Michael Strickland's blog on all things travel: news, deals, destinations, dreams and more.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Expectations defied in Cuba

A friend recently traveled to Cuba, and told me the following story. I found it inspiring enough to share here.

The whole trip is too long to write about, but our first impression pretty much sums up the whole experience. Cuba is famous for all kinds of hustlers, scammers and petty thieves, and our travel budget was cut in half right at the airport when our fully pre-paid rental car was suddenly two times more expensive than previously agreed. Since American credit and ATM cards don't work in Cuba, our vacation looked pretty much doomed. So with a bitter taste already in our mouths, we started driving around the country.

We always pick up hitchhikers wherever we travel, but we didn't know if we should stick to this principle after the bad start. But we did our usual thing when the guy we stopped for directions asked if he could ride with us, since his sister lives on the way. The rough roads took us much longer than we ever expected, and it was already midnight when we arrived at the sister's house. It was obvious to everybody that we could never get to our destination before the morning, and this area was too rural for any hotels. So the guy asked us to stay with them. We refused and said we were okay and didn't want to bother them. In reality, we were so exhausted and tired that we couldn't have driven any longer. But we were too afraid to stay and thought they would chop our heads off and take the car and the little cash we had left (everybody in the countryside carries a machete on their belt).

After long negotiations with our terribly poor Spanish we finally decided to stay. We offered some money and they refused. Then he kicked his sister out of her bed and both of them went to sleep in the same bed with their old mother. And they were so poor that they had only one light bulb, so when you went to the bathroom (which had no running water), you had to take it out of the kitchen light. All this was too generous and good to be true, so we went to bed really nervous.

We woke up early in the morning and thought if we survived this far, we should try to leave ASAP without waking anybody. I left $5 on the pillow and we snuck out of the house. Half way to the car, we hear: Tommi y Anna! We thought that he finally got his machete, and maybe we should try to run to the car. But I decided to go back and find out what he wanted. He apologized that they didn't have anything to make us for breakfast (their fridge really was empty when we put our water bottle in there the previous night). Then he gave me a piece of paper with his email address on it (they are not allowed to access the web, but they can use email at post offices).

At that point, I started feeling really ashamed about my doubts. But that was nothing compared to later that day, when I decided to take a closer look at his email address: it was written on a folded piece of paper, and when I unfolded it, a $5 bill dropped from it to the floor. I don't think I have ever felt so ashamed of my prejudice, my cultural background and values. Not only is my home country's embargo partly to blame for why they are doing so badly, but my $5 would have been considered as trading with the enemy—which could bring me $250,000 in fines and two years in prison. But they didn't have any trouble giving the enemy a shelter that night.

The whole rest of the trip we stayed with the local families, every single night. Absolutely amazing people and country.



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