Sunday, July 6, 2014

10 Questions and Answers about my year in Cuba

Working on the pulpit
Thank you to all who submitted questions to me to answer about my experience. Here are my answers.

What common things do Cubans have that they overlook, but a Norte Americano would think is special?
The value of love, culture, and family. This is something that isn’t really overlooked by Cubans but it is something that I wish there was more of in the U.S. Not to say that we don’t have these things in the U.S. but here it is different. When living in a country that doesn’t have access to the same material and economic possibilities that we have, people have a different list of priorities in their lives. It may be a bit harsh but what I have seen about American priorities is as follows: money, work, family, material goods, and love. These are the things that people in the U.S. need to live a happy life. In Cuba the order is different: family, love, culture, food, work, money. My interpretation of family, love, and culture is that these three things are almost a coping mechanism for living with such little economic possibility. I have never seen people so loving and hospitable in a country with such little money. People jump at the opportunity to open their houses to visits, prepare home cooked meals, and to simply talk with almost complete strangers. When I was with my parents in a hotel in Varadero, I started talking to the bellboy who happens to live very close to the church in Cardenas. After ten minutes of talking he invited me to have diner with him and his family. This is something that isn’t rare in this country and also something that I consider truly special. 

What common things from the US did you miss that surprised you?
Many people ask me if I miss home. The honest answer is no. This is one thing that surprised me the most. I do miss some things, which I will get to next, but the reality is that I have a family here in Cuba that takes away the possibility of homesickness. People ask me if I miss my parents, and sorry mom and dad but in reality -- no. Of course I miss my true family, but it isn’t something that holds me back from doing what I am here to do. I also have the opportunity to talk to my parents every week or two where we catch up as quickly as possible (the calls from the US to Cuba cost about a dollar a minute and $1.70 a minute from Cuba to the US.) These are some of the things I miss the most: candy (from jolly ranchers to gum), bagels, iced coffee, SNOW and snowboarding of course, Home Depot (its very hard to buy tools here), the grocery store, my dog Maxie, internet, and my cell phone. The last two I have learned to live without, but there is something about how Google can answer any question that I may have that I really miss. The thing that surprised me the most is how much I would miss fast food; not McDonalds or anything like that but things like Chinese delivery, Dunkin Donuts, SUSHI, or a good New York style pizza. But in reality, I miss these things but it has not taken away from my experience this year. Adapting to living without things that I am used to depending on has been really easy.

What has the food been like? List some of the things you have tried during this year.
Rice, beans, and pork (obviously). But also: fish (fried, grilled, in red sauce, canned), chicken (with rice, fried, stuffed, grilled, in red sauce, in mango sauce), pumpkin, green beans, fried rice, cucumber, radishes, okra, beets, lettuce, tomatoes, eggplant, avocado, cooked green peppers (prepared with sugar, vinegar, onion and pineapple), mango, bananas (regular, fried, stuffed, boiled, mashed, chips), chicken liver, shrimp and lobster (grilled, shish kebob, in tomato sauce, in butter and garlic sauce) crabs (one of my favorite things to eat here, prepared with almost everything that remains in the fridge: beer, tomato sauce, herbs, salt, pepper, white wine, crab roe and fat, garlic, onions, butter, olive oil, and spicy sauce), shrimp cocktail (prepared with mayonnaise, onion, green peppers, pineapple, and a touch of ketchup and mustard), and a wide variety of soups and stews.
         Sweets and deserts: ice cream (guava, mango, condensed milk, and the regulars), guava pastries, coconut pie, candied fruits (papaya, mango, grapefruit), and flan.
         The food here for me is amazing. My dad told me before I left that I would quickly get sick of rice and beans but that never really happened. All the fruits and vegetables are organic and fresh, the meats have unique flavor, and garlic is an iconic flavor in every Cuban household. But I do truly miss American food and candy.

Que opines del sistema politico Cubano? Hay real libertad religiosa en Cuba?
(How do you feel about the political system in Cuba? Is there true religious freedom?)
This question I cannot give an answer to. During orientation the YASC leaders told us that the best thing you can do is to stay away from politics. I can tell you that I love Cuba, and my work here is for the Cuban people before anything else. I can also say that I have personally witnessed a wide variety of religious practices here. From Santeria rituals to camping at a Baptist retreat center. There is still much work to be done here in regard to the church but in this year alone I have witnessed growth in the religious community.

How will you apply what you have learned abroad once you are back at St. Lawrence? In that ways will you integrate what you learned in Cuba with what you will learn back on campus?
The easiest way to apply what I have learned in Cuba will be through my studies. As a Global Studies major I feel like I have almost spent a year abroad studying. I have also witnessed the value of an education in modern society. Here people study and work like maniacs but don’t necessarily have all the resources to meet their true potential. Another thing that I have learned during this year is the value and power of relationships. I hope that one day we can start a program at SLU that has something to do with Cuba. There is an increasing presence of sustainable agricultural practices in Cuba that I am sure the Canton community would find fascinating. The rest of the application of what I have learned will be subtler. The changes I have undergone this year are now part of who I am day to day, so they will be hard to notice personally. But one thing is sure, I have earned grater motivation to finish my studies strong so that I can go out into the world and do good. Lets start by working on building the much-needed relationship between St. Lawrence and the greater Cuban community.

What advice would you give to other students spending significant time abroad? How would you advise them to best engage with another culture and its people?
My biggest recommendation is that anyone spending significant time abroad must learn to adapt and to go with the flow. This is also a remedy for culture shock; embracing the way of life in the country you are in helps you forget how different it is from home. One of my last Sundays at home before I left a wise man said to me, “Don’t do something, sit there. Don’t Sit there, do something.” This has helped me through this year. When I got here I had all the motivation in the world to work but there was nothing for me to do. I soon realized that this would be my time to relax and read a book. Sure enough a month or two later I found things to do. And since then I have not stopped working. At this point I am exhausted from all the things that I have done during this year. People have told me that I have accomplished more in 10 months than the church has in 4 years. This gave me more motivation to work and do everything possible that I can in this year. To answer the second question, my best advise for anyone traveling abroad and experiencing a new culture is that they must arrive with an open mind. Forget about everything you thought about before your departure and start with a clean slate on your arrival. Leave your culture behind and try to adapt to the way of life in your new home. I say now home because it is the truth. If you are traveling abroad for three months or three years you will need to think that this new place as your new home. Just go with the flow and suck it up.

Coming back to America, how will you deal with culture shock? What do you think you will and won’t struggle with the most?
The answer to this question is somewhat similar to the question about things I miss. The first thing that I will do (when I land in Boston), is buy candy. All jokes aside I have thought a lot about this question. When I arrived here I really had no culture shock. I have grown up around Cubans and researched extensively about this country and its culture, so when I arrived I was already in the mindset to adapt and leave my American lifestyle behind. The most shocking thing to me will be seeing just how modern and advanced the US is in comparison to Cuba. Things that I see here don’t shock me anymore: a stray horse walking the street, a lawnmower made out of a machete and washing machine engine, or a 1949 Chevy in mint condition are things that have become normal to me. One thing that I think I will struggle with for a while is English; even writing this post is a challenge. I have adapted to thinking in Spanish so when it comes to translating for visiting groups I feel like I am speaking English at an elementary school level. One Sunday a group of four Canadians visited the church in Cardenas and I was given the task of translating for them to the entire congregation. At first I did well, but when one member asked a question in Spanish and I went to translate that to English I started speaking with the Canadians in Spanish. The faces they gave me and the laughs that erupted from the congregation is something that I will never forget. 

How did missionary work help you to understand Cuban culture in a new or different light?
During orientation I received my official job title for my placement: mission assistant. At first I had no idea what it meant but then realized that this title gave me a lot of room to invent what I will be doing here. I developed my own job description and more or less this is how it read: I am here for Cuba, my goal is to develop relationships between the Young Adult Service Corps and the Cuban diocese. The biggest requirement to be successful in this mission is to talk to and meet as many people as possible. When meeting someone for the first time almost always their first question for me is -- what the hell are you doing here? I explain what my mission here is and before you know it we are talking and joking around like we have been life long friends. The easiest thing to do here in Cuba is meet people. All you have to do is be willing to meet new people and take the occasional imperialism joke. The best way to learn about a countries culture is to talk to locals who understand that culture better than any book or published article. Recently I have started learning about pigeon racing in Cuba. To do this I talked to my barber and he invited me to join him every Sunday afternoon to teach me about this typical Cuban sport. Over the last 2 months participating in the races every Sunday I have met at the very least 30 new people. To answer the question directly, missionary work didn’t help me to understand culture in a new light -- it helped me learn about Cuban culture for what it really is. But one does not need to be a missionary to have the same experiences as I have, they just have to be willing to step out of their comfort zone and socialize. This is a fail proof technique for any country in the world: communication and our ability to socialize is what makes us human.

After your year in Cuba, what would you say you enjoyed the most about interacting with the local people there?
I have talked about this a bit though out this post but the thing that I love the most about this country is relationship building. After 5 minutes of conversation with a complete stranger you feel like they are someone you have known all your life. The best think is when someone passes by on the street and stops to complain about something that just happened to them. Usually it is a drunk complaining about a car that almost ran them over, but there is nothing better then random encounters. One thing that I love about the people here is their passion for sports. I am not a big fan of baseball but there is nothing better than being in a Cuban house full of people screaming for their teams in the finals. Talking about screaming, one thing that I also enjoy here is playing dominoes. Once you learn to talk trash and win in dominoes you can instantly earn the respect from any Cuban.

Explain the building process. When you want to start a new project, what steps do you take to collect supplies and other materials?
This question is one that I would be more than happy to answer. I only hope that my answer shows just how hard building and organizing projects here actually is.

The process required goes like this:
- First the dream.
- Acquiring the required building permits.
- Raising funds (required for bigger projects, some of the smaller ones can be supported by the church)
- Talking to an expert (to measure and give rough estimate of materials.)
- Finding materials, the hardest part. (What I required for the roof project is listed below.)

Required materials:
30 sacks of cement (3,000 pounds)
4 cubic meters of arena artificial (artificial sand that contains more rock than dust)
9 cubic meters of arenisca (a type of sand that contains more dust than rock)
3 cubic meters of pulverized sand stone
400 cinder blocks
30 sandstone bricks
91 meters of rebar
45 meters of steel tubing
1 rope (to raise the materials to the roof)
4 buckets
2 shovels
3 garden hoes

- Volunteers. For the roof project we needed to have materials on the roof before we could start working.
- If volunteer assistance is not an option one must find professionals to help. As a foreigner many people will try to take advantage of you and the church, so one must find someone of confidence and various quotes.
- Managing and motivation to finish the work (This includes getting dirty and leaving you blood, sweat, and tears in the project).
- If things go smoothly and one doesn’t run into problems this should be the end of the process and the final step is the celebration of a job well done. (The roof celebration was held one Saturday night when we welcomed two visitors from Pittsburg. Music and dancing is a must.)

I can personally tell you that building in Cuba is no easy task. After a month of working under the blazing Caribbean sun I was mentally and physically burnt out. The most stressful part of it all was finding people to help me. I alone had to move around tens of thousands of pounds of materials, and prepare all of the cement by hand. It is hard to ask someone to leave their every day job to come and help me with back breaking and laborious tasks. The truth is that I would not have been able to finish my projects here if it wasn’t for the help of the church community. To make this process easier the only thing that would help if more money to pay for professionals instead of inexperienced volunteers. To give some perspective, the final cost of the project reached about $2,000; and I was not able to finish it completely (with fencing, electrical outlets, and a basic roof.) To finish the project the way I initially dreamed of I needed at least another $1,000. If I was not there to help with hard labor and management the local priest Aurelio says that he would need at least $5,000 to accomplish the same as me. The learning point for all of this is that building in Cuba is made a lot easier if the budget coincides with what is require for the job. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

What it means to be a missionary in Cuba

First I would like to apologize for the lack of written posts in the recent months. I thought that you guys would like to see pictures, and to be honest I passed through a bit of a writer’s block. The main reason I have not been able to write anything is because I have been killing myself with my self-created projects here in Cardenas. For the last two months I have been working 10 hours a day for six days a week. Pictures are much better to explain what I have been doing during these last 3 months, (and because I am unable to upload pictures myself I have hired my godson to do it for me. To view these pictures you must go to his Facebook page the two projects that I have mainly been working on is the construction of a conference and reception area located on the roof of the church dormitory, and the installation of three AC units in the same dormitory. Once I am finished with the dormitory it will be able to attract more visitors and events due to improved living conditions.

Now to respond to the title of this post: What does it mean to be a missionary in Cuba?

The easy answer: nothing like what I had thought when I first arrived here. One thing that was explained to us during YASC orientation is that there is a serious stereotype about missionaries in the church. To put it plain and simple -- people always thing that the sole purpose of a missionary is to go door to door to convert people to a given religion. Missionaries preach the Bible. I can tell you that I am neither qualified nor appropriate for a job position of this type. (Luckily this was not why I was sent here.)  My main goal during this year has been focused around one thing: relationship development. What does this mean? This involves developing relationships with the neighbors around the parish, hosting visiting foreign delegations, but more importantly initiating the relationship between the Young Adult Service Corps and the Cuban Diocese.

Many Cubans ask me, “What the hell are you doing here?!” I give them the very same response. I am here to help develop the relationship between the Episcopal Church in America and the quickly growing Episcopal diocese in Cuba. What I have learned during the last 7 months is that the best way to do this is to talk with the local community. My final response to the skeptics that surround me here in my community is this -- I am here for Cuba. And I mean this with all my heart. I truly wish to see the relationship between these two countries grow and evolve, but at the moment the only thing I can do is be a representative of these two churches.

What else have I been doing? As I mentioned in my first paragraph, I have been working a lot with construction. This involves MANY things. First I have to find the money to start the project. Next I must find the materials needed, something that is never easy in Cuba. For example, I have been looking for tubes for the water system for four months and it has been impossible to find. What I am left with is my ingenuity. I now must invent a way around the problem so that the final result works and also doesn’t look ugly. (At this point I also have to explain that I am really struggling to write in English right now. I am at the point where I am thinking in Spanish and translating what I want to say to English. So please excuse me if I sound like a fifth grader writing.) The next step to construction in Cuba is finding people to help you with the work. If you are lucky you have enough money to hire people to work with you. In my case, the majority of the time, I must find volunteers due to lack of funds. This part is the most stressful for me. I must ask people to leave their everyday jobs to come help with the work that I have invented. One of my assistants told me that since I have arrived that I have almost turned him into a missionary with the amount of work he has helped me with. But literally they are paying to help with my projects. This is one thing that I must give respect to all the people who have helped me raise money before and during my year here in Cuba. Without your help I would have not been able to accomplish what I have during these seven months. My host father says that I have done more work here in seven months than what has been done here in the last three years.  Thank you St. Timothy’s in Fairfield, Connecticut for your gracious donation last month!

There is a part of my work here that helps with the growth of this community. Growth that does not include the classic sense of preaching the Bible, but growth achieved through communication and relationships. Growing up in the church with parents, who have allowed me to believe what I like, I have been able to explain my experiences to other people. For this reason my best friend here will be baptized this coming month. I started talking to him about what the church means to me, and explained that the Episcopal journey is something that you must undertake by yourself. One of my friends told me that he would enroll in the next Bible study course if I do the same. Without thinking I responded that I couldn’t do that. Bible study or things of that sort must be something that you want to do for one reason only, because you want to. But with that he started to attend the classes and is now an integrated member of the community.

To conclude this post I want to end somewhat like I started. I apologize that it has been so long that I have written a post. But for my next post I need your help. The next post with be a question and answer session about anything concerning Cuba, my year here so far, or other questions you all might have after reading this or past posts. Please post your questions in the comment section. Before I upload my next post I MUST have at least 10 questions to respond. So get asking people.

This post is brought to you by: Gregg and Valerie Dixon, Lucia Savage, Andrew Osmun, and Judith Greene. Thank you all for your support and if anyone is interested in sponsoring one of my projects (something that would make the work that I am doing here much easier) please talk to my father Mark Pendleton.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Walking tour of Havana

During my year I have often traveled into Havana -- a great city in many ways though quite run down.  Check out some of my photos
A Bob Marley impersonator in Havana Vieja

A book market in Havana Vieja. 
They literally had any kind of book desired

Havana Vieja

Outside the cathedral in Havana Vieja

Havana harbor

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Christmas in March: A look back at the Pageant

Though we are March and in Lent, I have wanted to spread out my posts over the course of some months. So here is a look into my Cuban Christmas.  I will let the pictures speak for themselves in this post but the annual Christmas pageant takes place Christmas Eve starting at 9:30 PM and ending close to 1 AM.

A dancing angel
Keeping guard of baby Jesus next to the stables
(which I had the chance to design)

It was good to see that so many people came
out to participate in this celebration

Yohandy working the lighting

The music group singing Christmas carols

The three kings

Presenting the gifts

More singing

A full house. Over 150 people came for the celebration

The two people to the far right are the two daughters of my 
host here in Cuba, the Rev. Aurelio de la Paz

Friday, January 24, 2014

A Cuban Baptism

Some important history about the baptisms with the Episcopal Church in Cárdenas is that recently, with the arrival of Aurelio (my host father), he has been stricter with the requirements needed for someone to be baptized. Before the Episcopal Church was the place that people could go to to be baptized “easily.” Now he requires people to attend the Alpha Course, which is a basic course in Christianity, as well as an introduction to the Episcopal Church and its traditions. Another way people can be baptized is to attend church regularly and attend the Bible studies that are held every Monday. The reason for this is to show and teach about why it is important to be baptized. Recently, a few weeks ago, we baptized two people. The community and people being baptized really understood what the whole event was about. At first the community did not accept this “strict” practice, but now people are starting to understand why it is important to teach before baptism. The following pictures are from the ceremony that was held a few weeks ago -- my first baptism in Cuba. 
Aurelio pouring the holy water into the font
Gospel procession
The godparents and the candidates for baptism 

Presenting a candle to the newly baptized, representing
the light of Christ
The passing of the Peace normally lasts about 10-15 minutes 
Aurelio celebrating the Eucharist

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Long awaited blog updates: Church in Itabo, Matanzas

With the visit of my parents to Cuba in January, I have sent out a flash drive with long-awaited updates.  (I cannot post pictures from Cuba with such slow internet speeds).

Church in Itabo.

In one of my earliest blog posts I mentioned this church as an example of sustainable agricultural practices that are beginning here on the island. Now I have the opportunity to share some of the pictures.
The back portion of the property. Crops pictured here include: potatoes, beans, onion, garlic, yuca, malanga, mango, avocado, and at the very end on the property in the beginnings of a pig pen with its own methane processing plant along side. 

The bell tower of the Itabo temple.
The formation of a tornado. Luckily it never touched ground because it was literally nearly above us.

The chicken coup. The chickens here produce nearly
100 eggs daily.

Yes, they have turkeys too.
And rabbits too
These are the bee hives. They assist with the pollination of the surrounding crops and also supply the church with honey. One interesting thing I learned about these bees is that the entrance to their hive in never left unguarded. The little circle at the bottom middle of the box always has a bee keeping an eye out.