Does Travel Broaden the Mind? A review of Vultures Overhead by Cally Phillips
I have ‘travelled’ with Jo Carroll on all her previous trips, to places I’ve never been and will never see. This time, I have been there before her. So there was a personal investment and interest in how she ‘saw’ Cuba, a place which I have visited twice and which I find almost impossible to write about , even in fiction.
Cuba is the place where Western expectation comes crashing against Third World reality. It is a country with near total literacy, offering free education to tertiary level, and yet people beg in the streets for soap and shampoo.
For the Western ‘tourist’ this is a true culture shock. But might I point out a couple of things. Firstly, all over the world beggars seek out tourists. Secondly, have you ever been to London? There they don’t beg for soap but for money. My point, it’s all a matter of perspective. Tourists are generally oblivious to the reality of the place they visit. This is even more the case if English is not widely spoken.
In Cuba (certainly outwith Havana) English is not widely spoken, sometimes not spoken at all. The indigenous people have no need of English. How shocking is that to our delicate English sensibilities? The people who do have a need of English in Cuba reside at two ends of a spectrum. They are either the ‘professional’ classes whom you are not that likely to come across in tourist world (though more so perhaps in Cuba than other countries given that it’s easier to make money as a tourist guide than an academic) or the ‘jinteros’ who hussle you for money. And to the unsuspecting tourist, perhaps they are too easily confused with those who want ‘soap.’ It’s part of the confusion of Cuba . Without Spanish it becomes impossible to understand the social structure. Whether you put Cuba’s problems down to a communist dictatorship or a 50 year capitalist trade embargo, the reality is, without Spanish your engagement is going to be that of ‘tourist.’
Jo’s Western prejudices were challenged from the off. She is almost floored by the difficulty of internet access. Bad for tourists, but almost impossible for ‘locals.’ She nearly strays into suggesting this is part of a ‘regime’ of preventing people from accessing open democracy, but pulls back. She takes stock and opens her eyes. Her journey has begun.
She learns, soon enough, that there are all kinds of shortages in Cuba from fresh vegetables, to food of all kinds, to water, to electricity. In Cuba, shortages are common. To misappropriate L.P.Hartley’s ‘The Go-Between,’ Cuba is a different country. They do things differently there. Everyone may not have access to the internet, but everyone has a home to live in and everyone has basic services provided for free. As Jo notes repeatedly, Cuba throws up a confusion to the Western mind.
Determined to preserve as open a mind as possible, Jo starts to ‘go with the flow.’ She discovers that trust is a two way street, and that sometimes our Western prejudices can mislead us. She does a good job of showing that without a good working knowledge of Spanish you are really not in a position to make any kind of ‘judgement’ on this country, summing it up when she says ‘I can’t help wondering if we are so stuck with Western constructs that we are unable to frame the questions that might help us bring our disparate experiences together.’
You can travel to Cuba and come back with your prejudices firmly in tact (whatever they are) and one of the things I enjoy most about Jo’s writing is that she tries to travel without prejudice. She tries to remain open to experience and thus her writing, while personal, is not opinionated in the sort of way that challenges anybody’s prejudice.
And for me, the strength in Vultures Overhead is exactly that. Jo’s personal experience. She gives us glimpses, moments, feelings about a place which are both personal and intimate. And yet, I recognise so many of them from my own time in Cuba.
She does not dwell on Che. She does not dwell on Fidel. She understands that Cuba’s politics and society are not something that we can begin to unpick as tourists and even as ‘travellers.’ In any regime how many people would talk freely about their politics to tourists with a loose grasp of their language? Would it be your first topic of dinner conversation with a tourist you met here? If they asked you what you think of Cameron’s European policy (or even of the Scottish Independence Referendum) how deep do you think the conversation would go if your table companion was Japanese with a very limited grasp of English? So Jo is right to steer clear of these thorny topics. She gives us ‘her’ Cuba. A personal, unique insight. And she appreciates that the fellow Westerners she meets also travel with their own agenda.
Jo also observes that Cuba is in a period of prolonged change. Certainly a lot has changed since my last visit in 2006 and much more since my first visit in 1999. The ‘special’ period has given way to a sort of development of a two tier economy.
But the shortages still continue. Water. Electricity. Food. Happily, it also still seems to be the case that Cuban ‘hosts’ are generally happy to have you eat while they watch; to give up their share of food, water, electricity and privacy (and these are very scarce resources in Cuba) to make sure you are happy.
The dual currency in Cuba is perhaps a reflection of the whole dual economy. My country, Scotland, considers itself to have something of a ‘duality’ embedded culturally, but Cuba takes this to extremes. Currently it seems there are two distinct Cuba’s – tourist Cuba and ‘real’ Cuba. And the twain are not designed to meet. Only when you become a ‘traveller’ rather than a tourist and step away from the tourist beaches and air conditioned buses, are you likely to encounter ‘real’ Cuba.
But even as a traveller, in Cuba, it’s still impossible to truly break out of the ‘tourist’ trap unless you speak the language. And culture shock is inevitable to those of us who have been brought up with western constructions.
Yet even as the vultures fly overhead in Cuba – a beautiful and very apposite analogy which can of course be read without offending anyone’s political or personal prejudices – so it is possible to share a birthday cake. To laugh till you cry. And to meet a man in overalls and dance with him in the street. For it is when Jo steps outside of the constraints of language, into worlds of music and dance, she ‘finds’ her Cuba.
Vultures Overhead allowed me an hour of reminiscing, gave me an update on some obvious social changes, and offered another glimpse into a place that I both love and which haunts me. A place it’s hard to talk about. Would I like it to have been three times the length? Of course, but equally I respect and understand why it is a relatively short offering. What more can she say without straying into politics or prejudice?
Confusion wrecks communication and one remains confused about Cuba when forced to view it as an outsider. I’m just happy that Jo shared her personal experience with readers. I hope it will encourage more people to go to Cuba with open minds and a desire to get out of the ‘package.’
Does travel broaden the mind? It depends how open your mind is to start with. It is the openness of Jo’s mind and her ability to personalise her experience which I so enjoy about her writing.
You can buy Vultures Overhead in UK via Amazon here (also USand Smashwords - what does that say about embargoing?)
And to piggy back on Jo's Review, I noticed that it’s interesting that it shares nearly the same colour cover as my (part) Cuban novella ' Another World is Possible' I took my blue from the sky above Santa Clara! Should this colour become known as ‘Cuban Blue.’?!
You can buy this as ebook or paperback via Amazon here