September 16, 2005

Cuba, my most treasured memories

by Berwin King

My Cuban experience started when I boarded a Cubana Airline jet in Barbados, one afternoon in early September 1980.

Everybody, including the Grenadians, who were returning for their second year, spoke spanish. On the flight up, the Grenadians were singing “Cuba, que linda es Cuba”. I found out later that, that song, along with “Guantanmera”, were among some of the songs they had learned during their first year of learning Spanish in Cuba, the year before. {{more}}

The Cubana flight never left Barbados until very late that evening. We landed at Jose Marti International Airport at about mid-night and never got to the school campus until the wee hours of the following morning. We had little sleep and were up to be greeted by cows feeding in the field right across from the school compound. Breakfast was a hunk of tough bread and a cup of cold milk. That reminded me of Dickens’ Oliver Twist – “The boy who asked for more”, even though the issue here was not the quantity. There was enough bread and milk for everyone to eat and drink as much as they wanted.

I mean, I expected some tea – that is a hot drink of any sort, cocoa, or even some bush tea, or green tea with milk, hot milk. I really did not expect a cup of cold milk and a junk of hard bread handed to me from the bear hands of a dorm Mother, or “Tia” as they are called in Cuba.

Lunch turned out to be not much better, as I remembered. I think it was croquetas (croquettes), white rice and white milk. The only Barbadian student at the time, whom we promptly nicknamed “Baje” (as in Bajan)”, once lamented “They feeding milk, milk, milk; they think I am a calf”.

Baje dropped out because he didn’t like the food, I suppose, hence he never graduated. I think Baje was supposed to be a medical student. I wonder what “Baje” is up to today?

Therein lies the crux of my experience in Cuba; everything was different. Eventually, I even grew to see things differently in Cuba also. I learned to appreciate differences a lot more.

In Cuba, we met students from Angola, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Vietnam, Palestine, Nicaragua, to name a few, who were ex-soldiers. Their stint in Cuba was just another phase of the struggle to liberate their people from occupation, apartheid, poverty or whatever their cause was.

My experience in Cuba taught me, and made me understand and appreciate the needs and desires of a people, as opposed the desires or wants of the individual.

What we, in our parts of the world, consider everyday things were not so easy to come by in Cuba. Things like an extra pair of jeans, electronic toys, gadgets, the things that made most young people of my day, and even more so those of today, tick. Cuba had to concentrate its resources on the things that were really important. Things like education for all, healthcare for all, Arts and Culture at everyone’s disposal. Sports were touted as a right of the people, all the people, including people like us, three Vincentians.

Our education in Cuba was free to us, but it was at the expense of the Cuban youths who had to forgo their pac-man (the happening video game at that time), and all the other little gadgets that most other children took for granted.

Cuba gave secondary, middle and tertiary level scholarships to students from all over the world. I have met students from Angola and Bahrain to Yemen and Zimbabwe, and all other countries in between, even and including some from the United States. There were two American students in class with us that year. One was a Native American woman and the other a white woman. They were there to study languages.

In Cuba, the other Vincentians who were there and I had opportunities to attend a number of sports and cultural events that would have been a little more difficult to experience in our small country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

I left Cuba a very different person that when I went there, and all that was for the better.

• Berwin King hails from the Mesopotamia Valley and pursued studies in Agronomy at the University of Havana’s Higher Institute of Agriculture (ISCAH). After graudation he joined his relatives in the United States and further studies Information Technology.