“You’re from the United States?” a woman working at the neighborhood bodega asked while looking at me with wide eyes and a tooth-filled smile. “Can you teach me English?”
“Well sure, what would you like to know?” I replied.
“How can I say, ‘te gusta Cuba?’ in English?”
I articulated each syllable of the phrase, “Do you like Cuba?”
“No,” she said while looking me straight in the eyes and smiling.
As I sat in my two-bedroom New York apartment, I was disillusioned after waking up in Brooklyn for the first time in two weeks to a phone connected to data. I frantically rushed to turn on Wi-Fi because overseas charges would spike my bill. I then had to tell myself that I was no longer in Cuba. There’s a layer of surrealism that coats the body when you enter a world that is not only upside down from the one you’re used to, but has the uncanny ability to tip left and right constantly throughout the day, perpetually keeping you on your toes and questioning whether you’ve woken up yet that day. There’s an almost thicker layer of surrealism that coats the body when you look into the eyes of New York residents riding the D train home at 12:30 in the morning with droopy eyes, being hanged by dark circles and elevated above a steady frown. Upon leaving an island that confounds, confuses, bites, nestles and provides you with the most beautiful scenes you could ask for, and then spits you out, leaving you to wonder what the hell you just experienced, I found it odd that I was thrust into another dreamlike state when without thinking, I adapted back to the life of the New York grind.
I was given many pieces of advice before arriving in Cuba, Habana specifically. Some warnings, some terms of endeavor and many ignorant remarks about a country that has kept itself mystified not to the world, but to a select few people who choose not to research the practices of the country, or were previously unable to delve into its world due to political roadblocks.
I remember a numbing feeling over my body as our tiny plane landed in the Jose Marti runway, and the passengers of mostly Cuban and Cuban American dissent all clapped and screamed to be in their country. I remember witnessing tears roll down a woman’s face and slide down and to the side of her frowning lips, in the same place that I saw another woman halt her tears to a stop with a resounding smile, ten days earlier. I’ll always remember clinging to Wi-Fi in the street after winking to a man who would eventually hand me a paper with a username and password out of his empty cigarette box in exchange for 3 convertible pesos. I frantically used that Wi-Fi to tell my mother and friends about the beauty and atrocity of the island, while crying to myself and wiping my tears away before anyone could see them, only to find myself disagreeing with many of the things I had said, just a day later. I can never forget standing in a man-made paradise with rich businessmen behind me who were drinking mojitos and smoking Cohibas, as I stared over the horizon, where I knew the United States was just 90 miles away. To the west, the clouds appeared as if they were churned out of a cotton candy machine, giving new fluorescent color to the tired sun that used its rays to outline the ripples in the water beneath it. To the east, lightning struck down by dark storm clouds over buildings covered in black soot that were decaying in the Caribbean heat, appearing almost to be abandoned. I will never in my life forget this contrast between natural beauty in a man-made propagan
da machine, and the political walls that held and hid a people of such great emotion and love for life. I have never seen a more beautiful moment than watching families form a rock solid community in the waters of Guanabo, Habana, drinking bottles of dark Havana Club rum and playing games, while their homes, their shops, their markets, but not their livelihoods, were rotting behind them in an environment that looked as if it had been ravaged by an earthquake the day before. Flooded streets filled with garbage, houses with broken walls, flies in the air sometimes creating walls like bushes needed to be thwacked down. As I watched a man walk his horse down the dirt road, with his dog accompanying him to his side, I thought, “This is life, real life, real hard life, and these people, more than any other people I’ve seen, know how to make the best out of this real hard life.”
Deciding whether people are just friendly or want to make a buck from you is like making your way through a jungle with a small and dull machete. Habana is a dynamic city if I’ve ever seen one, and there are a vast amount of conflicting ideas and personalities that need to be experienced if you truly want to experience the way of the city. Sometimes it’s apparent, like when a woman comes up to your friend and asks to take him out, then requests he pay for every drink she gets before leaving him to dance with her friends at a salsa club, giving you a good story to tell the next taxi driver. Sometimes it’s more subtle, like when a student tells you about the revolutionary history and has a drink with you, only then to ask if you can throw him a few pesos. There are nights to be had, however, where you will buy a bottle of rum at a bodega at 11 p.m. and talk about politics, economics, social injustices, the inner workings of the island and life around the world with a couple of neighborhood kids who got out of work at 5 p.m. that day and just want to talk. Whether I was being scammed or just blessed with beautiful company, I never met a bad person, to my standards, in Habana, Cuba. I could empathize with the scammers and I had immense respect for the working people who just wanted to speak with foreigners to learn about the world off of the island.
“You symbolize freedom to us,” I was told by a teacher in the park, before he hugged me and walked away crying saying, “I’m sorry, have a good day.” These are the moments that make it apparent that Habana has a big beating heart with barely an ounce of hate in it.
I am positive that the feelings I collected, the memories I made and the things I have learned in Habana have changed me significantly for the rest of my life.