Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Getting to know you


"Getting to know you, getting to know all about you." This catchy phrase is in my mindset of trivial lists of melodic bits. I was impressed with the meaning of these words when, at the age of 20, I joined UCLA's "Project India," a speaking tour of that country. There we shared presentations and songs with students, who often responded by performing for us with traditional Indian instruments. "Getting to Know You" was a favorite, reminding us of our purpose in travel—mutual knowledge and understanding of Indian culture and people.

Since that early exotic travel, I have most enjoyed gaining some sense about the various people I have visited, choosing to live among and around the real lives of other cultures. Even though I have no facility with learning foreign languages, I have tried to gain enough understanding of other tongues to be able to communicate with the inhabitants of several countries, even if I sound like a 2-year-old idiot.

Thus, I now have a smattering of Spanish (taught in the days of rote memorization and little speaking), French (only a reading knowledge required as part of my graduate studies), Thai (a difficult chore for a language novice, while studying with fellow Peace Corps members, some of whom were linguists embracing their fifth or sixth language), and Italian, when I lived on the border of Tuscany and Umbria for a few months in 2001-2002. I attended a course in Italian in Siena and acquired just enough to order opera tickets for the opening of the season and to ingratiate myself with the neighborhood butcher, my landlords, and the attendant of a gas station, where I also struggled with the metric system. At least I made them laugh!

So, when I recently traveled to Cuba, I was thrilled to be with a friend who is fluent in Spanish. Her skills opened many doors to talks with the Cubans we met and led to some slight understanding of their political and personal stories. I actually tried out my dormant Spanish and talked with many people on my own. Put a palm tree in my vision, and Spanish pops out! I once more sounded stupid, but the Cubans were warm and accepting, and along with gestures, we managed to gain a little insight about each other.

Other than witnessing the vibrancy and fortitude of the Cuban people, evidenced in the daily omnipresence of salsa and other Cuban music and dancing outside or in patios at almost any time of day, through my halting conversations I gained a small sense of what it has been like to live under Castro. Whatever one believes about a communist society, one has to acknowledge that many more of the poorer Cubans are literate and better educated than they were under the Batista regime; they also have full access to health care. Now citizens are even experiencing a more open society in which small non-government businesses are encouraged.

Obviously, there are concomitant losses of some freedoms we enjoy. We stayed with Cuban families in government-licensed "casas particulares," where owners are allowed to restore colonial and other old homes, adding rooms with tourist amenities. These casas are charming, comfortable and inexpensive, and offer meals of standard and often delicious Cuban fare. As a result of avoiding tourist buses and hotels, our travel party felt truly at home and made good acquaintances of our hosts.

After Havana, we took a lopsided old car to Giron, the entry to the Bay of Pigs, where we snorkeled in turquoise waters (although absent of the many fish we thought were there). Even witnessing the heightened rhetoric of the 51st annual celebration of the Bay of Pigs invasion the next day in the town center, we were treated with kindness.

We then traveled to Cienfuegos, a site established by French colonists, complete with a central Champs Elysees-like street that extends to Punta Gorda and the former U.S. Mafia-financed hotels of the Batista regime. Our affectionate hostess, a widow named Martha, was always ready to help, even enlisting her son to drive us to a new restaurant and later to see an African dance troupe appearing in the restored city theater.

The most beautiful casa we visited was in Trinidad, which resembled an Italian hill town. We enjoyed exquisite meals prepared by our French-Canadian/Cuban hostess and sat on the terrace at night relishing cool evening breezes and listening to music played on the cathedral steps nearby.

It was a sampling of true Cuban soul!

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