We went to Cuba
So, confession time: this was the first time ever that I’ve been nervous when traveling. And I don’t just mean the “uh oh, hope I don’t miss my flight” nerves. I mean the “oh man, kinda hope I miss my flight so I have an excuse not to do this” nerves. In hindsight, that was completely unwarranted, but in the moment I’d already run through at least ten scenarios that required me to break out of a Cuban prison (and zero where I was successful).
Confession aside: Cuba was amazing. And heartbreaking. And so beautifully torn. [Sidenote: I’m still deciding how I want to do pictures on this blog, but they’ll be up soon-ish.]
Even though we arrived late at night, even then the beauty of Cuba was evident. From the masterfully maintained classic cars to the smell of the ocean in the air to the bounty of trees upon the open road, the city of Havana (or La Habana, as it’s actually spelled and pronounced by Cubans) offers beauty and a sense of calm at every turn.
In sharp contrast to the beauty of the nature lies the collapsing city itself. While the goverment builings, as you might imagine, are flawless and kept in phenomenal condition (not to mention forced grandeur), the rest of the buildings, streets, and infrastructure is crumbling. The clear prioritization of governmental appearance over quality of living for the people themselves is heartbreaking.
In truth, Cuba cannot be described without recognizing both its brokenness and its beauty. In the face of extreme poverty, nearly every Cuban I spoke with was happy and welcoming to the same extreme. In fact, the only complaint I had about the people was that sometimes they were so welcoming it felt smothering. Likewise, in the shadow of brilliant nature and (some) grand architecture sits the brokenness of a people long-since put last by their own government.
We rode in cars
The first full day there we hopped in several of those same classic cars to tour Havana and the nearby coastline. The sites included many of the national monuments, a fortress upon the coast, famous hotels and government buildings, and finally the beach. But the treasure was in the conversation with our guides.
From the guides we got to hear the locals’ own perspectives on Cuba, the United States, and life in general. They spoke with hero-worship-like admiration for both Castro and Che Guevara, even now after Castro’s death. Their immense gratitude stood in sharp contrast to both the “story” I’d grown up with as well as the poverty of the country around me. In the end I was left with only more questions and desire to learn more.
If you go to Cuba thinking you can dance, prepare for a truckload of humble pie. We danced every night, each time moving progressively away from the tourist “clubs” towards the local basement bars, and each time I became (relatively) a significantly worse dancer.
On the flip side, each night I also had significantly more fun, such that by the end I was dancing with a local Cuban girl who spoke less English than I spoke Spanish (that’s hard to do, by the way) who was trying so very hard to teach me all these dances via nothing more than gestures and forcibly moving me to the music and laughing (because it’s better than despairing) as I moved the wrong way yet again and it was one of the most fun evenings I’ve ever had.
Finally, amongst 20+ of us in Cuba, a grand total of 4 had any cell service whatsoever, and only 2 had internet. Let me clarify, I don’t mean only 2 had internet on their phones, I mean only 2 had internet of any kind. In cuba, unless you want to pay $7/hr in the lobby of a fancy hotel for internet slower than dial-up on DOS, you’ve got nothing.
It was great.
It also made for some impressive games of telephone (via SMS) when trying to coordinate anything, but it was worth it.
When you go to Cuba, take 4-6 friends (or people you want to become friends), do everything in person, make friends with locals, take their suggestions for where to dance, and dance with someone with whom you cannot speak.