“I never forget the farewell at the airport- it’s the hardest part of this job, getting to know, appreciate and love these people so fast, and then hugging them goodbye and not knowing when or if you will ever see them personally again, but almost 100% of the time we stay in touch and we keep doing it.”
See below for an interview with CIT tour leader Irma Gonzalez!
You grew up in Cuba, but you also spent some years living in the US. What was that like for you? Did you gain any new understanding or perspective of the US and the people here, and has that helped you as a tour leader?
Yes, I lived in the U.S for four years; I was 12 years old when I got there. It was hard at first when I did not understand a word of English, but even then I had a great time. I realized we are much more alike than we think, Cubans and Americans. Actually no matter where we were from we all mingled perfectly, and I say that because I met kids my age from everywhere in the planet, given that Miami was such a cosmopolitan city.
Of course I was very homesick during the first months and never really stopped being so, but it did not interfere with my adaptation to the country and its customs and traditions. I made memorable friends and shared precious moments, and I had a chance to spend time with my dad´s part of the family that was originally from the U.S. They guided me with love through the ways and dynamics of the country.
I have to thank my great grandmother, in her; I saw crystallized, the good values and manners belonging to most of the people of that society. She was hard working even in her 80’s, noble, kind, polite, outspoken and fun. I got to love my great grandmother within a month of meeting her and through her I learned to appreciate her culture.
I believe I’m not being immodest if I affirm that living there those years of middle school and high school prepared me outstandingly for this job, and it was not only for the benefit of our clients and our company but for my benefit as well. Through my clients I relive those teenage years, I remember things I thought were forgotten and it brings me enormous joy. But yes, it definitely helps the job, I feel more in sync with my clients, I understand why they expect or don’t expect certain things. I even sometimes anticipate their needs and I love to make them happy in our country, as once, many of the people I met in the US went out of their way to see me smile in theirs.
Lastly, one of the many things I learned to value from Americans as soon as I knew enough English as to ask my 7th grade teacher to use the restroom, was their sense of humor. Americans have a clean and smart sense of humor that is hilarious; it’s very unique and it takes an understanding of their dynamics to get it. I love it when I get my clients’ jokes , I love to laugh with them, and when by the end of their trip they end up getting our Cuban jokes, it is satisfying beyond description.
How did you get into tour leading?
I was a full time therapist and physiotherapy teacher at the University of Havana, recently having earned my masters and very pleased with my intellectual achievements, but then the best thing of my life came along: my son Ignacio.
I decided to get divorced when he was one, because, let’s face it, some kids are happy because their parents divorce right on time and for me it was a great decision. But then, providing for my kid was the priority.
Cuba is an amazing society, but due to certain factors that our clients discover while visiting us, it’s hard for our economy to grow. So finding a job that both gives you spiritual satisfaction and makes you a decent living at the same time, is very tough.
I loved the University, but it did not combine both elements, so I started talking with some friends and let the word out about the possibility of me working in something using my English rather than my psychology degrees.
For some years after my return to Cuba I studied English grammar and got certified. One day a friend called me about a job she had being offered. She had been a fixer for US travelers for some years, working as a translator and coordinator, and providing a smooth trip to clients once they arrived in Cuba. This time she was going to accompany an elderly businessman who for years had being coming to Cuba, but this time he wanted to do a trip through all of the countryside in the eastern part of our country to explore cattle business possibilities here. His family had land in Cuba before the 60s and he lived there as a kid, so part of the trip was to go back to those roots. My friend had a broken arm and couldn’t do it, and she confessed that even if she could, that it was too much work and too intense for her. But it was perfect for me.
During my years as a university student I spent all vacations exploring the countryside of Cuba, I backpacked travelled through every city of my country so I was sure I could help him and the task seemed exciting. We spent 15 days travelling, and there were five clients total. This elderly gentleman who turned out to be the most kind person and with whom forever I have stayed in touch as well as with his cousins. The trip was a success and I ended up exhausted but very happy.
A few months later the same gentlemen brought a group of 60 friends for a trip to Cuba during the visit of Pope Francis to Cuba and I was part of the team that organized the whole thing.
Once again, I felt great, my love for the history of my country and all of the years of studying it in a autodidactic way finally paid off. I learned that I had many contacts that I had gained during years of constantly attending concerts, art expos and anything related to Cuban art. What also helped, and the most important thing, is that I really enjoyed the job.
I loved the tension of organizing an event and having it run perfectly, I enjoyed our clients’ satisfaction with the different activities planned, I love the running around and thinking fast.
During that event I met Patricia Morgovsky, an American girl who fell in love with Cuba and had been a tour leader for CIT for a while. We became friends immediately and starting then my life changed for the best. I was recommended to work for a filming company and there I started my activities as a producer in audiovisuals productions. But most importantly Patricia introduced me to CIT , the company who has being my home since then and to whom I owe most of the many good things that have happened in my life afterwards.
I remember studying like crazy to be a good guide, burning the midnight oil, and it is a habit I have not lost and that I treasure. I am so thankful for finding this job. It can get hard and easy every now and then, and there are always challenges and emotions involved. Right now professionally, I am completely fulfilled.
Psychology is always useful and handy so I don’t feel as if I gave it up, I am trying to finish my PhD in it, but as a way to continue active in the field than as a goal to achieve. Frankly after being a tour leader constantly in action I will find it very hard to go back to the quiet life of a professor.
I love my job, I love our company and all the members, I love our boss and I love what we try to do together.
Can you share with us some of your most memorable moments with clients?
There are so many special moments and many repeat with most of the clients, because I have to say we are a lucky company in that most of our visitors are smart and sensible people.
There is a moment in almost every trip in which after spending so much time together we start sharing details of our lives, we feel comfortable doing so, and it’s something to be cherished. I have received the best of advice from my clients and from all of them I have memories. I am not a person known for her good memory but when it comes to my clients I don’t forget any of them and there have been many.
I never forget the farewell at the airport- it’s the hardest part of this job, getting to know, appreciate and love these people so fast, and then hugging them goodbye and not knowing when or if you will ever see them personally again, but almost 100% of the time we stay in touch and we keep doing it.
Although is hard to just mention some because there have been many I will point out the following as examples:
- I had a couple visiting from Sarasota, which was the town my great grandmother lived in when I was in Miami. Every weekend we went to visit it and I commented to my clients how precious that house was to me. But now that she was gone, the house was sold and I doubted that when visiting the US again I would be able to travel there just to see it, but still it was a wish. Well, they went back there and having asked for the address they drove in front of it within a couple of days of arriving and sent me a picture. That moved me immensely, not just for the picture but for the gesture.
- It is hard to send packages to Cuba, the embargo makes it an odyssey, but I had clients that once sent me one. They kept me updated on the package’s whereabouts for months, when in Panama, once in the Cuban mail office etc, they went through all of that effort. When it arrived, there was the most beautiful photo album of their trip to Cuba and I was everywhere. They recently invited me to spend time with them in the US.
- Referrals are so exciting and beautiful. All the referrals make great memories; every time I get a client related to a former one, it feels like I know them already, like they are my family or friends too. It feels great to go back to the steps of the ones who recommended them to come. It’s an instant connection.
- I had a couple of families who have come back to Cuba after living here as children, or young adults. They have come back with their kids and other family members. Many have being scared to see what they will find, all of them are full of nostalgia and all of them having a wonderful trip. It’s a blessing to be able to help someone reconstruct memories, to take them to the church where they were baptized, their school or the house where they played as kids. I have seen many tears of joy and mine have run through my cheeks too. Those moments when I learned about their life stories, the moment they tell me they needed to do this for so long and that they feel extremely happy with the outcome. We have found lost tombs in old cemeteries, we have opened closed churches, or have been able to explore a house now currently a government institutions even when it is not so easy to just show up and do it. Never to say no is our mode for those clients. They have a few days to re-live their past and being able to help them is a gift. It’s never been hard no matter how much energy we put into it, there is no one we have encountered in the trip in one of those places that won’t help us. Those clients have a halo of emotions around them, and it is impossible to resist them.
- I had clients arriving in Santiago once, and it was a very special occasion, Fidel Castro had just passed away and the whole country was in mourning. Not only that, but the city of Santiago was shut down, many presidents around the world were arriving for Fidel´s burial. I flew in much later than I expected from Havana to Santiago because of airport delays, with no sleep at all I went by the hotels were the clients were staying, to double check their reservation was intact in spite of the situation and as I expected , after a thousand apologies the hotel staff explained to me that they simply had no way to accommodate our clients, that they were going to give them a very nice hotel but an hour away from the city. They just had to use that one for all the international presidents or heads of state arriving. When I received my clients I explained the situation and instead of just going to that hotel far away we decided to find some bed and breakfast in town, which was hard enough too. Any way the whole trip was turned upside down, but one thing was for sure, they were in the place and at the time everybody in Cuba and many other countries wanted to be at. We were witnesses to a historic event and so my great clients decided to embrace it. Our flight to Havana was then canceled and we did a road trip of 8 hours to Trinidad, we ended up stopping at every little town to make the trip smoother and it was a highlight for them. I will never forget that trip, no sleep, constant tension but a great experience. We still keep in touch.
What do you find are people’s biggest misconceptions about Cuba?
- Most visitors believe that you can’t talk about different topics freely. Once in Cuba my clients often find it surprising that Cubans are very well educated and we all argue constantly about our points of view regarding politics, arts, etc. They believed that we are rigid minded and once they see how open we are to explain details of our daily lives and history they feel very comfortable.
- Our clients often think that Cuba is a very cheap country, and it is a total misconception. The embargo against Cuba has made it so that goods of any kind are hard to get, which translates into not so low prices for food, transportation etc.
- The mix of races in our country is also a surprise to our clients in many occasions, for most believe that we are one race.
Whenever you leave Cuba, what’s the one thing you miss the most?
Beside my loved ones of course, I miss the resilience of its people. I find that for us Cubans it’s easier to make the best out of everything with very little. We don’t need much to be happy, we enjoy the little moments and even when things don’t turn out the way we expect, we move forward rather than just complain.
I also miss the smart debate; Cubans amuse themselves often combining dominoes or music with debates about history, sports, politics, arts etc.
What would you say to someone unsure about visiting Cuba?
I will first say that it is a very safe country. Crime is very, very low and most locals although timid are very friendly and willing to help with anything in any way they can.
There is so much richness in our culture; plastic arts, music and dance will invade your senses in a very good way.
Visually you will travel in time but mentally you will be challenged with state of the art commentary and reflections.
You will experience a way of life completely different from anything you have seen before. The unique historic and social conditions of the country for many years have made it so, and you have to immerse yourself in the country to understand it.