Wednesday, August 21, 2013

First church service in Cardenas

          As my host The Reverend Aurelio de la Paz Cot reminded me once I arrived here, I will be participating fully in the church community every Sunday. He told me that this Sunday he will be presenting me to the community and that I should prepare something to say. “It doesn’t have to be a sermon but figure something out,” he instructed. I have never had to speak publicly in a foreign language so this task brought a bit of anxiety. I knew that I was going to thank the priest for his hospitality and this opportunity but besides that I was clueless. I am a person who works better under pressure, so I left a good majority of this planning for Sunday morning. By communion I had figured out what I was going to say. I got up in front of about 100 people on a very warm Cuban morning and explained to them what my mission was. I told them that I am here to socialize, communicate and to help. Talking to this audience felt really natural and comfortable and the only word I messed up was “pride.” This comfort came from the way church is lived out.

            The key word here is energy. Aurelio dances his way up to the altar during the procession and sings along to the hymn the entire time. He has memorized the entire church service, from his sermon to the hymns. The church uses a projector to display the readings, prayers, and lyrics for the service. When I asked about this, the answer wasn’t that they didn’t have the prayer books for the entire congregation -- it was that because the congregation is mainly elderly and it is easier to keep people’s attention with a projector (and the letters are in a larger print). After he found his way to the altar, he plugged in a cross directly behind him that illuminated green LED’s that surround the outside of the cross. At first this made me chuckle but then it started to grow on me. In his house there is a hand-drawn picture of Jesus with a massive smile on his face, as though he just heard the funniest joke in the world. I asked him about this and he said that it was a gift, and that usually pictures of Jesus are of him being serious (I will try to upload this picture at some point). “What, Jesus can’t have a good time too?” This is the theme for his service and it is one that I enjoy. There is no falling asleep during Aurelio’s Sunday Mass. The passing of the peace was its own ordeal, took about 15 minutes to settle everyone back down to continue with the service. The love and happiness of the people here is very real.

            This post is sponsored by: Rev. Lois Keen, James LeVan, Nancy Jacobs, and Helen Ross. Thank you for your support. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Update on August 16 from Varadero Beach

I am now settling into my new home in Cardenas, a room in a dorm located on the church property. Cardenas is a city that sits right next to the world famous Varadero Beach. The first thing I did once I got here was to paint the walls a new color. In Cuba, your selection of paint colors is very small, only about 5-6 options. So I chose verde, which turned out to be a kind of olive green. Again the satisfaction of being productive here outweighed the disappointment of not being able to select from all the colors of the rainbow. This being said, I have become the master of going with the flow. In my first month here I have slept in 9 different beds. I don’t know what I will be doing next week, or even tomorrow, but instead of letting that get to me I have learned to embrace it. I go where I am needed. This has turned into my answer to the question of what I am doing while I am here, I go where I’m told.

            I have finished reading my first book here in Cuba, and I must admit that it’s the first full book I have read for leisure in a very, very long time. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, by Donald Miller, is a story about stories. Donald is faced with the task of turning one of his books into a movie, something that may sound easier that it actually is. In a paragraph explaining what makes a good story, he says:
A story goes to the next level with two key elements, and both of them have to do with the ambition of the character. First, is the thing a character wants must be difficult to attain. The more difficult, the better the story. The reason the story is better when the ambition is difficult is because there is more risk, and more risk makes the story question more interesting to an audience. The greatest stories are the ones in which the character’s very life is at stake. There needs to be a question as to whether the character will make it, whether he will defeat the enemy or the enemy will defeat him (Miller, 156).

In my case, my life is not at stake at all. Cuba is an extremely safe country where violence is looked down upon. The thing that may be considered at stake is my quality of living. Adapting to the challenges that the Cuban people face everyday has been my biggest task, one that I have become accustomed to and embraced fully. One of the locals asked me if I have enjoyed my time in Cuba so far and I responded with an honest and enthusiastic “of course I have.” He responded to that by saying that I must like suffering; because how can you love a country where day-to-day life is its own challenge. My answer was that I don’t like suffering but I love culture, and this is a place where there is no lack of culture.

            On another note I want to talk a little more about Itabo, the mission that I talked a bit about last post. This complex is a perfect example of how the Cubans have embraced sustainable agriculture and practices. Plant crops include green beans, cucumber, black beans, sweet potato, coffee, potatoes, mango, guava, plantains, papaya, star fruit, chili peppers, herbs, pumpkin, and regular and green onions. Animals include chickens, turkey, beehives for honey, rabbits, and soon will include a pigpen with a methane treatment plant to match. This project is the dream of Gerardo and Bishop Griselda. Construction started in 2004 and is nearing completion. This church is a model that will be followed by many other Episcopal churches on the island.

This blog post is sponsored by Maria & Fausto Tamayo, Rev. Joan Phelps, Bob Hooper, and Harry Elliott. Thank you all for your support. If you would like to sponsor one of my blog posts please follow the donation link to the right of this page.  

Saturday, August 10, 2013

August 8 Update: Don't do something, sit there!

8/8/13 Update!

“Don’t do something, sit there. Don’t sit there, do something!” This has been a phrase that I have repeated to myself ever since I arrived in Cuba. All I have wanted to do is to help, to do something constructive. Whether that is ripping through a concrete wall to install a new air conditioner, sweeping, or helping to repair a broken chair, I have jumped at any opportunity to be productive. There are times, however, when there is simply nothing for me to do. In this time I am reading, chatting with locals, or taking a quick siesta. Communication is a very important thing in Cuban culture. I have spent countless hours talking about politics, sports, life in the U.S., and many other random things. This is where I feel my real work lies.
 As I communicate with people I start to become a member of their family, someone they can trust. Cuban culture values family as number one; a close second is dancing but that is beside the point. I have been welcomed here by everyone I meet. Here I am not seen as your typical American, partially because of my Spanish accent and love for the country and people of Cuba. It seems like in America people live to work, not work to live. In Cuba money is the last thing on people’s mind. This has been forced upon them but is not necessarily a bad thing. This allows for time to slow down and smell the roses.
            When I arrived in Itabo, a small city in the province of Matanzas that many Cubans have never even heard of, I was fighting a small head cold. Let the concoctions begin! When I first arrived I was given a warm mix of lime juice and who knows what else. The following day, the local farmer made me a tea made up of orange tree leaf and a few others that I was unable to identify. Finally I was given a cough syrup that I will upload a picture of later. When there is a lack of traditional cold medicine, people are forced to improvise. I feel like these improvisations worked better then any other cold medicine I have used in the past.
            Translation has been my main job so far. This is something that I have found to be very valuable. In a culture that is based around communication, not being able to communicate is debilitating. The group that came from Tallahassee came for the music festival. With them they brought their talent and a shared passion for music. It was my pleasure to translate the many thank you’s they were offered for their support and visit to the island. Music turned out to be another form of communication as they arrived with no previous Spanish experience. 
            A group of 24 people arrived the other day from Christ Church Bronxville, NY. They came to Itabo with the sole purpose of working manual labor. This included digging holes, mixing concrete, planting coffee trees, mango trees, and participating in arts & crafts with the locals. One of the things they brought with them was a water purification system. The installation of this system has allowed for clean drinking water that will be used by the community and visiting foreign travel groups. On our last day in Itabo, we played a game of baseball with some of the locals. The bases were made up of cardboard and other random trash items that we found scattered across the field. To the left of home base was a horse, simply tied up watching us play. The home run line was a sugar cane field and the right foul line was made up of thorn bushes, bushes that seemed to be a magnet for the baseballs. The love for baseball in Cuba is something that is more important than American safety standards, which was apparent by the speed at which pitches were being thrown. I have to admit that one of my hits fouled into the crowd and struck one of the locals in the rear end. I promptly went up to apologize and she responded with a massive smile and a swift “todo bien” or its all good. This game was an incredible experience for both the group and me alike.
            I am starting to get into the flow of life here. Locals keep reminding me that I am already turning into a Cuban, adapting to local dialect and tradition. This gives me great joy. They no longer see me as an American but as someone who is part of their community. This weekend I will be traveling back to Itabo, then onto Camaguey. After that trip I will return to Havana to collect my things then will proceed to Cardenas. Cardenas will be my home base for a while. If anyone wishes to talk to me I now have a local cell phone, my number is 58392908. I have heard that the website works best for making calls to the island. This is the second best way to get a hold of me besides email. That’s all for now. Thank you all for your support and this opportunity to come to an island filled with vast amounts of love and culture, I truly feel blessed for this opportunity.
            This blog post is brought to you by the Reverend Geoffrey Ward, Terry Pendleton, Eunice Sutphen, and Carmen Rivera. Thank you again for your support.