Saturday, May 2, 2015

Trip to Cuba

I got back from Cuba on Saturday night. We had spent about 10 days there. I flew out of Los Angeles with my parents and landed in Miami. On the drive down to the airport from our house, we found out that our family hadn't received visas to get into the country, but we proceeded anyway.

We went as a religious group, headed up by our old pastor from Los Angeles. There were 19 of us from California and Hawaii, mostly from Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco. Almost everyone was Christian. We had the mission of serving temporally, instead of preaching, like most other foreign religious groups do.

"Unto the victory forever."

Cuban History Lesson
Cuba was the first place that Christopher Columbus landed in 1492, and the indigenous population was wiped out in 30 years or so. Different countries have been involved in its history, but the Spanish have had the most influence: everyone speaks Spanish. The United States was heavily involved in its economy in the 50s and early 60s. The then president, Batista, was soaking up everything negative about Western civilization: alcohol, prostitution, and rampant corruption. In the late 60s was the Cuban Revolution, led by the dapper Fidel Castro. He overthrew the Batista regime and everything it stood for and instead created a socialist society for the people. He studied law in school, and his speeches were 3-4 hours long. Fidel subsidized many parts of the economy, thus forcing out American businesses. They could survive because of the backing of the USSR during the 70s and 80s, but when the Berlin Wall came  down, so did the financial support. Cuba then entered the "Special Period," filled with rations and shortages. It was a big struggle. Today, Cuba is relatively stable, but certain things are apparent. The embargo the US government put on Cuba to not accept its imports have left people in a state of conglomeration: US 50s classic cars, Soviet infrastructure, and Spanish colonial architecture. In fact, about half of the cars on the road are antique American-made (with about 2% of the country owning a car). The US embargo is still in effect today.

A cool sign in Old Havana

The first two things I noticed right away about Cuba that are different from other Latin American countries I have visited were the fact that internet access is scarce and there are many Black people there. The Spanish imported many African slaves to work in the fields, mostly cultivating sugar cane and tobacco. I know it's not polite to emphasize race observations so much, but I still cannot get over how many black people there are. They seemed to make up about half of the population. The other grand observation was that it was always hot and humid--no respite, unless you have access to an air conditioning unit.

The whole time, we stayed in churches. The best one was at the beginning of the trip, and the least...modernized was at the end. Half of the time we spent in Havana (also frequently spelled La Habana), but we also went to Matanzas and Varadero on the north coast, about 1.5 hours away from the capitol. Our first project was helping our guides' (Wilfredo and Regla) church a little bit outside of the city. We leveled a dirt pile to make a foundation for a future building, painted the chapel walls, painted the exterior door, did electrical for the visiting pastor's house, and painted the inside of it. It was great because we had so much energy, had the tools necessary, everyone was working together, and the food was so replenishing. The ladies of the congregation cooked chicken and rice, with fruit salad as a snack--the best!

At the nightly cannon firing at the Old Fort

In the evenings, we would meet together to discuss a book with Wendell Berry essays. I had never heard of him, and I would have liked to discuss something religious, since we are a religious group, but we still had good discussion.

The next location was in Varadero, a 12 mile strand of land that is the tourist spot on the island. One time, we went to the end of the peninsula to find mega resorts too extravagant for almost any Cuban to afford. That's the problem with many things. Tourists basically pay in dollars, and locals use a currency 1/24 of that. The best you can be paid doing a regular job in Cuba is $30 a month (that includes doctors). The ones who make more money are those who have their own enterprise and can make money on the side, like chauffeurs. As an example of the $30 a month, certain professions, like medical doctors, don't pay more the more experience you have; all are paid the same in that field. It stresses the socialist idea that not one person or group should be above another. We learned that first hand on a river cruise.

We were going to take a boat up a river to a tourist destination with food, lounging, and water to play in. The workers at the company at first denied our guides from accompanying us because they were not tourist. I'm not sure who paid for them, but eventually they were allowed to go with us. I guess they told the company they were tourists, too. I don't know where all the foreign money is going, but it doesn't make sense to not have it benefit the general Cuban population, since they are so socialist and equitable.

While in Varadero, I helped interpret for our old pastor's sermon. I'd like to think I was the #2 person for interpreting. We had a gringo who was the co-leader who interpreted most of the time, but I appreciated the opportunities when I could step in and show my skills. The pastor asked me to interpret her sermon, and I gladly accepted. I did a crash translation of it the night before and then I consecutively interpreted it the next day. We both felt the Spirit, and apparently many in the congregation did, too.

The beach in Varadero

The beach in Varadero is amazing. The sand is pretty clear, and the color of the ocean is a wonderful bunch of blues. And being in the ocean when it is hot and sticky out is the perfect remedy.

Though we didn't serve the whole time like most mission trips do, we were some forerunners to future mission work in Cuba. It's a rocky road to stability, so we encountered some of that along the way. We were eventually allowed to come into the country on tourist visas, though groups usually are only allowed on religious visas. And I must point out, tourism has been going on for many years in Cuba, mostly from Canadians, but it's only been a couple of months since Americans have been allowed to come.

Things went on, hot and sticky, with our energy slowly draining. Our project in Matanzas was painting a church by brushes. We got quite creative with finding places to paint from. On the second story, I leaned out of a window to paint the exterior walls, and my sister stood on scaffolding that had one set of stabilizers a different length than the others. Needless to say, safety wasn't as much of a priority there. My dad actually wondered if he was eventually going to kill someone by taking forced cuts in security measures with the electrical system (forced because of lack of supplies). And that's another thing. Stores are few and far between. It's like you need a Marauder's Map just to find a local store that sells drinks, let alone a grocery or hardware store.

My favorite picture

Our last project was weeding a perimeter path around a church agricultural field. That was hot and hard work. We used hoes and rakes, and our only shade was a tree a few meters away.

Getting home was an ordeal in itself. We were in the Habana airport for about 6 hours, waiting for our delayed plane. We all missed our connecting flights. Our leader had to book all new flights for most of us. We had to find accommodation for that night. We had to wake up early, and our plane made a stop in Denver before coming to Los Angeles. And then we had to drive 3.5 hours home. I wasn't as stressed about that as I thought I would be, but I am thankful to be home and have nice clean clothes.

Last night in Cuba, looking across to the fort and lighthouse

All in all, the trip wasn't as life-changing as my sister had anticipated it would be, but I got to see a different side of Latin America, be grateful for things like internet and corner stores, and see a different ethnic society than what I'm used to. I appreciated getting to know the people in our group, talking with them as we served. I liked observing Cubans and internalizing that they are not very different from me.

More questions surfaced as I experienced life there, questions about my life and what I am going to do with it. I don't have solid answers for people who ask me what I will do in the future.

I gave a talk in the Spanish branch when I got home. It was about love. I was really emotional about it. I talked mostly about the great two commandments and worked my way in. One problem is not loving others as much as we should, especially those in our family. Another problem is not loving and accepting ourselves enough. And the final layer is not loving God enough. But when we tap into the eternal, the sacred, the infinite source of power and love in the universe, we have more to give to those around us. When I learn more about the love of God and what Christ has done for me, I feel more confident in myself and grateful for that gift. Then I have more to share with others: more love, more strength, more joy, more encouragement, more vision, more testimony, more positivity. These things are readily available if we humble ourselves and look around to help others. Let us draw on the infinite power of love to help heal our lives and the lives of those around us.

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