Note: This article comes from our friends and partners at Elkinite.com. 1,400 Miles from Home: Finding Community in Cuba is the first of two articles that recount the experiences of a group of Davis & Elkins College students and faculty who traveled to Cuba this past January as part of Sustainability Studies and Environmental Science courses. The trip was part the colleges unique three-week winter term in which students are immersed in a single course that stresses experiential and participatory learning. Courses vary from staging an entire theatre production in three weeks to the colleges unique First-Year Symposium that works to engage students in our democracy. Winter term is also a great opportunity for students to travel. In recent years students have traveled to Nicaragua, Kenya, Peru, the Florida Everglades and Keys, and the Galapagos Islands.
When I, along with 16 others from Davis and Elkins College, first set out for Cuba in early January to study sustainability, environmental science, and biology, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I assumed that the people of Cuba would have some sort of historic dislike for Americans and would treat us as outsiders. To the contrary, I quickly learned that when our Professor told us to check our assumptions at the door, he was more than correct. I never expected the warm reception we received. The Cuban people were extremely welcoming and accommodating, and they were easily among the kindest people I have encountered abroad. They were quick to strike up conversations with total strangers. If they hadn’t been speaking Spanish most of the time, I might have thought I had fallen into some forgotten city in West Virginia. In the stores and streets, we were always asked where we were from, and their first guesses were always Canada and Germany. They thought it was almost a miracle to have Americans back in Cuba. One evening while exploring Old Havana a gentleman approached us and began guessing our place of origin. He listed all of the usual countries they are used to experiencing, and his final guess was a very surprised United States. Upon confirmation that we were indeed his northern neighbors, he told us “Americans and Cubans are like brothers and sisters. We’re exactly alike.” That moment defined the rest of the trip for me.
For a portion of our trip we stayed in casa particulares (rooms in homes that private citizens rent out like a very personal bed and breakfast) in the small eastern town of Viñales. Our group was spread out over many houses and occupied almost an entire block. My cousin and I stayed with the Gomez family. The house father and mother lived with their teenage daughter. He had been an English teacher before retirement. Their daughter was studying English, seemingly following in her father’s footsteps. They opened their home and their lives to us, and we were welcomed into their family. Each morning the house mother made a delicious breakfast over which we discussed everything under the sun. When we were not busy with whatever was scheduled for the day, we would explore the small town; meet the locals and sit together to talk.
There was a small family with a son who turned three the day we arrived. A few of us presented the boy with many gifts, including a baseball. It was a favorite since both he and his father loved the game. While members of our group received Salsa lessons from the house mother, other members were playing with the children. Life was slow and enjoyable. When there was nothing left to do, we found ourselves sitting in rocking chairs on porches, watching life go by just like we would at home.
Community is as important to Cubans as it is to us. Their home is a strong part of their identity. As we define ourselves as Americans and West Virginians, they define themselves and take pride in their home. Time after time I encountered people that welcomed me to their town or city with the hope that I would enjoy my stay in Cuba. One of the most memorable instances of this occurred in a market in the town of Trinidad. A pleasant lady who spoke English was working at one of the first stalls. She stopped us, asked where we were from, and then asked “the Americans” if we would chat for a moment. She acted as though having the opportunity to just talk with us was an honor. When it came time for us to move on, she wished us a wonderful afternoon in the city and asked us to remember her after we returned home.
Cubans and West Virginians have resilience and independence in common. Cubans have lived for years without certain commodities, such as new cars or even parts for repairs, but they have found ways to adapt.
They have been cut off from their main external support systems numerous times, forced through an oil crisis without much aid, and almost everyone in the country holds two jobs just to make ends meet. Yet they have foraged on. There is certain ingenuity to the solutions they have created so that they may live the most comfortable lives possible. The Cuban people have continued to carry on when most would give up. West Virginians have a similar attitude. When times are tough for us, whether it be collectively or individually, we too carry on. If you talk to most anyone in the state, you will hear stories of hardships and struggles, but those stories always end with the reason they chose to fight through their difficulties. When we are without, we too find ways to make the best use of what we have.
However, at the end of the day there is still an embargo, we still have concerns with the Cuban state, and while relations are changing fast, we will likely remain strangers to one another for quite some time. Regardless, I had a surprisingly wonderful experience in Cuba. I am still stunned at the warm reception we received. Thank you to the wonderful people of Cuba for welcoming a group of American students into your home and welcoming us back to a country we have so long forgotten. I cannot wait for the day I can return without a visa, and we can return to being friendly neighbors.