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Conversations With Cuba by C. Peter Ripley

Good travel writing must encompass an author’s ability to leave a good deal of his preconceptions and certainties at home and view everything from a different perspective. Conversations With Cuba, authored by C. Peter Ripley does not disappoint the reader in presenting Cuba in an impartial and unbiased light that for many of us will be quite a revelation.

As the title suggests, the book is based on a chronicle of conversations the author held with several Cubans during the course of his six trips to Cuba from 1991 until 2000. The first trip commences in 1991 and as the author states “a book about Cuba wasn’t part of the plan when I began scheming to travel to Fidel Castro’s embargoed island.” It was moreover a need to satisfy a romantic curiosity that had occupied the author’s mind since the age of fifteen. The opportunity presented itself when Ripley convinces a writer friend to tag along with him when the friend had been assigned to write an article by a magazine concerning Castro’s emerging tourism trade.

From the very onset of his travels in 1991, Ripley is able to make personal contact with ordinary Cubans who are very eager to converse and express their feelings and perceptions.

In fact, as the author states, “whatever the problems, whatever the politics of this place, no one, no one, refused to talk with us, about anything. Who is going to believe that back home.”

Subsequent trips to Cuba reveal a kind of roller coaster ride in the sense that unlike the initial contact with Cuba, there were periods of extreme anxiety when basic necessities such as food, fuel and electricity were rationed. As for consumer goods, they were out of bounds for the average Cubans, although they were available in stores where foreigners frequented. There was also a prohibition imposed on the Cubans from being permitted to frequent hotels where foreigners vacationed.

This period was followed by a kind of loosening when a sliver of Capitalism peeks out from the clouds and Castro permits farmers to sell their produce for dollars in various markets. Unfortunately, this does not last too long, and the brakes are applied, putting an end to the so called “good times.”

Ripley is very effective in revealing to the reader the spirit and soul of Cuba. As he states, “whatever Cuba was or was not, whatever she might become, she was not an island where a single opinion prevailed, however much some claim or hope.”

This is evidenced in the many towns and villages Ripley visits and as he asserts, Havana is not Cuba. To understand Cuba you must travel throughout the country and in particular to Santiago, the birthplace of the revolution. It is in all of these towns and hamlets where you will feel, taste, hear and smell what Cuba is all about and perhaps where it may be going in the future.

Although the book is not meant to be a scholarly text, it certainly serves as an excellent introduction in understanding Cuban history prior to and after the revolution.

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