Last year Arlequino and I attended a conference and gave a teaching presentation at the University of Holguin, Cuba. This year we did it again. The experience was even better this year. Why? Partly because we took the kids with us. Partly because there were more Canadian academics with us–seven professors in total. Partly because we were better prepared, having learned from last year’s experience how to pitch our material to a group of really interested Cuban professors and students who have few resources in Canadian studies and little extant knowledge about our topics. Probably the best thing that happened was that we finally understood that the books we should be sending are primary texts–novels, anthologies, works of poetry and drama (in multiple copies), not the critical texts we have been sending or taking with us. A presentation by a Cuban professor made clear to us how difficult it is for their students to be interested in Canadian literature when they have no books. Nor can they photocopy the ones they do have. Photocopiers can’t be fixed when they break down; maybe there is a shortage of paper; maybe the cost of toner cartridges is just too much. It is such a useful reminder of how much we have and how much we take for granted. I commented last year in a blog post how Cuban universities, professors, and students are much the same as academics everywhere. We all share the love of learning. But our work and study contexts are so very different. Ever optimistic and enthusiastic, and incredibly resourceful, Cuban academics nevertheless work in buildings that are crumbling, desks and chairs are rickety or broken, air conditioners don’t work. Even the plumbing was not functioning this time. No working toilets. Yeah.
It’s good to get off the resort. Even the bus ride into the city is revealing. Cubans riding horses and donkeys as often as in old cars and makeshift buses. Goats grazing in fields that are dry. Houses in various stages of construction or demolition. Farms producing the fruits that are in abundance at the resort restaurants. After the teaching day we were generously taken for lunch at a nearby restaurant. The lunch conversation revealed more important realities: for example, the Cubans are not permitted to buy seafood at the markets, as it all goes to the tourists. The restaurant was a local place, but since it converted its business to the convertible peso (the tourist currency) few ordinary Cubans can afford to eat there.
Playa Esmeralda was as pristine as ever. The sea was warm and inviting. The whole experience was divine. With useful reality checks.