Slow Travel: Castro’s Cuba

by Tobias Thornes

Entombed forever in a place where sunlight never shines. Beaten and broken by remorseless hands and feet. Tortured until I no longer recognise truth from falsehood. Consumed by fear, is there anything left of what I once was – anything left of myself? This was not my reality. But it was, I fear, somebody’s reality. Over there, across the bay, but a wind’s breath away, behind walls of secrecy that, but for a few hundred metres of precious space, would close me in too. It’s a fragile gift, freedom. We seldom think how easily we might lose it. But if we become a threat or inconvenience to those numerous or powerful enough to take it away, take it they will. And who is there to stop them?

My musings were dark as I dreamed away a night beneath the lonely stars on the less shadowy side of Guantanamo Bay and waited for the grey light of the dawn. Seized as long ago as 1898, the American enclave is still regarded as illegal by Cuba. But what can it do against a power waxed so strong? What could the Taino people do when, four centuries before that, the Spaniards first arrived with their not-so-benign curiosity and their guns and their steel and started to demand gold? Perhaps this island really was, until then, like an Eden before the fall. The people, said Columbus, were ‘gentle and laughing’; they ‘do not murder or steal’. After joy turned to mourning, after gentility was met with the sword, after strange men from over the sea taught this childlike land the meaning of murder and took from it people, pasture, precious stones – whatever they could steal – is it any wonder that today’s Cubans, like their dwindled, displaced forebears, should want to resist the interference of other peoples with other ideas of how things ought to be?

I spend many days on that fascinating island. In a place whose people once eagerly traded unesteemed gold for cheap Spanish brass, a metal of more mesmerising lustre whatever the world might say of its value, I found a people again placing pragmatic utility above symbols of status, defying the modern world’s measures of ‘success’. Yes, most of the food is imported, but what’s grown here is nearly all organic, grown with pride and without fertilisers and pesticides. There are so few farm animals that to kill a cow without special permission is, as it should be, a heinous crime. The hunger seen under Spanish rule has been abolished by the provision of a basic ration to everyone. Nor is this well-educated people afraid to innovate: Genetic Modification of crops, stymied elsewhere, was already bringing benefits here, free from control by unscrupulous chemical multinationals with ulterior intensions.

There is the germ of something truly good on Cuba, I thought in the quiet twilight of my final full day there. If only the government’s political paranoia were relaxed, and the people could speak freely, I’m sure they wouldn’t have such very bad things to say. Maybe the free and happy spirit of the Taino still lingers in the soil, where up to a million of these ancients once sustainably lived. Maybe one day, nourished by that spirit, the blossoms of paradise will bloom here once again.

English with a North American twang was never far from my earshot on the coral-white coasts of Cuba, but I soon learned that it seldom sprung from the mouths of its nearest neighbour the US. Whilst contact has been cold with its ideological and territorial rival, Cuba has had for Canada a long-standing softness. The Canadians bring both planeloads of tourists and bulky shiploads of lucrative trade. And it was on one of these boats that I managed to stow myself, with a little luck and a pinch of pecuniary persuasion, for my own slow escape far into the North.

I was somewhat saddened to leave Cuba, not least through thought of the long journey ahead. Nearly all the way we slid easily through the warm waves of the Gulf Stream, the pump that empties the hot pool of Mexico across the open ocean into Europe’s cooler coves. But we weren’t long within sight of the American coastline, and again unmarked sky, boundless sea and salty air would be our daily portion, myself and the Canadian crew who, through frequent conversation and regular routine, kept each other sane. On we went, for many days, like countless ships before us – from sail to steam to diesel – and far beneath us, who knows how many broken vessels slept, their unfortunate crews having fallen upon less favourable winds? Surely it can only have been the day-to-day running of the ship, the small but certain tasks, that stopped those poor sailors who travelled for so many, many weeks into the unknown, from lapsing into lunacy all those centuries ago. Perhaps Columbus’ crew were, after all, a little mad when they reached land at last and did what they did to the West Indian isles.

Not for us, a watery demise in the ocean’s frigid bowels – no monster of the unseen miles would taste us, a novel delicacy, this time. But I couldn’t help but think of the numerous creatures we might be affecting. Some two thousand cetaceans every year end up dashed and helpless on the shore, made delirious or distracted by the ceaseless thudding of modern ocean-going craft, and many die the slow, painful death of dehydration or collapse in agony under their own weight. My only consolation was that my presence, doing nothing either to hasten or hinder this ship, made no contribution to the noise, nor the chimneys of smoke, nor any watery legacy we left in our wake.

At last, we saw the welcome cliffs of Canada’s lengthy coast, made longer by the immeasurable crenulations of its northern fjords and eastern scattering of tiny islands. Disembarking into freezing rain and cold Newfoundland air, we knew we’d come a long way from Cuba’s near-constant thirty degree climate. The sun still spilled a smoky glimmer, just about, into the twilit west, but winter was coming in now to the North: the dark days when she hardly rises, and above the Arctic circle there lurks near-perpetual night. My aim now was to see that dying snowscape as its heyday faded into dusk, to watch it once more melt into the darkness of the solstice before this ice-palace really melted, beyond reconstruction, into a salty pool. The heady heat of humanity’s busy world lay behind and beneath me; above me awaited the miserable consequence of its most devastating mistake. A deep gloom fell over my heart as I gathered my pack, stepped onto the slushy soil, and vanished into the dusk.

The Poor Print

The Oriel College Newspaper. Run by students, with contributions from the JCR, MCR, and SCR & Staff. Current Executive Editors: Alex Waygood & Aidan Chivers.

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