In Search of the “Real” in Cuba: A Pictoral Journey

When I travel, I love to meet people in their homes and observe their daily lives.

I know that I can’t experience “authentic” culture in a short trip, but I look for opportunities

 to make real human contact.

Below are some people I met in Cuba in settings that took me back in time as well as space.

Our Club Amigo resort had our own clinic with our own nurse always on duty. Uniformed doctors and nurses provide free healthcare all over the island.

When is the last time you saw a nurse dressed in white and wearing a white cap on her head?

Nurse employed at the resort Club Amigo in Marea del Portillo. Photo by Tina Glanzer.

Nurse employed at the resort Club Amigo in Marea del Portillo. Photo by Tina Glanzer.

I haven’t seen caps like that on nurses since the early 1970’s.

[If you want to muse about the rise and demise of the nursing cap in the US, also, here’s an interesting slideshow. Can’t help observing that the Mennonite prayer covering disappeared from many heads in the same time period.]

I loved seeing the horses, goats, oxen as they roamed the rural roads.


Taking a buggy ride at night was romantic.


While riding a bike in the country, I encountered this man.

He wanted to be called a “monte caballero,”

a true gentleman astride his horse, riding easy in his saddle.

A Cuban caballero.

A Cuban caballero.

We were sorry to hear that Chi Chi, the man who led us to the local waterfall on horseback had an accident.

His lip was swollen and his teeth were loosened.

We went to visit him and were invited into his home and served fresh coffee.


A visit in a Cuban home often involves coffee.

We also visited a village school in Punta de Piedra.

My friend Tina and I were very impressed by the attentive students and engaged teachers at this school.

My friend Tina and I were very impressed by the attentive students and engaged teachers at this school.

Wherever we went, we saw people greet each other with kisses and enthusiastic handshakes.

I made four short videos illustrating spontaneous moments from the trip.

Did I find a “simpler life” in Cuba? It would be tempting to think so, since so many of these scenes reminded me of the 1950’s, the era of my childhood.

Yet those are just the surface impressions. I observed the same mix of hunger for beauty, love, security, and freedom in Cuba that I find around me in the U.S.

Neither time nor distance changes this one basic fact: we are humans first, creatures of culture second.

This is Part 3 of a series of four posts about my trip to Cuba Oct. 22-Nov. 4, 2015.

Part 1 anticipated the trip

Part 2 described a single ecstatic moment

I will share vintage car pictures in Part 4.

What do YOU see in these photos? Are there any questions I can answer? Are you considering a trip to Cuba? Why or why not?

Shirley Showalter


  1. Marian Beaman on November 26, 2015 at 10:14 am

    I wonder what prompted your visit at this precise time? Rick Steves maintains that travel can be a political act and quotes Mark Twain in saying “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” As I expected when I clicked on your blog post today, I’d see happy faces and evidence of hospitality. How sweet of you to visit Chi Chi and his family – a kind act of diplomacy.

    To answer another question: The last time I saw a white nurse’s cap was atop my sister Jan’s head. Hers had a black stripe too. I also clicked on the Mennonite Prayer Covering link and found an array of coverings and bonnets similar to what I see beside my computer now as I prepare an assignment to turn in to my writing coach next week. The past really is never “past,” is it?

    You are the first person I know to take advantage of visiting Cuba after diplomatic relations have been re-established after 50 years. Did you visit our embassy?

    Oh, one thing I didn’t see was a Cuban cigar 🙂 Thank you for an entertaining and informative post today. Now I’m off to help Crista with the turkey . . .

    • Shirley Showalter on November 26, 2015 at 9:53 pm

      Marian, I went with a Canadian group, leaving from Toronto. It was easier to do than go with an American group. Even though relations between Cuba and the U.S. are normalizING, they are not normal yet. So Tina and I trod a well-worn path. Jenny Cressman, our guide, has been there twice yearly for many years. It was through Jenny that we were invited into Chi Chi’s home and encouraged to visit a school.

      Our embassy is located in Havana. Club Amigo is on the southern coast line far away. So we had a very different experience than the usual tourist destination of Havana.

      I am eager to see what you do with your prayer coverings. I thought it was interesting that the nursing cap and prayer coverings disappeared here at the same time.

      As for cigars, I did bring a few back. They are in a humidor right now, waiting to be auctioned off for the benefit of the local free clinic. Isn’t that a wonderful irony.

      Love the happy smiles on the faces of your Thanksgiving Day family on Facebook. Reading and writing can wait. The turkey can’t!

  2. Jb Miller on November 26, 2015 at 11:23 am

    Thanks for the pictures and commentary. I just returned from a week in Havana and Santa Clara and had a great experience organizing a trip for 18 people. I love the country and people and look forward to going back soon. Glad you traveled there before the changes that are coming. I love the pictures.

    • Shirley Showalter on November 27, 2015 at 10:21 pm

      Thanks for the comment, JB. I’d love to see your pictures also and compare notes on the two sides of the island. I know I would enjoy going on one of your trips also.

      And yes,changes are sure to come. Some good, some not so good.

      Glad we could both go now.

  3. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on November 26, 2015 at 1:04 pm

    Thank you for the chance to meet island people through photos and videos. What is the context behind offering bouquets to the ocean? (from a video)

    I’m loving glimpsing your travels. I feel sad that important values (hearty greetings, keeping old things, like autos, going, and so on) may be lost due to tourism and materialistic ways.

    I’m not sure about keeping nurse’s caps, and it’s interesting that both caps and coverings died out about the same time for us.

    Happy Thanksgiving.

    • Shirley Showalter on November 26, 2015 at 9:58 pm

      Dolores, here is more background on Camilo, a national hero because he came from the peasant people. They revered him. They continue to honor him on the date of his death: The bouquets were for him. His plane went down over the ocean, so the flowers flutter over the water and are carried to him by the waves.

      It will be interesting to see if the frugality and ingenuity that kept Cuba going throughout the American embargo will continue after it’s lifted. I hope they keep the best of their own traditions, but it’s very hard to compete with consumerism once goods are cheap and readily available.

      Happy Thanksgiving to you also!

  4. Martha Graham-Waldon on November 26, 2015 at 3:31 pm

    Hi Shirley! I’ve been reading your postings for quite some time and I also enjoyed reading your book. So glad you got a chance to see Cuba! I was there in 1981 and it looks like not much has changed. I’m sure with the ending of the embargo, the Cubanos will be able to partake of more luxuries but their lifestyle is to be envied now I think with its simplicity and emphasis on taking care of everyone instead of acquiring wealth. Thanks for sharing & Happy Holidays!

    • Shirley Showalter on November 27, 2015 at 10:34 pm

      Hi Martha,

      Thanks for coming out of hiding. 🙂 Can’t wait to see your own writing. I love finding readers of BLUSH here and on my FB author page

      So you went to Cuba in 1981. I’d love to hear more about that trip. You are probably right that not much has changed. There are computers, but few new ones and infrequent wifi. What recent technology exists seems limited to tourists.

      I noticed when I put my little videos online that almost all of them involve people greeting each other on the streets, something that happens so naturally and often. Yes, there was much to admire in Cuba!

  5. Merril Smith on November 27, 2015 at 9:38 am

    Such a fascinating trip. I read your Marian’s comment and your response, so I got some additional information. 🙂

    Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving!

    • Shirley Showalter on November 27, 2015 at 11:51 am

      Thanks, Merril. My opportunity to be at the computer has been limited several ways and several times in the last month. Good to be sitting in the red chair with high-speed WiFi at my fingertips again. And now I can go check out what you’ve been up to.

      I’m sure your foodie family shared a great feast.

      Thankful for you.

  6. Mike Yoder on November 27, 2015 at 10:50 am

    Part of the friendliness, warmth and easy-going spirit of the Cuban people is probably due to the strong African influence. The food, music, dance and even clothing show African influence too, much as in Brazil. In answer to Dolores’ question, the custom of offering flower bouquets to the ocean is a ritual in African religion brought to both Brazil and Cuba by slaves. The goddess of the sea was considered the mother of all other gods and goddesses in West Africa. More of African religion survived slavery in the Caribbean and Brazil than was true in the US. Thanks for the pics and commentary, Shirley, I am so glad you got to see the people of rural Cuba, not just Havana and the major cities.

    • Shirley Showalter on November 27, 2015 at 10:45 pm

      Mike, thanks for bringing your own understanding of the African influences in the Caribbean and Latin America. My own point of reference was Haiti, in 1981-82, when Stuart and I led groups of Goshen College students on their Study-Service Terms. African religion is very influential there also.

      Thanks for sharing the information about the deeper origins of the flower-throwing custom. Fascinating.

      I feel very privileged to have visited this place at this time. Thanks, Mike.

  7. Laurie Buchanan on November 27, 2015 at 11:43 am

    Shirley — I love reading about your person-to-person encounters during your Cuban adventure! You know what I see in these photographs? Color!
    Look at the bright patch of YELLOW on the saddle of the man herding the oxen.
    Do you see the RED interior of the buggy.
    My eyes drank in the TURQUOISE walls in the home where you enjoyed coffee.
    And I love that the children are wrapped in PINK walls during the school day.

    • Shirley Showalter on November 27, 2015 at 11:59 am

      Laurie, I love that you practice here the skills of observation you just wrote about this week. And yes,like other countries south of us, Cuba brims with warm air, startling blue skies, and vibrant colors.

      Thankful for you!

  8. Elaine Mansfield on November 27, 2015 at 2:06 pm

    Lovely, Shirley (or Lovely Shirley). I wanted to know more about flower offerings to the ocean, ritual nut that I am, and found more information from reading your responses to others. Vic and I went to Mexico three or four times in the 1960s and 1970s. Your photos remind me of the less developed places where we stayed and played. I loved your videos, especially the street music. Let’s keep dancing in the streets. It’s a great antidote to fear. Your post is a great antidote to fear, too. We are all related and we all have stories to tell.

    • Shirley Showalter on November 27, 2015 at 10:49 pm

      Elaine, you will be interested in Mike Yoder’s comment about the flower/sea ritual above. He traces it back to African religion. Makes sense to me.

      Yes, lets keep dancing in the streets. So much fear to dispel.

      Thanks for your warm words. Thankful for YOU! I have been away from my computer so long that I haven’t visited you recently. Must change that!

  9. Marylin Warner on November 27, 2015 at 5:26 pm

    Shirley, these pictures are touching, real, and wonderful. At the Sisters of Mercy care facility in Colorado, the nun/nurses who no longer were full habits wear very similar (but less fitted 😉 ) uniforms as your pictured nurse. You have a lovely way of sharing details, and the picture of the man on the horse with the cattle is excellent.

    • Shirley Showalter on November 27, 2015 at 11:05 pm

      Thanks for the compliments on the photos, Marylin. I love photography. These were just iPhone point and shoot pictures. I didn’t take my Nikon to save room and hassle. You picked my favorite out of the pile too. The man with the oxen turned out much better than I expected it to be when I took it. Lovely sky, clouds, mountain background. Subtle, vibrant color.

      I didn’t see any nuns in Cuba although I did see churches, and I imagine, since the pope has visited, that there is a sizable Catholic presence on the island. Probably the cities hold most of that presence.

  10. Richard Gilbert on November 27, 2015 at 7:42 pm

    How wonderful that you got to go to Cuba! I am envious. These photos are magical. Thank you, Shirley.

    • Shirley Showalter on November 27, 2015 at 11:07 pm

      Richard, lovely to find you here again. Should I be glad or sorry that I made you envious. 🙂 I’ll just say when the time is right, go!

  11. melodie davis on November 29, 2015 at 6:20 pm

    Seeing people in their natural settings is my favorite way to explore a new place, for sure. But yeah, I just saw a white nurses cap like that today–believe it or not, in the Harrisonburg Health & Rehab facility on Reservoir St. I was shocked, and looked twice. It had a stripe too. Wondered why she was wearing it, it looked so different! I would go to Cuba in a heartbeat if I got the chance; maybe someday! A return trip to Spain–where I lived a year and wrote one memoir, we’d call it today–would come first on my list, though. I’m enjoying your glimpses of Cuba here.

    • Shirley Showalter on November 29, 2015 at 6:36 pm

      Ha, Melodie, thanks for answering a question that turned out not to be rhetorical after all: you saw a nurse in uniform in the U.S. And not only that, in my own back yard.

      If you lived in Spain for a year you must know Spanish. What a boost that would be to finding the “real” in Cuba! I only have “poquito” remaining from two years of not applying myself very much in college Spanish classes. Very little remains.

      It’s been too long since I visited your blog. Off to see what you’ve been up to. Thanks for stopping by.

      Glad you enjoy the Cuba posts. One last one next week.

Leave a Comment