All human beings should try to learn before they die,
what they are running from,
and to, and why.
Dreaming Aloud: Making the dream a reality
Dancing always takes you places beyond the dance floor, and so it was for me. It was in the early 2000s that I first fell in love with Argentinean Tango, which quickly became a passion. That passion led me to another, dancing salsa, and enjoying the culture and environment that went with it.
Having danced in different countries since, I now realise how fortunate I was with my teachers. In Melbourne, Australia, they were Christian Drogo and Kristina Diaz, and in London, Cesar Velasquez.
My good fortune was that all three are not just beautiful people (in looks and in personality) and remarkable dancers, but they gave me the dance in context of passion that is particularly Latino.
Later, I was to find that as a single woman I could go alone quite safely to any truly Latin Bar and be treated with old-world Latino courtesy. Without an escort I could safely enjoy memorable evenings of dance.
I make the differentiation between a truly Latino-inspired and operated establishment, and those run by non-Latinos where they teach steps but not what the dance is all about.
I also exclude those who run bars that just label themselves for marketing purposes but have none of that defining quirkiness that makes a Latino bar hum.
In 2001, while studying with Christina and Christian, I joined the annual student trip to take classes in Argentina and Cuba – the one for tango and the other for salsa.
Sadly, it turned out that due to my work commitments, I was unable to go to Argentina.
Instead I joined the group en route to Havana at the airport of San José, Costa Rica.
I had stayed overnight in San José in a charming traditional hotel. It had a gracious courtyard and welcoming hosts. They kindly suggested that before walking into town I might be wise to remove the gold chain and locket around my neck, and my diamond ring.
Having previously read of tourist muggings in the city I had been a little nervous about walking there alone, but was assured I would be fine as long as I removed these things of value. So it proved.
In my exploration, I sat in a park at the edge of town and watched the schoolchildren rehearsing for the big Independence Day celebratory march the following morning, wandered about taking photographs, got a feel for where to stand to watch the big parade the next morning, and ate in small local restaurants.
At exactly 6pm on the 14th September, radio and TV stations in Costa Rica broadcast the National Anthem. It seems as if the whole country sings along to start the celebration of the independence from Spain that in 1821 had been proclaimed for the whole of Central America.
The parade the following day is enormous. It takes hours to pass. I felt for the young marchers, for indeed it was a very long route.
Both the rehearsal and the march were performances worth the invested time.
I came away delighted to have experienced the community of social interaction that makes such events successful:
· the mothers who made the costumes
· the teachers who trained special skills
· the companies who donated instruments and other materials and provided sound systems.
After all the celebrations during which I felt truly an outsider, I walked back to my colonial style hotel with its wide verandas and friendly gecko who shared my room.
It is at times like this that the lone traveller feels the immensity of loneliness.
Alone, I have visited some of the most romantic places in different parts of the world. In each place this ache has been there.
The absence of those loved with whom to share the adventure is one of the things we miss most from the separation from those we hold dear. However, the option is either to go and make the best of it, or hide away with your wounds of aloneness.
I choose to go.
The memories I have made in doing so have coloured the long days and nights thereafter with the particular magic each experience offered me. They have left me a treasury of memories.
At the airport the next day I joined my friends who were exhausted from a week of tango indulgence in its heartland.
We arrived in Havana late at night and endured over two and half hours of waiting to be processed by immigration at José Martí Airport.
The humidity was stifling, with almost no air circulation. Russian-styled immigration stations slowly released people onto Cuban soil.
The rest of my group had pushed ahead energetically but then had to wait for me and the other side of the barrier was just as hot and steamy.
I was one of the last to have the pleasure of being processed and by then I was wondering why I had bothered.
Eventually, we arrived at our hotel in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Old Havana.
As we checked in, our Spanish-speaking teacher Christian started an animated conversation with a local and turned to me to ask if I wanted to go to sleep, or go out. I replied that I had not come to Havana to sleep – and so it was that with some fellow dance students we rode in an old classic taxi into Central Havana. At the time it was illegal for tourists to do so and naturally that added to the delight of the whole experience.
We were headed to a bar near the Havana Libre, the former Havana Hilton Hotel. It was in a basement and almost empty when we arrived just before midnight.
Upon arrival I visited the toilet but then didn’t emerge for some twenty minutes. When I did, the place was packed and the music was on loud, louder, loudest volume – typical of Cuba.
My friends shouted at me: “Where have you been?” In reply I just grinned and said: “Look at me”.
With that, I held my arms out and slowly turned around in a full circle.
“You could just stand me in the corner and I could be a glitter ball”.
The reason I had been gone so long was because I had been generously glittered by the locals. In front of the mirrors and wash basins, local girls had been primping and adjusting their dresses. Some were putting on their party makeup from shared resources – of which glitter made a fair part.
I had playfully engaged with one whose top had nothing but just laces across the back. She and her friends quickly grabbed me and told me that I needed glitter. They duly applied it amidst lots of laughter.
This is the sort of interchange that shows you don’t have to speak the language to connect with people. A smile and playfulness are universal languages.
Back at our table, one of my new friends arrived beside me, telling me that her ‘brother’ wanted to dance with me … and could I introduce her to my dancing teacher so she could dance with him?
I think that was about quarter past midnight. We left just before six in the morning and I had danced almost non-stop the whole time.
This was Cuban salsa at its best. Dancing with one person, I turned to find another person had taken his place. Another turn and someone else popped up between us and took his place. Hand contact included a sort of sliding departure so your partner’s hand slid down your arm in a shiver of seductive movement.
The whole thing was one immense and passionate dance event.
About four in the morning I danced close by my dance teacher and said, “Christian. Christian”.
He looked at me questioningly as I asked: “Do you know what happy is?” He raised an eyebrow.
I went on to reply: “THIS”, I pointed to myself and my wide smile, “THIS is happy.”
One of our group was very buxom and blonde and there wasn’t much of her dress between a very short skirt and a low cut neckline. As we waited for a taxi afterwards, she was extremely indignant. Referring to the hand slide I have just described, she said: “They were touching me”.
I laughed and said: “I thought that was one of the best parts”. Another student agreed.
By the time we got back to the hotel where we had arrived weary from long travels and had just found enough time to drop our bags in our rooms before going out again, there were just two and a half hours in which to sleep before our first dance lesson. It was a case of ‘sleep fast’.
When the alarm went off we were all probably still running on adrenalin from the previous night, but we headed off to our class.
That morning during a break in our first dance lesson at the Academy of Dance, I looked at my fellow students and said: “…and we thought we could dance”.
What we were learning took us to another level.
This was my introduction to a country and its people.
It was then that I realised that if I was to understand how to dance Cuban salsa properly, I must learn not just the steps and the moves, but also to understand the source of sheer exuberance that dance releases when danced with passion.
It seemed apparent that to make the most of this learning I would need to learn more about the place, the people, and perhaps, the politics.
Thus began my journey to the soul of Cuba.
Over six more trips I made friends with some of the locals and became a godmother to a little Cuban girl, stayed in apartments where I could cook for, and entertain up to fourteen of my new local friends in spontaneous fiestas – and learn Spanish from them, for they spoke almost no English.
I didn’t actually learn Spanish. They say children don’t learn languages - they acquire them. Just as if I were a child, I acquired Spanish.
Fast forward nine years.
Life events had overtaken me and my plans with some rude awakenings and there was no chance for such indulgence as a trip to Cuba.
My ability to speak Spanish evaporated in the heat of other priorities and through lack of use.
On my last trip, a Cuban friend had given me a small laminated picture of a saint and told me that it would bring me back. It has lived in my old battered wallet ever since. In the intervening years, every now and again the saint fell out to remind me of that promise.
Given my love of Cuba, when I started my website www.discover-interesting-places.com it was natural that the website included a large section on Cuba.
As I built each page of the new site, the saint was on a mission to fall out of my wallet as often as possible – but without getting lost in doing so.
It was against this backdrop that I wrote on the website that Cuba was calling me back. At the same time, privately I had mentioned to friends that I had all of December as leave. They suggested I return to Cuba, but I had replied that the trip was beyond my financial reach.
Then came a call that made everything possible: my friends Jane and Greg Zeuschner donated the flight points for the fare.
It was a gift of dreams.
It seemed that I had spoken my dreams into reality.
So it was that in December 2011 I flew back to Cuba – this time to explore more of the island.
The person returning after this trip was one quite changed from the experiences of the month with no plan.
As my flight left Havana on my return, I thought of the Cuban saying that if the year ends well, it is a positive omen for the oncoming year.
Certainly that year had ended well for me:
· I was a happier and more relaxed person than on my arrival in Cuba.
· I had laughed heartily and well every day, been cared for by my friends – and cared greatly in return.
· I had seen the Cuban Cuba and not just that of the tourist routes.
· I had thought a lot, taken many photos, made heart connections, and reconnected with my soul.
Over the years I have tried to not look too far into the future.
Experience has taught me that no matter what futures I have planned – and I have planned quite a few – these have never emerged in any form that matched the dream.
It seemed that the Universe had other plans for me, and these were what directed my fate.
As a result of this, my coping strategy is to affirm to myself that it is best to try to have no plan.
Instead, I just trust my guardian angel who has brought me intact through life's twists of fate.
Now, as the New Year approached, I was returning from a month with no plan in Cuba that had been a way to end the past and begin again.
Perhaps we try too hard to control our fate.
With a focus on control we forget to read the tides
and so lose the chance to raise our sails
to catch the best winds to ride them.
These were my thoughts as the year started – and so began this book.
Its stories distil what Cuba teaches me.
Cuba teaches me that:
The important things in life are not things.
Life goes better when I take ‘The Cuban Approach’.
The Cuban Approach employs fifteen principles to give new perspectives on life and yourself.
· Speak your dreams into existence.
· Plan ahead but carry your lifeboat with you.
· You can be lost without feeling lost.
· Trust your judgment – and then trust others.
· Be kind.
· Challenge your mindsets.
· Some of the best memories have no photograph.
· Rough terrain is best crossed in good company.
· The way things are is the way things are.
· A smile is a universal bridge.
· Time doing nothing is well invested
· Perspective is not just for artists to learn.
· The quickest way through is often around.
· If you give of yourself you give twice.
· Sometimes you are somewhere not for your benefit – but for the benefit of others.
Employing these principles gives enough space to let new options reveal themselves.
I hope my month with no plan has meaning for you too, and that when life redirects your course, you will be ready to apply ‘The Cuban Approach’.
Reserve A Parking Place
Have enough of a plan to let the plan evolve
My plan was to have no plan. Having spent enough time in Havana on previous trips, I knew from experience that this was usually the best plan to have, and so it proved.
However, I am a responsible person and I was travelling alone, so when I arrived I had enough of a plan to last me four days out of my month.
This short parking space would enable me to acclimatise. I could then make sure whatever form my No Plan took, it wouldn’t leave me at risk.
I thought four days was enough time to let the No Plan start to take shape.
Cuba was ingrained in my heart because I had previously had the rare privilege of learning it through Cuban eyes, and not through those of an isolated tourist. The key had been the people.
But how to find the people who had so coloured my soul with the love of Cuba on my early trips?
Nine years’ absence is a long time.
Even in Cuba, where moving house is fraught with the complications of an elevated version of ‘Let’s Make a Deal’, people do move. At the time, in order to move you had to swap a house or residence because there quite simply aren’t enough to go around.
It makes for complicated negotiating.
This you can witness in the parks of Havana.
Beneath the cooling foliage of aged trees people who want to move sit beneath or beside small placards advertising their residence and their desired swap.
Of course, as with any country, although perhaps here at more frequency, such deals often resulted not from this sort of patient advertising but from ‘The Village Telegraph’ described by my mother as: ‘Thou hast a friend and thy friend hast a friend’.
Perhaps that is how my friend from the past had disappeared.
The quotation my mother used was actually directed at the folly of telling someone something ‘In Confidence’. She knew that they in turn would tell others ‘In Confidence’. Friends who are the exceptions to this rule and hold the trust of confidence sacred are real treasures.
Three and a half hours of travelling with my new friends around every square block of the old residence of my former key contact proved fruitless.
We met lots of people – none of whom could help. It was tiring work and we needed refreshment and to sit and let the reality of things drift slowly over us.
Not that much had changed in Havana over the period, and it all seemed clear and familiar.
As we sat and watched the world go by, chatting about all sorts of things not related to my month of no plan, the table next to us became the scene for an interesting exchange between two tourists.
A loud argument in English ended, and one of the two men struck up a conversation with one of my new friends who had intervened to try to inject some humour into the increasingly heated discussion.
I became very quiet, not wanting to engage.
One of my failings is being able to listen to someone sound off at the poor character of the locals of the country which I am visiting or where I am living and not say anything to correct it. So far I had managed to keep quiet, but then this chap got very vocal claiming that people who spoke to you were all just trying to take your money.
He added that he had told his companion – who turned out to be his brother – that he shouldn’t trust them as everyone was just on the make: they were light-handed and he would find his wallet stolen.
The brother had the temerity to make a judgment for himself, and it was to the contrary. This was the cause of the loud exchange of opinions.
The older brother went on and on about untrustworthiness of the locals and how he had told his brother that he ‘had been warned’.
This was a bridge too far. I got up, moved around the table, and sat down next to this self-righteous fellow.
With a big smile I pointed out that it had been impossible not to hear their conversation and asked him why he believed all people offering him directions to the evening’s events were trying to steal from him.
His answers didn’t sit well with my experience and I said so. I then asked why he thought that he had the right to insist that his brother follow his judgment and not make his own.
He replied that his mother trusted him as the older brother to make sure his sibling came to no harm.
Both men were obviously over forty years old, so we then had an extremely interesting discussion about the fact that it was time for both of them to think for themselves as adults and not to be constantly under mother’s watchfulness.
I pointed out that they were now some thousands of miles from their home in Canada; and that what was normal in their corner of Canada might not apply in another corner of Canada, let alone in another culture so geographically distant from theirs.
In the course of what turned into a very wide-ranging discussion, I suggested that instead of the many visits to what he called ‘his shrink’ that he described as guiding his life, he should consider speaking with his friends.
I said that it was my experience that friends give you an uncluttered mirror in which to review your own actions, as well as see those of others from a perspective different from your own.
A friend’s view of your actions doesn’t compromise the friendship but it is the duty of a friend to pull you up when you are out of order, because you know they love you anyway.
I went on to say that friends keep you honest. They also remind you of who you are when you have temporarily lost your way.
He replied quickly: “Not my friends”.
I got up to leave and in parting suggested that he should re-evaluate the quality of his friendships. He reached out and shook my hand emotionally, telling me he had been paying for therapy for years and what we had discussed made more sense than anything he had heard through all those sessions.
My Cuban friends were much amused and tagged me with a nickname ‘Counsellor’. They laughingly told me that I didn’t have to defend Cubans.
I replied that I did, because my experience was to the contrary and also because it is so rude to carry on like this when you are guest in a country.
You wouldn’t go to dinner at someone’s house and then start insulting them.
What’s the difference?
As I had pointed out to the man in question:
If you find people untrustworthy all the time
you had better look in the mirror
instead of out of the window.
It might have been this exchange that prompted one of my new friends to make the offer that was to define my No Plan trip. He was the partner of the lass to whom I had brought gifts from her friends in Germany and was the person who had first engaged the complaining tourist in conversation.
Fascinated by my intervention and the exchange that followed, he had watched quizzically but silently. Now he spoke.
Apparently, in the past this chap had guided tourists on personalised trips inland.
He now made me the offer that was to give structure to my month in Cuba.
He could do the same for me. We could travel from relative to relative and see the Cuba not advertised in the tourist brochures, as well as that which is.
It is a favourite saying of mine in some circumstances that ‘It would be rude to say no’. This was just such a case.
I accepted on the spot, but went on to explain that first I needed to rent an apartment in Havana as my base.
When we returned it would be close to Christmas and I was sure that the limited number of suitable apartments would all be taken by then.
I didn’t want a room in someone’s home, although my friends showed me one that would otherwise have been top choice. It had a stunning rooftop terrace with views over the Malecón.
My choices are limited by my lifestyle preferences:
I write. That means I don’t want to be disturbing others while my muse takes me far into the early hours.
I also cook. I want my own kitchen. This also helps with the budget – which for me is always slim. When I cook for my Cuban friends this can be a lengthy affair due to the limitations of a Cuban kitchen and its equipment and utensils.
Sharing someone else’s house had an additional limiting factor. In the past, some of my best memories are from impromptu parties at my apartment and the left-over guests who stayed – including their children.
So what I needed was an apartment to myself.
I had a plan about how to find an apartment, but it didn’t work out quite according to my expectations.
I couldn’t find one that was suitable.
I asked my new Cuban friend for help. She asked about amongst her contacts and soon there were two apartments to be seen.
We hailed a pedalo and she negotiated a fare for one tenth of the price I had paid for the same route the day before, and off we went to view them.
On my previous trip I hadn’t negotiated a price first, nor did I know roughly what that should be. Local knowledge is a great asset.
The first place was at the back of an apartment block that could have doubled as a cell block in a B Grade movie.
There was a long, narrow corridor with dim wall lights that led to an apartment at the back.
No natural light seemed able to squeeze through until some feebly drifted in through a very small window inside the apartment.
We politely declined.
The next was a little further along the road, but we crossed to find an airy and well-appointed place.
It had its own balcony overlooking the road, just up from an intersection that divided two central Havana neighbourhoods.
It was high season and apartments were much in demand.
While we were inspecting this one, two more calls came through to the owner seeking rental of the same apartment. Nevertheless, she was not to be diverted by other potential tenants and our deal was done on no more than a handshake.
My offer of a deposit was declined with a smile. My word was good enough.
It was not that she knew my new Cuban friend and was basing her trust on that. She just trusted me at face value.
After some small talk we departed.
I was set. The price even included washing and ironing from a delightful neighbour.
My No Plan was working well.
Having accomplished our goal, the afternoon stretched into evening. We drove to one of the good music bars to dance – as one does.
While it was being checked out to see if was worth going to that night I fell asleep in the car.
This pre-check was something I understood to be normal after experiencing the same on previous Cuban trips where this sometimes happened two or three times before the right music, or mix of staff was considered suitable and it was agreed to be the place to go.
Before leaving Germany I had been working long hours and also trying to cram in work on my website before leaving fast internet connections. I hadn’t yet caught up on the lost sleep.
My friends say I can sleep on a washing line. It’s a gift to be able to fall asleep in unlikely places. So, while the bar was being reviewed for suitability, I leaned across the now vacated driver’s bucket seat and in a flash was sound asleep.
After some time I was roused with the news that the best band was not there that night but would be tomorrow.
I knew from going to several really fine bars in Havana on past trips in the company of my missing friend, that often such a reconnaissance mission may have other purposes.
Some bars and restaurants give a local commission for bringing in a tourist. I had discovered this on an early trip when my friend stopped me just as we got half a block from a particularly lovely rooftop bar we had just left.
He instructed me to ‘Wait here’ and set off at a trot back to the bar.
Returning, he was chuckling in delight.
I looked puzzled and he opened his closed palm to reveal two dollars.
As he opened the purse that held the trip kitty, my money, he looked incredibly pleased with himself as he stuffed the two dollars in and said, ‘Comisión Paquita’.
This was very honourable. I would never have known and he could have pocketed the extra money. Instead, he respected the trust I had placed in him.
I don’t know whether the reason for us not going to that particular bar on this night had any more basis than that announced, but since I was being given the option to come back tomorrow night, it probably was. It was hard for me to evaluate.
From my side this was a half-awake conversation and I slowly awoke to its expansion to the earlier offer of our planned travel inland.
There, in the warmth of a Havana night, we discussed where to go and for how long and at what cost, and agreed we would leave tomorrow.
We also agreed that the little red car in which we were travelling was not up to the effort. We had already suffered two flat tyres and had to replace the front one whose metal belting had come completely free from the rubber in which it was embedded.
The window winders were kept in a jumble in a pocket by the front seat and were passed back to anyone needing to open a back window.
The clutch was almost non-existent, but it seemed that, if you pursed your lips exactly in the right way, the gears could be changed with minimal pressure – as long as you were swift in doing so. There was also an ever-present smell of gasoline.
On the basis of this summary of the failings of our little red car, it was agreed that I would rent a vehicle. So, the no plan began with the need to first find a rental car in Havana in high season.
I found a car – but at a high cost. Cost proved to be not the only problem. When I investigated further, the car turned out to be no more than a theoretical construct.
There may have once been a car at that price but as the conversation proceeded toward details of the basics of where and what, it proved from side conversations taking place at the other end of the phone during the call, that in fact there was now no such car to be had after all, at least not at this moment in time.
My Cuban friends had no plan about how to find a car. They just asked about and were passed from this person to that.
We stopped and had some beers.
The names of Cuban beers always seem well-suited to the island and its history: ‘Bucanero’ for all the pirates that used to work the straits of Florida; and ‘Cristal’, perhaps for the clarity that drinking several cans of beer can bring to the development of a plan.
In the course of our travels from one contact to the next there were a few cars supposedly available. These also turned out to be more concept than reality. However, eventually a real car at the right price was found from a friendly official rental place in the Plaza Hotel.
By then it was late afternoon and we hadn’t eaten, so we settled down for a meal. A few Bucaneros and Cristals later, we agreed that it was quite late to start and we would set off tomorrow.
In Latino time, ‘Tomorrow’ is often code for ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. Knowing this, I was quite relaxed about our schedule. In the warmth of the previous night we had agreed we would leave ‘tomorrow’.
It therefore appeared to me that we were keeping to the agreed timetable.
From previous experience of being in Havana I knew the need for acclimatisation.
By acclimatisation I don’t mean the marked contrast between the sultry weather of Havana in December and the German winter I had left behind me. Instead, I mean the completely different world into which I had placed myself.
This is a world where for many there is no promise in tomorrow and so living the fullest in each day is a way of life.
It is a world where no single person seems to understand the complexity of all aspects of a system designed in the late fifties and overlaid with new and emerging political realities, each seeming to have competing agendas.
It is a world where infrastructure outside the tourism boundaries is quite literally crumbling through inattention. Verandas and internal walls collapse with some regularity.
This is the result of pressures of housing that cause more and more people to be crammed into once single family dwellings that are now honeycombed with improvised layers as families expand.
This is a world where so many of the basics we take for granted – like being able to put toilet paper down the toilet – require different protocols.
With a fragile sewer system and no repairs on the supporting infrastructure, the Havana of my visits was slumping into decay a little more noticeably with each visit.
Of course this is not the case in the well-appointed tourist hotels where you are isolated in a make-believe world. These are places sanitised from the daily experience of the hardships of life around you. They are hotels of best world-class quality and are exquisitely decorated. I had one for my parking place.
From experience I knew that we visitors need time to readjust our expectations and judgments – even when staying in such a well-appointed hotel. Therefore, I had reserved this parking place so I could do so.
I hadn’t specified details of what my No Plan should entail and just had a vague concept of what I wanted to do.
Since I had no plan, if my early ideas didn’t work out I could dream up some new ones and see how they went. I wouldn’t have lost anything in the process, as I had no plan to start with.
Such was my thinking when I first arrived:
· Have four days in a hotel
· Rent an apartment and a car, and
· Do some trips outside Havana.
That was it.
My new Cuban friends met me while I was in my parking space. As it turned out, they were the key to me seeing Cuba through the lens of a Cuban perspective.
Had I been rushing about making a plan, I would have missed them.
I would have missed them because a plan indicates that there is something next to do.
A long wait with no advice about why, or when the waiting will end, definitely gets in the way of a plan that expects something to be done next.
I would have missed them because they had things happening in their lives and no means to communicate with me to let me know that the appointed meeting time needed to be stretched – even beyond Cuban standards.
As it turned out, I spent a fair amount of time sitting waiting, and while waiting, watching the world go by.
If I had a plan, I might have just left a message that I was busy doing the next thing.
When I say waiting, I mean for periods of hours.
On one memorable occasion my waiting stretched to two and half hours. I was then greeted by a smiling and satisfied friend who announced happily that ‘everything was in order’.
I laughed in a sort of resigned fashion and we set off. On the way to our destination, the story of the delay slowly unfolded. In the middle of the night he had driven to collect a friend who was dealing with the results of an accident caused by a man stepping out in the dark in front of his slow-moving car.
His car was slow-moving because the headlights were magneto-driven and prone to dim when their stored battery strength waned. I had a car like it once. We used to say: ‘Lights by Lucas, the Prince of Darkness’.
The accident in this case had resulted in the windscreen of his friend’s car having a head imprint in it. I was later to see this for myself when we surveyed the damage before setting out for a replacement, but that was some days later.
My friend described the rest of the intervening period since we had last parted.
He had juggled various minor family crises, made sure his partner and daughter had alternative arrangements for transportation to and from the little girl’s dance classes on the days ahead, driven a friend to another town and sorted out the proposed absence from work while he was to undertake his Tour Director duties.
All this had meant going here and there to speak with various people. There were several other errands he had completed for the wider family because he was the one who had a car, but now he was here with everything settled.
This summary was delivered in a matter of fact manner and ended with a satisfied smile.
If you were Cuban you would find delays quite normal, but I was to discover that my Tour Director stretched even those boundaries.
For those of us who are not brought up in Cuba, but in places where it seems the clock dominates our expectation of life’s rhythms, it is not at all normal.
Resignation in such situations was something I had gradually learned during my earlier trips. Similar experiences through past Cuban holidays had taught me the merit of having patience.I had found that usually things ended up taking unexpected directions that made for a better time than I had anticipated – and these never would have happened if I had shown my frustration at the reconstruction of the concept of time.
Another part of the No Plan was that on this occasion, as with so many others, once so collected after the long wait I didn’t know where we were going – or why – but it turned into a great evening.
We first stopped to collect the rest of the family and were a bit late arriving at our destination due to the progress of a saintly icon that was making its Christmas travels around the island.
I hadn’t realised she was the destination.
This much-revered patron saint of Cuba is the Virgen de la Caridad de Cobre. She is surrounded by 400 years of belief, mythology, and colourful stories.
Official records show she was carved in Toledo. Legend has it that she was created to give sailors someone to whom to pray and from whom to seek protection from the pirates and buccaneers of Cuba’s early Spanish history.
This is probably accurate.
On what ship the Virgin was originally installed is unclear, but we do know several versions of the story of why she was elevated to her reverential status.
According to some reports she was found by the ‘Three Johns’ (one of whom I discovered in an old document to be actually named Rodrigo – but one would hate to spoil a good story by pointing out this detail).
The three Johns found the Virgin when, as children of about ten years old they were out at sea in a small boat. She appeared, floating atop the waves holding the baby Jesus and standing on a plinth that proclaimed her to be the Virgin of Charity.
Despite floating on the waves, she was dry.
Another version has the Virgin being found by fishermen. She appeared to them during a storm – also quite dry despite the lashing waves – and her appearance was credited with saving them from certain destruction.
Whatever the source of her recovery, she was an uneasy spirit.
Many of the Virgin’s early resting places didn’t suit her. She kept disappearing from where she had been installed and appearing in other places, despite both locations being behind locked doors.
After several places didn’t make her happy, the Virgin was eventually relocated to a mountain retreat in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. It seems that this was a spot that she chose herself.
The Sierra Maestra is the highest mountain range in Cuba and is mostly in Santiago de Cuba province. During the many battles of Cuban history, the Sierra Maestra Mountains have been the refuge of many a guerrilla fighter. In the early 1950s after the failed attack on the Marcado Barracks that provoked the future revolution, Fidel Castro also found refuge there.
What attraction the mountains held for the Virgin is not known. Perhaps she had exhausted the pleasures of sea voyages and thought the rebels of history needed her more than the sailors.
How this became her final residence is said to be because of her frequent appearances to a little girl called Apolonia who went to the mountainside to pick flowers.
Apolonia’s claim to being in the company of the Virgin of Charity wasn’t at first believed, but the Virgin appears to have been nothing if not insistent: she kept being seen there.
Eventually, the locals acceded to the presumed request of the Virgin to move there. Consequently, a chapel was built on the mountain of her choice.
Since then, the Virgin of Charity seems happily at rest and receives her pilgrims ‘at home’. It was there, high in the Sierra Maestras that Ernest Hemingway deposited his Nobel Prize medal in her care. She even drew the Pope to visit her here on her mountain.
These days the Virgin no longer departs on solo travels. Now, her trips appear to be the wish of the people rather than her own, and certainly she never travels alone anymore.
Since communism and the church have become easier companions in the social life of Cuba, the Virgin has taken to travelling widely, but always under escort. Now, her travels follow preannounced itineraries that share her graces with the wider communities of the island of which she is patron saint.
Now, with no more mysterious disappearances and reappearances beyond locked doors, when the Virgin travels it is to an approving and rapturous public.
Part of the magic of the unexpected of my No Plan was that on this night we were all part of that audience.
On the night when I was privileged to see the Virgin, the narrow streets where once I had photographed a donkey-powered street tram were a shoulder-to-shoulder mass of adoring people.
At first I had no idea where we were, or why. My Spanish was in rehabilitation mode after years of disuse. Finally, I grasped the situation but by then it was impossible to get close to the church where the Virgin had briefly stopped.
As we were being moved along on the swell of humanity, I was surprised to realise that this was the very church where my Cuban goddaughter had been christened so many years ago. The picture of her in my arms that day has stayed by my bed ever since – but I have lost track of the whole family.
I wondered if they were perhaps there in the crowd.
Ever resourceful, my friends pulled me with them away from the eager throng and through the packed street towards a house nearby.
There was a hasty discussion with a tall man who was watching the whole scene from his doorway with the bemused gaze of someone who had seen it all before and wasn’t getting too excited.
My friends pushed me ahead of them urgently and told me to hurry upstairs.
We duly tramped through the adjacent house and climbed onto the rooftop. This gave us a bird’s eye view just as the Virgin, still smiling enigmatically within her glass case, left the church en route to her next destination.
Once again it had been proven that by letting go of my expectations they had been exceeded.
What did the Cuban Approach accomplish? My parking space gave me a few days with some predictability and a slow reintroduction to a culture whose priorities were different from mine.
From there, the plan started to evolve. Had I tried to control it, my invitations would have departed and I really would have had a No Plan – as in nothing happening.
From my parking place I could regain my Cuban perspective at a slower rate than if I had been thrown into urgent need to:
· Get a place to stay in Havana.
· Decide where to go outside the capital.
· Rent a car, and
· Have a plan.
Step 1 of the Cuban Approach: Reserve a parking place: Sometimes we need to take a slight pause before we pull back out onto life’s highways.
Reserve a parking place: Have enough of a plan to let a plan evolve.
Reading the winds: When there is no wind, use some of the tools of the sailor.
Wait for the wind.
Sailors know that on a warm day there is no need to rush breakfast because usually the wind picks up in the middle of the day.
In life, let the day inform your level of activity as it unfolds with all its options.
Use the tide. Let it define your direction.
If you do so it is useful to bear in mind the old proverb of the Breton sailors:
Trust in God
but row away from the rocks.
In life, swimming against the tide is known to be self defeating - but we so often do so because we respond with emotion and discard rational thought.
Instead, we can go with the tide and let it carry us to safe lagoons along the way where we can regroup and emerge to strike out to the shores of our choosing.
Look for ‘cats’ paws’ on the water.
These are the small patches of ripples that reveal a puff of wind travelling on its own across the water.
In life, these are the tiny things we never notice when we are busy because we have a plan. They are the things that often show us the direction of travel of a situation that, if well-read, positions us to take an easier route towards our goal.
Use good navigational techniques.
Plot a course but know that if your calculations are a degree off you may end up increasingly diverted from your objective, while still making great time in your travel.
This is something we are all prone to do. We measure activity, not result.
In navigation you use latitude and longitude, both measured by degrees.
Thanks to ‘The White Hat Crew’ here are some examples of what it can mean if you are just one degree off in your route.
They use aviation and not marine examples, but I think these work to show the results of deviation caused by a seemingly small error:
· After travelling from San Francisco to Los Angeles (a trip of about 614km (382 miles), you’d be off by 9.6km (6 miles).
· If you took the scenic route to San Francisco around the globe departing from Washington, DC, you’d end up in Boston – over 700 km, or 435 miles off course.
· Travelling an even more scenic route in your rocket ship via the moon, you’d miss it by more than the diameter of the sun: 2,574,950 and a bit km, or 1.6million miles.
Pilots without navigational aids use a simple rule of thumb: one degree off over 60 nautical miles results in being one nautical mile off course.
This is generally accurate, although over longer distances there is a wider error differential.
It’s a useful calculation because it can be done in a pilot’s head while flying so he or she can work out a corrected route to return to course at the next Way Point.
In life, sometimes we are too sure of ourselves. We cease to qualify our progress by checking to see we are still on the course we thought we were on.
Maintain a light touch.
In sailing terms, a ‘sheet’ is a line that controls the moveable corners of a sail.
It looks like a rope to a landlubber – because it is.
Lightweight sheets give better control.
In life, relaxing control lets direction announce itself.
Deploy a lightweight spinnaker.
A spinnaker is that wonderful triangular extra sail that billows colourfully from the mast off the mainsail and amplifies any wind that is there.
When the spinnaker fills, it is called ‘flying’, and because it resembles a parachute, the spinnaker is often called a ‘kite’ or ‘chute’.
A well designed spinnaker has taut leading edges when filled. These form a smooth curve, with no bumps or depressions caused by inconsistent stretching.
In life you may wish to drift, but it is good to carry your spinnaker to catch an unexpected wind of opportunity.
For your spinnaker, choose the life tools that are simple and give an easy line to your travels, taking an alternate route from the things that cause depressions and bumps.
When you deploy your spinnaker, be as colourful as any you’ve admired as it paints the horizon with progress across the waves.
Drag is often caused by anything extra that breaks the aerodynamics of your vessel.
In life, when the winds haven’t announced themselves, it’s wise to jettison the extras that add nothing to your progress.
For a time it may be social media that is the first to go, or the habit of letting TV fill the spaces where other activities may bring a better reward.
Negative people and negative input of any kind fall into this category.
I found that once I ceased watching TV news I lost nothing but the negativity that featured.
Radio gave me the news I needed.
Adjust your keel or rudder angle.
The force of the wind propels the boat, but the viscosity of the water slows her down and keeps her on course: a keel stops the wind blowing her sidewise.
The keel is a thin fin attached to the lower centre line of the boat. When it and the rudder– another fin-like device – are aligned, the boat keeps moving in a straight line.
Turn the rudder from that alignment, and the boat turns.
In life, sometimes you need to change your angle of perspective: it may help you see the opportunities offered by whatever winds are passing.
We often forget that we are the helmsman in our own lives and only we can adjust the rudder to change direction.
Check your ‘Tell Tales’.
‘Tell Tales’ are the colourful strands of yarn or fabric tied to the stays that hold the mast in place. One is tied on each side of the jib, the small sail at the front – one to starboard, and one on the port side.
On large yachts they have two sets, the upper ones guide steering, and the lower ones giving the set of the sail: both should be in harmony.
‘Tell Tales’ on either side should both stream aft as you are pointed forward on your course.
In life, if you don’t have Tell Tales, you should think about getting some. Otherwise, how do you know if you are off course?
I once sat next to an executive from Boeing en route to Australia to discuss some problems about delays in component production at the local manufacturing plant. He told me he was pretty good at The Times Crossword. He always took a few of them with him when he crossed challenging time zones.
His measure of how much he was suffering jet lag was to see if he could finish the crossword in the time he would expect to do so at home.
This was his Tell Tale.
Once he had his Tell Tales flowing behind him he would start his negotiations, knowing he was mentally set, with sails trimmed to their optimum.
What are yours?
Adjusting your sails: Don’t lower your sails when you have no sense of direction: Opportunity brings its own direction.
If you lower your sails you have announced to the universe that you don’t expect to be able to catch the next wind.
There is a time for action and
a time to let the winds direction become known.
The Cuban Approach is to make the most of the moments in between.
 James Thurber was a much loved writer and humourist who had the art of making caricatures of the foibles of us all. His plays ‘The Male Animal’ and ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ have been adapted to award winning films, and his cartoons and short stories make rich contributions to American literature.
 The White Hat Crew is the website of Antone Roundy, who shares his insights on internet marketing with a focus on doing so effectively and ethically.