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Graham Sowa: I've been living in Cuba for three years now. I would like to blame my obvious hair loss seen in this updated photo on the rigors of life here and medical school, but it is probably just genetic. I've made some of the strongest friendships during my time in Cuba from other writers on this website. The strength of those friendships has almost restored my faith that the online world can lead to offline and real life change. On that same note I've adjusted to using internet one or two hours a month. In the meantime I have rediscovered things like flipping through the pages of books, writing stuff down by hand, and having to admit that I don't know something instead of rapidly looking up the answer on Google while the teacher isn't looking.

On Traveling and Lifestyle Changes

April 27, 2012 | Print Print |

Graham Sowa

HAVANA TIMES, 27 abr — During our recent week long school break I made the decision to travel.  I’ve traveled frequently in the past. Even the complicated travel policies of being a student in Cuba are routine to me now.  I was only traveling with a backpack, but the entire trip was weighed down by a sense of not belonging outside of Cuba.

My thoughts were of my friends in Cuba who can’t travel, and a sense of guilt that I enjoy education in their country but the privileges of my passport. I also thought in terms of economic reasoning; that money spent on travel could have other uses in society.

In brevity, I have been confronting myself this last week. I am concluding that those of us that take the privilege to travel probably deserve some self reflection on this subject.

In the United States I decided early in life that a lot of material possessions were not in my future. I was intrigued by wealth, and the neat technology and toys that it bought, but not drawn to it as a light to guide my path in life.

Over the years of high school and university I became more willing to alter my preferences in life to be more consistent with what I thought a just world looked like. You know, that infrequently achieved and consistently misattributed advice of ‘being the change you want to see in the world’.

I spent the last two years of college on a military cot, living out of an old travel trunk, and keeping the windows open in the Texas heat instead of running the air conditioner. It was satisfying to get the electric bill of 40.00 USD a month for my shared two bedroom apartment when others were paying 250.00 USD.  My roommate and I considered ourselves models of efficiency.

Arriving to Cuba and being within earshot of other students (especially Americans) complaining about the conditions of group living, small beds, and lack of “space” annoyed me. I tried not to resent us for the complaints and suitcases of material culture we brought to Cuba.

After all, our delegation is supposed to be made up of mostly “underprivileged” citizens from the United States. But listening to and, admittedly, participating in the whining, shows us that “underprivileged” still contains the definition of the world “privileged”.

Part of that privilege is the ability to consume services, even if not accumulating goods. I am hard pressed to think of any other service that consumes more resources than that of travel.

I feel like being able to travel is the biggest gulf which separates my lifestyle from that of my Cuban friends. And I don’t like feeling separated from them. I do feel guilty about being able to do more.

The feeling even extends beyond the guilt which I’m sure many would argue I ought not to have. As a result of living in Cuba I frequently think about the opportunity costs my individual actions have on society.

I know that traveling and moving about uses a lot of resources that society might benefit from in other, more efficient, ways. The argument against consumption of services can be economic and rational as well, as long as one is willing to forego individual desire in weighing the impacts.

Problematizing travel is surely contentious. I still believe the general arguments for travel are better than the arguments against. Even the ideology in the Government of Cuba cannot decide this complicated matter. Cuban citizens must receive permission from the government to travel, while at the same time the same government internationally promotes travel to the island.

I came to Cuba thinking I was ready to live a meager lifestyle and become a doctor while doing so. I still know that creating a more equitable world involves lifestyle changes.

Those of us who consume more resources than most marginalized inhabitants of our societies must take this initiative. But to close the gap in the privilege of consumption for a United States citizen and a Cuban citizen will take much more fill than I had first thought.


What's your opinion?

  • Moses

    Graham, I completely respect your point of view. I hope that as you mature and progress in your personal and professional life, you can maintain your humility. I also hope that you can equally respect those who do not share your desire to live a spartan existence without basic creature comforts. Your comments reflect a tendency of many who share your self-denial to be judmental of those who do not share your views. While I find it ludicrous to suffer without air-conditioning when enjoying it is within one’s means, I say to each his own. I hope you can do the same.

  • Michael N. Landis

    You’ve given us lots to think about here, Graham! In the First World, most folks have become enslaved to consumption; we’re made to believe we can find happiness by acquiring the latest toys. At some point, however, most shrewd and intelligent folk see this does not lead to happiness. Often, we become prisoners of our posssessions. Such was the case of my best friend. He wanted to escape New York City (he even had a poster on his wall, “Escape from New York,” from a sci-fi flick of the late 1970′s), but his thousands upon thousands of books, lp albums and 78 records (even pre-WWI Edison cylindrical phonograph records) trapped him in the lower depths of Manhattan. He died before he could escape to Vermont. After his death, my wife and I attempted to deal with his overwhelming hoard of stuff, but after several weekends of trying to sort it out, we turned our back on it, and all these “priceless possessions” went into sevral industrial-sized dumpsters called in by his landlord! Hence, as you say, its best to “travel light!” On the other hand, travel is enlightening. It seems to me that Che’s social conscience was significantly broaden and deepened through his travels; through travel, our own parochialism and limited awareness is challenged. I’m sure if all the roadblocks to Cubans were removed, that travel would have profound effects upon them, too; many would allow their heads to be turned by the consumerist societs of the First World; just as many, however, would learn to appreciate what they have at home, limiting as it is. After all, as Dorothy says in the “Wizard of Oz,” “There’s no place like home!” “Threre’s no place like home!” (Click red slippers three times)!

  • Freud

    I disagree completely with you both Moses and Landis……. just because Mr Graham is just part of the privileged people in Cuba…… he is part of the elite that can study and have life conditions most Cubans can’t have…….. “University is for Revolutionaries” is the slogan of this regime that give Graham the “opportunity” to study for nothing but makes Cubans to work their right to study via supporting a regime that destroyed their country and make them puppets without rights to think with independence….. “you are with me or against me” is regime’s motto, your thinking way is against me you will be nothing in this country and your only destiny will be death, jail or emigration……….. then comes Mr Graham as part of a propaganda effort and try to make the world to believe castro regime is a good thing just because made him part of the elite…….. and you two also are part of this propaganda effort.

    • Moses

      Freud, put down the crack pipe. I am hardly a part of any CUBAN propaganda effort. I believe that the Michael Landis’ of the world can easily spout off about the evils of consumption because they have a choice to consume or not to consume. They choose to live an pseudo anti-materialistic existence, emphasis on “choose”. But when that choice is not available it is a lot harder to sell that soapbox. Believe me when Graham gets back ‘stateside and his colleagues are using iPad2s to log patient information and download patient files in realtime, he will put down his yellow legal pad and ballpoint pen and join the 21st century. When he has to put in a double shift at the barrio clinic and has a choice to ride in an air-conditioned bus or take the one without the air-conditioning, I know which one he chooses. I am so amused by these “limousine liberals” who wear their Che, who by the way was an incredible racist, t-shirts and their red star caps and talk about some socialist Utopia that has never and will never exist. You know why? Because when your feet hurt and you have the money, you will buy very expensive Birkenstocks. When it is cold in the winter in Vermont and you have the money, you will buy a Volvo with heated seats. PLEEEEEASE! Spare me the “I hate consumerism” speech. You want to impress me. Loan me the keys to your Prius.

  • Michael N. Landis

    Dear Moses and Dr. Freud,
    You certainly do make a lot of (inaccurate) assumptions about how I lead my life. It sounds like you take these stereotypes right out of the Faux Fox playbook. Do you really think these diatribes and ad hominem attacks add to any dialogue? In my readings of the real Dr. Freud, he seems to have an “oceanic” view of society and human beings. I suggest you read, or re-read, him. I am far from a “limousine liberal,” In fact, I drive a modest five-year-old Yaris, and purchase most of my shoes used, at a local thrift store which supports hospice care. Also, despite my oldest daughter graduating with top honors from her high school, and getting 80% of her college tuition paid through scholarships, my wife and I still have to chip in close to $1500/month, a real sacrifice for us, thus requiring me to work ’til I drop (and I am well beyond retirement age). I’m sure that when Graham returns Stateside he’ll use whatever replaces the iPad2 by then for his work. He’ll have to. By then Congress will have cut funds so severely to poor communities that his clinic will be swamped with patients. You both seem to be bitter. It seems to me, though, that bitterness eats the soul. As Che said, love, rather than hatred, must be the principal motivator of a Revolutionary. Wasn’t that the case with Jesus? Of course eventually, as with all religions before, and will probably be the case since, the original attempts at religios reform initiated by the founders of new religions are subsequently eroded.