This post is a follow-up to four others I have done on Cuba and Vermont, Perspectives on Energy and Culture: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 - about my visit to Cuba with a delegation of energy industry professionals, and a Cuban colleague’s visit to Vermont where I developed a similar tour. Learn more in The Homeowner's Energy Handbook!
Washington Electric Cooperative
To ease the pain of 29 below 0 (Celsius), I turned the car’s internal and seat heaters all the way up to their respective Caribbean climate setting and headed north with Mario still reeling from the extreme cold. Almost immediately he called a friend in Florida to claim bragging rights to the experience.
First stop was Washington Electric Coop, a member-owned electric company and the country’s most rural electric utility in the sense that it has very few customers for every mile of electrical transmission line. WEC has a large renewable energy portfolio and our goal was to visit their landfill gas recovery power plant in Coventry.
This system consists of an active landfill with buried pipes to collect the methane gas produced by decaying organic material. The gas is piped to the power house where it is first scrubbed of impurities and then delivered to five diesel engines, each of which is connected to a 1.6 megawatt generator. Each year, this power plant delivers about two-thirds of the coop’s electrical needs from garbage, while preventing the powerful greenhouse gas methane, from entering the environment.
Along the way, we stopped to take photos of landscape and local scenes. Mario looked out the car window and asked if that wide open expanse of snow was a lake or a field. We pulled into the parking area where I pointed to the sign that called out the lake’s name, jumped out of the car and ran onto the frozen surface with Mario yelling “NO!” I cleared away the snow so he could see the frozen water below, jumped up and down a few times, and he finally came out to join me. “This is like a different world!” he exclaimed. “I’m in a cosmonaut suit on another planet!” After several photos and experiments with walking on water that was so thick you could drive a car on it, we were on our way again.
Lunch today was at the Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center in Newport, where local food and beer are available for sampling and purchase. Our meal was expertly prepared by the Brown Dog Bistro. At this point, I felt comfortable enough to ask Mario a personal question about the Cuban experience. I knew what I wanted to ask, but didn’t know quite how to phrase it. And I didn’t think it would make us late for our next stop. In retrospect, we probably needed a few more drinks before I launched into this.
“What is it like to be a Cuban” I began tentatively, searching for the right words “in a world where you are the international underdog?” After over 50 years of the U.S. led embargo that has kept their economy in near ruin, Cubans have gained a level of global empathy for their plight. Their shared struggles have only served to make them a stronger island community, and I wanted to know how that experience has shaped him as he travels into the world with almost no budget. I imagined his story to be something similar to those many American (OK, North American) college students who once traveled the world on a shoe string, and to my own experience of getting on my bicycle as a young man with only a sleeping bag, tent, bags of gorp, and a probable destination in mind. These times of throwing yourself into the world and reveling in its unpredictable unfolding are often described as magical. People of the world welcome the open-hearted traveler.
Language and cultural barriers quickly became apparent. “What do you mean? What are you trying to say?” he asked. “Just tell me what you are trying to say and I will tell you.” I struggled for more words.
“When I go out into the world as an American” I said “I go with a plan, a credit card, and an attitude. I want to go someplace to have an experience, and I pay as I go. It’s expensive to be an American!”
“Listen, do you want me to pay for my lunch? Is that what you’re asking? I have a little bit of money, but you know I only make $40 a month! You spend that on one meal here.”
“That’s not what I mean!” I tried to downplay my embarrassment at this misunderstanding.
“Before I came here, you asked me if I had a stipend, and I said no. I knew then that you did not understand about Cuba. I would like to travel and choose the experiences to have on my own terms, but I can’t. I’m here as a guest of Community Solutions, who have provided me with transportation and I hope to earn a little cash for my professional speaking engagements. I am only here in Vermont because of you, I am relying solely upon you while I’m here because we made a professional connection several years ago.” Now I was really feeling bad, I had embarrassed him.
I tried again, taking a deep breath. “I think you’ve hit on it, Mario. You rely on your connections, I rely on my credit card. There is a cultural difference there, a different way of being in the world. How does it feel to go out into the world relying only on the trust of friends and colleagues? How can you be sure things will keep opening up for you?” This time he got my meaning and I suddenly, sharply, realized that I was a long way from that kid on the bicycle of my past.
“Look around you. The windows are closed. Outside, people have their heads down with their chins in their collars to stay warm. In Cuba, our windows are open. We are in the community all day and all night. We are all neighbors. We hitchhike everywhere, and everybody stops for us. I don’t call my friends before I visit, and when I don’t drop in on them for a while, I am in trouble with them! We trust each other, that is all we have. That is how I live my life. I have to trust people.”
“It’s like a different planet.” I said. “You go through the world with connections, trust, and graciousness.”
“A different planet.”
“I’ll call your perspective the ‘open window theory.’” I knew this intellectually, that Cuba has a social economy not a monetary economy, but this interaction drove it home for me in a way that I could feel, and that makes me think I finally ‘get’ Cuba. North Americans use money to insulate themselves against a social economy. Riches manifest in many forms and translate into how we live in the world.
“Open window theory!” We shared a laugh, finished up and sped off to our next stop, one I was particularly looking forward to.
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