By Jose Raul Gallego Ramos
HAVANA TIMES – It doesn’t matter whether you’re going on a short trip, an official mission, going somewhere for a couple of months or leaving for good… Once a Cuban sets foot in an international airport (and even before they arrive there) a series of psychological mechanisms are triggered in their brain which will accompany them the whole time they are outside the country.
It doesn’t matter how many stamps you have in your passport, your education level, the number of visas you have or how many kilometers you’ve traveled… your mental conditioning will always be there. Even when you’ve thought you’ve overcome it.
“Evil eye” Trauma: It’s a pre-travel trauma. Not telling anyone your plans “so they don’t change or fall through.” Fears and setbacks from the past have transformed themselves into a powerful superstition which gives silence the attributes of an amulet that offers protection against fateful accidents, jealousy, “sons of bitches” and anything else that might come in the way of the trip you’ve longed for. And that’s because leaving the country (however you leave and for however long you go for) is still unusual, extraordinary and even carries a negative connotation of “wrong” for many Cubans.
Trauma of guilt: Living in a country where you coexist with illegal and punishable activities on a daily basis affects the mind and this can flourish anywhere, especially at airports. “I’m doing something bad”, “Something is going to happen at the last minute”, “They’re not going to let me leave or enter the country,” “I’m going to have some kind of problem with my baggage or documents.” Paranoias that are triggered whenever the most routine check is carried out and your heart beats at 1000 beats/minute until you’re sitting down in the plane and it takes off. Even when you’re outside Cuba, the idea that you’ll do something wrong and might muck up the rest of your journey continues to go around your head.
Currency Exchange Trauma: The annoying and complicated obligation we have to exchange all of the money we have from the country we’ve visited into the currency that circulates here in Cuba. This is something that every foreigner has to do, but it is worse for Cubans because of three factors: 1 – Because you have to change your money into THREE currencies: US dollars, CUC and Cuban pesos, and then one of these currencies to another which drives you mad when you’re in the middle of a shop; 2 – Because we are one of the few tourists who travel to buy regular everyday products because they are sold for an exorbitant price in our country, are of a poor quality or quite simply don’t exist; and 3 – Because some of the things we buy are to be sold in Cuba, to make up our travel expenses and make a bit extra so we have to play with prices at state-run stores and on the black market.
Trauma of abuse: We are so used to being abused at state-controlled services companies in Cuba (it doesn’t matter what currency you pay in or your form of ownership), that we feel bad when we receive kindness and good customer service at a store or restaurant. Sometimes, we even feel pity because we confuse good customer service with submission and we feel somewhat uneasy when “they treat us too well”. Other times we even get paranoid because we think that the sales assistant, who is following us all over the store and doesn’t stop asking us “How can I help you, sir?” (even when they know that we aren’t going to buy anything), might be behaving like this because she thinks that we want to steal something.
“Cuban Crow” Trauma: The Cuban Crow is a bird that is known for taking everything it finds to its nest. The metaphor doesn’t really need further explanation. Plastic bags, toilet paper rolls, nice-shaped packaging, ornaments, screws, potential spare parts, clothes or shoes which you “can still get some use out of” … anything (no matter how crazy it might seem) can end up in a Cuban’s “suitcase/nest”, as long as it keeps to Cuban Customs’ strict regulations. In Cuba, anything can be fixed or be used to make sure everyone on our long list of people we have to bring something back for, which we take with us on this trip, has something.
Customs Trauma: This has to be the greatest headache you have from the moment you leave until you come back. Studying Cuban Customs’ regulations requires a lot more mental effort and dedication than some PhDs. It requires knowledge of the law, maths, space distribution and also… hustling, cunning. It makes you feel tense for the duration of the flight. Once you’re standing in front of the fateful scales, you don’t know whether you should smile (because you might look suspicious), or be serious (because you might seem nervous) … The whole time you’re away traveling, you’re preparing a mental script in your head, so much so that sometimes you might fight yourself in the middle of a store holding something and gesturing: “If they say X, I’ll say Y.” When they tell me I have excess weight, I pull out a calculation I’ve done myself on a piece of paper and a copy of Customs’ regulations which I have on my phone and Tablet,” “If they tell me I can’t take the coffee machine through, I’ll smash it against the floor…” In short, we have to dream up a scenario like a tall tale, which we don’t have to use all the time luckily, but other times… what else can I say? Because this is how trauma becomes irreversible. If leaving the country stresses us out, coming back is a lot worse.
Cuba Trauma: Last but not least, everything you do, everything you enjoy, everything you suffer and deprive yourself of too, you do it thinking about Cuba, your family, the people you’ve left behind. “If only they could eat this, see that, share this moment with me…”. The people you love and who couldn’t come with you are constantly present in your mind and make any feeling of happiness incomplete.
However, it also makes not visiting places so you can save money hurt less, the shame of always having to ask where you can buy things the cheapest, of reading a restaurant menu over and over again, of buying things on “sale” at stores as if you were buying for a whole community, of being the only person at the airport with five huge suitcases. It hurts less because you know it’s all for a greater cause. Because a trip is never only for one person. Because a trip is never just about tourism, pleasure or work for a Cuban. It’s a financial, strategic matter; a kind of lifeline which has a great impact on your future and the future of others around you.
In a nutshell, these are traumas that you learn to live with, to laugh at, and you put up with as long you know that means that you’ll be traveling again. You even manage to make the best of them, knowing that they are defense mechanisms that your brain activates and that once you are back in your everyday environment, they will be put on stand-by, dormant until your next adventure and give way to other traumas that are just persistent and worrying: the traumas of Cubans who return from abroad.