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Displaying items by tag: Andrea MacEachern

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Unforgettable Cuba

I’ve taken many memorable vacations over the course of my lifetime. Each vacation I’ve taken has left me with fond memories, new friends, and a new outlook on my surroundings.  

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One recent vacation, in particular, left me with more than I could ever imagine from a simple week-long trip.  I didn’t have to travel very far to this destination; in fact, I technically didn’t even have to leave the continent.  A short bus ride to the airport and a 4-hour flight was all I needed to get   to   one of the most unique, diverse places in this hemisphere.  

My reasons for going to Cuba were very clear; Beautiful beaches, unique culture, low crime rate and, of course, the city of Havana.  I also wanted to experience a place that hadn’t been “Americanized” like a lot of the other Caribbean Islands.   Since I was traveling alone, I erred on the side of caution and  booked an all-inclusive beach resort vacation package.  This seemed like the best way to approach my first trip to a new country alone.  

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I arrived in Varadero very late on a Friday night and had the  eye-opening experience of seeing first hand what travelers do while vacationing at  an all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean which included screaming, cursing,  and excessive drinking.  This partying continued throughout the entire week, with new arrivals by the bus load each day.  I tried to join in on the partying my second night there but quickly realized that what I really wanted to do was see and experience the real Cuba.

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My first morning in Varadero, I decided that I had no interest in following some made-up, pre-thought out itinerary that took place entirely on the resort.  I have to hand it to them though because the resort employees did a very good job at ensuring there were enough organized and pre-planned activities so that visitors wouldn’t want or need to leave the resort.  I was even told by several tour organizers who tried to sell me organized (and expensive) excursions that it was simply too dangerous to venture off the resort on my own.  Brainwashing and fear-mongering are two things that do not and never will work on me; not only did I leave the resort on my own every day, I also mingled with and made friends with many of the locals and there were no attempts to pickpocket me, murder me, rob me or maim me in any way.  In fact, the Cuban people were among the nicest people I have ever met.  

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When I travel to another country, I want to meet the people who live there and learn more about how they live and do things.   While the other guests at my resort were mingling with one another and only seeking out others from home, I was getting to know the groundskeepers, coffee servers, housekeepers and bartenders.  I learned a lot about the Cuban way of life just from chatting with these people during my morning coffee or evening nightcap in the common area.


One of the things I learned about Cuba is that our perceptions about their political system are slightly skewed.   I learned that, although a lot of the Communist ideals in Cuba are not ideal for the people, a lot of other things are actually better than I have it in Canada,   With this newfound knowledge, I came to the conclusion that Communism, if done right, can be a wonderful system that benefits everyone.  For example, the average Cuban makes the equivalent of fifteen dollars a month and acquires his or her food and other goods through a rationing system. Yes, this rationing system means there are caps on how much food a person can eat each month, but no one is starving to death in Cuba.  Imagine if we all rationed what we ate and just ate what we needed; no one would go hungry and maybe there would never be a shortage of food and every single person on the planet would get their fair share.  

In Cuba, everyone eats, no one is homeless, education is free, healthcare is free and among the best in the world and, as one will notice while interacting with the Cuban people, they are always smiling and cheerful.  They must be doing something right!  I’m not saying their system is flawless because it is far from it, but there are many flaws in the Canadian and American systems, too. 


Other things I noticed about the Cuban people include their lack of material possessions, their devotion to family and their knack for being very social.  And by social, I am not talking about chatting it up with someone they will never meet face to face on an online dating site or chat-line.  You see, the average Cuban does not own a computer and rarely has access to the internet and this reflects largely on their way of life.  When I drive or walk around my neighborhood in Canada, I rarely see people sitting outside on their steps.  Even beaches and parks are empty on beautiful sunny days and the only time I see children is when they are walking to and from school.  


While walking around the streets of Havana and Matanzas City, there were people everywhere.  Adults sitting on stoops talking to their neighbors (I barely even know my neighbors), vendors chatting it up on the sidewalk to anyone who will lend an ear and children playing games in the street and well, being children.  It was like I went back in time to the 1960’s when family and friends and living life to the fullest was at the forefront. 

While the rest of the world is working eighty hours a week to pay their bills, racked up by frivolous spending in order to keep up with the Joneses, while children are being raised by a television, and communication is done at the push of a button instead of a knock at a door, Cubans have learned to survive with very little while maintaining a positive attitude that is rare in our society.  In Cuba, it seems no one cares what material possessions their neighbor does or does not have, and family is the most important thing of all.


So what did I learn on my trip to Cuba?  I learned that the country is not as dangerous as the resort operators told me it was.  Yes, pick-pocketers and muggers may target the odd tourist but this is far more rampant here at home.  If people continue to believe that Cuba is dangerous and the only way to experience the country is to stay on the resort and get drunk or embark on expensive guided tours, many travelers will continue to miss out on the real, genuine Cuban way of life.   Cubans are generous, laid-back, friendly people who embrace foreigners who want to see and learn more about their beautiful country.  The cafeteria-style meals and loud stereo systems pumping American music at the resort disco do not do justice to what the real Cuba is all about.  Some people complain that the food is bland, but these same people have never accepted an invitation to a home-cooked meal in a Cuban family’s home.

I also learned how I do not want to spend my next vacation in Cuba.  The next time I go (and there will be a next time), I will stay in a casa particular with a Cuban family.  I learned that a week without my cell phone and laptop is a break from the reality that is the rat race of the rest of the world.  And most importantly, I learned that there is still at least one place left on this continent where the people and the experiences one has are more important that their material possessions.   I learned that it is possible to be happy with very little and enjoy life to the fullest like many Cuban people do every day despite hardships that most of us here in Canada and the United States will never have to endure. 

In this regard, the Cuban people who make every attempt to be happy despite adversity are many steps ahead of the rest of us.


© Andrea MacEachern 

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