Cuba has survived many waves of cultural colonization. From American-inspired baseball and old Chevrolets, to the Soviet designed apartment complexes. These hallmark cultural pieces make up Cuba’s image to the world – but new waves are arriving every day.
Santa Clara is a city located in the central region of the island and was the second community visited in Recrear’s research project. While the city itself does not claim the highest tourist haul, the nearby sites of Los Cayos and the picturesque city of Trinidad certainly do. Among the tourists that seem to leave their mark the most? Canadians.
When people ask me what part of Canada I am from – I usually say the capital. Yet here in Santa Clara I am astounded at the number of Canadian flags that brand the city and its people – far more than what I have seen in my own city. I see Canadian flags in the restaurants the locals flock to, in the stickers pegged to moto taxis, in the petro Canada baseball cap a local bus rider wears, on t-shirts, on key chains and so forth. It is quite literally impossible to spend a day without feeling bombarded by the little maple leaf that could. All of these souvenirs are gifts left behind by the thousands of Canadians that pass through. However simple the gift may be, in Cuba the smallest things have value.
In Santa Clara, I thought a lot about Canada’s own image to the world. Many of the Cubans I asked would honestly remark that they did not know much about the country – a land north of the U.S. The most important piece of information they had to share was that Canadians are significantly fueling the tourist industry – one of Cuba’s most vital sectors.
In my quiet moments, I think about the mining companies inserting themselves aggressively in Africa and Latin America. I mourn the loss of our peace-keeping identity and I worry about the current over drive in the economic development lane. Could Canadian tourists represent Canada differently?
Maybe so, but the bubble like environment created for tourists concerns me. My discomfort stems from long having appreciated intercultural dialogue and cultural exchange. It’s a door that when opened allows you to refresh your perspectives and as Bertrand Russell would say “hang a question mark on those things you have long taken for granted”.
I believe there is an enormous space within tourism to really learn from Cuba and put aside our impressions of the country. Cubans have seldom had the space to communicate their own story with all the triumphs and struggles that go with it. There is no one-size-fits-all story of Cuba. There is a collage, a clash of colors and opinions, frustrations and a deep sense of pride. All of these things beyond the comfort zones created by resorts.
If you want to dive into Cuba, step away from the artificially created environments and walk into the homes of Cubans who offer their cozy spaces (board and room) as an alternative. If Spanish is not your strong suit, it isn’t too difficult to find a Cuban who speaks English and would be happy to strike up a conversation with you. Even without language, they will find their own theatrical way to communicate with you. Being friendly is in their nature.
I know that my own time in Cuba has really enriched my thinking and interactions with people. Hearing stories of Cuban youth from all across the country, indulging in the local cinema and listening to the depth of the enchanting musicians has been re-energizing. I have also embraced the discomfort of living in a world truly outside of a capitalist mentality that I have unknowingly internalized.
If you let it, Cuba can teach you a thing or two. You can leave key chains and t-shirts, but why not also exchange thoughts, ideas and cultures in the process?