“What are you thinking about, Mom?”
We were lined up – Jacob, Kathleen, Kevin and me – on beach chairs under a shady tree on the tiny island of Cayo Blanco, Cuba. If you wanted to paint a picture of the perfect March break holiday – exactly what our busy family was after! – the scene would look like the one we were living.
I was trying to immerse myself in my book (Perfect by Rachel Joyce,) but couldn’t concentrate. Jacob couldn’t concentrate on his book either (The Firm, by John Grisham). I knew what he was thinking about. It was the same dilemma that I was working over in my mind.
A dilemma is defined as “a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, esp. equally undesirable ones”, but our family’s dilemma this March break in Cuba was between two good options.
A few days earlier, Kevin met a man in town who asked, “Will you give me something, like your shirt?” Kevin told him no, but promised to deliver something Saturday night at the street party. Our teenagers, Jacob and Kathleen, didn’t want to leave our resort to go into town on Saturday night. Kevin and I decided that time out of our resort to see real Cuban culture would be an adventure and good for us. After all, one reason for choosing Cuba was to see a new part of the world where no trace of America exists. So we got on the bus.
“The DJ” was waiting for our bus to arrive and was thrilled with the Nike shoes that Kevin handed him. (We came prepared with gently used items and some new supplies, thanks to the tip from our friend Suzanne Heft). He showed us around the main dance area and then took us to the more traditional bar where multi-generations were dancing to a band lead by a man who hand-cranked an old organ. The scene was magical. The DJ asked me to dance, and I had this moment of fear – his clothes were tattered and I could smell that he hadn’t showered recently. I could feel everyone watching, and I felt stiff and awkward in his arms. But I love to dance and the DJ made me feel comfortable. We laughed and I enjoyed feeling totally immersed in the moment. Needless to say, I was pleased to experience a bit of Cuban culture.
But just before we got on the bus, the DJ asked Kevin if we would join his family for a meal in his home in two days. Thus began the dilemma.
What was the right thing to do? Here I was, almost proud that we pushed our kids to go out for an evening. I really wanted to see how people lived, and an evening at a dance was a great beginning. But was it really an authentic experience? When offered the chance to get even closer and perhaps even develop a relationship, shouldn’t we jump at the chance? Moreover, we have been invited into a home, could we be so rude as to say no?
On the other hand, we came for a relaxing family vacation. Our lives are so busy and we were treasuring our time together, with no internet, no computers and definitely no obligations. I also worried about safety and the quality of food they would serve. Why should we give a stranger our time? Especially a stranger who clearly wants us for our “stuff” and wasn’t shy about asking for it? But as Kevin pointed out, if he were the DJ, and he met a nice family who could give stuff to his family, and he had no other options, wouldn’t he do the same? Can you blame him? That one really got us thinking.
We talked about our dilemma all day, and here we are one week later, still talking about it. I’m not sure what you would have done, but we didn’t go to his home. Kevin met him once more to give him a bag of stuff, and almost in return, he turned up at the beach one afternoon and made crickets from the grasses for the kids. Did we go far enough in our cultural experience? I don’t know. But I do know that the conversations were valuable and together, we worked through some tough questions of poverty and diversity.
Our family dilemma has made me think about the number of CAIS schools that promote international service trips during the March break. I am always impressed with teenagers who choose to spend their vacations seeing how others live, giving back to the broader community, and getting out of their comfort zone. I hear so many stories of kids who go overseas and are greatly affected. But I sometimes wonder – since the students travel in groups and must remain safe at all times, can they really encounter authentic experiences?
My guess is that our students who are returning from their travels have benefitted from intense opportunities to confront differences and reflect on what is right, and just and true. I bet they faced many dilemmas in their international travels, and I am so grateful that our CAIS community values not only the opportunity to experience them, but also the need to think deeply about them. The result? I believe our students will become global citizens – and leaders who strive to make our world a better place.
p.s. Just for the record, we did do a number of other activities outside of our resort! But in case this is sounding too self-congratulatory, we love beach vacations.