Last week I went to Cuba for the first time. As the prohibition era was once a time of hidden speakeasies, until recently for most Americans Cuba had been hidden.
During the 1920s, the time of prohibition, many Americans went to Cuba. Vibrant bars sprung up to ease the Americans into their a new era of no libations. Little did anyone know only a few short decades later, Cuba would become the new prohibition to the Americans.
Right before I left, I spoke to an old Cuban guy here in Miami. He reminisced about the old Havana, Cuba...I could see a twinkle in his eyes as he told me about the gorgeous architecture, the liveliness of his glamorous nights out dancing salsa and the vibrancy that enveloped the city. This is the city I would've loved to have seen. In my next sentence I told him I was going the following week. His demeanor immediately changed and he said to me “Don't go. It’s a terrible place."
The next week I went…
The first couple days I was romanced by the old cars and the beautiful buildings (you could tell they once were amazing). Each you could imagine had a story and if you squinted you could almost picture how magnificent each house was during its heyday. I was drawn into this secret world...this city (and country) in a sort of time capsule. Where American cars of 50s are the norm, where everyone is engaged with their surroundings and the people in them (no one on their cell phone). Despite knowing its history, I couldn’t help but feel romanced.
Then my rose-colored glasses broke.
It first started with not finding toilet paper or sunscreen in the shops, but this trivial matter became the least of our concerns. The third day in Cuba, a Cuban friend of mine who now lives in Miami, met us to join us on our trip. A few days earlier while in Miami, we had organized to rent a car in Cuba. In Havana, the rental car turned in an 8 hour fiasco. When we finally got a car, we found out that the government was no longer selling gas for the next few days. Suddenly our plans had been changed and things were uncertain.
The next morning we decided to head to the beach for an early morning sunrise. I love the early mornings, the dawn of a new day.
As luck would have it, a gas station near the beach was allowing people to fill up. We stopped to pump, but the pump didn't work. The numbers buzzed by, but no gas came out. When we asked the attendant, he sheepishly look at us and turned it on. He said he was doing us a favor. It cost us more than double, almost $70 to fill up a tank. Normally, it would've cost $30. This is how it works. Everyone is part of the government, and yet with low pay, everyone has the incentive to pocket money whenever they can.
The rest of our trip continued with bumps along the way. We spent a couple nights in a mosquito-infested place that smelled of pig manure. Finding mosquito repellent was not an option, but we did make a game of killing mosquitoes for several hours. We got a flat tire. We got pulled over for speeding, which later appeared to be a speed sign the police put up themselves to pull people over. Around every corner something unexpected or unpredictable would pop up.
Somehow all of this would seem that this trip was an bad trip filled with terrible luck and unpleasant experiences. Admittedly, it was not a walk in the park, but Cuba isn't. There were no amenities to ease our discomforts or internet to distract us. Instead we found ourselves face to face with ourselves...and yet we were lucky. We visited gorgeous mountains, beautiful beaches, visited an amazing cave with a natural spring inside where you could swim by flashlight, went horseback riding through villages and valleys, learned about tobacco farming, had great conversations with locals and each other. I learned more about my two friends in 5 days than I have the entire 2 or 3 years I’ve known each of them.
In actuality the trip was great.
In a place where there is no internet, the basic necessities of life are not to be found or are incredibly expensive for everyone, where the government owns the restaurants, the hotels, the car rentals, the grocery stores, the gas stations, basically everything (except a couple of private restaurants and home businesses), connections become incredibly important. I only experienced a small moment in Cuba and experienced how difficult it feels when you can’t buy toilet paper, sunscreen or gas. How unpredictable and uneasy that can feel. Connections between people and with people become ever more important.
As with many travel experiences, time away from home reveals and opens our eyes. This trip I felt more deeply, maybe because I live in Miami with its deeper connections to Cuba. It made me feel ever more grateful for the life opportunities I have here. It also gave me a break from always being connected to my phone and my computer and in turn kept me fully engaged and connected with the people I met, my surroundings and the friends I traveled with. And in case you are wondering, yes, I did bring 42 Dubonnet with me on my trip.