Every place that I visit has a vastly different energy. Cubans have strength beyond their circumstance; hope in the face of futility and an innocence and trust that is stuck in the 1950s just like their beloved cars.
I figured there would be hostility when people found out I was American. My first conversation went something like this: “Where are you from?” I say, “Estados Unidos?” The man lights up and says, “We love the United States. What kind of car do you drive? I told him a foreign brand. “What is it? Buick, Ford, Chevroleeeeet? They are the best cars.” Given my language barrier, I couldn’t really fill him in on the ups and downs of American carmakers, so I snapped his photo next to his 1950s car and said goodbye.
My next encounter was with a man who worked at a cigar factory. We sat down for my first mojito. As my fear of “stranger danger” evaporated, he told me all about of the family he had in America. His brother left 20 years ago and he hasn’t seen him since. He teaches me how to properly smoke a cigar, gives me some Spanish phrases and I’m on my way.
It is a similar story that plays out with many Cubans. A 23-year-old taxi driver who had never met his father because he left for America. The driver who has a brother who is a heart surgeon and has lost two other siblings to America. The man who asked to hang out with me for the day because he spent a summer in the U.K. and wanted to dust off his English skills.
Despite this loss, most of the people not only love America, they are related to us in some ways—either by blood and ideology. Because Cuba is a nation of hard workers and dreamers. And coming from a nation of immigrants, they remind me of who we used to be.
DEPENDING ON THE KINDNESS OF CUBANS
Three days into my trip, Cuba was getting the best of me. The water had gone out the night before in our casa particular and they weren’t able to cook, so no dinner. And, I was running out of money. I set off to get some more money and jumped in a cab. Because of sanctions, American banks can’t do business with Cuba. Credit cards are no good. So, I headed to the place where all Americans and foreigners do business in Havana, the Hotel de Nacional. It is a historic hotel, travel agency, and bank.
It is there where I began the pride-swallowing call to my Dad to have money wired to me, only to find out it had to be received by a Cuban national. ¡Ay, caramba! Nothing is easy in Cuba.
As I finish up my arrangements, I book a roundtrip ticket up north to Cayo Guerillmo and begin walking to Vedado. On my way, I’m stopped by a man named Arturo, who asks if he can walk with me. I size him up and say why not? He is a father of two who works at the local hospital as a technician of sorts but struggles to put food on the table because the state doesn’t give him enough hours.
Our time winds down as it gets dark, he moves to the right of me and says, “This is the time of night that drunks hop the curb. If they do that tonight, they will hit me first,” he said. I told him, “That is insane. You barely know me. Why would you do that? He replies, “Because that is what a man does for a woman. He gives his life to spare hers.”
Arturo walked me home. He reminisced about the five years he spent studying in England and how his best years were behind him at 43. He seemed broken—relegated to a life where he had little power to shape its outcome. He hugged me goodnight when we got to my door and said he hoped we would meet me again one day.
GETTING GUIDANCE IN CUBA
I woke up to neighbors yelling, “No agua.” There’s a knock at my door with a barely audible “permiso,” and the key starts jiggling. “Oh lord, I can’t even sleep in,” I answer the door to this pretty girl who looks 12 and she’s speaking very quickly. She realizes I don’t understand her, so she talks more slowly and loudly, miming to me that I have a visitor. “Oh crap, my tour is this morning!” I throw some clothes on and run downstairs to see a slightly irritated man with his arms crossed, Nikons hanging on him and a look of impatience.
“Sorry,” I say to the guy who looks like a tourist. “Are you my guide?” Yosel nods and introduces himself. He asks if I’m okay because I seem flustered. His English is perfect and I start running on about all of my problems. “Calm down, take a deep breath. This is your day,” he says in an accent that sounds slightly European,
He buys me some Cuban coffee from a local vendor and I start to feel a little better. He pinches my chin and comments on my pretty smile and my eyes. He’s a charmer and tells me, “You’re in good hands now and you are going to have a fabulous day.” And we did.
We walked to a beautiful stone lighthouse, past the oldest building in the country and into history. Old Havana was clean with cobble-stoned streets, stunning architecture and beautiful shops that looked like they belonged in Disneyland. This was the tourist corridor and it was a little slice of heaven.
We met the next evening to knock something else off of my list—salsa dancing. He shows me a few steps and then another man extends his hand and with the live brass band blaring I’m dancing, stepping on a few shoes here and there, but I don’t care. We go to another club where professional salsa dancers took over the club and it was infectious. I was hooked.
Yosel was the other side of Cuba, a man who is running a thriving business, is shaping his own destiny. Not so ironically, his business is named “I Love Cuba,” and he is the example of the new Cuba—one with the promise of more earning power and increased freedom. My trip was officially turned around. I had seen two sides that Cuba had to offer. I had just one more adventure left before going home. On that trip, I discovered the one thing that makes this country truly unique—the kindness of strangers.
STRANDED IN HEAVEN
Nearly 7 hours away from Havana is a small town that is unspoiled by crowds and large developments, but my trip there would be markedly different from the one back.
Our tour bus glided down the highway past coffee plantations and into another world back in time where horse and buggies in small towns were the only forms of transportation. Where an ox plows fields in the morning as mist hangs like foam. As I drifted off to sleep, I woke up to still a vista of clear blue sea surrounding every window. We were traveling down a thin ribbon of road as if we were floating across the water.
For three days I lived on white clay beaches and mojitos–a glorious crescendo to a well-deserved rest. The whole time, I kept to myself with the exception of doing what I always do, getting to know the staff and leaving healthy tips on the tables of the all-inclusive resort.
On my last day, I waited for my pre-paid bus and waited…and while I did a man who stood about 6’1, with dimples and a dashing smile to match, struck up a conversation with me. “Why haven’t I seen you before? Where have you been this whole time?” he asked.
As I took in my newest view and talked to my new-found friend Gerald, I realized as time passed the unpredictable nature of transit system left me stranded far away from Havana. My airplane was due to depart in just 24 hours! What started out as an “I want my mommy” feeling quickly devolved. Staffers at the hotel and a travel agent tried their best to help me. One woman even said, “I am so sorry for what is happening to you in my country. We hope you don’t hold this against us.”
Someone at the U.S. Embassy reaches me and says they are working on it. But, there are two problems: The embassy doesn’t have much power and help is at least a day away. He told me my best hope was getting help from a local.
I turned to Gerard and half-jokingly said, “Okay, according to the US Embassy, you’re my best hope of returning home. I’m trusting you and America is depending on you.”
He looked at me so seriously and said, “I will not let you down.”
After several phone calls to a family member in a nearby town, he grabbed my two bags and began running down a long road lined with banana trees. “Hurry,” he said. “Get out 10 cc’s for the bus driver!” The bus pulls up and barely stops and I hop on.As I caught my breath, I heard a voice say, “I remember you. You are the girl from the beach.”
As I catch my breath, I heard a voice say, “I remember you. You are the girl from the beach.”
I look around, and inside the bus is everyone who had served me at the hotel that week. Suddenly, being a good tipper paid off. The bus lurched forward and sprung to life at the same time. An old-school boom box blared with Latin music. People were dancing in the aisles. A flask of rum was being passed. The evening bus home was like a party bus in Vegas and my friend just looked at me and said, “We’re Cuban. We only have a few things to look forward to, dancing and drinking.”
Before I knew it, Gerald had to leave. He gave me a hug and a kiss and two guys in front of me winked and said they would guide me from there. An hour later, “Seniorita, this is your stop.”
I exit the bus onto the dimly lit streets of Ciego de Avila wearing my flak jacket and backpack. The men waiting in horses and buggies were staring as I heard, “Are you, Jennifer? I am Gerald’s brother. He asked me to take care of you and get you to Havana.”
Yolando was a 20-something darker complected man. He was full of energy and personality. After being led through a labyrinth of rooms in the bus terminal, I got my ticket. Having not eaten for 12 hours, we then went to eat. With bad smells coming from the nearby bathroom and flies buzzing around, I ordered a beer and chugged it down with my pork, which was surprisingly good.
With my 9 p.m. bus looking more like the midnight bus, Yolando peppers me with questions about America. “So tell me, is America the best country in the world?” I wanted to be humble. He pushed, “Come on, you can say it. You can be cocky.’
“Ok,” I said. It has its problems but it’s pretty awesome.” He laughed and said, “You know the Canadians hate you guys.” I said, “I know. They think we are going on to make this a little Miami.” The bus worker next to us jokes, “Yeah, Miami is just Cuba without the hunger.”
I left Ciego de Avila laughing. Two complete strangers stayed there until midnight and made sure I got on the bus. I slept on and off as the coach rattled and rolled along. Drained from the long ordeal, the overwhelming feeling was that I was blessed.
The oppressive heat in Cuba is matched by the circumstances of the people. Yet, throughout my trip, any bump in the road was met with someone who eased my way. I came across so many who loved America. What I realized is Cubans are more like Americans than any other culture I have met so far. They are our former selves, fixed in the past where a woman is treated with kindness and reverence. Where they see their role as protector not player.
It is a society where because of its poor Internet access, you are forced to engage in human contact. People aren’t looking at their phones during dinner but conversing. They don’t live their lives through a screen, but face-to-face.
It is like visiting the house of someone who doesn’t have much, but can make a meal out of anything. And they always make you feel at home.