Not sure why, but for some reason I am happiest when I am hanging out with cute Spanish speaking children – and last week I was able to visit my other favorite group of kids in Cuba. This was the 5th year I have taken a team of divers to train at a Sports school in Matanzas, Cuba. This is part of my job which I think is pretty dang cool. Some of the Cuban divers have been at the school since the first year and they seemed as excited to see me as I was to see them. Lots of hugs, lots of kisses, lots of Spanglish charades.
Cuba reminds me of Mexico in many ways, but under the surface it is really completely different. There seems to be a common attitude within the people of Latin American countries– a love of family, a simplicity of lifestyle, a lack of material expectations, a pride in music and culture, a unity with the outdoors, a joy in friends and life, a curiosity and acceptance of us visitors. But there are also differences. Mexico is very entrepreneurial. Old women set up a couple of tables in the street and call it a restaurant, teens juggle on street corners, children sell gum on the beach. For good or bad, everyone works to earn a small wage because there is no such thing as government social services. If you want to eat, you have to work. In Cuba, the government takes care of the basic needs of its people and it is very difficult to get ahead in any way. The people are provided with the necessities but the provisions are sparse and there is little opportunity to have or do anything beyond the bare minimum. In both countries, the children I work with are very poor but for different reasons.
The Sports school we visit each year is a residential facility housing children who train in many different sports: swimming, wrestling, track and field, soccer, basketball, water polo, synchro swimming, gymnastics and of course diving. These children are aged 8-18 and have come from all over the country, identified as children who have exceptional talent and potential in their sport. Some ride buses 2 or 3 hours to visit home on the weekends, but many live too far away and only see home and family a couple of times a year. These children have 1 or 2 outfits to wear, 1 bathing suit, 1 pair of shoes. They live in bare dorms and eat simple meals. Each year our Team Sask divers bring many suitcases (we call them Love Suitcases) filled with gifts from Value Village and Dollarama and our own closets to share with these sweet children. They have much pressure on them to succeed – if they win a medal at an Olympic Games or World Championship, they will receive income for life. This will completely change the lives of their families and I remember one little boy who said he wanted to be a good diver so his mother could move out of her small home with dirt floors. Their coach will also get that same amount of lifetime income for that medal. The income we are talking about is small. Coaches, who are employees of the government, earn $20 per month. A gold medal, will mean $100 a month for life. But that does not mean they will be rich. It is true that the government provides housing to the coaches for a couple of dollars a month, and provides a small food ration, but a pair or running shoes costs $100. 5 months’ salary for a coach to buy a pair of runners. T-shirts are $14. A litre of gasoline is $1.50. So $20 does not go far. That medal is coveted. My good friend Jorge, who is now a coach, finished in 4th place at the Olympics – can you imagine the pain of 4th place when 3rd would give you basic security for life?
My favorite little boy is Roberto. I met Roberto 4 years ago when he was 10. For some reason he and I just hit it off and became fast friends. I send him letters and gifts when I know a Cuban coach is coming to a meet in Canada. I tell him to always work hard in diving and in school and in life. Last year he gave me a little sculpture that had my name painted on the bottom. “To Karen, Love Roberto”. I have gotten to know his mom, who brings me fruit and sandwiches when she comes to visit Roberto at the school. I know she misses her son as he has lived away from her for at least 4 years. But I know she hopes perhaps he will win that medal. Will he secure his future with this sport? The odds are slim – but it is really the only hope they have.
Roberto and I in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 – he’s gone from a young boy to a handsome teen and always asks to take a picture with me.
Cuba is changing …. the people are uncertain if they want the change. They worry that they will become greedy or materialistic. I worry for them too. Changing a culture is hard. In the meantime, Roberto and I each shed a tear as we said goodbye. I gave him a leather bracelet to remember me by, he asked when I would be back. Next year right? Yes Roberto, next year. Maybe I will come back sooner this time. I will try. Te amo mi amigo.
This is another new friend. I met Charlie and his mom Daylin last year. Daylin is trying to learn English and I am trying to learn Spanish, so we promised to be email pen pals. Charlie is one of the top divers at the school – he has a shot at that medal. I cross my fingers for him… I cross my fingers for them all.
Charlie and Emmanuel trying on their wrist guards we brought for them – an important piece of protective equipment that can’t be purchased in Cuba. At first I wondered if I was being manipulated last year when Charlie’s mom asked if I could get him wrist guards – but what mom doesn’t want the best for her child? What if there was just no way to provide the best except to ask a stranger for help?
Adios Cuba. Adios my friends. I miss you already.