Trinidad, Tourism y Socialism III

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Days 5, & 6
We’ve had an incredibly packed schedule for this first half of our journey and are now enjoying a half day of rest at our hotel in Trinidad, thus giving me some headspace to write this update. We have traveled 5 hours from Havana to Trinidad, stopping along the way at Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs) a large lake housing a replica Taino community (the original indigenous population of the Carribean.) and Cinfuegos (a French colonial settlement about an hour and a half outside Trinidad.)
 
The kids have been incredibly focused, flexible and kind to one another. It’s a large group and although we originally feared that traveling around in a gargantuan tour bus would make us stick out like stilt-walkers in a preschool; groups our size are ubiquitous throughout the country. Parking lots are jam-packed with double-decker, luxury tour busses and because other forms of transportation are hard to come by for Cuban citizens, we are among the ONLY vehicles on the road – sharing lanes with horse-driven carts, mopeds, bicycles and hordes of pedestrians.
 
Unpacking tourism is the real work our group has to grapple with. Virtually everywhere we go we see the dichotomy of being tourists in a socialist country. Hotels, restaurants, and historic sites are beautifully preserved – yet they are outposts in a sea of people living in abject conditions. Don’t get me wrong, everyone seems to genuinely appreciate us – earnestly inquiring about where we come from, do we like Cuba, sharing a bit of their lives with us. As our busses drive down streets and highways, people stop whatever they’re doing to wave.
 
Whenever we stop, at a historic site or a explicit humanitarian destination, we are in the position to offer little donations to individuals. Whether it’s a baseball to a group of kids playing in a vacant lot adjacent to a colonial mansion or a bar of soap to a mother begging on the street, we have had to balance on that delicate fulcrum between giving and receiving, reminding ourselves that they have something to offer us in the way of sharing their stories and smiles that would never occur in a similar panhandling situation in the States.   Forgetting my small humanitarian aid packets one day, I chose to give a seventy-year old woman a CUC after she discreetly approached me in Old Havana. As I handed it to her, she had tears in her eyes and kissed me on both cheeks. I saw her a couple other times that day and she came right up to me and embraced me or gripped my arm repeating her thanks – we’d connected in that moment.
 
Today we experienced an intensely different type of need as we made our way up the cobbled streets of Trinidad. We were there to see some of the town but our primary objective was to leave donated clothing and toothbrushes with the town’s central Cathedral. Almost from the instant we exited the busses, we were cased out by people looking for donations. Trinidad is far more remote than many other places we’ve been and you can see the need and desperation on the faces of the people there. We did give out large quantities (discreetly) of our mini aid kits and some toys to kids on the street, but we were unprepared for the crowds of women, men and children who began to stalk us on our journey to the Cathedral. It was incredibly hard on the kids to have to say “no mas” repeatedly when we ran out of kits. This is a community used to bartering and haggling and it took a lot to communicate to them that we were out of aid and time.
 
At 8 pm tonight, under the stars, I had an amazing conversation with my pod of 8 students (Logan, Lauren Ellis, Josh, Stephen, Brian, Jackson, Leah T., and Lily.) We discussed our day in Trinidad and the tension between being tourists in this place of desperate need. The students were so amazing – a credit to the years many of them have spent engaged in service at Catlin and on global excursions. They were candid with one another (without my prompting!) about their discomfiture about our accommodations knowing that the staff waiting on us needs to return to their homes in Trinidad. They talked about high and low points of the day. Brian gave a pair of yoyos to some boys outside the city’s cathedral and one of the boys called a third over and passed off one of the yoyos to share it.  He said he hoped that we'd all think about this when we're engaged in service in Portland.  Can't do better than that!
 
More to come.

N

PS - sorry about the randomness of the pictures! Uploading takes a LONG time here and it gets jumbled.