THE BLOG
08/22/2013 12:49 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2013

Cuban Happiness on the Other Side of Turkey

It was my last day in Istanbul, the city spanning two continents, and I was determined to view its other side. Already acquainted with Turkey's European coast, I boarded a ferry to gain perspective from Asia. An intention to "see things from the other side" was surprisingly answered by a woman from my own state of Florida, but by way of communist Cuba.

Having spent nearly a month traveling through Albania, Montenegro, Greece and Turkey, I'd encountered the economically-, religiously- and culturally-oppressed. In some spots, where time and circumstance took their toll, a lack of hope was palpable. I challenged my mind to conceive of alternate forms of optimism where others only envisioned despair.

The morning was bright, the ferry pristine and nearly empty. I watched as a middle-aged woman across from me captured endless photos on her iPad as our ferry headed north along the Bosphorous coast.

"Where are you from?" she asked me in broken English.

"The U.S."

"What state?" she persisted. "I live in Miami."

So much for an Asian experience, I mused. Halfway around the world and here I am with a fellow Floridian. But my interest piqued upon learning that this fellow passenger emigrated from Cuba. Could a traveling émigré teach me something about alternate thought and perspective?

Maria was pleased to share her story. For starters, her grandfather was a high level official in Cuba's Batista regime, her dad an early supporter of Castro. Taking advantage of Cuba's free education, Maria had earned her Ph.D. in economics.

"We had two TV stations in Cuba and both of them were run by the government. We had eight hours of electricity followed by eight hours without electricity." I'd witnessed some of the hardships first-hand during a 1996 trip to Havana, but was moved by the woman's work ethic.

"I was working at the university from 8 until 5 where I earned about $30 a month. Then I would go home and teach piano lessons for two hours. After that, I would crochet until 1 a.m. Sometimes I'd get tired. At midnight, I'd take a shower to help me finish."

Maria's opportunity arose in 1999 when her mother, an American citizen, sponsored her into the U.S. She started working as a substitute teacher, her students teaching her English. Maria enrolled in college courses and, at age 51, earned a certificate to teach high school math.

"I'm so blessed to be a math teacher," she told me. "When the kids get bored, I teach them life lessons."

One such lesson arose when a student refused a pencil without an eraser.

"If you lived in Burundi, you would take the pencil right away," she told him.

When the student asked where Burundi was, Maria challenged him to look it up. His search spawned animated classroom discussion about the people and culture of this poor African country.

"The kids eventually learned value for the pencil. Then I set up an algebra problem about Burundi that was amazing!" She smiled, recollecting her mathematical creation and an elevated teaching moment.

Our ferry chugged north along the Bosphorous.

"I was at JFK airport," she noted, "and realized I hadn't made hotel plans. I booked a hostel on Travelocity. Most of the people in my hostel are young but they're friendly." At 62, Maria was pleasantly at ease sharing accommodations with sojourners half her age.

As conversation continued, so did our vista. The ferry hoisted ashore at a fishing village called Anadoli Kavagi. Disembarking, we stood on the Asian side of Turkey and the mouth of the Black Sea.

We remained together, scaling what seemed a never-ending climb to Yoros Castle, a Roman-era fortification. At its zenith, university students were engaged in an archaeological dig. The view from above was exceptional with verdant hills descending into the glistening sea below.

Over an alfresco lunch of brazed fish and fried calamari, the two of us exchanged ideas about travel and history and took in the local atmosphere. I'd gain further insight to someone who truly did see and live "from the other side."

After 49 years of little freedom, this woman was rapidly making up for lost time.

"Do you know how I can get to Bulgaria from here?" she asked me. It was next on the itinerary of her nine day trip. Independent and fearless, Maria already journeyed to Germany and the Czech Republic alone.

Speaking of future retirement, she also explained her plan.

"I expect to retire on $2,000 per month. My favorite state is Texas and the cost of living in Houston is good." She plans continue visiting her daughters, one of whom lives in Ohio and the other back in Cuba. She also expects to continue helping them financially.

"I take advantage of my freedom," she told me. "You don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. Time and opportunities never come back."

I marveled at this university professor turned high school math teacher who saw no lack but viewed her life rich in every way. A challenging past equipped her to enjoy the fullness of the present.

I saw the other side of Turkey that day. More importantly, I encountered someone whose mind saw possibilities.

Wherever you are in life today, whatever you're pondering or facing, wishing you the mind possibilities too!

For more by Maura Sweeney, click here.

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