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2010 Narrative Travel Writing Contest 3rd Place Winner

¡Oye Niña!

A Transformation in Cuba

Waterfight in Cuba
A waterfight in the back yard.

Whose Cuba? My Cuba. My three months in Camajuani shed all the misconceptions that had been poured over me before I even stepped foot on the country. Crazy Communists. Poor souls can never leave the country. If they had just become Capitalists they would not have to worry about the embargo. 

Strong, Independent Cuba

When I arrived with a group of Canadian and Cuban youth our first step was to get temporary citizenship cards. Yes, for three months I would be a Cuban citizen and nothing else. I would live in a bright blue house on Independencia Boulevard with Edy, Marcos, Ismaray, Adrielis, and our German shepherd Jony. 

In the beginning, everyone thought I was Cuban. “No I’m Canadian,” I would respond. “No you’re not, there’re no Black people in Canada.” Initially it made me mad, really mad, but soon I was able to take it with a grain of salt.

I thought my Spanish would be fine in Camajuani, but it was no match for the dropped letters or slang of the Cuban language. 

Culture Shock

With no phone in our house, Internet blocked in our town, and post mail taking one month, my first week was tough and I spent a lot of it angry. But I guess it is like that with everything new; it takes some getting used to, because I came to appreciate the detachment that I initially hated.

Hasta la victoria siempre. Si se puede. Revolución es independencia. There was no advertising anywhere, only official propaganda. The words of famous mambises and revolutionaries filled the streets, school grounds, and market places. 

Car in front of Cuban heroes
An early 50's car passing a bill board featuring revolutionary heroes from the past. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk.

Vibrant Cuba

Cuba for those three months meant many things to me. It meant ration cards, arroz con frijoles, trips to the panadería, free health care for a sprained ankle, sugar cane, bicitaxis, cangrejito dulces, biking around the countryside on Marcos’ rugged bike, organoponicos, reggaeton, volunteering at the special needs school, trips to the outdated male dominant gym, domino games, and salsa dancing the likes of which you would not believe. It also meant learning from amazing people. It meant discovering their generosity, their desires, their patriotism and the reasons for it, and their independence in all senses of the word.

History: Learning from Cubans

Curious about the rich history of such a small island, I would ask the Cubans to teach me what they knew. What I received was a very richly patriotic account. I wondered why that was the case, not feeling overly patriotic about my own country. I realized that their patriotism exists due to an atrocious past which is still so ripe and vivid. Batista is still a living memory and not just a name etched in the history books.

Daily Life in Cuba

My daily life as a Cuban was simple and satisfying. Traveling by word of mouth, we would line up at the Bodega (the state market), once the food had arrived, filling up our large bags with our rationed food; rice, sugar, yucca… whatever had arrived that day.

Harvesting sugarcane n Cuba
Havesting the sugar cane.

Discovering the nooks and crannies of the small town was one of favorite activities. El río, where we met Jose Luis Santerio del Rio was a blessing. Every weekend we would return to see him, swimming in the river and hiking through the hills. Finding the houses that sold bananas and guavas when nobody else did, or going on adventures to find the best duro frío, all added dimensions to the experience.

Hands down, my most exhilarating experience was the night of a Santería celebration. I had not felt so much fear and excitement all at once. There were women shaking violently as they danced, taken over by another force, knives being placed on children’s heads, twigs and leaves beating everywhere, and rum sprayed onto the onlooking crowd.

Camajuani, as all Cuban cities, was filled with organoponicos, urban organic farms that fed the city. Just down the street from our house, working up to 14 hours a day just for the love of it, was Sosa, the farmer and former revolutionary fighter—my 84 year old friend. I would buy my vegetables from him even though you are not really supposed to do so. I remember when I bought carrots. He pulled a carrot right out of the ground and I ate it. There was no packaging, no tag that said “From Guatemala,” the carrot had not spent hours in a 16-wheeler refrigerated truck. There was only the few seconds, from his hand to mine. And I realized, he knows the land, they know the land. But what do I know? What do I produce for myself?

During my three months in Camajuani, I think I learned a lot more than I contributed. What I admired most was their self-sufficiency. Cubans lived on a land that they understood. They were therefore able to more effectively cultivate and harvest it. That is what is really great and important about travel. You learn so much from the people and culture in which you are immersed. You are able to take the wonderful things you have learned back to where you live and work on something about which you are truly passionate. Travel is an opportunity to learn about yourself, as well. You discover who you are as a person. Withdrawn from your mindless daily routine, you can reflect on what it is you really love.

Returning Home

Returning home motivated by what I had just experienced, I felt a need to immerse myself in all things environmental. In Camajuani there had been next to no waste. Everyone brought their own bags to pick up their food from the market. Leftover food was given to the pigs next door. Newspaper was used as toilet paper. Everything had a dual purpose. 

Back in Montreal—inspired by the ingenuity and dedication I had witnessed in Camajuan—I began working with environmental justice groups, on rooftop gardens, and with organic farmers. I have now come together with a community of people who share similar beliefs, including “meals on wheels” programs, delivering fresh food to people who have lost their autonomy, caring for the elderly, and creating campaigns to initiate environmental awareness. All these activities and more have become crucial and important aspects as I discover more and more what interests me. What I learned in Camajuani was not just something that I could scribble in a scrapbook; it was something that propelled my desire for learning and travel even further. 

I have become a bit defensive about my little town in Cuba. I have heard much critique. But to me, their lives seem fair. No, they do not drive Lamborghinis that are shiny red, nor do they have memberships in exclusive golf clubs. But they have what they need. They have a roof over their heads, they have food, they have a functioning educational system, health care, and employment. Such a society seems in some ways superior to one where—on the same block—you can see corporate skyscrapers and homeless people sleeping in metro stops; incongruities which exist all over the so-called “developed” world. 

I admired the autonomy of the Cubans, shunned by much of the world and surviving nonetheless. They defy expectations and live their beliefs despite actions taken against them by the West. Kudos.

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