There was a time when I ran a 10K race with the Mayor of Yelapa, Cuba. As we headed uphill on the only asphalt road going into and out of town, we were passed by a group of teenage girls running barefoot. They called out and waved happily to the Mayor as they ran by. After all, it was the Mayor who had declared a school holiday for all students because One World Running was in town. Like other Americans traveling with this group, we had paid our own way to Cuba. Along with visas, we had each been given a duffle bag of running shoes to include with our luggage at the Miami Airport.
The slightly used shoes had been donated by elite U.S. runners. They offered me the first lesson: Cubans have mastered the art of barefoot running. On that day, there were simply not enough running shoes for everyone; or perhaps, for some, there were simply no shoes in their size, so they ran barefoot.
When America's first Embassy in Cuba in 50 years opens its doors to the public, it will discover firsthand that most of land in Cuba is chemical-free, that most of the produce sold in the marketplace is organic. That at 99.8%, the Cuban literacy rate is higher than the U.S., and that Cubans can even attend school, K-College, by watching education-based programing on government run TV. The cost of medical school? ZERO. Health care? It's free.
The trade off, of course, is that those who get a free medical education, must donate four years of their time to serving the needs of people living in poverty in South American countries such as Venezuela. It is Cuba's creative way of overcoming the 50-year embargo: trading "intellectual capital" that is, medical services, for oil.
Traveling with a small group of athletes across Cuba, I also learned other lessons: that Cubans ran out of spare parts for toilets a long time ago. Toilet paper is also in short supply. More than once, I was handed a small bucket of water to flush the toilet, and offered four sheets of single ply toilet paper.
And I learned one thing more: like salsa dancing in the streets, democracy is alive and well in the cigar making factories of Havana. While communities across America are learning to read a single book together, I stood transfixed, listening to an old man with a voice as deep and rich Cuban soil, read a book to workers. He was sitting at small wooden desk at one end of a long room, on a raised wooden platform that was just high enough for everyone in the room to see him.
"The workers get to chose each book he reads," the guide told me. "This one is a love story."
ALEXIA PARKS is a Virtual Mentor with the United Nations, author, and one of Newsweek's "50 People Who Matter Most On The Internet." She is also CEO and founder of the 10 TRAITS Academy. It is the only leadership training program in the world based on the New Science of the Female Brain.