Cuba and Romancing a Place

Americans can be so charming.  I mean that.  I think a lot of the world would agree.  Without a great burden of history (relatively speaking), we are mostly a hopeful people.  That “can – do” attitude extends to a lot of things, but what I want to write about is how it pertains to travel.  I have written about this a little bit before, but I decided I haven’t exhausted the topic yet, and so I hope you’ll have patience with me.  What prompted this post was a photography blog in the New York Times, “Lens: Photography in Cuba: It’s not easy”.   As the article explains, the phrase “It’s not easy” is used ubiquitously in Cuba, and then also as a title for this photography exhibit.

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Considering that diplomatic relations are being restored between Cuba and the U.S., it’s a timely exhibit at the International Center of Photography in Long Island, New York.

One of the curators, Iliana Cepero, a Cuban-born art historian, said rather aptly, “Cuba is perceived as a place of nostalgia in the American imagination, It’s the place where their grandparents honeymooned, this incredible site of longing and joy, music and leisure time. We do not want that image anymore. What this show is trying to do is to make clear for the American audience that Cuba is much more complex. Life is messy. Life is complicated. Behind those beautiful scenes everyone is attracted to there is a complex canvas waiting for them.”

Yes, I love that she said this.  Even in America, perhaps especially in America, people love nostalgia.  Nostalgia at any price.  Sometimes that price is forgetting all the muck that lies beneath.  And we musn’t forget the muck underneath. If we do, we are forgetting about, or even whitewashing,, a culture, a people, a place.  We are simplifying part of humanity.  Making it cute and digestible, when maybe it shouldn’t be.

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Cepero goes on to say in the article that she finds Americans’ desire to go to Cuba now, “before Cuba changes”, or is “ruined” is particularly odious.  “Our cities may be picturesque, but our lives are not,” she said. She added that many people in Cuba would be happy to see a McDonald’s in their midst.

Many Americans want this “picturesque” aspect in their travel.  The old cars, the paint peeling on buildings.  But what is that really?  Poverty.  And yes, it is wrong to romanticize poverty.  I was reminded myself of a Turkish movie I saw in the last year called “Bliss” (on Netflix).  It’s about a young girl who is raped in a very small, conservative village, and how her male cousin is commissioned with the job of taking her away and killing her.  A brutal way of life, to be sure, but then I thought, what if I had just visited the village without knowing this story?  Wouldn’t I have thought, “how beautiful, how charming this place”?  Without thinking about the muck underneath?  Yes, I probably would have.  It’s so easy to romanticize a place.

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I’m not saying it’s wrong to see beauty, to look for beauty.  I’m not saying it’s wrong to travel.  Yet I think it should be done carefully.  Dare I say it?  With mindfulness.  Too often travel is all about me me me.  That “nostalgia”, that “romantic poverty” we might see in Cuba is not for us.  It’s not about us.  That goes for anywhere you might travel.  We are guests only.  We don’t have a right to say how things “should” be.  That McDonald’s we might see someday in Havana might be a symbol of progress to people there.  Will the grasping consumerist capitalism of the West make things bad in Cuba?  Possibly.  Still, I don’t think it’s for outsiders to say what Cubans should want, what Cubans should keep.  It’s really up to them.

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