By Patricia D. Richards/ special to The Collegian
Cuba, cut off from American travel by its island location, its dictator, the U.S. State Department and several presidents, has always been an enigma to me. Everything about its past seemed legendary from its pre-revolution decadence and its years under Fidel Castro to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis when the world feared war.
Whenever I would think about visiting there, I was told there was no legal way to get there.
“We are very happy. I am very happy. Our culture creates happiness,” my guide told me in Havana in 2011 when I made my first trip to Cuba.
At that time, the country was about to celebrate its 53rd anniversary since the revolution that put Castro in power. Fifty-three years. It had taken all that time for a crack in U.S. policy to open wide enough to get me a visa to travel to Cuba. I was anxious to see what had happened during all of that time. I was not disappointed in 2011, and I was certainly not disappointed during my trip to Cuba in May.
While lost in Havana one afternoon in May, a friend and I found a shop specializing in old photographs and books. The shop was so small that it was difficult for the shopkeeper and the two of us to be inside at the same time. A young man stuck his head in the open door and asked if the shop had any old medical books. I tried to squeeze to one side so he could enter. The shopkeeper gave him two. One was about the intestines, and the man chuckled as he looked through it because the illustrations were so old. The other was about yellow fever and the Cuban doctor, Carlos Finlay, who had discovered that the disease was caused and carried by mosquitoes.
“He should have gotten the Nobel Prize for that,” the young man said, adding, “but then again, he was Cuban, so of course not.”
He asked us where we were from. When I answered, he said in perfect English that he too was from North America but was currently a medical student at the University of Havana. He’d been there four years already and had three to go.
The shopkeeper interrupted us handing me some photographs of a smiling, much younger Castro, saying he looked so happy in the photographs, a sign of the happiness of their culture. I remembered the words of my guide in 2011, “We are happy. I am very happy. Our culture creates happiness.’’ As I nodded at her, I heard the young man whisper in my ear, “Don’t believe that, about happiness, a people cannot be happy in a country that denies them free speech. Remember that.”
I asked him if we could meet again, and he scribbled his email address on the back of a card my friend handed him. He was in a rush studying for finals, and he would be going home soon for vacation and to get out of the Havana heat, but it would be nice to meet again, to talk this over. And then he was gone.
I bought the photographs of the smiling Fidel and tucked the young man’s card in my pocket. I tried many times to reach him, but the automated messages always came back saying he did not have a valid email at the address he’d given me. He did respond once, however, asking if we could meet on a Sunday afternoon — the
only day he was free and the only day my friend and I were busy, having been invited to the home of someone else we’d met in this new place of great discovery, someone who seemed, for all intents and purposes, to be very, very happy.
I haven’t given up on meeting with the young man, though, and hope we can reconnect on my next visit. In the meantime, he has given me much to think about.
Patricia D. Richards is an associate professor of photography on NE Campus and is on a faculty development leave, working on a documentary research project about Cuba.