My name is Michael Shaw. At the end of 2010, at the ripe old age of 52, and having started in the London Fire Brigade in the summer of 1977, I was able to retire from the Fire Service. For the last four years of my career, I had been the President of the Fire Brigades Union.
Retiring has enabled me to fulfil a long-held ambition and to go and live in Cuba for three months, from the beginning of January 2011, studying Spanish at the University of the Orient, in Santiago de Cuba.
I had been meaning to go to Cuba for a couple of decades, to experience the heady mix of sun, salsa and socialism, but did not finally go until 2007. Having arrived, I was amazed by the place and could not wait to return. Cuba is unique. The mixture of Spanish and African influences, with a little bit of Russian thrown into the mix; the absence of western-style consumerism; the friendly, well-educated people; the low levels of crime and aggression; and the ubiquitous music and rum, all make Cuba a fascinating and intoxicating experience for visitors.
I have since returned a further seven times, for periods between two and four weeks. The more time that I spend there, the more that I find out. Cuba is not the repressive Soviet era relic that is portrayed in the western media; nor is it the place portrayed in official propaganda. The truth is far more subtle and complex.
Having the chance to spend a lengthy period there provides me with an opportunity to get to understand the country even better. I am conceited enough to believe that some others may wish to share my insights.