Title: Among Friends, Travels in Cuba
Author: Heather Murray
Format: Print copy mailed by author
My rating: 3/5
What’s it like to live in a modern city where water and electricity, soap and paper are rationed? How do you find a pop-up restaurant in the depths of the countryside? Among Friends: Travels in Cuba is an account of one person’s discovery of Cuba as it moves towards a more open economy. With an eye for the telling details of daily life, Murray first explores Havana and then other provinces to the west and east in visits spread over a period of eight years. We meet Julian, her Cuban guide and friend, Magdalena, landlady and untiring critic of the Castro regime, Ernesto, taxi driver and mountain guide, and an entertaining cast of naive Canadian tourists, enterprising peasants and perspiring bicitaxi drivers. Besides probing the Cuban psyche, Murray’s explorations highlight the unique scenery of Cuba from the elegant center of old Havana to the mogotes of the Vinales valley, and from the pristine beaches of the northern keys to historic Trinidad and the Escambray mountains with their lakes, waterfalls and jungles. A humorous and sympathetic portrait of Cuba as it emerges from over half a century of privation and isolation, this book will appeal to future as well as former visitors.”
I’ll admit right off the bat that I could not help thinking about Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights whilst reading Murray’s memoir….. I had to get that out of the way. Now, this narrative felt like a beautiful friendship, kindred spirits even if I pull out some Anne of Green Gables lingo. The perfect and ideal pen pal, Julian seemed like a gracious host and thrived on showing Heather the Cuba he lives and breathers. I honestly did not know much about Cuba beyond Castro and Havana so this complete immersion in the country beyond what we know in tourism was fascinating and revealing. Exploring Santa Clara, Trinidad, and Hanabanilla gave a wide range of experiences outside of the typical Havana tourist location.
At times I felt that this could just be the blog site with updates every 2-ish years she traveled to Cuba. There was a map of Cuba in the beginning pages, but I wished there were more personal photos to accompany the detailed narrative of what she was experiencing. Although this was a travel memoir about Cuba, I felt the insertion of what Heather did in between visits was not as smooth a transition and seemed random. She had traveled to other locations in between Cuba visits, and I believe it would have been interesting to expand on those as a point of comparison or omit those completely as it did not add to the personal story of Cuba. In terms of providing context and sharing stories from the people themselves, I couldn’t have asked for anything more. The personal touch and breaking the stereotypes of Cuba and its people are both extremely important with educating the rest of the world beyond what we think we know or have read in the news or textbooks.
I would love to read a follow-up by her in terms of presently the embargo being lifted (for the United States). I wonder if that would change any perspectives or experiences Heather experienced (even though she is Canadian and lives in Switzerland). The fact that Heather relished in her independence to explore on her own and dive right in to the culture gives the travel bug in me more motivation to pick up and go somewhere. I feel that Heather’s story is a great companion to the layperson’s education of the world we may not have known otherwise.
Some memorable and relate-able quotes to leave you with:
“It was then that I thought to myself: yes that’s what seems to be happening here. Cubans have been forced by historic circumstance to give new life to outdated things” (Murray 48)
“It occurred to me that revolutions must have many unintended victims like Magdalena’s husband – people who, above all, want to go on as before, just doing a good job” (Murray 213)
“I lost sight of that fact that my friendship with Julian was just as rare as any protected species or environment, and just as important. He and I share a friendship that has overcome language and space and time; I can’t allow misunderstandings and cultural difference to destroy it” (Murray 271)
Read Among Friends, Travels in Cuba if you like the themes of: