In October of 1999, Vidal was sent to work in Varadero, Cuba for six months. Never one to shy from exploring new grounds, I started packing the minute I heard (4 months early). ‘The Forbidden Island – here I come!’, I thought to myself. American media did not frighten me; I had lived abroad long enough to know that life in other countries was not quite as awful as the Associated Press would have us believe; the ‘America Way’ isn’t the only way to live. I had just spent a few months in my native Chicago and was ready to get the ‘city’ out of me and the ‘tropics’ back in. Cuba, here we come!
Not yet having dual citizenship, I would land on Cuban soil as an American. That meant I would not be able to find employment – which was fine with me, as that meant I would have more time to explore!
While I was there, I took full advantage of traveling around on various tours, either free as a perk of Vidal’s work, or as an invitation by tour guides who had befriended us. Internet was available at Vidal’s nearby office, but the connection was ridiculously slow, so I would write long bulk emails about my weekly adventures, and thus my travel stories were born.
Living in southern Mexico in a tropical destination certainly has its advantages. The palm trees, the ocean, beautiful beaches with a mountain backdrop, lots of vitamin C from the citrus fruits in abundance and vitamin D from the sun, moist skin never in need of moisturizer, it is summer all year round, an abundance of fresh seafood, all the tacos you can eat and sunsets so beautiful your troubles fade away. Being bilingual also has its advantages while living in a tourist destination- – it makes it much easier to find a decent paying job, sometimes with perks. The advantage of life in an often unheard of destination of Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo is that peace and tranquility can always be found, and of course- it is a great excuse for your friends and family to come visit you!
But like any place in the world, there are disadvantages of life in the tropics. Silly things like big bugs, and the fact that frizz-less hair happens only in dreams. The real inconveniences are that I rarely get an MLB baseball game on my cable package (‘fútbol’/soccer rules here) and for the first 10 years I lived here, there was no cheddar cheese or grocery store chain – if one wanted to buy beef or chicken, you would have to wander through the mercado to choose which hanging carcass you wanted your selection chopped off. Fresh? Absolutely! Stinky? Ditto! Perhaps the biggest downfall of living in still relatively unknown tourist destination is that there is less job security – tour companies are more likely to pull out of Ixtapa than they will Cancun, especially when there is a world crisis such as in 1999, with the whole Y2K scare.
But let’s look at the bright side of things and turn those disadvantages to advantages: Big bugs are easier to see and therefore easier to exterminate, you save lots of time, energy and money on hair products as nothing works; just wash it, brush it and go! That precious time saved means more time to enjoy life! As far as the no MLB baseball games are concerned- well, I honestly cannot think of an advantage for that. The lack of cheddar cheese… nope, sorry. As much as I love to be an optimist, there is never an advantage to living in a place with no good cheese or baseball! As for lack of job security- as long as you are a well-respected employee, the company you work for just may find an interesting option for you, such as offer you a position for 10 months in some other busier destination.
And that is how we found ourselves in Cuba.
I wasn’t actually breaking the law; I had done my research, studied the law in effect at that time. It stated that American citizens were not prohibited from traveling to Cuba, we were just prohibited from spending money. If one went to Cuba, we had a daily spending cap of something ridiculous like $25 for food and lodging combined, including transportation to, from and within Cuba as well. I spent nothing, nada. Really! Well, sort of. I was able to fly to Cuba for free from Toronto (perks of being the wife of an employee). As Vidal had access to a vehicle, my transportation within Cuba was free, as well as all the excursions within. The company provided him with an apartment, so all that was left was spending money on food. As Vidal bought all the groceries and paid for meals out, I was legally covered. So technically, I was not breaking any law.
I truly believe that travel is much more than an adventure; it is an education. If we open our hearts to the new culture and are willing to learn who the people are, the experience is so much more rewarding.
In Cuba I learned:
* Cubans are not anti-American
* Not all baseball games have peanut vendors
* Using a metal spoon in an aluminum pan on a quirky electric stove is not wise. Unless of course you want curly/curlier hair
* Chickens can fly, but Russian planes should not
* That I should never gripe when I feel my choices are limited for food in Zihuatanejo
* Cubans do not hate Americans.