My life as a mule

Part of my Cuba routine is carrying gifts in for folks who can’t find what they need in local stores. For example, my musician friends needs strings for their guitars, violins, cellos, and so on. My baker friends need cocoa, baking powder, and sprinkles to make their baked goods. Almost everyone needs office supplies, toothpaste, aspirin, and on and on and on.

These are all items I take for granted in the U.S. Can you imagine not being able to buy toothpaste? Or paper clips? Call me spoiled… but from where I stand, everyone should have access to life’s necessities, basic conveniences, and even simple pleasures like a bag of chocolate chips.

I bring some gifts myself, and I encourage my travelers to do the same. But often it’s only during the trip that my travelers realize how great the need is. Every trip someone says, “If I’d only known, I’d have brought an extra suitcase filled with stuff to leave in Cuba.” Or they meet a particular person or group who makes a strong impression, and they want to show some love with a gift.

So I always make the following offer: If anyone wants to send gifts to me after the trip, I’ll carry them in and deliver them for you.

This has led to some crazy moments. One traveler shipped 20 pounds of toothpaste to my home in Austin! I’m the guy who always packs a full suitcase – without a pound or a square foot to spare – so I was entirely unprepared to deal with a case of toothpaste. And that was just the beginning.

But little by little I’m developing a system. Rather than carrying things all the way from my home in Texas, I go on a shopping spree in Miami – or have packages shipped to me at my Miami hotel. On my last two trips, I used the first trip to bring my own suitcase to Cuba, with my clothes and other stuff. Then I left it in Havana, so on my second trip I could carry in a huge duffel bag full of music supplies, toiletries, etc. Passing all this stuff off as my personal luggage saves me having to pay import fees, which would eat into my gift-buying funds.

Before shipping things to me, people sometimes ask, “You’re sure you don’t mind carrying in so much stuff?” I always reply: This is one of the joys of my job – helping people express their goodwill and caring to our Cuban friends, and helping those friends get the things they desperately need. So no – whatever you send, and whatever it takes – I don’t mind at all!

I always like to shoot some video of the gift delivery. Here’s that duffel bag of music supplies. This was hundreds of dollars worth of strings, reeds, microphones, drumsticks, speaker wire, etc. I recorded some of the professors at the music school rummaging through to see what we’d brought, plus a thank you to everyone who contributed from my friend Yamile, the school’s Director of Activities. Enjoy!

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