He laughed, "In Cuba, we don't have that...that is safety, that is time, that is money. It is knowledge, power...it really is so incredible. It's within your reach."
A conversation about privilege, the breadth of technology and internet conditions in Cuba.
Cradled in my hammock, wrapped in a pink net which provided no protection from the mosquitoes, I listened to the rain, feeling the warm humid Cancun air stick to my face. It left no spot untouched with a moisture so thick and magnetic that it could be wiped away and re-accumulate moments later. I shifted my weight to the side, starting a sway, feeling the rocking and the hold that the hammock provided...
Ernesto walked over from inside the hostel, appearing from behind me. Sitting down in the adjacent hammock he clamored, "Eh!" throwing his arms up to keep balance. He composed himself and brought a chair over, setting it up to my left. "Aye!", I thought, as I jerked and swatted at a mosquito who perched on my arm. "You (foreign/white) people are not meant for the mosquitoes, this land. Go to the forest, like the Amazon, you will not survive", he laughed as I sprayed my arms and legs. I blended the chemical spray in with the sweat and humidity that lay and seeped out of and into my skin, like an invisible film of oil on top of a puddle at a gas station. Great image, I know, but I do like the smell of gasoline. It reminded me of Nebraska, and going out onto the lake there, where there would be trailers hauling boats and people docking in and out of the water. I would roam the shores, and would inevitably be covered with little red dots which would welt up.
I remained silent, thinking about what would happen if I was to venture into the Amazon. The mosquitoes would be after me. I would most likely be like how I was in Morocco, cocooning in cloth and spray to shield myself. Wherever I would roam, I would be armed with the hyper-vigilance of a mosquito hunter, swatting the air, and eventually have grow into acceptance. The mosquitoes will come and I will do what I can, but in this environment it is inevitable. No need to get upset. I don't know if it has anything to do with me being white or born in Southern California, but I know that Ernesto had been exposed to only a couple of white people since he had been in Mexico, and we were randomly swatting and moving swiftly, avoiding being bit to shreds.
I swayed in the hammock and listened to the pouring buckets of rain. They fell from the sky in a dance and melody that sang through the air, beating their drums upon impact at the end of the journey, as they made contact with the surfaces of the land where people inhabit.
Ernesto looked at me, was staring at me actually. "Uh, hi." I said, in a kind of tone that was friendly, as well as that implied, hey, why are you staring at me? He kept on staring. "What is it?" I said. "I wanted to apologize, for earlier, for telling you that you look old and for saying your Spanish is bad. I wanted to talk to you, you seem wonderful, and I did not know how to." "Thank you, I appreciate that.", I said. This was kind of surprising given how he had been the last couple of days. Just a day earlier he had that same grin and was pointing a finger matter-of-factly, "If I had to give you a grade in Spanish, it would be zero!" A group from the hostel had gone out to see a show, and we drank quite a bit, ending the night with pouring shots of whiskey straight into our mouths from the bottle. The next day, I learned how to say "Estoy con resaca" (I'm hung over), and laid down next to Gary from San Francisco as he sat facing Ernesto, and was explaining how he believed that love is love, and how he is proud to be gay. He was telling Ernesto that he had love for him. "No, no you do not. You do not love me." "Yes, I do." "No no no no no". "I'm not in love with you, but I have love for you. Everyone deserves love". They were in a type of back and forth conversation that sounded like a heated argument, but really wasn't. I just lied down, passively listening, not wanting to move and letting myself have permission to do nothing. It was raining a lot anyway, and the company around me was enough. Ernesto glanced over at me, "Look at you, you look old, just laying there". Gary chimed in, "Now, that was not very nice, she's tired and hungover." "You should not be hungover anymore" "Some people take longer to get over hangovers, let her be. She is beautiful, not old. That is not a way to talk to a woman. Apologize". I took it with a grain of salt, while also acknowledging that there was some truth to his statement. I felt old and tired, worn out. I did not resent his statement, rather, I knew we had different cultural norms and had a lot of patience, knowing that he was curious and had a soft spot for the rest of us. He was adapting to life outside of Cuba, though I know he had been to a couple of other countries as well.
I did not expect an apology, and one that implied a sense of vulnerability/humility at that. We sat in silence for a while, and he asked me, "So, what is your story?" Oh no, I'm not diving into this hole, not with the amount of energy I have right now. Ernesto was curious and inquisitive, and I knew many questions would ensue in any explanation of a story. "It's a long story, I don't want to go over it right now." "Why are you feeling bad? You have it all!" He had a huge grin on his face, and talked with the enthusiasm of someone who just made a great discovery for the first time, his eyes wide, and with the demeanor that he could die happy right there. "Look at you!" He pointed at my body. "You have your legs, your arms, you are healthy." A grin spread across his face as he continued on. "You seem smart, you are beautiful, you come from one of the most powerful countries in the world. Do not be sad." I continued my swaying in the hammock as I heard words I hadn't heard or spoken to myself in a long time.
I had been grappling with anxiety for weeks now. I didn't want to bounce around and travel, I wanted to sit down in one spot and not blow through my savings. I was wanting to mix travel and career building, as I am wanting to work along the lines of human rights and journalism. I had money stolen from me in Chiapas, was not getting paid to teach, and decided to leave. Small and rural, the town I was staying in did not really fit with me anyway. I saw it as an opportunity to have something more concrete in place while learning Spanish rather than just spending what I had on formal classes. I was in Colombia when I had bought a ticket to Guatemala, and had a message sent to me regarding a teaching position in Chiapas. Since everything with that job checked out, and Chiapas was so close to Guatemala City, I saw it as a good opportunity. Within the same week, I got an email regarding my lost camera. Someone had found it! She told me that she had tried checking Facebook pages for backpackers in Colombia, but could not find the owner. She finally looked at the SD card, which had my CV, and subsequently, my email. The camera was en route from the Netherlands to Chiapas, so I was buying time waiting for it to arrive. While I was extremely grateful that someone would take the trouble and time to find the owner of the camera, I had no idea when it would arrive, and I was fairly restricted in the time that I could venture from Chiapas. I had trouble sitting down in one place, and made a 20 hour bus ride to Cancun. The main thing that was putting me off was not my situation, but some past underpinnings that I had that tickled a restlessness that served as a cover to cope with a certain loss of sight. Part of this was accepting the situation as it is and just being happy with what I had. He pointed at my phone.
"This". He put out his hand and I put my phone into it. "This, is amazing. You don't need to go to Guatemala to take classes, you have it all right here. In Cuba, do you know how our internet is?" I shook my head. "You have to go to the park to get Wifi. It is expensive, and who knows who can come up to you, out in the open like that, with a computer. I would take my computer to the park for an hour and download as much as I could". He made the motion of being hunched over a computer, with a look of frenzied concentration, his eyes wide and fingers moving rapidly. It was as if he was composing a complicated piece on a piano, pausing to determine whether the next verse would be the correct one, as it determined the clefts and depths that would form the world for this man. It took precision, to obtain this knowledge, motivation and hunger, to put one's safety on the line to gather information. "It is how I taught myself English. I didn't need to spend thousands of dollars, take a class, go travel far. It's all in here".
He smiled brightly. "It's so incredible. With this phone, you can sit, at the comfort of a desk, in a nice chair, probably with a cup of coffee, and look something up about the other side of the world. You want to go to school in Germany. Type a couple words in and look! All the schools in Germany. You don't need to go there, spend weeks walking around the country, getting the information from people. You can do it from your phone. You want to buy a car? Hmmm, well you can look at all the different kinds. Oh no, I don't like the color on the inside". He framed his fingers into a square and separated them, as if he was zooming out of a picture. "Click! Oh I like this color more. It's incredible. You want to know where to go? Type it in. It tells you! Imagine not having this, you walk around, you have to ask each person the direction of where to go. You have to have a level of trust, and who knows who they are, what their intentions could be." He laughed, "In Cuba, we don't have that...that is safety, that is time, that is money. It is knowledge, power...it really is so incredible. It's within your reach. Think of some of the stores here, there are aisles with so many different brands of toilet paper. In Cuba...", he started pointing his finger upward, with that grin, "In Cuba, we have one! One type of toilet paper! You could get in your car in the United States, look up where you need to go, go to a store that has a whole aisle of toilet paper, and go back home. That is time and money saved. There is more too, more I haven't seen. I have never been to the United States, I could only imagine". We looked each other square in the eyes, I was mesmerized with what I have taken for granted, and with his intelligence to think about these matters abstractly, to emphasize the value of technology, the knowledge that was in it and to seek it out with an appreciation and dedication that truly had transformed his life.
I could think of a couple times where I have gotten to relish in something that I took for granted. When I was in a foster home, who I could call using the house phone was limited. I was not permitted to call friends, and I did not have a cell phone. I would leave school to use payphones, and if I pressed certain buttons of the one at the movie theater, I could make free calls. I roamed the city a lot before I went into the home, and started living in a world with more boundaries and limits. When I left the home, I appreciated being able to make a phone call or walk out the front door. I had moments of hesitation, with the sense of freedom, conditioned to having to try and sneak in a phone call or looking out the window from the basement which had wooden boards placed on it after an attempted escape. I could walk out the door and down the street, and use the payphone, or make a call from home. But that is one of the many things that I have taken for granted. As Ernesto put it, I have everything, my limbs, fairly good health.
This whole conversation made me feel frustrated about the disproportionate distribution of wealth across the world, across and within countries. I could sit there, with my cup of coffee looking up schools in Europe. I booked a place at this hostel before I got here. I ended up getting overcharged, but I had a place to stay, and the extra dollar was minuscule. There are people who cannot afford to buy medicine, I can afford to buy mosquito spray to apply, and the resources to learn anything I wanted about prevention and treatment. That is safety and power. I am from a society where information is flowing freely on the web, and I have the access. It truly is incredible. This knowledge flowed from mouth to ear, building upon decades of wisdom and intertwined successes and failures. This exchange we have between people is the culmination of actions, observations, stories and emotions. We accustom and bias ourselves to a meld with our story, expanding or shrinking. Baselines flex as different technology and circumstances are introduced into our lives, and it can be important to see the power that what may be regarded as the most simple things hold. It is truly a privilege to be able to use the internet, for far more reasons than I have listed here.
Internet was introduced into Cuba in the 90's, and it is one of the 12 countries that have tightly controlled or no access to the internet. In August, 2018 a state-run telecommunications company called Etesca ran a trial that provided free internet for 9 hours throughout Cuba. People were in awe as they could use social platforms from home, a luxury that is not available for Cubans. As Ernesto expressed, there are public WiFi hotspots, which come at the risk of being a target for crime. The cost of using internet for an hour costs around $1.50, and the average take-home salary for Cubans is around $30 per month. Do you choose using the internet or food? It's no wonder with such tight hold on the internet Ernesto saw it with awe and appreciation, something that so many people take for granted.
I pulled up a lesson about Spanish on my phone, and he sat next to me, sounding off the words with me and encouraging me, saying that I was picking it up quickly. I was skeptical, as he was just telling me that I was horrible at Spanish but I took the compliment and appreciated the support and encouragement that he was providing.
Ernesto and I walked around Cancun with each other the next day, we talked about language, he asked me to sell him on why Arabic would be a useful language for someone to learn, and we pointed out what we knew about the foods at the grocery store. We ate while he had tears flowing down his face from the unexpected spice in the food that he devoured. He introduced me to a variety of Cuban music, and we have kept in touch since. Ernesto is an inspiration to me, as he is someone who went out and took something that he wanted, working for it using the resources that he had. He had a grand level of curiosity, observing, making mistakes, learning quickly, while keeping an attitude of growth and appreciation.
*The previous name "Carlos" was changed to Ernesto with permission.
Are There Countries Without Internet Access? Retrieved November 5, 2018 from https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/are-there-countries-without-internet-access.html
For 9 Hours, Cubans Got Internet in an Unusual Place: Everywhere. The New York Times. Retrieved November 5, 2018 from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/15/world/americas/cuba-internet-mobile-phones.html
Thank you for visiting! This is my personal blog, where I write about social justice, geography, culture, and my own encounters and reflections from around the world.