Like a reconnaissance satellite slipping by a distant planet, a few days in a foreign land can offer an anecdotal impression - a poke at the cultural crust.
Last month, with British passport in hand, I did a "fly by" of Cuba. I wanted to see the island before Castro left the scene. The reality lived up to the guidebook promise, along with an undertow of ironies.
The first came as we stepped off the tarmac into the airport's passport control. Stern uniformed officials pointed us to the appropriate booth and frowned if we overstepped the red line on the linoleum. Yet all the while, up-tempo salsa music bounced out of speakers overhead.
It's probably one of the few places in the world where rather than "doing more" with your American Express card, you can't do anything at all. Yet the currency of choice for Cubans is the US dollar.
Young, friendly Cubans playing baseball on the beach and looking relaxed and Latino as ever often have names like Yuri and Sergei.
The country is poor, yet there's no begging to speak of, just frequent requests - for soap, shampoo, hose. The resourcefulness of the people in the shadow of severe shortages is humbling - it's the ultimate recycled society.
Those famous 1950s cars tootle around billowing fumes from their elegant frames. And the slack facades of once sumptuous buildings seemed to say as much about the exhausted condition of the revolution as any political commentary could.
There's no advertising, nothing - this is communism, after all - only billboards of Che Guevara peeling in the sun.
Susan Llewelyn Leach is the assistant Ideas editor. Comments or questions? Send e-mail to: Ideas@ csps.com.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society