This is to tell you all about my most-truly-wonderful-indeed-ohyes trip to Cuba as part of an international work-brigade organised by the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. If you don't have time to read this lengthy report, here is a quick summary: ¡Cuba si!
After fulfiling my duty as a brigadista (someone who went on the brigade) for the 21-day trip, and having returned home from that stretched vacuum-cleaner shaped island and after spending some time recovering from my assorted Cuban diseases, and then catching the currently fashionable British diseases, I've broken my silence and written you this report.
Most of the time, we stayed at a campsite some 40km (25 miles) from Havana, but for the last 3 nights, we stayed in a hotel near Santa Clara (about 400km from Havana). We had a very full schedule of events. This was great as we got to see and do loads, but as there was so much stuff timetabled (free mornings/afternoons/evenings were few and far between), we were restricted in what we could do and when. The gaps between the events were timed so as to be too long to prevent boredom and too short to do something interesting/useful (apart from break our personal records for the most siestas we could have in one day). Almost every evening, we were at the campsite bar drinking our rum-and-cokes - occasionally experimenting with different rum-to-coke ratios.
On my first day (mid-December), the weather was like an unpleasantly hot and humid day in the Mediterranean summer, but after only a few days, it quickly started to rain and turn into a cold and rainy climate like England in the autumn. Cuban weather changes rapidly from shorts-weather to "that-coat-I-wore-traveling-to-Heathrow"-weather.
I enjoyed escaping from the excesses of Xmas in the West and I even got to do some work on Xmas day! This must be the only year when I actually lost weight during Xmas. We even worked on Dec 21st (the Winter Solstice)!!! We celebrated New Year four times (Cuba is 5 hours behind the UK (same timezone as New-York/Miami), 7 hours behind Finland, and 6 hours behind everyone else). Doing the Auld-Lang-Sine thing at 7pm was novel (especially as one of our lot was a Scottish dance instructor). The Cubans have the tradition of burning a bonfire at new-year and throwing effigies of enemies on the fire (eg. George Bush, Bill Clinton).
My favourite part of the trip was working in the orange groves picking oranges, as not only did we provide the Cubans with the service of harvesting tons of oranges for them, but we had a great time there too playing with the oranges (someone should write a book called "fun with oranges"). On the way to the orange-groves, we pass a boarding-school. Each time we went past, the kids and the teachers cheered us on like we were a bunch of revolutionaries off to work on our Revolution - and indeed we were. Our act of picking the oranges was a metaphor for our show of solidarity with the way the Cubans have chosen to live, and as an act of defiance against the so-called "New World Order" who are trying to criple the island. It's amazing how even picking oranges can seem rebelious under the right context.
In total, there should have been 10 days of work on the trip (it rained too much for us to work all 10 days - I think we only worked 8, but it's hard to tell, as all the days ran into one continuous experience). We only worked in the mornings. We got conveniently woken up at 5:45 by a recorded chicken followed by a recorded rendition of "Guantanamera" being played over the tannoy. This gave us time for our breakfast that consisted of a bread roll with something dodgy in it and a cup of 'milk' (something that looks and tastes oily). Most of the work was in the orange-groves, but occasionally we got to do a few odd jobs around the campsite (such as cleaning things and just moving stuff around for no apparent reason). Many hours of fun were had in the orange groves, and many oranges were 'produced' (it's not often that you see green oranges - let alone eat them). Despite our strong sense of solidarity and being alowed to eat some of the oranges we picked, there were times when some of the brigadistas were a bit too - how should I say - laid back.
It wasn't all about the work. We were given lectures on things ranging from the economy to the culture, and were given talks by speakers such as Cuban overseas volonteers (eg. people who went to Nicuragua to teach), local-government officials on how Democracy is implemented in Cuba (contrary to popular belief, Cuba IS democratic (see http://www.cuba-solidarity.org.uk/faq.htm for details), and the reason Fidel Castro has lasted so long is that he's become a living legend there). We were even given a talk by some veterans of la Revolucion who told us that the future lay in our hands. Also contrary to popular belief, Cubans are alowed to travel abroad (not to the USA). As long as they know someone in the country, they are allowed to visit that person. Thanks to the recent post-Soviet collapse of the Cuban currency (which is recovering quite well thank you very much), travel abroad is expensive. On the planes to and from Havana to Madrid (Iberia - a Spanish company), there were plenty of Cuban passangers abroad.
The lectures were hard to follow, as they were given in Spanish. There was a translator translating to English as the talk went on (the person speaking in Spanish would stop every few seconds to let the translator speak), but my concentration kept going during the Spanish and didn't come back in time for the English, and my conciousness missed out on half of what was said. Before I went, I got myself a "Teach yourself Spanish" course for my PC, but only got as far as the second lesson. The occasional Spanish lesson was also on offer at the camp, as was the occasional Salsa-dancing lesson immediately afterwards. I completely failed to learn the Salsa (give me Acid-House any day!) not to mention Spanish (Give me Geordie any day!).
We went on excursions to schools, hospitals, monuments, collective-farms, beaches, nature-reserves, committees for the defence of la Revolucion, alternative energy centres, friendship-bonfires and of course trips to Havana. We were given a tour of a Medical school near Havana where people come from all over Latin America and Spanish-speaking Africa to study medicine. Cuba is one of the world-leaders in medical research and claims to be the first country to develop one of the Hepatitis vaccienes. Speaking of Cuban firsts, Cuba is also the world leader in literacy (96% of the population can read and write).
One piece of advice about going on the trip to Cuba: expect the unexpected (even from your fellow brigadistas)! There was a suprise round every corner (hence my constant desire for more film in my camera). A trip to see some kids from a nearby school put on a performance does not seem that exciting, but when we got there, they had truly created an electric atmosphere. We first went through a path lined by kids from the school cheering us on. It was a fancy-dress type thing. Unlike in the West where you buy pre-made masks and stuff, this performance had costumes made by the pupils themselves out of anything they could get hold of, and their costumes were better than the pre-bought stuff too! The atmosphere was very much alive, and you could really feel the enthusiasm being beamed at you!
I got to visit the national memorial of Che Guevara in Santa Clara. As well as the mausoleum where he's buried (strictly no photos), there was a museum as well as a huge square overlooked by a large statue of Che. Nowhere in or around the entire site was anyone selling souvenirs to be seen. In Cuba, statues of Che Guevara and Jose Matri were to be seen everywhere (I don't remember seeing one of Fidel. In Cuba, they respect Fidel for his beliefs and his wilingness to put them in practice - not because there's loads of statues of him). They truly have succeeded in turning Che Guevara's mausoleum into a sacred place!
In Cuba, there's a lot of Revolutionary propaganda in the form of billboards and words painted to buildings/bridges. Bear in mind that here in the West, there's loads of capitalist propaganda in the form of adverts, which I see as the 'system' shoving itself at you. It's just that many people haven't figured out that our society is run by the corporations, and not national governments, but once you see that, Cuban Revolutionary propaganda ("solidarity amongst all peoples"), and the Western adverts and logos ("buy this you worthless piece of horse-crap" - "no buy this instead", etc.) are both just nothing more than forms of propaganda. Grafitti is rarely to be seen in Cuba, and when it is, it's just declarations of love and people writing their initials (if you really want to see Grafitti, may I recommend Belfast (Northern-Ireland) and Talinn (Estonia) ).
I twice got to wander around Havana by myself. I was often approached by people in the street who just wanted to chat and were perfectly happy not to try to steal something / sell me something. At first, my mind was still thinking I was in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean where I was warned that any locals who seemed friendly towards me either wanted to steal something or rip me off, but I got used to it quickly and spoke freely with the Cubans.
Despite being amongst an assorted bunch of Socialists, Communists, and other Leftists, I still managed to come across as the mad hippie of the group (perhaps it was my love for Pacman that had something to do with it? or was it my dodgy shoes?...). Thanks to the orientation day in London some weeks before the trip, I got to meet some of my fellow brigadistas beforehand. I knew I was going to be in good company as there were several people who had been on the Mayday 2000 demo in Parliament square in London (so there were going to be many "Guerilla Gardeners" gardening in the orange groves). Me overcoming my shyness was seen as a non-issue, and I found it didn't even come into play on the trip (although a collective feeling of bad karma flying around the camp-site (thanks to the food, weather, plumbing, et cetera) did get me down). Perhaps I was a bit too playful at times. I once almost strangled the deputy "Jefe" (spanish for "chief") in an over-enthusiastic attempt to start a group-hug, but that was also my first night getting used to the Cuban rum. As well as being completely mad, I also passed on random bits of obscure knowledge for no apparent reason.
There were about 37 of us from the UK, 8 from Belgium, 10 from Denmark, 8 from Sweeden, 8 from Finland, and 76 from Norway (in Norway, it was promoted as a cheap packaged holiday, and you could tell!). In the British brigade, the ages ranged from 16 to quite old. There was a cluster around the 18-year-old group (most are from London and imitate Ali-G waaaaay too much!) - these were mostly GAP-year people (ie. the year between school and University - in fact, some people were taking 2 or even 3 GAP Years), a small early-30's cluster, and some old-ish people. I was the only person on the British brigade within 4 years either side of my age (27). The British tended to stick together most of the time, but we did occasionally mix with people from the other brigades. Several people came along with a parent (nobody came with both parents). Most of the people were politically aware and capable of holding an inteligent conversation, so I felt I could easily slide in when coming accross a group of people talking. Just about everyone I spoke to could hold an intelligent conversation, but the younger people were too enveloped in modern 'pop' culture and were influenced too much by watching TV, but were still politically aware and were well aware of what was really going on. There was an atmosphere of us being close together and were friendly towards eachother and we often helped eachother out by giving eachother things such as chocolate, toilet-paper, medicines, insect-repellant, etc.
I was chosen to become the official photographer of the British brigade simply because I was the first person our "Jefe" saw carrying a camera at the time. This lasted until my film ran out, but I managed to get more than 250 photos. I've scanned most of the photos and put them up on the Website of the UK winter brigade which I set up (along with the brigade's maining-list).
Despite la Revolucion, Cuba still has it's faults. Many homes don't have running water - it's usually to be found in campsites inhabited by people who whinge about lack of running water, and even then, the water is only on for a few hours a day (chosen randomly). The hot water-heater is solar-powered (the water is stored outside, meaning it only works when the weather's warm, but I still managed to do better at getting used to cold showers than my fellow brigadistas and could often be heard breathing deeply during my shower). Toilet seats are a concept that has escaped the Cubans. They expect you to bring your own toilet-paper (which you're not alowed to put in the toilet in case it blocks (like the ones at the campsite frequently did)), and if you're lucky, you even get to share your toilet with a frog! Cuban cuisine has a lot to answer for. The food at the campsite was nearly the same every day, and dinner/tea (lunch/dinner) consisted of a random combination of rice, mushrooms, dodgy-stuff, battery-acid, and spam (yes - we were being spammed with spam). I somehow managed ignore the plumbing and the food, but what got me down was that during the day, they kept playing Salsa music on the Tannoy non-stop. I swear that if I ever hear any of that Salsa again, I WILL GO INSANE!!! One of the reasons Cuba gets along fine is the people don't whinge about things - they've got spunk, abide by the "Work hard play hard" philosophy, and live their lives to the full, and there's positive vibes going all around. There were times when some of us were completely overcome by awe at the Cubans.
When we moved to Santa Clara for the last three days, we stayed in a hotel with better food (but still no toilet-seats). The good food towards the end was probably a conspiracy to prevent the brigadistas from rushing into the nearest McDonalds the moment they returned to the West (As it turned out, the first place I went when I got past UK customs was the nearest pub).
Alas, I was not immune from contracting Dire-Rear (not the way to spell it, but this spelling described the state of my bottom). Everyone I had spoken to before I joined CSC who had been to Cuba said they had caught it while they were there. I was determined to out-immune them and not catch it, but after a multi-pronged assault on my immune system, I caught it towards the end of the trip.
Perhaps one of the things future Brigadistas can do in preparation for trips to Cuba is to strenghten their immune systems by catching some of the milder diseases on offer several weeks before the trip so that when they finally go there, their immune systems won't be taken un-awares by unknown diseases (for many (like myself), this is the first time they've travelled to the Americas). That way, a strong immune system can fight off Dairy-Ear (nope, still can't spell it) before it takes hold. While on the subject of preparation, one thing future Brigadistas should do to prepare for a brigade is to grab a thesaurus and look up 10 synonyms for the word 'blatant' (my fellow Brigadistas had a fixation with the word 'blatant' and managed to work it into almost every sentence (eg. "That's blatantly blatant, innit?") ).
As for me, I'll definitely be planning on returning to Cuba in some form or other. If there's one thing I'll do to prepare, it is to learn Spanish! Being able to speak Spanish adds an extra dimension to the trip, as it enables you to be more aware of what's going on around you. Despite Cuba's legendary education, many people can't speak English - especially those who were educated in pre-Revolutionary Cuba (apparently at some stage, Russian was taught as the first foreign language). Spanish is useful when reading billboards and slogans, for conversing with the Cubans in their own language, and just as a general aid to maintaining a Cubist perspective of things. Often, small groups of brigadistas would end up in a bar talking to the locals (Cubans are friendly towards foreigners), and occasionally when going on our excursions, the busdrivers would pick up hitch-hikers who happened to be ordinary Cubans. As well as that, when some of us were walking to a nearby vilage, we would occasionally get offered lifts by passing ordinary Cubans.
The traveling from Cuba wore me out. I did manage to get some sleep on the plane from Havana to Madrid, but was in such a crumpled position that I had to 'inflate' myself when waking-up on the plane (breathing in deeply to restore myself from sleeping in a suqashed up position). And contrary to popular belief, Dhiharrhoeahgh (getting there) and turbulence do go well together.
I returned to work after taking 2 days off sick, but the big D (oh I give up) came back, and then went away again. The following week, I contracted the good old British flu - meaning this report / propoganda leaflet was put off yet again... I brought back a box of Cigars from Cuba that I handed out to people at work (Romeo & Juliet - the cheapest cigars I could find, but when I got back, people were commenting on how expensive they are over here, so somebody's exploiting the Cubans!). It may be too late for them to sample my palette of Cuban diseases, but they can still catch lung-cancer tee hee hee!
I would strongly recommend these work-brigades to anyone - even if it is just to have fun and frolics amongst the oranges.
Remember, DON'T LET THE BASTARDS GRIND YOU DOWN!!!!!!!!
Viva la Revolucion (had to say that somewhere...),
PS. And yes, I did find an Internet-cafe in Havana - It's just that it was closed when I found it.