HAVANA TIMES — A university in San Diego – UCSD – invited me to take part in an investigative journalism workshop. This is how I was able to make the dream of many Cubans – myself included – come true, at least for a few days. My body is back in Cuba, but my mind refuses to accept this fact.
The workshop was very interesting, and I will tell you about it on another occasion. Today, I would rather speak of my adventures and “anthropological” reflections in “America’s finest city.”
Thanks to a friend’s friends, I was able to stay a some days after the workshop ended, exploring the city freely (a roof over my head and food on the table having been guaranteed).
And what a beautiful city I discovered! Modern, luxurious, brimming with activity, so distant from all the ills of large urban environments, such as overpopulation, chaotic expansion and violence. San Diego isn’t drowning in its own shit, nor does it resemble an asphalt jungle. I would say it has struck a good balance.
Its peaceful streets are flanked by gardens showcasing exotic flowers, there is an abundance of cozy homes, parks are well-kept and the air remains clean thanks to rigorous county laws.
But what made the deepest impression on me were the people. In Cuba, they are constantly hammering us with the claim that the United States is the motherlode of individualism, merciless competition and xenophobia, among other vices inherent to the capitalism one reads about in manuals. That, however, was not what I saw.
In San Diego, one breathes a relaxed social atmosphere. In fact, I had a very hard time finding a single person in a bad mood (a common sight down here). Its inhabitants are kind, cordial, helpful and respectful (towards others, private and public properties and the environment).
This is a stark contrast to what one experiences on this Caribbean isle, where we are always so stressed and mistreat one another so much. In Cuba, one has the constant feeling that social property and the environment are there to be used for carnivals all the time.
One is assimilated by such a cozy town without even noticing. I almost had no money, there was the language barrier and the dry, cold air made me a bit ill, but, as far as the human dimension is concerned, I felt at home. In Havana, I’m like a foreigner that doesn’t fit in. I have a truck-full of positive anecdotes. Here are three:
1. One day, I went to a movie theater and left a small video camera behind. I thought I’d never see it again. Two days later, they called me for me to go pick it up.
2. On a cold night, I got lost down the narrow streets of a derelict and relatively dark neighborhood. Under a streetlamp, I unfolded mu map and tried to get my bearings, to no avail. Suddenly, from behind, I heard the voice of a young woman: “Hello, sir. Are you lost? May I help you?”
What would be the chances of something like that happening in Havana? Not many, it seems to me, because of our male chauvinist mentality and the real danger that women are exposed to here.
3. I spent some time walking down the streets where homeless people set up camp. On several occasions, I witnessed the moment when charity groups came and gave these people clothing and food. Homeless people calmly approached the place where these things were being distributed, took what they gave them, thanked the people there and went back. I saw no roguery, humiliation or violence, no “everyone to himself” or “get out of the way” attitude.
Can you imagine how this would have looked with Havana’s homeless, and even among Havana’s “normal” citizens? There are some who say chronic shortages have eroded the dignity of Cubans. I believe shortage do not fully explain what has occurred in Cuba.
One need only land at the Jose Marti International Airport and run into customs officials to realize something very wrong is going on down here, that the State has no respect for people. From this state of things to seeing people lose respect for one another is but a small step.
This is the end of my story about the beautiful things that made me fall in love with San Diego. The ugly things that put me off will be the subject of my next post.
I dedicate this post to those people in San Diego who, without knowing me, offered me a place to stay, food and care. I am thinking of Victoria Gonzalez and Oscar, Roberto Hernanez, Maria Butler, Simone, Oliva (the Cuban) and Cristina and Jose. I grew very fond of all of them in a very short time.