My love for the island of Cuba must have begun in the early 60’s. My grandparents had just moved to Miami Beach. I befriended a little girl, maybe a first-grader like me, who I met in front of their apartment. Both of us were new to the area and aware that we didn’t belong. We had our own play language, like jacks and hopscotch, we seemed to love games where the spoken word was secondary.
I knew nothing of her background except that my folks informed me that she’d recently arrived from Cuba. Her skin was dark and shiny, mine was lighter and freckly. She had braids and I had bangs. I was most impressed with her colorful dresses. It was their brightness and both of our smiles that brought us together outside to play in the sun under the palm trees.
That spring was followed by the Bay of Pigs, the Missile Crisis, JFK’s Assassination, my grandfather’s death, and the end of our annual visits to Miami.
Ten years later, the summer of 1970, though still in high school, I was a special student at the University taking dance classes with a famous modern dance visiting instructor. At 15, I was surrounded by older, sophisticated and worldlier young people. A woman in the group house where I sublet a room had a big poster over her bed, a silkscreen colorful picture of workers cutting sugar cane. She told me about her travel to the island of Cuba, the intense work with the Venceremos Brigade, and the amazing accomplishments of this daring nation. I was inexplicably intrigued by the hard work, the sharing of resources, and the sense that it all made.
The little girl from Miami, from Cuba, appeared in my dreams. She was me, I was her. She was different but so was I. She took me by the hand. At the edge of the field where the palm trees grow, people were selling handmade candy, wrapped in plain paper. I tasted the sugar cane and milk, dulce de leche, and the sweetness brought smiles.
In 1977 President Jimmy Carter lifted the ban on travel to Cuba. I was given the name of a Cuban American, Marco, who was forming groups to travel and visit the island. During that first trip we discussed my many friends who were also very interested in visiting Cuba. He said, “Get together a group of 15 people, and you can travel for free.”
Thus, began this next phase where I escorted group travel. That was followed by less glamorous work as a travel agent. Over the next few years, there were 16 trips to Cuba, and 5 to Eastern Europe.
On a subsequent, still magical, trip to the island, in 1980, I befriended a musicologist, a member of the group I was escorting. He was also fascinated with Cuba, though for different reasons, and compared it to his homeland of the Dominican Republic. We stayed together and six years later our daughter was born. She’s multi-ethnic, mixed race, totally her own person since birth, and that is clear. Still, at the beginning, I saw the little girl from Cuba, Miami, my dreams, and me.
I loved every minute of the travel and I was thrilled to share the culture and experience with the groups. Even the logistical complications didn’t seem to overwhelm me as they did in later years. It was like being a parent, so proud to show off the child’s accomplishments, and so defensive of any issues. If tourists complained, I told them it was part of the odyssey that they’d signed up for.
I was not able to sustain the calm as I ended up working in the travel industry, somehow by circumstance, for the next 20 years. I cared less and less, and the details of all parts of the travel business annoyed me. Without the passion, it became one big aggravation.
I recently found my journal from August 24-31, 1977, my first trip to Cuba with a group “interested in education,” and smile at my impressions. On the Cubana Airlines plane, I notice that the water bottles have no labels or advertisements. I sit next to a woman from Venezuela who was sketching in her book. She drew a picture of me, helped me with Spanish phrases she thought I’d need, and played “Guantanamera” on her tape deck. I learn the lyrics from the poem by Jose Marti, soon to discover his heroism and impact on the island where palm trees grow.
Yo soy un hombre sincero, I’m a peasant, young and sincere,
de donde crece la palma, from where the palm trees are growing,
y antes de morir yo quiero, and before I die, I want to
cantar mis versos del alma, sing all the verses of my soul.
. The first day while walking from the Malecon, the ocean boulevard, I turned back to see and hear the rushing Caribbean Sea washing up onto the rocks just below the cement blocks where people sat and walked. Back I went to the dream, of stepping along the banks of the sea and looking up at the palms, where I walk daily. Colonial Havana shone as the sun bounced off of the broken-down church, the old and new palm trees, and the peeling, pastel colored houses that fronted right onto the wooden streets. I was struck by the many people out and about on the roads, in everyone’s business, but not selling or begging.
The next day we were at the beach eating mango, guava, pineapple and papaya and then visiting the micro-brigades. The various skilled workers build their apartments and their community including laundry, cinema, shopping, and the factory. The apartments were prefabricated, unattractive concrete but they cost the homeowners less than 10% of their income.
We visit several schools including boarding schools in Gerona, Isla de la Juventud. One structure is set up for students to be in school most of the day and work on the citrus groves for a few hours daily. There are teacher training programs and plans for gifted and talented, engineering and other programs. We are told about goals for promoting literacy all over the island and we are entertained by the children in uniform singing to us, and studying hard.
Although I am taken in by the impressive life and lofty goals, I am reminded of my mother telling me that she felt like she was in a cult as she re-read her diary from her Zionist Youth days. Did I also drink the Kool-Aid? I convince myself that I am not am taken in by all that I experience, yet I smile at the murals on the walls in the city, heroes of the revolution.
Forty years later I find Marco, the Cuban travel coordinator, and we reminisce. He says he’s still energized by visits to the island of Cuba. Despite the decades that have passed since I was there, I still understand that oxygenation that he describes, in some way that others may not comprehend.
If there were a recipe for that island sensation, I imagine that one could put in varying amounts of:
walking on the pier, overlooking the sea
classrooms everywhere, learning for everyone
love of music and dance; loud laughter emanating
striking pride in history, plenty of major grumbling nevertheless
the face of youth, the respect of elderly
time observed by the sun, the moon and the stars
attitude and aptitude for countless challenges
But there is no recipe and replicating history is not possible. We continue on the path of figuring it out as we go along the road, making choices based on factors that are sometimes clearer than others. Taking on the learning in travel, and the caring for those falling through the cracks, is a balance. Our paths had crossed, we saw our younger selves poking through, and recollected how we had each played a part in our stories.
Ruth Ticktin is an experienced adult educator teaching English language skills and creative writing, encourages telling our stories. As a writer, he composes creative nonfiction, poetry, and prose, always grateful for the opportunity to share with others.