I came up with the title to this blog post and it sounds pretty good, very authoritative, yet still personal. I would like to read this post very much. Unfortunately, I’m supposed to be writing it and I’m not getting very far.
First of all, I’m completely unqualified to be dishing out advice (not that that’s ever stopped anyone). I studied abroad in Habana, Cuba for precisely one semester in the spring of 2004, going with a group of about 25 students from my school, Lewis and Clark College, led by one of our professors, and we took classes and lived on the campus of the Instituto Superior del Arte. It was a short experience, but one that personally impacted me a lot.
That said, I feel like I was in Cuba so briefly and that I would need to be there for years and years to be worthy of saying a lot about it. Not to mention that there have been a few minor changes since I left – for instance, Fidel is no longer Comandante-in-chief. However, a good friend of mine is moving to Cuba in a less than a month, to attend medical school and I’d like to be able to offer her more than “!Que Tengas un Buen Viaje!” Well, Nora, this is all I have for you. Maybe some others out there can put in their two cents on the advice column.
At first, you won’t understand what’s going on because you don’t speak Cuban Spanish. Then you won’t get what’s going on because you just won’t.
Cuban Spanish is way different than the Mexican Spanish that we’re used to here on the west coast – different slang, different pronunciation (talk two times faster and drop half the letters in every word and you’ll be well on your way). Ultimately, it’s not just the Spanish though – it’s the entire world view and, indeed, the entire world around you and the rules that govern it that are different.
In Cuba, every day is the DMV.
Americans hate the DMV. You don’t get good customer service, it’s unclear what rules govern the place and you easily might spend an hour in line, just to reach a bitter mid-level bureaucrat who tells you you have the wrong paper and have to go stand in another line. Nothing makes sense. It doesn’t matter how much money or power you may have outside the DMV – they won’t help you once you pass through those doors.
Americans, and especially American Protestants (I would argue) have an incessant can-do attitude. Sure, we ask God for help, but we largely count on ourselves to do the work. We believe we can bend the world to our will and that all problems can ultimately be solved with enough hard work (or by thinking the right thoughts for all you New Age “The Secret” devotees). Maybe that is true in America, but Protestant Christianity is little comfort in a place like Cuba.
Catholics are a little better off – more primed to accept “the things we cannot change.” They have a million saints to pray to for relief, hopeful of a miracle, but are emotionally prepared for the worst. When I was in Cuba, I became convinced that the God I knew didn’t actually have any control over the island – that the orishas had control and they were completely capricious and unpredictable – like a bunch of two-year-olds.
Although santeria, with a dash of Catholicism, is the primary religion in Cuba, I would actually offer up Buddhism as the religion most suited to life there. Buddhism teaches that happiness depends on detaching yourself from all material wants – that’s a good attitude in a place that has trouble reliably getting vegetables from inland to the city and where various imported items might not be available for weeks on end and the phones and electric lights don’t always work. Whatever is getting your goat, the answer is: RADICAL ACCEPTANCE.
Lose yourself, but don’t lose yourself.
I went to Cuba when I was 21 years old. That’s a dangerous age – you’re half-baked at best, still impressionable and malleable. Life is just one big identity crisis. I’d like to go back to Cuba now that I’m at least a little more sure of myself, though I wonder if I’m already starting to shut myself off to life-shattering experiences.
Learning another language means learning another way of seeing the world. It changes your brain so that you learn to hold inside yourself two equal, but often contradictory truths at the same time. It can really mess you up at first, but I guess you get used to it. So lose yourself, but don’t lose yourself. That’s my double-truthed, contradictory advice for you, mi amiga. If it doesn’t make sense and you find yourself getting frustrated, please refer to points 1-3.
For more fun: This was an article I contributed to our college alumni magazine about our experiences in Cuba. Featuring a photo of me in a really large hat.