Service in Cuba

There is no doubt that today was a pivotal day. It was a fierce-fully productive service day. You have to remember that Cuba is a socialist country. Our guide, Alexis Hernandez, will tell you that that means that there is no incentive to be creative, productive, or ingenious in the workplace. Enter our 14 students. This group of students is seriously focused on the completion and thoroughness on the job. They are a team without the burden of limits. They organize well, attack the job, and complete it in record time. That is who they have become; that is who they are.

Our morning was spent at Finca Bahia, an ecological farm in the eastern part of Havana. Many students described it as the “jungle”. Originally, it was a place where garbage was deposited. Over the years the ground became very fertile and a farmer developed the land by planting coco trees, palm trees, and mango trees; he also has a pig pen and a well on the property. The charge for “los catorce” was to clear a certain section of the land and make piles of vegetation that would be converted into compost piles. There was one shovel and one rake. The students were told to find curved sticks and used them as tools to organize the scattered leaves into piles, (Photo 1 & 2 which were then placed onto burlap sacks and carried to the new compost pile (Photo 3). Next the students moved two huge hills of palm leaves.

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While back in the jungle area, we found a World War II tank that oddly had been painted pink. That was fun for the students to explore, snap a photo with host, Pablo Delgado, and than back to work…sorta.

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What happened next was totally unexpected. Our hosts announced that it was time for a break and that we were going to “dance.” Yes, dance! While we were working, Caribbean jazz, son, and salsa had been playing from a boom box. Some stated that that detail made the environment like an enchanted forest. Dr. Turla saw a black hummingbird hoover over a plant and speed off. But dance? Yes, indeed, we did. The break consisted of learning how to dance the cha-cha-cha and salsa. It was a good work out and quite fun and relaxing. Some of the students won prizes for their dancing skills.  We all loved it.

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Then back to work. We finished moving another pile of palm tree branches. It looked really good and our hosts were amazed at the rapidity and thoroughness in which the team worked. Then it was time for a country lunch: stuffed bell peppers with fish or chicken, beets and carrots, baked yucca, green beans and cucumbers, cabbage (both cooked and raw), rice, okra with plantains, radishes. For dessert, freshly picked bananas and mangos, many of which had fallen from the trees that morning. The juices were freshly squeezed guayabana, tamarindo, and pineapple. It was delicious beyond words. Our hosts were Pablo and Edith Pulida and the dance instructor was Anita Galvinsky.

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It was magical even though the students wanted to work more. There was so much to do, they commented later.

Next we went to the Lung Kong home for Chinese-Cuban elderly. It is a charitable clan association that dates back to 1847 when many Chinese came to Cuba for work and stayed. We were met at the door by Graciela Lau Quan, a gracious woman, who invited us into the center to meet all of the elderly who had gather there to socialize and play Mahjong. Then the students organized themselves and got to work! The place was filthy. They washed the walls, the staircases, the ceiling.

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The scrubbed the floors on their knees. and with brooms covered with wash cloths. It took over four hours but when the students finished, it was clean. The elderly were most appreciative and we took a photo with Graciela Lau Quan.

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Notice that the guide jumped into the photo. Both he and our bus chauffeur really got into the energy of the project and helped us clean and move furniture. They were very impressed with our 14 and wanted to be a part of it all. The students wanted to work more. There was so much to do, they commented later.

The day was exhausting but immeasurably productive. There is no doubt that we made a difference today, that by our efforts of uncompensated service, we broke down some walls of misunderstanding. Before we departed, the organization thanked us profusely and served us little ham sandwiches and soda pop. It was a generous gesture; there was no doubt they were grateful and impressed. Mrs. Lau Quan said, “Today we have learned a lot.”

Tonight supper was on your own so the students ventured out to find their dinner. Some went to a highly recommended hamburger place. Martina had a hamburger with strawberries but mostly they sounded like they were typical hamburgers. Calvin and Casey found a place with yummy sandwiches.

This marvelous day ended with our attending one of the most traditional and popular ceremonies in Havana: the firing of the 9:00 P.M. cannon at the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabana at the entrance of the port of Havana. It was an impressive event.

We are all pretty tired tonight. Mostly, everyone was happy to go right to bed after the firing of the cannon but the day had one more surprising event before it closed. It seems that Jeriah, Casey, and John have been moved to the “Presidential Suite.” It appears that there were some bees that entered their room during the afternoon and the hotel decided to “reward” them by placing these lucky fellows in the 10th floor Presidential Suite. It is an amazing room with a spectacular view, a sitting room,and two bathrooms. What luck!!

I close this blog totally exhausted but filled with the positive feeling that what we are doing in this country is important and making a difference. We saw it in the surprising behavior of our guide and chauffeur. They were our most unexpected volunteers; they are really getting into the rhythm of our visit. We are operating in a social environment that does not reward anyone for extraordinary work. Our guide says that for that reason, no one wants to work and so they don’t.  Mrs.Graciela Lau Quan told us that she calls many times a day to get the government to come repair some things at the center but they never come. We feel our presence is important here. In small ways, we are making a difference and changing lives.

With great awe and respect for “los catorce”, I submit this blog for Day 3, Wednesday, June 11, 2014.

Jerry Smartt