Reflecting on Key West, Cuba and Whether Misfortune Makes for Great Travel Stories

Travel Blog  •  Tom Swick  •  01.10.06 | 8:03 AM ET

imageAt some point during the drive back from Key West it occurred to me that I had used a cruise analogy in yesterday’s blog about the literary seminar on Adventure, Travel and Discovery. No wonder I wasn’t one of the invited speakers.

But let’s go back to Friday morning. I carried my breakfast plate out to the B&B patio and asked if I could join a table of three. “I’m in one ear,” said the first man, “I’m Dervla,” said the woman, “I’m out the other,” said the second man. “Ah, the travel writer,” I said to the thickset woman in the Cuba T-shirt. I told her a friend of mine in Arkansas had just discovered her. It soon emerged that we shared a favorite travel writer—Colin Thubron—but disagreed on Cuba: I found it depressing, she didn’t. Still, a lovely way to begin the morning.

When she left, I turned and asked the young foursome sitting behind me if they were Swedish. Yes, they said. I told them about the fiddler on Duval Street, “in case you get homesick.”

I skipped the day’s readings and panels to research a story on the Eastern European community in Key West. For years now young people have been coming from the old Soviet bloc to take low-end jobs on the island. Tourists are always surprised to hear bits of Polish or Czech or Ukrainian as they stroll the subtropical streets of our southernmost city.

I made it back in time for the evening reception at the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens. Tim Cahill and Lawrence Millman were in the midst of badmouthing editors as I approached them.

Larry graciously admitted that I didn’t touch the story he wrote for me last year.

“I didn’t have time,” I said. Which is partly true. The stories I accept generally don’t need much editing. And, since I also write, I don’t feel the need to write in someone else’s work. 

Tim said he was going to borrow from something Pico once said, that “the secret of travel writing is for something to go wrong.” I said I disagreed with that idea: that in fact the best trips make the best stories. “It’s those trips where you meet good people and learn new things and participate in the life of a place. And sometimes you get on such a good roll that the people become friends, the information insight, the participation engagement.” (I had memorized this passage from a column I wrote a few years ago.) I looked at Tim, and then at Larry. They didn’t appear to be convinced.

They went off for oysters, I returned to the San Carlos Institute for the evening’s panel on Cuba. Robert Stone was reading as I entered (from a piece about a visit he had made to Havana as a young man in the military). After about 10 minutes I thought of Julian Barnes’ advice to a fellow writer: “Never read at a reading. They’d rather hear what you had for breakfast.” The reading continued. There were some beautiful lines—“I drank myself into what can only be described as American innocence”—but after a while I found myself wondering what he had had for breakfast.

Mary Morris read next. I wondered about her lunch and dinner.

Pico followed, and dispelled any thoughts of food.

Then the panel discussion started, with the addition of Ana Menendez and Patrick Symmes, each participant grappling with the country’s contradictions and his or her own perception of them. Pico described a scene at the Havana airport, after a plane has just been delayed 12 hours: drums come out, somebody starts to play. “They embellish the margins,” he said, “because the main text has been obliterated.”

Did he just think of that? The man speaks better than most people write.

Later he said that Cuba “combines the vitality of Africa with the sophistication of Europe.” A nice formula to which could probably be added an American and Soviet component.

Walking alone back to my B&B, I passed the Swedish fiddler playing tunes that nobody stopped to listen to. I identified with him.

—South Florida Sun-Sentinel travel editor Thomas Swick will be guest blogging all this week.

Tom Swick

Tom Swick is the author of two books: a travel memoir, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, and a collection of travel stories, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 19 years, and his work has been included in "The Best American Travel Writing" 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

2 Comments for Reflecting on Key West, Cuba and Whether Misfortune Makes for Great Travel Stories

karthik cmouli 04.13.08 | 7:21 AM ET

Well, I like the genralization that you had made with regard to Cuba - being a mirsch of american and soviet politics, nicely put. But that kind of oversimplifies things a bit, does it not?

Cuba 08.06.08 | 10:21 AM ET

Contrary to what many people think apart from few babes that have been named Vladimir or Volodia there is not much Soviet influence in Cuba - at least not any more. If anything I would say there is more American influence than any Soviet ever in Cuba. Apart from Salsa the only music you hear on clubs is American. On TV all movies and documentaries are Americans. There was a strong influence from the Soviets in Cuba in the 60’s and 70’s but it soon dissipated even before the collapse of the socialist system. Ask people in the streets what they think about the Soviets. They will say “Russians Stink”. I am sorry to put it this way but I grew up in Cuba and that is exactly what you were used to hear about them. Instead Americans are highly regarded by the people in the streets. Not so sure about the Government.

Definitively agree with the African influence. That is very strong in Cuba. Even white people identifies with African religious cults.

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