A few years ago, I enjoyed reading a novel called "In the Embrace of the Alligator" by Amanda Hale . In it, the main character, a Canadian woman, becomes involved with a Cuban man and tries to become involved in his life and those of his family and friends. What follows is a highly readable and thoughtful story about life in Cuba, the plight of Cuban people, and, perhaps more tellingly, how foreigners ( mostly Canadian ) look at their own lives and values. The Canadian character becomes so involved in Cuba that she begins to feel like a foreigner when she returns to Canada, but slowly realizes that she can never truly become involved in Cuba either. She feels both lost and part of both worlds. It is a wonderful novel and worth the read.
I bring this up to set up my own "embrace of the alligator." The alligator in all cases is Cuba itself. If you look at a map of the country, and use a little imagination, you see that it indeed resembles an alligator, with its head in the east and its large and dangerous tail in the west. Of course, the metaphor goes further: you don't have to be an animal expert to know that to be embraced by an alligator is a highly dangerous thing. Once in the alligator's grip, you are faced with two difficult choices: you can let the alligator have its way with you, which has all kinds of nasty implications, or you can choose to embrace back. The first choice is perhaps the easiest: you become passive, accept your fate and endure the results. Most people in this situation are those who go to Cuba and emerge from the visit disappointed or angry. These people never go back and are able to forget about the experience.
The second choice, however, is the more complicated one. I admit that I have made this choice and always wonder why I did. The choice is to take the alligator close to your heart, wrap yourself around it and hold on for dear life, adjusting to every twist and turn and movement the beast makes. You must hold on forever, never letting go for the obvious reasons. Most people I know who go to Cuba make this choice and, together, we hang on, hoping that the ride never stops, but wondering how much longer we can hold on before we're either exhausted or the alligator overpowers us and turns on us.
Quite a choice !
Cuba gets into a person's heart and soul. Maybe it's the climate, so warm and sunny ( most times!). Or maybe it's the history, full of tumult and triumph, chaos and suffering. Perhaps, it's the time machine aspect, where you can literally step back fifty years and see things and experience life in a different era. It could be the music, so perfect and sensual, sweeping you off your feet as you give yourself up to the rhythm and skill of Cuban musicians (aren't all Cubans musicians?).
For me, it's all these plus one thing more: the Cuban people. We have been fortunate to meet a few of them. With only one or two exceptions, they are among the most remarkable people on earth. They possess a good humour that has to be experienced to be believed. They put up with a lot, yet are happy and resourceful. They are intelligent and highly aware of the outside world, and yearn to achieve the things we take for granted, yet are unbelievably patient and stoic. Any other people would be storming the halls of power to demand more things, but the Cubans are adopting a "wait and see" attitude: perhaps the old revolution still lingers in the consciousness and they have a "one revolution is enough" mindset. They laugh and dance easily, but are also capable of tears and empathy. Family is their strength and pride: the best thing you can ask a Cuban is "how is your family?" If a Cuban calls you "my family" , then you know that they like and trust you.
None of this sounds much like a menacing alligator. So how does the metaphor work? Because you can easily be trapped and forced to think that all is well and beautiful in Cuba. But, as we have learned, it is not all good. So, a visitor has to be on guard always. Love the island, love the culture, love the people .... but be aware that the alligator has a hold on you. If you reach out and grab it to save yourself, you can never let go. And, when that happens, you can never really leave.