I will ever forget–my family, my faith and my freedom matter most. Not my stuff. My heart breaks for the people of Haiti.


5 responses

    • Good for you for being honest about it. I actually found a lot to celebrate and envy while in Cuba. I wish I possessed one-tenth of the spirit and creativity those people do. You have to wonder how people can risk their lives time and time again by getting onboard floats made of nothing more than a couple of old tires tied together with twine and heading out to sea. They do it, I learned while there, because they believe they are worth it.

      • It is a crying shame all too many people that live here do not appreciate it. We are “the shining city on the hill” and a beacon of hope to the impoverished and oppressed. Turn on MSNBC tonight and you will be made to think the USA is the root of all evil.

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