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How Cuba changed me

By Janet

Visit #1 - one week to Cuba, 1996

In 1996 my sister (who lives in Nova Scotia) told me she was giving me a birthday present (trip to Cuba) First she said we were going on Bahamas trip, but too expensive, so it would be Cuba. I pay the fare from Vancouver to Toronto, she'd pay the rest.

I was to bring some US money (not much, as it was all-inclusive resort, just enough for day trips, tips, souvenirs). I knew NOTHING about Cuba, so went to library, read a few travel, ie Lonely Planet, books. One thing BT (my sister) wanted me to bring was soap, pens, pencils, chicelets, t-shirts for the Cubans. She explained that it was better to give these items out instead of money. Okay, I thought this was abit strange, but brought quite abit of stuff (people at work donated, etc).Because this was my first big trip (had to get passport - very exciting), parents gave me money, friend at work etc. We flew on Canadian Airlines (now defunct airline (for those of you out of the country), with a stopover in Cayman Islands.

I was petrified when I arrived for the first time at the Cuban airport. Saw these guys in green uniforms (looking much like Mr. C. himself) and thought they were all military -sure looked that way to me. And "WHY" didn't they stamp my beloved passport. Of course, I never dreamt that I would be returning to Cuba, so I wanted "Proof" of my visit. But alas, no stamp. It was explained to me later, why, so I could go to US without problems, etc. Then from the airport without much hassle, to a bus, for a wonderful 1 and 1/2 hour bus ride to the hotel.

Bus Ride/Hotel:

On the bus, had my first experience ordering a beer in Spanish. "Dos cervezas por favor! Music to one's ears, right. Both my sister and I knew no Spanish, but had a small Berlitz book for reference. It did help a bit. The bus ride was great, many new sites for both of us, banana, coffee plantations, going through small Cuban towns, just the architecture, the experience of "bad" road, the bus driver honking his horn at people on the road as a warning, checking all the various modes of transportation, all amazing to me. The tour guide explained things along the way and was a great guide, he (Rene) was there for 3 of my visits.

When we got to the hotel, the staff and some guests were waiting for us, music playing and holding "Mojitos" for each of us. The Hotel Farallon is a lovely hotel, the lobby is beautiful, In the centre are lush plants, beautiful wooden staircase going up to the restaurant. My sister took care of everything because I was a novice traveller. Got the safety deposit key, towels for the beach, arranged the day trips that we went on. So I pretty well just sat by the pool and waited for her instructions. Wow, 1st time traveller or what!!! We hung out at the pool and nearby beach the first couple of days, met some tourists and relaxed.

BT and I went for a buggy ride one day and ended up (I believe these trips were kind of planned to go to particular places now that I think about it), but ended up at a small village called Mota. The buggy driver knew the woman there and BT and I got to have our first experience visiting a Cuban house. Of course we spoke NO SPANISH. Two little girls that were in the house stared at us. We bravely tried to communicate, and it worked, they spoke abit to us. We went out back with the lady of the house (who has since that trip become my best friend in Cuba) and checked out the vineyard (they were growing grapes that year on the farm). She gave us some grapes to take back to the hotel and gave us a glass of wine (strongest drink I'd had so far in Cuba). I took a photo of this family and sent it to her (with a Canadian friend I met on this trip), thus began a 5 1/2 year friendship of corresponding, visiting, etc.

I met another girl near the hotel when BT and I were going for a walk. She approached us and in broken English asked if we could mail a letter for her to Canada. We went to her house and she got the letter. We sat on her porch, the family all came out (curious to see these tourists). Of course I thought we were the first tourists to do this, very naiive. They gave us a strong small cup of coffee and a small banana (very sweet). We tried to converse, my sister is very animated and we had quite a few laughs. The next day we returned to their house with gifts for the family. Luz Maria and her son She too has become a true friend of mine. Of interest, my sister did not take to writing to these people. She told me many of her co-workers do and it's quite an arduous task. I don't find it arduous, I love receiving and writing letters and I have 2 accordian folders full of letters/post cards.

In 1998 I went totally by myself to Cuba, no one to assist me with my Spanish, help me at the airport or hotel. SOLO.

By now my "green uniform guys" at the already famous airport in Manzanillo recognized me (even though I only went once a year - what good memories (or notebooks) they have. I had already paid $50 US at the airport in Vancouver and left a suitcase behind at the airport (lack of funds to pay extra). I unloaded more of my stuff at a friend's place in Ontario and hoped I wouldn't get checked in Toronto. Passed that test, but was asked to pay $50 in Manzanillo. I pleaded (Xmas presents, presents for my soon to be goddaughter) and because I was not from Toronto and didn't go frequently to Cuba, was allowed to fill our a form listing items I brought, ie clothes, soap and didn't have to pay. I needed the money for transportation for myself as well as for my friends.

I stayed in Marea for one week, visited everybody, and spent the second week with friends of mine on their farm in a place called Mota. This was truly a great experience. I had met this woman on my first trip when my sister and I were brought to her house in the buggy from the hotel. We immediately struck up a friendship through correspondence and I was invited to stay at their place. There was no need for the "special visa" at immigration at that point in time.

I got a first-hand look at life on the "finca" farm. My friend and her husband have a government run farm, growing onions this year (grapes, other years). On the same property is my friends' son-in-law and his family (their little son), grandmother, and always, always people coming to house, including farm workers, friends, etc.

I was never lonely, that's for sure. If it's privacy you want, stay at the hotel. One thing about Cuba, you're never lack for company. My friend, Irma, had me working on the farm from day one (I spent a week there). I had my chores, sifting the rice, peeling garlic every morning, sweeping the sidewalk, feeding her grandson (who was about 3 and 1/2 yrs. old). I did not feel this was a chore, but rather a great chance for me to be part of the family and I enjoyed the experience. I would make notes and everytime Irma or someone said something I did not understand, I would ask her to write it down, she wrote Cuban recipes for me, I still have all these little notes.

We would play dominos in the evening. My friend asked me to bring some music cassettes for her. She likes Mexican music, so I went to a store in Vancouver that sells Mex. tapes. She played them over and over again. I got to try and sew on her treddle sewing machine, I sew and she wanted me to fix a t-shirt for her. I had to sew it by hand, could not work the machine.

The time I spend just being with this wonderful family gave me such a sense of peace and happiness. They were wonderful to me. I even got by without using my dictionary that much. Made jokes in Spanish, something about "chincharonnes (spelling?) a bug that falls from the ceilings at night when the lights come on. It's also the same word for pork rinds (a real tasty treat). I said I liked the "chincharonnes that didn't have legs (LOL). They liked it.

Some of the changes.....

I had a video camera on this trip and took videos of all my friends, so that I would have these memories forever, and show my son the people (hear their voices, even if it was in Spanish). He enjoyed the video and I get to watch it over and over again.

I also went to Santiago de Cuba for a day to meet for the first time my goddaughter. I had never met her, I was sent her picture. She was 3 and a half at this time. A beautiful little girl. They bought a cake in celebration of my visit. I could only spend a few hours with her and the family, (her grandparents and another lady and her son that I had met the year before). I took some gifts for my goddaughter and the family. Gave her some gold cross earrings and a music jewellery/box shaped like a piano to put the earrings in. A friend at work gave that to me to give to my goddaughter. I collected many articles of clothing from people at work.It was sad when I had to leave her but I did have a wonderful (longer visit with her on my last trip).

I will never forget these experiences, they shaped who I am as a traveller to Cuba. I remember one evening one of the workers from the hotel came by the farm to see how I was doing. I guess he thought I might have trouble communicating, etc. but that was never a problem.

Oh yes, it was the 15th birthday celebration of my friend's daughter. So I took many photos and gave her lots of clothes to wear/keep for the photos. There was also an occasion at the farm, some "big wigs" from Havana etc. came to inspect the farm, and a big lunch was prepared for them. I had the "not-so-great" experience of being privy to the slaughter of a huge pig. The "birthday girl" wanted me to watch the "slaughter" and said, well you eat the pig don't you. I could not watch, but was witness the bloody aftermath, etc. No, I'm not a vegetarian, but it was nip and tuck that day. That was the day I got to eat "chincharonnes".

I love my Cuban friends and I am so thankful to have had this opportunity in my life to meet such wonderful people.

Revisiting my goddaughter...

Well it's only the 3rd time I've visited my goddaughter, first time was to meet her and get to know her (4 whole hours), 2nd - to get to know her better, and have baptism, and this 3rd time to visit my "new" friend/goddaughter.

Somehow we just connected - she was so happy to see me and I, her. After meeting her mom in Cespedes Square (and I must admit for first time in a many years, I was coming off a hangover - god forbid). So after sleeping for most of the 3 hour ride from Marea to Santiago, I didn't exactly leap off the bus. But I was feeling better when we got there and asked my co-madre if we could "walk" to her house in Vista Alegre district. The weather was beautiful (after one week-end of rain, which turned out to be hurricane Karen). Luz treated me to an helado, yummy (coconut flavour) dripping through the hole in the cone, eat fast or drink the ice cream.

I explained why my visit was brief this time, as I had planned to go to Havana, but not enough time to do that, she was disappointed that I was only spending 4 hours with them. But it was better than nothing, right. We got to her place, I was greeted by her father and 4 dogs (used to be 3), what is with all the dogs....her dad was repairing/rebuilding his blue car (could be a Chev) don't know cars that well - all I know is it's 'OLD'.

I went with Luz's brother to the daycare to pick up my goddaughter (almost 6 1/2 years old now) and her baby sister- baby Yanet (18 months old) walking, talking - she was wearing little shoes that squeaked (deliberately) when she walked, so you could hear her coming a mile away - so cute.

Evelyn gave me lots of besos y abrazos. My poor Spanish was abit better and I asked her about kindergarden (grade 1 next year). When we got to her place, I gave her some gifts (the main one being a gold cross with her birthstones in it - she liked it alot). Lots of things for her lovely hair, clothes, a small puzzle (which her uncle put together- whales of BC). Gave Evelyn a new swimsuit/costume for ballet lessons.

Baby Yanet was a holy terror (unlike her namesake - lol). Temper tantrums, not eating, not a pretty sight, but kids are kids no matter where they are - the terribles twos.

Luz set up a little table in the bedroom (kitchen is not the greatest) and we tried to eat lunch (I was definitely not hungry and apologized profusely), got some rice down, that was about it.

Evelyn and I went for a walk on our own, lots of photos, saw her other uncle going off to sell bread/buns in the street. We took Yanet to babysitter's place and took very crowded guagua to el centro. It was a short visit and next time will be longer.

We spent another half hour talking, waiting for tour bus to take me back to Marea.

Brief as the visit was,I know I have a very special goddaughter, beautiful, loving and sweet.

Besos a Evelyn.

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