Finding hope on the streets of a poor land

A Cuban Experience

By Spencer McCoy

Cubans never give up. They improvise!

When the opportunity arose to leave the U.S. and travel to a foreign country, I jumped at the chance.

I can honestly say that Cuba was not on my list. Although I only spent 10 days traveling the northern section of Cuba, I learned a great deal about the history and daily life of Cubans.

It took less than 24 hours to learn that while the majority of the people in Cuba are incredibly poor, they do not let their financial situation define them for who they are. Practically every person I came across was a hard working, free spirited individual with a story, sometimes two, to tell.

My grandmother, aunt and I were part of a group of nine photographers. My grandmother, my greatest inspiration for my passion for photography, has traveled the world, and this trip with her is an experience I will never forget. Since I was a child I remember asking her when she was going to take me around the world with her. I wanted to be a world traveler just like her.

She surprised me with a phone call in fall of 2016 telling me that a trip had been planned for January and to pack my bags.

This was it.

I was speechless.

The opportunity to travel with her finally came and I was flooded with those precious memories of the nights when I was a child asking her about her experiences on the plains of the African desert or wading the waters of the Amazon river.

Our Cuban travels started in Havana for two nights. Navigating the narrow alley ways to find the hostels we were staying at was our first adventure. With each step through the cobblestone streets I was filled with an overwhelming sense of serenity. Not once when roaming the city did I ever feel in danger. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Every person I encountered was extremely friendly, sometimes stopping us in the streets just so they could ask questions and tell us about their life.

My Spanish isn’t the best but I soon found there are other forms of communication. I was able to learn a lot about the Cuban people just by simply listening and observing their body language. With help from our guide, Alexis Lopez, a native of Cuba, I was able to understand the stories people were telling us.

One man, Pablo, a water color painter, explained to me that Cuba was his home and that he was proud to call himself a Cuban. In a very broken English he said, “We Cubans are a passionate people. I love my life and I am proud to live here.” He made a living by selling his paintings on the street and told me he would do this until he dies. A simple lifestyle such as his is something I think many Americans would want in a heartbeat. Pablo’s easy living was an inspiration I think we all could learn from.

Cubans are also well known for their passion in sports. While sports facilities are off limits to foreigners, our group somehow managed, with a little bit of bribery, to observe young Cuban boys training to be boxers. These seven-, eight- and nine-year-olds were working hard and learning discipline. The owner of the boxing gym explained to us that some of the boys had been champions of their age group for two years running. Their trainer was teaching them discipline and hard work from a young age that would carry with them into adolescence. I never thought about sports from that angle before but there it was right in front of my face. Boxing was a way for these kids to forget about the struggles they were born into and channel that energy into something positive.

After Havana, we traveled to the tiny town of Vinales. Vinales reminds me of Lock Haven … A small town with a big history. Surrounded by tobacco and sugar cane farmland, the locals made their living either as a farmer, working in a trade, or renting out their homes to travellers. The unique aspect of Vinales was that each home was part hostel. This brought huge amounts of traffic through a town that would have never gotten the attention it deserves had the locals not been so welcoming.

Our group toured around Vinales and hiked out of the town to a local farm that was growing tobacco. We were given a demonstration on the process farmers go through from start to finish — that ends with a hand-crafted Cuban cigar. We were told that each family had its own secret recipe but the process of rolling them was generally the same no matter where you went. A unique aspect to their cigars is that they use natural honey they make in Cuba to glue the tobacco leaves together, providing a sweet flavor when puffing. Part of my mission to Cuba was to bring back some authentic Cuban cigars. Mission accomplished.

The Cubans we so friendly. They would stop for photographs at every corner, laughing and joking, welcoming us with open arms into their homes. Try walking into someone’s home in the United States. You would be leaving with either a black eye or in handcuffs. I truly can’t get over this idea. People here in the United States are in such a rush all the time that we often find it very difficult to simply stop, breathe and smell the roses.

The town and people of Vinales offered so much to us, but we had to keep on the move if we wanted to see a large portion of the country.

Our next destination was Cienfuegos, where we only stayed for one night as a pit stop on our way to Trinidad. While in Cienguegos, we photographed the sunset in a harbor that eventually drains into the Caribbean Sea. Our group departed for Trinidad early the next morning so we would hopefully have enough time to roam the city before nightfall.

We stayed for two nights in Trinidad. The rumors of the cobblestone roads and excentrically colored homes rang true within the first 10 minutes of being there. Trinidad was interesting for multiple reasons but what stuck out to me was the poverty level. People were very poor in this city, but again, you would never know by talking to them. The outsides of homes were bright and colorful. They provide beauty in the heart of trying times.

As we left Trinidad to head back to Havana, the trip was quickly coming to a close. I was exhausted but filled with a renewed energy. I felt like I was coming back a new man in just the short time I had spent away.

Before I left I purposefully disconnected myself from the outside world. I made a promise to myself — no internet, no news, no cell phone, no nothing. Just me, my camera and an open mind. My head felt clear and I was dreading the return trip back to the states. I don’t hate this country but I am upset with much of what we have turned into as a people. We are so distracted and ‘connected’ that we forget on a daily basis what life was like before the information age.

Even though Cuba is a communist country, I think our government and people can learn a lot from Cuba and it’s people. With the recent lift of the embargo, travelers have a greater opportunity to bring information, money, and happiness into a country that is booming with life. We just have to slow down to witness it.