View towards the harbour in Havana

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.


25 responses

30 12 2010
Cathy Wilson

Love your blog.

5 01 2011
Jeff Simpson

Happy New Year Mick. Sorry to miss your leaving do If you had one. I think mine will be in May 2013 but we’ll see if the cuts agenda and the desire to get rid of jobs brings that forward. I’ll follow the blog with great interest and Anne sends her love. I’ll have to find my own way to Brisbane Road on January 22nd! Jeff x.

15 01 2011
Dan Jorgensen

I too have been trying to get to Cuba for several decades: finally I’ll be there in 2 days. I’m ignoring all the conventional advice and heading with my 8 y/o son to Santiago by train from Havana, then working our way north by bus, poco a poco for the three weeks that I have this time. I’m already planning on a return in May. Your blog has given me a lot of insight, thanks.

29 01 2011
christina terry

Anyway to follow your blog?

29 01 2011

I think that you can subscribe, but it takes me forever to upload a page from here, so don’t ask me how

26 02 2011

nice work; takes me back to many places cubano, especially my favourite city, stgo de cuba

how is your spanish coming along?

all the best

27 02 2011

I’d like to think that my Spanish is improving. I can generally read ok and can speak to people, it’s just understanding people that is the biggest problem. Hopefully, that will come with time.

6 05 2011

I enjoyed reading your posts. I heard of you from a Canadian buddy who’s been back and forth to Cuba for the last 25 years – even married twice. I am a Cuban born and raised living in Canada.
Your eyes towards some events will become anecdotes. My eyes towards some events, when I go back to visit family – make me say “Ouch”. When anecdotes become a routine for the ones who live there, there comes a different perception of the environment.
The only real danger you will face there are hustlers, jineteras and critisizing far too openly certain institutions. If you happen to keep these three away; your “certain to be warm” retirement days there, will be great every time you decide to go back.

7 05 2011

Hi Luis

Yes, things are different for people who live there permanently. I always tried to understand how people felt about things.

I learned how to deal with the hustlers and the jinateras. I’m not sure of how things work with open criticism of Cuban institutions – I would like to think that if they were made in a constructive sense, they would be acceptable.

7 05 2011

Hello Michael

Wanted to let you know I enjoyed your blog. I came across it on … Havana Times I think. Because I’ve also lived in Santiago de Cuba it caught my eye, so I clicked the link. Then I spent the next couple hours reading all the entries. I visited Cuba for the first time in 1998 for a two-week folkloric dance workshop and returned annually for short visits, but didn’t get a chance to do an extended stint on the island until I became a graduate student in Anthropology. Then I was able to live in Santiago for 15 months, conducting research on Oriente’s Haitian heritage. As a trained ethnographer, I’m supposed to be good at observing details, but I was really impressed by the sense of detail you have for place and event. I’ve also visited the new MN restaurants on Avenida Garzon, but never registered that “18 plantas” -as everyone calls it- actually has a proper name: “Centrourbano Sierra Maestra.” Or that La Fortaleza’s open-air tables under thatched roof are the “rachon” style. Good for you. Oh, and I loved the story about the tardy roast-pig delivery business. During my time in Santiago, I also found myself interested in many of the same things that struck you, like the changes going on in the province as a result of the new party head, Lázaro Ésposito (by the way, there is a hilarious facebook page dedicated his clonation, in case he’s ever sent away to manage Havana), why Cubans rave about tiny tidy Bayamo, and anti-mosquito brigades. While living in Stgo, I’d send friends and family humorous updates on local life, including posts like “the great 2010 deodorant shortage” “high heels on cobblestones” and “black market birthday cakes.”

If you go back, keep it up! And I offer to treat you to a canchánchara at El Barracón.

Grete Viddal

PhD Candidate
Department of African and African American Studies
Harvard University

7 05 2011

Hi Grete

That’s a great offer – I’ll take you up on it.

I experienced the 2010 deodorant shortage – I think it was when I was there last July. This year I experienced circular light bulb and insecticide shortages, as well as much shorter absences of coffee, toilet rolls and spaghetti. Such is life in Cuba – no es facil

13 05 2011

super, grab my email off my school’s website and let me know the dates you’ll be in Stgo. And yay for cancháncharas!

17 05 2011
Juan Carlos García Naranjo

Hi Grete,

I enjoyed your comments here about my city. I don’t know if you are planning to go back. If so, and need any help let me know and probably I’ll be able to help you. There is a professor of Anthropology here at the University of New Brunswick who I know was working on a similar topic. In her case she was studying the French influence in Cienfuegos but that influence came to Cuba from Haiti. Probably there is a common ground with what you are doing.

18 06 2011

Gracias Juan Carlos. I maintain contact with many colleagues and collaborators in Cuba, and had the opportunity to conduct a good period of fieldwork, so I’m fine, I have a lot of information to shape into a dissertation in the coming year. But Its interesting that there is an professor at Univ New Brunswick who also works in Cuba. I will look at the university’s web site for her info. Thanks for your thoughts!

10 05 2011
gladys cook

Dear Michael, loved all the information.

I have been to Cuba many times and have also studied Spanish in Havana at Instituto Superior de arte.

I will be returning to Santiago July 18th for Carnival and hopefully a trip to Baracoa. Did you have an opportunity to go there. I would love your insight.

Gladys Cook
61 but not retiired.

10 05 2011

Hi Gladys

I also hope to be in Santiago for Los Carnavales in July, although my understanding is that it will not start until a bit later than the 18th. Last year it began on the 21st. It always includes the 26th, which is a public holiday.

I have been to Baracoa once. I loved it there. It is very different to anywhere else. Great scenery, superb food, very laid back. The journey there across the mountain road called La Farola is breathtaking.

10 05 2011
marcel fundora

Hi, Mr. Shaw:
I found your blog on the internet. it is really interesting and I must say, it really satisfies me to read from you that you find cubans to have all the great qualities you have found in us, by now. I am cuban myself, I was born in matanzas.
Cuba is a beautiful country, it great to visit. I hope you continue to experience our customes, skills, and life style. I would love to tell you it has been a great experience for me to live in Cuba, But thats not true. In time, you will find that not having the priviledge of walking in and out of that country, even dreaming of it, makes a huge dent in one’s spirit. To feel what cubans in the island feel like, is a process as complex as figuring out what it means to live in the US. It does not take 3, 10 years, it is a multifactorial combination that mimics the feelings of a native resident. yes, there may be less crimes compared to other countries, but do not be misled by the fact you dont hear about it in the news; scarcity makes people do evil things, things that happen everyday and one may only know about if one happens to be around the corner where crime is taking place. Have you ever wondered what those who have spent their lives, not in exile, but living in the island, or both, having experienced the abuse of power exerted by government officials, feel about the current situation of their country. please, dont give others the false illusion that things arent as bad as they are portrayed in foreign media. the media may be interested in making a business out of our situation, thats true, but many of us, cuban in exile, face the crude reality of not even knowing whether we may one day return to our homeland.

10 05 2011

Hi Marcel

Thanks for your comments.

I do feel that most foreign media reports about Cuba are inaccurate and misleading. I like to think that my observations on everyday life help a few people get a better picture.

I do know that people in Cuba are not happy about having to apply for permission to travel abroad. I am aware that the recent CP Congress agreed to investigate ways of easing that process. I hope that they act on it soon. I’m not clear about why you do not know if you may one day return to your homeland. I met Cuban Americans whilst I was in Santiago, including one who left Cuba illegally, on a fast boat. They returned regularly to see their families.

17 05 2011
Juan Carlos García Naranjo

Hi Michael,
Thank you very much for this blog. I have spent part of my morning reading everything (instead of writing my PhD thesis) and it is amazing what I have found here. You probably know more than me about my city now. I live in Santiago de Cuba and even when I have been away for more than three years I agree with almost everything you say about my country, my city and my University. I work at the Universidad de Oriente and, even when I’m in Canada now, probably I’ll be able to help you or anybody else or your readers. Coincidentally, I also live in Santa Barbara, where you were living in Santiago. Thanks again.

28 05 2011
Jennifer Thorsborne

Hi Michael, John (Abbotsford) pointed me in your direction, thanks John. I have enjoyed your insights into Santiago and your info, and I’m hoping to add more to my own experience when I return to Stgo in July for a couple of months. I am also hoping to study Spanish at the university from the start of next year, avoiding the constant travel to renew visas. I wonder if you’ll be able to spare an afternoon of cold beer hot day Oz style in July /August sometime, you might be able to share more clues to surviving the uni process. My bloke works with musicians so the afternoons are generally free (though I am hoping to do a spot of fishing). The toilet roll shortage last July was a doozy, no doubt about that, but happily I avoided the deodorant shortage. wondering what this summer will bring 🙂
Jenny T

27 06 2011
Jen V

Dear Michael,
I’m very happy to have found your blog through the Havana Times blog entry, “Estudiando Español en Santiago de Cuba.” I was thrilled because I have been trying to find the right program to allow me to study Spanish in Stgo. A good friend of mine has family there, and I’m fascinated with that part of the island, so I would highly prefer it to living in La Habana. Does the program at Universidad de Oriente offer college credits? I’m hoping to study for 12 weeks during the summer of 2012. I have found programs in Stgo that do not offer college credit, but I won’t be eligible to receive student loans to cover those. I’d love to hear more about your experiences.
Many thanks!
Jen V.

27 06 2011

Hi Jen

I did not hear of the the university offering credits (not that I really know what they are). I also do not think that courses run in July or August. The cost was $5 per hour for the tuition, so it may be that you do not need a loan. If you need any more info, do not hesitate to ask.

Best wishes


4 10 2011

Hi Michael

I trust things are a lot better for you now. After months of planning and following blogs like yours I am heading off tomorrow for 2 months around Cuba. I am hoping to discover a few of those subtle and complex truths you mention above. If I can find a hotel that provides internet connection similar to yours I might be in business getting it all blogged. If it might be of interest


4 10 2011

crap, meant cuba not suba

6 12 2011
Billy d

Hola Michael ! Been there many times in the last 2 years and probably walked by you at one point in time. Was there for Festival de Caribe this year and hope to be back next year!! Hot and humid! even the Cubans had towels to wipe the sweat off…didn’t feel so bad. Went to Bayamo with my hermano for their festival and had an excellent time meeting his cousins and family there. Hope to go back in a side trip.Havana seems to be getting more unsafe in the last year, so I will spend most of my time in Santiago. Hope all is well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: