Andrea Holbrook traveled to Havana, Cuba in early February 2012. Since her trip concluded on Valentine’s Day, February 14, it was very fitting that she should return to the U.S. having heard some deep reflections on life and love. She was able to organize much of what she learned into three different stories that she later shared with me. Through these three vignettes, you’ll hear of a man who has experienced hardship through love, another who has decided to love and cherish each and every day, and finally, a man who proves that absence really does make the heart grow fonder. Even though Valentine’s Day has come and gone this year, I hope you learn from these stories, your heart grows, and your perspective deepens when you think of Cuba.
Andrea was on her way to the National Botanical Gardens in Havana, an hour-long drive which provided ample time to converse with the cab driver. He told her of his sad circumstances; he had recently separated from his wife, but was facing an immense challenge in addition to the normal difficulties that often arise with divorce. Because of a long-existing space issue in Cuba, this man had to remain in the same house with his ex-wife and her mother. For years, the normal process for changing residences in Cuba had been to find a family to switch houses with, a process called permutar. In situations like this man’s, the lack of economic opportunities had the potential to negatively affect every facet of many Cubans’ lives. Traditions are slowly changing with Raul Castro’s economic reform. Cubans are now granted the ability to own and sell property and even work in self-employed positions, called cuentas propistas. The changes are being implemented slowly, but people like Andrea’s cab driver will now have the chance to find a different residence, move on, and heal from the wounds of failed love.
(an example of cuentas propistas; photo credit: John McAuliff)
On the last day of her stay, February 14, Andrea was on her way to the airport to make her departure for the U.S., feeling mixed emotions about leaving. Once again, she began conversing with the man driving her cab, though his story was much brighter than that of the previous driver. This man was excited because it was Valentine’s Day and he was finishing his work day early. He explained that everyone in his family receives a gift on Valentine’s Day, not just he and his wife. It was clear that this man had a deep appreciation for life, particularly the little things. “These times are very precious,” he said, “Once the day is gone, you can never get it back.” During her stay, Andrea had come to learn that this attitude was typical of many Cubans. Living with very few material possessions through the years has resulted in their appreciation for the importance of relationships, a lesson that Andrea feels we can all learn from.
The third and final story Andrea told me was of a man she met named Emilio. Andrea describes Emilio as a very interesting person who always appreciates a good cigar, not unlike many Cubans. Emilio’s story was unique. He had traveled and lived outside of Cuba throughout his life, even opening a restaurant in Ecuador along the way. During his time beyond the border, he witnessed many amazing things, including a presidential election in Ecuador. Being from Cuba, the democratic election process was very foreign to him. Despite the many things Emilio experienced, he explained that after a certain amount of time away, he longed to return to Cuba. His journey away from his homeland had been one of self-discovery; he hadn’t realized before how Cuban he truly was. His experience brought truth to the common phrase, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Being away had truly made his heart grow fonder for Cuba. When asked what he missed the most, he answered, “Beautiful Cuban women and cigars, of course!”
The three Cubans who told these stories can teach us a lot. In the first story, we are reminded of the challenges that life can bring, and we are better able to understand the struggling yet hopeful Cuban economy. The second story teaches us to appreciate the little things that come our way and to embrace each day as it comes. The cab driver demonstrates the overall appreciation for these principles in Cuba. Lastly, in the final story, Emilio illustrates both the joy of returning to the familiar, and his personal love for Cuba and its culture.