Celi and ET in 2002

Celi and ET in 2002


15 years ago, Roz Biederman, our Spanish teacher at WCC, pulled off the impossible:  She obtained a license to take a group of staff and students to Cuba under the auspices of the Cuban Labor Union.  And our WCC administrators supported her efforts.  I jumped at the opportunity to go, and so did my partner David.  I even pulled my son Martin out of school for those 10 days, against the protest of his father.  This was schooling through life.  In my view, that beats book learning any day.

I did not keep a diary…  You probably know that phenomenon:  you think you will never forget a trip like this because it is so special, so vivid, so different.  And yet, if you don’t keep track, a few days into the trip, some details begin to blur and a few years later (like right now), there are only a few memories left, like flashes in a big sea of darkness.

We took a bus to Toronto and went from there, through the back door, so to speak.  We were guided and guarded for the whole trip by three guys from the Cuba Labor Union.  We stayed in a rather primitive, dormitory-like house; simple accommodations.  And even though we protested — we knew that locals had about 1-3 rations of meat per month — we were served huge portions of chicken every day.  Every night we congregated on the rooftop drinking loads of $1 mojitos.  At that time, dollars were still in high demand.  None of us had a single peso of local currency.  And these union guys kept us in the dark about our daily excursions.  Keeping you in the dark seems to be a Cuban pastime, and is good old local fashion, even today.

Every day after breakfast we were loaded into an old Cuban bus and taken to some place demonstrating socialist achievements.  A construction site, a hospital, a school, a labor union meeting.  For fun, we were driven to an all-inclusive beach resort where most of our youngsters got lobster-red sunburns. 

I remember that after a few days of this, I had enough.  We did not see anything of the country, the people, the music, the street life!  It was a union award ceremony way outside of Havana, that finally broke the camel’s back.  Even though I don’t speak Spanish at all, I understood half of what they were saying in their passionate-socialist speeches.  Those were the same old socialist slogans I had grown up with in East Germany.  I just could not take it any longer. 

I told the union chief that I was leaving.  He was completely baffled.  I was miles from Havana without a map, a guide, a penny.  He could not fathom that I was serious.  Not only that, I asked David to join me — but David was too polite to leave the group.  But I convinced my son that he would have a lot more fun coming with me.  We took off.  I did not know where we were, but we would find out.  We walked to a road and hitch-hiked.  That, I remember vividly.  A bus stopped.  We offered a dollar for the ride.  That is as if you want to pay somebody $25 for something that costs 25 cents.  We were just waived to ride along without pay.  The bus filled up.  It was going to Havana.  Somewhere in the center of the old city it dropped us off.  And for an entire afternoon we roamed around.  We saw the people, heard the street bands, sifted through a book store, looked into dark hallways and strolled through dilapidated alleys.  Somehow we found our way back to our home. 

I encouraged the others to leave for a while, too.  What were they afraid of?  Communists don’t bite.  This was a safe country.  The next day, a few more people took off on their own.  The union leaders were outraged.  Sorry, guys.

On May 1, we were given matching T-shirts and led to the big May Day Parade.  Unsuspecting, and unaware of the fact that we had been made “the American delegation” we were led to the front row of the huge crowd that had dutifully assembled for this important annual rally; the most important annual rally, in fact.  As every year, Fidel would give one of his rousing speeches.  But he was getting on in years.  His speech was neither as rousing nor as long as they had been in previous years, thankfully.  I could see him crystal clear.  I wish I had had a camera like I have now.  I could have zoomed him in for posterity! 

What was much more memorable to me than Fidel, was a young boy.  A six year old perhaps, or was he only five?!  He gave a speech like I had never heard a kid give a speech before:  From memory, fast, passionate, loud, and patriotic, getting the crowd to cheer and to applaud.  He had wrapped them around his little finger.  Did he know what he was saying?  Had he just memorized what somebody had fed him?  This was outer-worldly, Kafkaesque, and Orwellian all in one.

We did a lot of things that I forgot.  But I remember the big bus that picked us up from the Toronto airport.  And I remember that at the Canadian-US border we were asked where we had come from.  The airport?  That was suspicious.  Everyone out, everyone’s suitcase out.  The search began.  Yes, we had rum and cigars.  And because we had a license that was OK.  But it took a while until we were cleared.  We were a sight the US border guards did not see too often:  20 people who did not even conceal or hide that they had been in Cuba.  20 people who had made purchases despite the embargo.  20 people, they had to let go.

That was my first encounter with Cuba.  But I could not leave it at that.  Someday I knew, I had to return to see Cuba with my own eyes and on my own terms.  This year seemed a good one.  I have a sabbatical (4 months off teaching).  And my sabbatical plan, to spend 4 months in Iran, had been thwarted.  What now?  Cuba travel for Americans has become easier since Obama’s trip to the island.   More on how you can do this in the Post-script Blog.

Why not test what that means in practice.  Why not see what has happened in Cuba since 2002.  Why not see if anything has changed since Fidel died.  And why not go with Celibeth, my friend, who loves Cuba and was on that same trip as I was in 2002?  And she speaks Spanish!

Let’s go!  I hope you will join us.

3 comments so far

Add Your Comment
  1. Wonderful Prologue! I really had to laugh reading how you left the group and encouraged others to do so!! I admire you for that and hope to travel with you someday. I’m sure we still have some destinations in common. But now it’s Kuba! I follow your trip.

  2. I am eager to hear all about your impressions.

  3. So sorry your Iran trip was thwarted, ET!!!! but sounds like you will have an interesting adventure close to home.