Friday, 1 May 2015

Cuba: Giving

Our plan was to travel light.  That plan changed when we began to read about the many things that are either not available in Cuba or prohibitively expensive for most Cubans.  We ended up using every last gram of our baggage allowance on small items to give away, toys in particular.

We soon understood that while our intentions were good, giving was not as easy as we had imagined. Sometimes it felt like playing God.  We did not have a gift for everyone, so we had to make a choice. Who was most worthy, most needy? That's not a comfortable decision, nor one we were informed enough to make.   Without wishing it, giving sometimes made us feel patronising too:  look how big we are, how rich we are and how good we are to give this to you.  None of that was part of the plan.  
I think yours is better than mine!
The most fun thing we gave away was a collection of toy cars.  We took about sixty of them, bought on Ebay from a young English boy who had grown out of them.  After purchase, we sent him a note to tell him where they were going.  The word 'Cuba' triggered the suspension of our Ebay account. We had to promise to this American company that we were not trading illegally with a country that was embargoed by the U.S. before our account was freed again.

The cars were sponsored by my mother-in-law who insisted she wanted no birthday present this year. Instead we were to use the money to buy gifts to take on our trip.  They were received joyfully by sixty Cuban children.  And that gave us joy too.          

Catch!  You can play with this when you're older
Andrew had a mission to give away music.  Cuba has a very strong tradition of music but sheet music is hard to find.  He spent a lot of time getting music to as many musicians as he could. That felt like a really positive thing to do.  Musicians also need strings, reeds, rosin: all of which are light to pack.  Even professional musicians here rely on these kinds of thoughtful gifts.

We took books too. Spanish to English dictionaries are highly prized by young Cubans who want to improve their English because they know it will improve their future.  The second hand pocket dictionary and phrase book we bought from the Willen Hospice Bookshop in Stony Stratford, slightly dog-eared and yellowing, were received as if they were the greatest gifts ever.    

As an engineer and designer, Andrew knows the value of a good tool.  He took with him some light and inexpensive (to us in the UK) diamond sharpening files.  They found grateful homes in honest, hardworking private enterprises.  The response in every case was to give us something in return. Those are stories to be told.

The point of all this?  Well, you may detect a whiff of justifying our actions here.  And you'd be right. I have been reading an article which suggests you should think before you gift in Cuba.  It made some interesting points: in summary that there are much poorer (and thus more deserving) places on earth and that random giving is encouraging begging and scamming which is not a good way of life and not pleasant for tourists.

I don't have a ready answer for this, except perhaps to ask how you square it with your conscience when a man sits hungry on a park bench opposite while you tuck in to your lunch?  I will certainly write more about giving with some more of our stories and, I hope, some more constructive thoughts on how one might 'give responsibly'.

Off the cuff it occurs to me that for a sort of rule-of-thumb moral 'giving compass', a combination of conscience, compassion and a huge dollop of common sense works pretty well.  For example, in supermarkets we were approached by couples, blinged up to the nines, wanting to 'help' us.  In return for this unsolicited help, they did not want money for themselves, they explained, but money to buy baby milk.  If we had any doubt after the first request, by the second, third, fourth ... common sense could only come to one conclusion. They were scammers.

They were, however, in the minority by far.  Most people, needy or not, asked for nothing.

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