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. 

1 comment:

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