Among Friends: Travels in Cuba by Heather Murray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Among Friends is a non-fiction travel memoir about Heather Murray’s love for the island of Cuba. Heather is a Canadian, teaching English in Switzerland. She has reached out to Julian, who lectures in medical English in Cuba. In 2009 Heather takes her first trip to Cuba as a speaker at an Anglo conference in Havana. Due to the political situation, travel arrangement are complex, but as a Canadian she is seen more favourably than, say, a resident from other western countries, because Canada has made material donations to Cuba.
Julian meets Heather in Havana, becoming her tour guide; this allows her to immerse herself in the everyday life of Cuban people. There are two forms of money: a local currency for Cubans and a different one for everyone else. Cubans have access to subsidised shops, restaurants and travel; however, this is reflected in their very low wages. Additionally, there are vast shortages of paper, drinking water, transport, electricity and certain foods.
At the conference Heather is expected to pay to be a speaker and pay for her end of conference dinner. At first she is indignant; she has already paid for her airfare and accommodation, but Julian explains that without money from foreigners, the conference would not exist. Lots of delegates are keen to befriend Heather, but she is disappointed that no one invites her to their home or their place of work for a visit. Julian, once again, explains that with so many shortages these contacts hope Heather can send them items like, paper, books and other resources they need, or even invite them to visit Switzerland, whilst they are ashamed to invite her to where they work and live. He reminds Heather that few Cubans can leave their country, whereas for something like an academic invite, they may be granted permission.
Heather returns to Cuba several more times, each time witnessing changes. One big change was when Eusebio Leal began to restore areas to attract tourists, thus bringing in much needed foreign money to Cuba.
One interesting time was the death of Venzuela’s president, Hugo Chavez. Cuba announced three days of national mourning for someone outside their own country. This was because, in the past, Venezuela sent oil and money to Cuba, now Cuba feared for the future. I was also very impressed by the vast empathy from Cubans, to others. Many Cubans volunteer all over the world in medical aid agencies; particularly helping the poor and distressed in Latin America and Africa. This may be one way they can legitimately leave Cuba.
I found I learnt a lot about the history of this country and the everyday hardships its people face. There are no pictures in the book, but these can be found on Heather’s website. This is a long book; however, I would recommend it to those interested in the story of native people from this Caribbean island.
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Among Friends: Travels in Cuba is a lively account of one person’s discovery of Cuba and Cubans over a decade-long series of visits. Murray falls in love with the country but never stops asking questions as her radius of exploration widens.
With an eye for the telling details of daily life, Murray first savors the mixture of timeless beauty and decrepitude that defines Havana and then sets out for provinces to the west and east of the capital. We get to know Julian, her Cuban guide and friend; Magdalena, protective landlady and outspoken critic of the Castro regime; Ernesto, taxi driver and mountain guide, as well as a multitude of naIve North American tourists, Cuban English teachers, variously motivated tourist guides, octogenarian salsa dancers and perspiring bicitaxi drivers. Besides probing the Cuban psyche and describing its hardships, Murray’s explorations also highlight the unique scenery of Cuba, from the elegant center of old Havana to the mogotes of the Vinales valley, and from the pristine beaches of the northern keys to historic Trinidad and Cienfuegos and the Escambray mountains with their lakes, waterfalls and jungles. The book is accompanied by a website full of illustrative photographs and a travel blog (travelsincuba.weebly.com).
A humorous and candid portrait of Cuba as it emerges from over half a century of privation and isolation, this book will appeal to armchair travelers, long-time Cuba fans and those who have yet to discover the island.
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