What is wonderful about Cuba?
First and foremost, it is the people. La gente.
The first and by far most important plus about Cuba is its people. They are wonderful.
And I mean exceedingly wonderful. Unbelievably nice. Generous beyond belief. Truly amazing.
We experienced this in so many ways. Our last night in Cuba was spent in the home of a doctor, his wife, Betty, and their son, Gabriel. On New Year’s Eve, they invited us to join them for their family dinner. We ate and talked for almost four hours. They shared a very special evening with us, total strangers.
The night before our last night we hiked an uphill 1.5 kilometers to get a view of the sunset over the valley of Vinales. Some refer to it as the Yosemite of Cuba. This particular spot looked out on what is called the Valle del Silencio, the valley of silence. At this spot, there is a farm and wooden porch that the family has turned into a restaurant. We, tired and hungry, asked if we could have dinner there, but all the tables were full, having been reserved by tour groups for weeks in advance. Somehow we were able to find a bench to sit on to at least take in and enjoy the sunset as we tried to renew our strength for the hike back to the town of Vinales.
One of the staff, a dark skinned woman named Esther, asked if we wanted something to drink. As we talked with her, she naturally engaged with us. We explained that we were the only persons to have come to her restaurant on foot. Everyone else had been driven by a tour bus or taxi. Therefore, our thinking went, shouldn’t we be given special consideration? Ha, ha. We developed a relationship which eventually turned into asking us to stay for dinner. They gave us the table usually reserved for their family members, which numbered as many as ten or so. The family waited until we had finished our meal to eat their own meal.
Another example of unbelievable kindness and generosity. And there were many many more on our trip. Many times we would just stop and marvel at the kindness that was being extended to us in a variety of situations.
Second, safety. There are no guns in Cuba. They were all confiscated by the government. There are strict, very strict, penalties for transgressions. Such as harassing a foreigner or stealing something from them. That could get you up to 7 years in prison. The feeling of safety and security among the people is pronounced.
Mothers do not hesitate to let the children of all ages play in the streets, in the neighborhood, in the parks. All without supervision. No young female in their twenties worries about walking home from a late night party.
This feeling and reality of security and safety is accomplished without a visable show of force. You almost never see military personnel, in distinct contrast to Mexico for example. And there are very few police personnel on the streets.
Third, helping the other person. Providing a helping hand.
For some reason, Cubans by and large practice being your brother’s keeper. Or, do unto others as you would do unto yourself. If a car is broken down on the road, the natural instinct of Cubanos is to stop and help, not to keep driving and avoid the problem.
This may come from the fact that most Cubans are in the same boat. They have the same financial resources, the same problems and the same conditions to live under. But, whatever the reason, the natural instinct in Cuba is to help the other out.
Fourth, la casa. The home.
Almost all homes are very basic, minimalist concrete block construction. One story, with bedrooms, bathroom(s), kitchen, dining area, living room area, with approximately 800 square feet of space. The nicer homes have two stories and a very simple one car garage. A television, phone, water, sewer and electricity. No internet. And hopefully air conditioning in most of the rooms.
But most importantly, in my opinion, is the front porch. Almost every home has this. And it is big enough to have on it a couple of rocking chairs, usually wooden and white in color. This provides the opportunity to relax and reflect. Also the opportunity to talk and communicate between family members. Finally, it provides the opportunity to be available and open to the rest of the neighborhood and the community at large as they walk and ride by.
The other reason the home is so important in Cuba is that it is the home for the entire family, and I mean the entire family. Spanning sometimes four generations. The grandparents live there. The parents live there. The husband and wife and all their children live there. And if their children have children, they may live there.
Each family watches out for itself. It is responsible for itself and all of its members. There is no Social Security system. There are no homes for the elderly and infirm. This is the result of the very severe economic realities that each family faces. They simply do not have the financial resources to do anything different.
Fifth, the fact that your education and healthcare is provided at no cost is a tremendous benefit, for it takes away the worry that accompanies these two issues that each family faces.
However, it needs to be pointed out that these two benefits do not work perfectly. For example, the teachers and professors are paid so little that they cannot recruit enough to fill the classrooms across the country. Now, some classes in elementary school have a TV in the front of the classroom, and the children watch the TV for their lesson. Not good.
The medical service is good, but the accessibility and availability of the doctors to see you is always in doubt. How long will you have to wait to see the doctor? Oftena in order to see the doctor within a time frame that makes sense for the issue at hand, a financial tip or other “gifts” are required.