Finding Family in Cuba
By Ethan Besnard
For most Americans there is a great deal of interest and mystery in Cuba because, until recently, we have not been able to explore the country. When offered this once in a lifetime opportunity with BLV’s award winning Cuba program, it was an automatic yes for me and I knew I would enjoy every second of it. I had already experienced one BLV program and was excited knowing how much that first trip impacted my life. I couldn’t wait to learn more from a different culture and lifestyle.
Upon arrival in Cuba, there was an immediate realization that Cuba’s economy appeared to be suffering. The airport in Havana was small, run down, had no air-conditioning and little organization. As we waited for transportation, I watched dozens of Cubans carting out TVs and other electronics that were difficult to obtain or too costly on the island which resulted in Cubans traveling to other countries to make purchases. This was a shocking contrast to our quick Costco runs or Amazon orders.
Our BLV guide told us that one of our most important jobs was to help increase Cuba’s middle class, which was why we weren’t staying in hotels, but casitas: local homeowners who rent out rooms. I quickly learned there were many advantages to staying in a casita over a hotel. I was able to get to know the owners personally, became part of their community, practiced my Spanish, and enjoyed delicious home-cooked meals.
In our first night in Havana, our casita owner Maria hosted a big welcome party for us. She and her family decorated, cooked langosta (lobster which is difficult to purchase), and hired professional salsa dancers for our entertainment. Despite my language barrier, I could still communicate with our hosts through their patience and gestures. Before long, there were no more barriers and we all danced and clapped together enjoying a true cultural celebration.
Havana’s streets were lined with brightly colored 1950s cars. The buildings stood tall and closely together. The ocean breeze provided comfort from the hot sun. While Havana was overgrown with buildings and history, the small western town of Viñales was much more rural and provided warm people, beautiful views of greenery and the famous mogotes, and incredible food.
The real joy of the program came when we started our service on an organic farm in Viñales. After learning that the Cuban government takes 90% of the farmers’ crops for their own use, we knew the more we helped on the farm, the more the farmers could keep for themselves. We would walk to the farm everyday and spend hours planting, digging, weeding, and preparing for new crops. All of the farmers were very gracious and offered plenty of food throughout the day. We did our best to keep up with the farmers and could tell they appreciated our work ethic. After long days of working alongside these men, it was quite difficult to say goodbye. We gifted them tools, gloves, socks, etc. and they gifted us memories and gratefulness.
I have noticed similarities between my two BLV programs but the one that occured every single day on each program was the generosity of the local people who had little to offer; the farmers, who made just enough money to support themselves and their families gave us food from their farm, the casita owners who opened their homes for us to stay in overfilled our plates at each meal, the baseball players who played friendly games with us offered fresh pineapple to quench our thirst. Seeing the generosity of the Cubans was eye opening. While Cuba is a beautiful place, it is the people who make the country magical.