At first glance, Cuba can be regarded through frames; open doors where locals are reclining on chairs, open windows where they are hoisting buckets to the sixth floor of a building by way of rope and pulley, over wrought iron balconies where they are shouting to their friends or watching foreigners, like me, wheel luggage over the wide-gapped cobblestone streets. My film background drew a parallel to being “boxed in”—all four corners closed off, confined, no way out. And in some ways, that’s true.
On our first bus ride, our tour guide Baby (pronounced Bobby) said, “My first advice is enjoy my country but don’t try to understand it.” She explained that it’s incredibly hard for Cubans, no matter their profession, to make more than 30 CUC’s per month (that’s nearly a 1:1 equivalent to the american dollar), hard for them to travel, to own a business, or save any money at all. They have food rations. Their animals are underfed, most wandering the streets with skin stretched across their ribs. Everyone takes their time, because there’s no reason to rush.
Though so much does not make sense, the people do. They live simply, yes, but they live fully and well. Color and life is crammed into every crack and shadow of Havana. Art pours from the streets—from men crouched on steps sketching the architecture, on walls, in markets, and in salsa clubs. People play instruments and sing, they fish over the wall separating land and ocean, the kids kick soccer balls around the streets and play clapping games. No time is kept and no time is wasted.
By the time I stepped off the bus, dropped my luggage off at my casa (rented room), and met up with my group for a tour of old Havana, I realized that the feeling that I couldn’t put my finger on from the moment I stepped out of the airport was that of safety. Somehow, in a foreign, communist country where I barely spoke the language, had no cell phone service, and nearly impossible wifi, I felt completely at peace. Quiet and pensive; an infant absorbing the world like a sponge. I disconnected from life as I knew it, and tuned into the culture.
American tourism, of course, is still illegal in Cuba, so the trip I went on was a “people to people” program. An immersive experience where you stay with locals, are guided by a local, and interact with locals at every turn possible.
A man named Tito Luñez, who worked for (not owned) a fully vegetarian restaurant, served us innovative dishes using food from a farm in Las Terrazas—a private community that only accepts new people if you marry one of the residents.
The son of muralist Jose Fuster told us about his father’s process and invited us into their home to look around at the incredible mosaics and paintings.
A group of dancers with killer abs and infectious smiles taught us to salsa dance. They moved with effortless precision, spinning from one partner to the next and back—jumping, twisting, shaking.
A man named Gustavo drove a few of us in a pink 1950’s ford convertible and was somehow convinced that I spoke better Spanish than I do. We were meant to switch cars after a short break, but Gustavo told me (his “amiga”) to ride with him again.
A girl named Arida helped me pick out the perfect souvenir shirt for my dad and later happened to be at a farewell concert for a band called the “Buena Vista Social Club,” where she called to me eagerly like an old friend she was so happy to see in a different context.
A dog named Monolo, who seemed to belong to the men who worked at the bar beside our bus drop off/pick up point, perked his head in my direction every morning and night I passed him.
I learned that a cuban “to go” cup is when someone takes a knife to a water bottle and adds a straw. And a carry out bag is made from a bulk animal cracker wrapper.
I learned how cigars are made, and that only women are allowed to de-stem the tobacco leaves because of an antiquated rumor that virgins did so.
I learned that Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up, considered 300-400 words per day okay, and 1000 words good. He weighed himself everyday and documented it on his bathroom wall. He had fifty cats, but only four dogs over a period of time (Also four wives…).
Despite being a scotch drinker, I loved their rum. The mojitos (of course). The chicken and the eggs. The tropical fruit and the coconut water served in shells with straws, later cracked open to eat the meat.
On the last day, after staying at a open air rooftop salsa club until 2:30 am, I woke up at 5:30 am, met the other resilient members of my group on the bus (saying one last hello to Monolo the dog), and made it to the beach just in time to watch the sun pierce the horizon.
It was impossible not to feel happy there, to feel completely content in just being and experiencing. Not checking work emails, not scrambling to upload the perfect instagram post, not pausing to text a friend back. Three and a half days felt like a month, in the best way possible.