Friday, October 30, 2015

OFF TO CUBA – Stay Tuned...

For the next couple of weeks I’ll likely be incommunicado here and on my travel blog, El Viajero Contento. Not because I’m nobly foreswearing all distractions digital, but because they’re being foresworn for me. I’m going to Cuba.

PHOTO: Agencia Braxil via WikiMedia Commons

Besides the assumption that access to the Internet will be all but impossible, I’m hoping to be so busy—between several hours every day of Spanish lessons, group excursions around and beyond Havana, lots of good music, food and rum, and a few adventures on my own—that I won’t have much time to post.

But I will keep a journal and take lots of photos, which I can later edit down to manageable installments and share on my blogs and Facebook.

It should be a real adventure, a solo trip to this enigmatic little country—so near (just 90 miles from the US), yet so far away for its half-century of near isolation from its anti-social northern neighbor. Besides taking another small step toward Spanish fluency, I hope to see some of city and countryside, meet some interesting people and find a unique reporting angle on the experience.

PHOTO: Pixabay

The state of the arts in Cuba / Signs of US influence that’s managed to filter into the country through visitors from other parts of the world / Where is the line to be found between “old Cuba” and the inevitable new Cuba to come? / How to experience Cuba on $80 a day. These are just a few of the themes I’m considering. I suspect others will reveal themselves as I jostle and jot around La Habana.

So please think of me; wish me a good ear for the particularities of Cuban Spanish; and pray for no more western Atlantic or Caribbean hurricanes this season. And please keep an eye here and on El Viajero Contento for a series of trip reports when I return.

Gracias y saludos…

PHOTO: Pixabay

“Cuban eyes often look close to tears. Tears never seem far away because both their pain and their joy are always so close to the surface.”
BRIN-JONATHAN BUTLER – The Domino Diaries: My Decade Boxing with Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway's Ghost in the Last Days of Castro's Cuba

Monday, October 5, 2015

IS IT JUST ME? – My Boquete Epiphany

I was in the sweet little mountain town of Boquete, Panama for two weeks, part of my quest to experience more of life and chase my elusive dream of Spanish fluency, whatever that is. Trips like that are always eye-openers for me. I get to see how the vast majority of earthlings live, and how the roiling confluence of that lifestyle with the relentless current of the new "world culture," so long on aspiration but so short on patience, affects their simpler, purer—some would say more sustainable—traditions.

But that trip proved to be more than merely instructional. One day I had an epiphany. Here's my account, written that very day:

                                        /-/–        /-/        /-/

Habla Ya, the fine Spanish school I'm attending, arranged for me to stay with a local family. SeƱor Guillermo Bell Miranda is a coffee farmer, working the land atop the steep cerro just behind his home. He and his extended family couldn't be nicer or more generous with their home, their time and their help with my Spanish. Nonetheless, I had just two requirements for my lodging: a bed at least six feet long, and WiFi (so I can keep up with my commitment to regular posting here and on my travel blog, El Viajero Contento. ( With classes taking up most of the day, and the prospect of a few excursions into the gorgeous area surrounding Boquete in the mornings, I was counting on being able to connect with the Internet every evening, in the privacy of my room.

 I saw a crystal clear image of Guillermo's and his family's faces when they learned that I'd found their home unacceptable. 

The bed is long enough. But the Internet connection, a sluggish, intermittent, dial-up service, requires 17-year-old Antonio's shoving a well-used CD onto my laptop and installing a huge program.

My reaction to all of this—well within reason, I thought—was to let Lorena, la directora of the school, know that we'd have to find some other arrangement that would accommodate my needs. After all, who's the customer here? Wouldn't anyone in his right mind hold a supplier more or less to the terms of a contract? I assured Lorena that the last thing in the world I want to do is to offend the Bell Miranda family, but work is work.

Just then, another staff member in the office, overhearing our conversation, came over to explain, in what I took as a paternalistic tone, that I couldn't blame the Bell Mirandas nor any average Panamanian family for not knowing all the ins and outs of Internet connections.

My Spanish always collapses to the level of rank beginner when shaken by any degree of emotion. Explaining that to the young man, I let him know, in English and in no uncertain terms, that I wasn't blaming the family at all. And I didn't need to be told that the school's inability to meet my very few requirements was my fault. At this, Lorena jumped in to suggest that they might, indeed, be able to locate another family with WiFi. I reiterated my concern with hurting the feelings of Guillermo and his family with my decision, but she assured me they could explain the situation to the family with minimal offense. So I agreed to that solution and thanked her.

      I wondered why I cling so to the 
      illusion that I can control my life.

I retired to the student lounge (where WiFi is available), and started writing about my first couple of days here. I couldn't think straight. Too many feelings plucking at the edges of my concentration. I tried to imagine two weeks at my adoptive family's home with nothing "productive" to do in the evening, especially considering that they all retire by 9:00 or 9:30.

I recalled, from all my experiences in Mexico, how enigmatic Latin American values can seem to a Norteamericano, but how, at some level I've only occasionally been able to embrace, they made sense. Then I saw a crystal clear image of Guillermo's and his family's faces when they learned that I'd found their home unacceptable.

That's what did it. In that split second of clarity, everything resorted itself in my mind. I released my hold on my frustration, disappointment and self-righteousness, and let acceptance and flexibility gently nudge them aside. And, after all that consternation, the answer seemed so beautifully simple. I wondered why I cling so to the illusion that I can control my life.

So now I'll spend my evenings patiently and happily with this kind, generous family. I'll write what I can without access to information and photos. I'll read my book—very slowly, so it'll last the two weeks. Then I'll use my free mornings to get online at school. Self: see how easy that is?

The cosmos wasted no time in rewarding me for my little awakening. For the rest of the morning, as it turns out, in the busy student lounge, I had the chance to meet many of the staff and my fellow students I'd never have met otherwise. And tonight, arriving home after classes, everything seemed different with Guillermo and the family. Was it just me, or can they see the change in my attitude?

Funny, you can read about how to behave gracefully in other cultures. You can learn some of the language and customs. You can try doing in Rome as the Romans do. I know these things, and have wrestled with culture shock before. But, at least for me, it's taken that little extra jolt, that little injection of emotion followed by reflection, for me to actually get it. Now if I can only remember it.