“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
I am not rich. I have never been rich and for most of my adult life I have exclaimed, “I will never be rich but I will always be okay.”
Okay means different things to different people---especially depending on where you live. In 2003, on my NYC bartending salary, okay should have just been OK. Any other person tending bar in NYC in a mid-sized Mexican restaurant would have been just okay, but because of my legendary, freakish budgeting/saving skills, I was good, maybe even great. (For more on how I roll budget wise check out my Medium.com article “Savings, Thy Name is Sexy".)
I applied my budgetary brilliance and planned my three-week trip to Cuba down to the penny. Not knowing what to expect in a socialist country with a history of spotty electricity and internet, from an economy based on the peso and the dollar, and a society still suffering terrible economic and social instability three years after Cuba’s Periodo Especial, I knew I had to factor in any and all contingencies, which I did.
Part of the holistic experience of Global Exchange’s educational tourism trip I had saved for included a tour of a hospital and school in the Sierra Maestra where we were able to speak with teachers and doctors educated after the Revolution. Our travel on paved roads deep into the countryside was made possible by the men and women dispatched by the Castro government after they took charge, as was the opportunity, just two generations after Hasta la Victoria Siempre, for peasants to become the teachers and doctors we met in the hills.
It was the ardent autodidact Che Guevara’s plan to wage a year-long literacy campaign to help eradicate centuries of neglect and to ready the Cuban people for citizenship in a collective society. The Year of Education began January 1, 1961 and until December 22, sent literacy brigades into rural areas to teach reading and writing, construct schools, and train teachers. Within the year, literacy in the adult Cuban population went from an average of 76% to 96%.
I got to meet some of the men and women fortunate enough to learn to read during that period, making gifts of pencils, pens, notebooks, staplers, as well as bandages, band-aids, and other supplies to their grandchildren.
To meet the Children of the Revolution, we traveled on an old bus never quite sure if we would make it where we were headed. But our young conductor Ernest, a college student and guide was sweet and intrepid, determined to make our experience an unforgettable one.
Unlike tours designed to cater to the nostalgia for vintage cars, rum, and Hemingway, our aptly named tour Following in Che’s Footsteps was curated for an immersive dive into all things revolution. It did not disappoint. Che’s son Camilo gave a personal talk on his father’s legacy (I still can’t believe I met one of Che’s sons!!!), and we were feted by some of the aged but proud ex-soldiers.
One of my most cherished memories is sitting with those legendary, dark-skinned men---all still deeply devoted to Che, who believed passionately in equality---as they told tales of the hardships they endured as they struggled to free their country from General Fulgencio Batista puppet regime and their friendship with the commandante. Because the revolution and many of the impetuses for it, paralleled Jim Crow America, I brought up the question of race and one solider answered with a charming little grimace, “When a light-skinned Cubano says they have no African blood, ask them who their grandmother is.”
Along with meeting war veterans, we ate a delicious meal in an off-license restaurant called a paladar. They are illegal and you have to know someone who knows someone to even find one, much less eat there and lucky for us quiet, unassuming Ernest knew someone. In our two weeks together, we rode horses in the Sierra Maestra, toured historical sites such as the Moncada Barracks, and experienced an artist colony among many other wonderful things. Some things were planned like our seminar with Camilo Guevara, but others were last minute substitutes for cancelled plans or programs. During every excursion that went off the rails, Ernest smiled and went out of his way to cajole and soothe. Even more important, when something fell through after a long bus ride, he smiled, joked, and reassured, deflating anger or annoyance. A new, first time father, it was in his best interest to pacify our American tour group, but it was also in his nature.
The two weeks flew by and on our last night we gathered by the hotel’s rooftop pool for a last happy hour and goodbyes. Most in our group were headed back home but I had made plans to stay. We chatted about our brief but convivial acquaintance, wishing one another well and trading appreciation that despite some inconveniences Following in Che’s Footsteps and Ernest had gone above and beyond our expectations. But suddenly, in the midst of agreeing profusely that we couldn't wait to come back to Cuba and that we adored Ernest, we found ourselves sliding into a disagreement. No one could agree on how large a gratuity we should leave our intrepid guide.
I sat quietly as the discussion pinged back and forth---the amount slowly dwindling until they seemed to settle on a number that neither matched what Ernest had done for us nor what we could afford. As a bartender, I was the poorest of the group, which included doctors and business people, and I fairly simmered with irritation. I finally spoke up, pointing out diplomatically that Ernest had really put himself out for us, that some had bought original art from the studio he had taken us to the day before that hadn’t been on the original itinerary. They sputtered and reddened and tossed a few more bucks in. I mentioned that it was desperately hard to earn a living on the island and whatever we left and that he could make before going back to school would have to be stretched.
A paltry few more dollars, and they begged poverty as the bills floated onto the table. But then why buy art, I asked with genuine curiosity. No one had a sufficient answer, so I pulled out the big gun of shame---reminding everyone that Ernest was a new, first time dad. I gave them my biggest, baldest bartender look which unmistakably said, “Are you fucking kidding me?” That look, a stony combo of East San Jose, college in the south, and pre-gentrified Brooklyn usually elicited a shiver and a proper increase in the percentage of my tip but shockingly, sun-burnt, exhausted from fourteen days exploring a foreign country everyone except my bunk mate Harriet, dug in.
The United States would have had to finally, successfully invaded the isle before I let Ernest go unpaid, so in a furious huff, I, along with Harriet, added to the small pile until Ernest was paid what he had earned by the literal sweat of his brow. I didn’t speak to the others after that. We bid our farewells on the roof, a heap of dollars crumpled and damp from their tight fists between us.
Sixteen years later, the memory of having to shame well-off American tourists to do the right thing by a twenty something struggling Cuban tour guide has stayed with me. It still fills me with fury and not simply because until two years ago, I too survived on tips. No, not simply for that reason.
The true reason is because, after spending half a month on the gorgeous, welcoming island nation of Cuba, after witnessing first-hand the need and the perseverance---my countrymen had fundamentally been left unmoved. In true American fashion, they were perfectly fine with allowing Ernest to work himself to the bone, to believe, to hope that ours would be the tour that helped his family make it to the next subsistence job and they hadn’t blinked.
I have been to over a dozen countries and this memory haunts me like a watermark in my passport.
Thanks for stopping by! Be sure to come back in May when I celebrate my second year living in South Korea.
In the meantime, be kind to one another, keep on traveling with a feminist eye, and keep on being Feminist AF!
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