A few years ago, we arrived in Cuba carrying our usual four overstuffed suitcases (plus two carry-ons and my purse, all stuffed as full as the airline weight restrictions would allow). Into those bags we had crammed all kinds of little gifts for our families and friends there. As we began to visit the nearby villages, we realized to our horror that we had been woefully misinformed about the extent of the damage from the hurricane that had passed through the area a couple of months prior. We had searched for news reports on the Internet and what little we found had glossed over the impact of the storm, so we concluded that it had just brushed by with little effect. How wrong we were, and how very sad we were to have arrived so unprepared.
Many of the houses had lost their roofs, many of our friends had lost EVERYTHING in the floods that followed the storm. The little trinkets that we had brought in our suitcases were trite and relatively useless in the face of such immense loss and destruction. We felt terrible…if we had known, we would have brought tools and items that would have been more useful (like shoes to replace all the shoes that got lost) – and we would have brought more money.
There is currently quite a controversy on various travel sites over the whole issue of tourists bringing “useless stuff” to Cuba, with many going so far as to say that tourists are running the risk of encouraging Cubans to become material-hungry hustlers and street-side beggars. While we acknowledge the constant dilemma of not knowing for sure whether what we’re doing is helping or hindering in the long run, we still beg to differ, since we see first-hand the difficulty of everyday life in the houses and lives of our friends there, especially the ones who live far away from the tourist resorts. It’s easy and safe to rant about the risks and moral dilemmas when you have a roof over your head and shoes on your feet and running water in your indoor bathroom. When you stand inside of a house with a gaping hole in the roof above you, or have to stumble over a rocky path to get to the dingy dark outhouse to pee in the middle of the night, perspective changes dramatically. And when you know that you have the means to help patch that roof or build an indoor bathroom, well, nothing the naysayers can say can put a dent in the heart that knows what it has – and wants – to do.
Our eyes were opened that year after the big hurricane. We hadn’t brought enough money with us to help as much as was needed. But the “aha” moment came inside the house of one of our friends…we had popped in to say hi, and saw the huge hole in her roof. She told us that she had been able to repair most of the roof herself, but didn’t have enough material to fix the rest. She didn’t ask, not even with her eyes, but I knew that I wanted to help, so reached into my pocket and pulled out everything tucked in there – all of $15 Cuban tourist dollars – not even close to being enough, or so I thought. We left feeling sad that we hadn’t been able to give more. But when we went back a few days later, we were astounded. With that “measly” $15, she had been able to fix the rest of the roof, paint the entire living/dining/kitchen areas of the house, repair the broken cement cistern outside, install a beautiful wrought-iron fixture in the house, and even bought a used toilet to put in her sister’s section of the house. Don’t ask me how she managed to do all that, because we simply don’t know. All we know is that she was able to somehow stretch that money much farther than we could ever have imagined.
After that, we began to keep our eyes open for ways to help with what little we had brought. We talked with people and watched for those in most need of help to repair their houses from the hurricane damage. We were able to give small contributions here and there, and then we watched with amazement all that these people were able to accomplish with such little help. Roofs were fixed, toilets were bought, one family even used our twenty dollars to build an entire extension onto their house! Their house had been incredibly poor, with gaping holes in the walls, and only two small rooms for the entire family – the bedroom doubled as the living room (we had to crawl over the bed to get to the kitchen area). When we went back a couple of weeks after giving them the twenty dollars (which we had converted into their Cuban pesos for them), they had filled in all the cracks in the wall (which had let the wind and rain into the house), and added a whole new room plus another half-extension that allowed them to cook outside. Astounding indeed!!
These experiences so thrilled us, and made such an enormous difference in the lives of our friends, that we decided that we had to do more. By our North American standards, we’re not rich, but comfortable enough…and as I keep telling God, if You keep blessing us with more, we’ll have more to share. And indeed, it often appears that He’s honouring that promise. (Example, we love to bring bras to the women down there – you cannot imagine the pain and suffering some women endure because they can’t buy a proper bra! But I can’t afford to buy enough, and yet, year after year, people keep showing up at my doorstep with bags of gently used bras – I don’t advertise my need for them, and yet they keep showing up. It’s like a modern-day version of that “loaves and fishes” story in the Bible!) It gets very exciting around our house at times when we realize what we’re going to be able to bring for our friends on our next visit, thanks to God’s creative ways of bringing the stuff to our door!
This year was my best year there ever. I had more energy than I’ve had in over 30 years, my mind was clearer than it’s ever been, and I really enjoyed these new feelings of strength and well-being – and empowerment. Nevertheless, I don’t know why it had never occurred to me before. Blame it on the chronic fatigue and brain fog that constantly plagued me in years past. But in early February, the light bulb finally went on in my head (pun intended). It happened when I had to use the bathroom in the distant village and there wasn’t one. The indoor bathroom that we usually use out there was in another friend’s house and she wasn’t home that day. So I was forced to use the outhouse. Now I’ve had to use outhouses before, at the cottage when I was a child, at summer camp, while traveling in various countries over the years. So it was nothing new. But this time it turned out to be a miserable experience. I won’t go into the reasons why, but suffice to say that I went home in tears and pain because of my quick trip to that outhouse. It turned out to be short-lived (the pain) and nothing serious, but it fueled me with passion for a new idea that shouldn’t have taken all these years to think up – I was going to build me a bathroom.
Once the idea hit me, there was no turning back…I couldn’t wait…we went back to the village and I asked M. if it would be possible for him to add a bathroom onto his house. He led me through the maze of tiny add-on rooms to a door in the back of the house. He opened the door and showed me a yard full of huge jagged rocks and spindly trees. It was clear he knew exactly what he wanted to do with that space. So I told him how much I could give him, and he grinned. I think I will always remember his eyes filling up with such light and joy that day. By the following weekend, he had already drawn up a plan (on paper), cleared out the back yard, started digging the hole and had made a deal for a used toilet and sink. By the FOLLOWING visit, he had bought the toilet and sink and started putting up the walls.
By the end of our two months there, he had finished digging the hole, bought all the pipings, fixtures, flooring and beautiful tiles (in my favourite colour) and had the roofing materials all ready to install as soon as the cement on the wall was dry. It was astounding and heart-warming. I had to make him promise to let his family use the bathroom as soon as it was ready, and not to wait until my return next year. I’m so excited…I’m excited for them, knowing that they won’t have to get up in the middle of the night to use that horrible outhouse, and I’m excited that I’ll finally have a bathroom to use when we go out to visit them from now on. It’s a gift that will keep on giving back to me for a very long time!
It doesn’t take a lot, really, to make a difference in people’s lives. For our friends in the village, a package of toilet paper is a welcome gift anytime. For us, a gift of fresh-picked baby bananas is always a treat. For an older woman who has grooves permanently etched into her shoulders from using shoe laces to hold up her ragged threadbare bra, a new bra brings immeasurable relief. For a struggling single mother with a huge gaping hole in her roof, $15 is more than enough to fix that and cover old walls with a whole new coat of paint. For young teenage girls, being able to use an indoor bathroom with running water is a huge deal. Even a brand new toothbrush (that won’t fall apart after two-three days) to use in that new indoor bathroom is a gift they can’t easily buy for themselves there. Perspective is everything.
We all hope that someday things will be different and our friends will enjoy the prosperity and comfort that we do, and that the time will come when we won’t need to bring suitcases full of stuff that they currently can’t buy or even hope to be able to afford anytime soon. For now, we’re blessed with more than enough to share to help them bridge the gap between their current reality and what we all hope will be a better future. What it all comes down to for us is this: they’re our family, and that’s what families do for each other, help one another through the rough times.
Yes, perspective is everything.
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Copyright © Sharon C. Matthies, Meanderings (blog), 2013. All rights reserved.
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