Growing up in the 1950’s, I remember the exotic cruise my grandparents took to a very familiar destination for Americans – Cuba. They brought me back a pair of castanets, which I still have to this day. However, after the Bay of Pigs and the time of the Cold War, an embargo was set and Americans were no longer welcome in Cuba. I didn’t think much about it again until recently when I received one of our travel brochures in the mail. My husband and I have traveled to 65 other foreign countries but never thought Cuba would one day be on our agenda. However that all changed when we had the opportunity to travel with People to People, a recently opened cultural exchange between the two countries. Although we had to sign several government forms and purchase Cuban insurance, the process was relatively easy.
My husband has always called me Lucy as I somewhat resemble Lucille Ball and my actions definitely resemble her antics. Through the years of our forty-year marriage I have contrived more schemes and pulled more pranks on my husband than most spouses would ever put up with. So indeed I deserved the name “Luuuuuuucy. “ I even have a friend who also agrees and as my sidekick, even calls herself Ethel. Since my husband and I were going with a group that we did not know and traveling to a once forbidden country, you can understand his trepidation when we were given instructions to “not deviate from the group nor the agenda.” Although I promised him I wouldn’t, I too questioned my ability to stick to the requirements.
Once we arrived at the Havana airport, I was startled to see we were landing in what appeared to be 1950s America. When the embargo was placed on American products coming into Cuba in 1959, no more automobiles were brought in on the once frequent ships. The Soviet Union and Cuba formed a partnership shortly thereafter, but automobiles were too expensive to bring across the ocean. Thus it was cheaper for the Cubans to fix up the old American Chevrolets and Ford’s of the 1930’s, ‘40s and 50’s. They soon became experts at restoration. Personal automobiles, taxis, and even work related vehicles – including trucks, looked as though they were all straight out of America 1959.
Our first day there, we were so enamored with all the old autos, we seemed to take pictures of every automobile on the road. However by the third or fourth day this had become the norm and now we were more enchanted with the carts and donkeys and horses and even bulls that were used not only on the farms, but also on the highways and even in the cities.
Every evening our director would take us to one of the local restaurants, replete with Cuban bands and entertainers. Since the singers and the band looked as if they had stepped out of the old black and white I Love Lucy television programs, of course I was the first to volunteer when they tried to involve the audience. Whenever there was a musical instrument to be played, a song to be sung or a dance to be danced, I became “Lucy.” My husband of course expected this, but the rest of our group was a little taken back until I told them I was a retired drama teacher, and then they understood. Having traveled in Central and South America and recently Spain and Portugal as well, I have always jumped at every chance to join the lively groups. I have fallen in love with the Latin music and Hispanic people and so I was an easy mark to be selected as an audience “volunteer.”
As a retired teacher and now motivational speaker, I was so excited when our tour instructions informed us that we would be able to bring in certain items for the children and local artists. Of course I packed an entire suitcase filled with art supplies, booklets, pencils and pens, necklaces and beads and all kinds of items for the craft making. Every place we went there seemed to be a cultural awareness and local involvement not as prevalent in other places. I have come to believe it is because the internet and world television has not yet bombarded Cuba. Children are yet unspoiled by the ubiquitous technology that we have here in America. Of course I would be the first to agree that technology is a necessity, and America was on the forefront. However, to see children still playing jump rope, stickball, and old-fashioned hide-and-go seek sent me immediately back to my own childhood.
We were allowed to visit schools and the teachers gratefully accepted our bags of supplies as most of them have learned to do with practically nothing. Again, as a teacher I was torn since I know the importance of financial assistance here in the United States. However, in Cuba the decorations on the walls were handmade, the books were decades old, and the teachers make less than one dollar American per day. As a matter of fact, an article about Cuba appearing in Newsweek last year told of a medical doctor who said that he made more on weekends driving a taxi for tourists than he made in a month as a medical doctor. As an American, I understand the importance of the initial embargo and mandatory separation of the two countries. But the teacher and human side of me fell in love with the people, the land, and especially the children.
Every time we went around the corner or traveled a block or two in the big cities there remained signs of the communism and the socialistic aspect of the country. Of course it was expected that we would face propaganda of the old regime. Che Guevara, the Castro brothers, and the old alliances were ever present. Once the Soviet Union’s economy collapsed in the 1990s, support from Chavez, President of Venezuela, became the life force of Cuba. Now with his imminent death and expected reduced support, the people there told us that the railroads, the highways and buildings were already being primed for the financial structure soon to be in a partnership with China.
Things are much more complicated than when we sat around the huge TV sets as families did fifty years ago. Americans were enamored with Lucille Ball and Ricky Ricardo and his Cuban band of the 1950’s. I was still enamored with the people, the music, and the flavor of Cuba. But I must never forget all that has transpired through the years and the reason we have been unable to travel there until now. So in one sense this “Lucy” loves the people, but hates the politics. Just as when returning from other “third World countries” on our many voyages, once again we vowed to never live such extravagant and wasteful lives. Yet now three weeks later, we have returned to cable, social media, new cars and wasting food. So just as Cuba seem to be “back to the future” so America is future-bound. I only hope and pray as the doors re-open, there is some way to help the people and get around the politics without intruding on our own ideals. I still believe America is the most blessed of all countries; but I also believe we are blessed to be a blessing.
Dr. Debra Peppers, a professional speaker for 25 years, is one of only five inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame, which followed her retirement from Lindbergh High School. A member of the National Speakers Association, she has traveled to all 50 states and 60 countries teaching others that if she can go from being a 250-pound high school dropout, to Teacher of the Year there is hope for every child and adult. Her web site is http://www.pepperseed.org.