Varadero – First Impressions

Flying over the first few stretches of Cuba towards Varadero, I looked down to see a collage of feathery green palms against copper coloured soils. You see this a lot when flying over agricultural land, huge swathes of exposed soils, recently tilled and ready for planting. However, this was the first time that I’ve feared from above that soil conditions in some areas were so visibly poor, no seed would be able to spread its roots. There were fields that were painted by salinization, the salt forming a ribboned, almost batik-like pattern of eerie beauty. As the plane flew lower you could see the cracks, the mottled coppers, browns and straw-yellow soils and the transitioning to sand. I took in this initial topographic snapshot, imagining the history of these fields, of those who toiled here, the yields produced, the political, economical, cultural and agricultural misuse and neglect of the soil and the attempts made towards reclamation. I imagined the the sinking hearts that accompanied their abandonment. I thought about the impact that those fields lost may have had upon livelihoods, nutritional intake, culture and community. How many people would be affected by the loss of one field, I wondered? This was my first experience of Cuba and of the Permaculture Design Certificate I was about to begin.

We were distributed into small groups and assigned our dwellings for the five days we were to spend in Varadero. Ronit, a new dear friend and fellow M.E.S. student from York University and I were thankfully paired and given a really comfortable casa particular, separate from the rest of the group who were all staying in dorms at the: …..  The centre was our group’s home-base for gathering, classroom based lessons and eating together. I poked around the kitchen of our casa, remarking that the bottle opener looked like it was from the 1970’s, finding ceramics stamped “made in the USSR” and generally feeling like a silly, privileged person for being part of a culture where we so often throw things away, opting for something new and improved (or re-purpose them, which is a bit better) before they’ve reached the end of their life cycle as functional things.

We all met at the centre after a brief pause to set down our things. There was a beach path that weaved between several towering palms towards the Caribbean sea and an incredible stretch of beach (away from the  resorts) less than twenty steps away from the entrance that I had to run towards, spending a few minutes soaking it all up before joining the group for our ‘icebreakers’ and introductions.

We were an eclectic bunch – the green thumb spectrum ranged from professional farmer, urban agriculturalist, organic gardener and permaculturalist to urban gardener, farm worker, aspiring gardener and kitchen garden enthusiasts. We had ecologists, architects, NGO employees, farm workers, students, a nurse, a Floridian-New Yorker of Cuban heritage making his first pilgrimage to Cuba, environmental educators, garden consultants, restaurant workers, engineers and inventors. We had a lots to share and teach one another and the excitement and passion for environmental issues and expanding our knowledge was immediately palpable. Through the excellent group facilitation skills of Ron, we engaged in group discussions, exercises, play and introspection and established an impressively comfortable, sincere and smooth working dynamic during our first couple of days in Cuba. A big part of this was managing personal and group expectations on the outset, airing any concerns and ideas and collectively contributing to a set of group ethics and goals that we agreed we would revisit throughout the program.

During the first 24 hours, there was some memorable wisdom exchanged in the spirit of managing and mitigating group dynamic scenarios. One of the more resonant observations was that when things go wrong in the world, it’s often a break down in human systems at the root of the cause. A simple gem of a notion. This can of course greatly hinder or challenge the goals of something and distract our attention away from the cause itself. We explored some behaviours, actions, attitudes and intentions that can be used as mitigation tools in such circumstances. Some examples that I recall are:

  • listen to who is speaking
  • be patient with the silence and respect different people’s processes and comfortability with regards to speaking in front of others
  • practice saying “just enough” and taking risks with your contributions
  • ask yourself “what is the essence that I wish to communicate”?
  • share vocal space
  • consider that first we listen to understand, then we enter dialogue and then comes critical thinking

These first few impressions and structural implementations may seem like insignificant aspects of the Cuban permaculture experience that I am here to expand upon. However, on the contrary, these were integral components of what made the 2016 program such a success. The attention to these things maximized the surface area of trust, respect and patience that we held and exchanged with one another and strengthened the group dynamic so we could wake, eat, move, learn, sweat, work, take risk, digest and celebrate together as a community for three immersive weeks, engaged with the land and people of Cuba.


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