It wasn't easy getting to Cuba, but it was certainly worth it. My dream was to see Cuba before American chain hotels started popping up everywhere and American tourists arrived in droves demanding that Cuba look and act in a particular way that made them comfortable, and strip huge parts of identity away.
I wanted to see Cuba as Cuba. One of my dearest friends is Cuban and visits regularly, the stories of her fathers homeland are one of the seeds planted in my mind, that would eventually lead me to explore this wonderful place.
We departed from Phoenix early in the morning to LAX, once we arrived there, they required us to leave the LAX airport, catch a shuttle, re-enter a different part of the airport and go through the security in that location in order to catch our next flight. It was only slightly terrifying to think we might miss our flight to Mexico City. We made it to Mexico City, and spent a ridiculous amount of time there having an absolutely awesome time. Not going to lie, I kind of have a crush on the Mexico City airport after my stint there. Eventually we made it to Bogota, Colombia, and then after about 32 hours of travel time, Havana!
Every city in Cuba has its own vibe, as one would expect of any place they visited. Spending a month here was not enough to experience it all, but certainly allowed for an incredibly rich experience meeting wonderful people, letting go of expectations, engaging in some thoughtful conversations, challenging myself and being challenged by others, stumbling upon an incredible jazz festival, watching the most ridiculous and thrilling fireworks show I'll probably ever witness, and exploring places I'd never dreamed of.
Anything Is Possible
It was New Year’s Eve when we arrived in the little beach village of Jibacoa. We chose Jibacoa because it was a beach for everybody, not just tourists. This meant that when we arrived late in the evening on an exciting holiday not too much was happening in the way of food, as New Years in Cuba is a time to hang out with your family and in your neighborhood. We got connected with a local restaurant owner who picked us up for dinner. As we attempted to ride on into the night to his spot, his car wouldn’t start. I could see from the backseat that the battery light was lit, radiating bright orange on the dashboard. He cranked the engine a second and third time, and as the car finally started, he shared this gem: “In Cuba, anything is possible, nothing is for certain.” – poignant and summing up the entirety of my experience in Cuba. Cuba has been, for me, a contradictory country full of juxtapositions and confusion. With its limited options, it is a country capable of making things happen, at a very particular pace. Cuba is nothing short of beautiful and vibrant in its own magical way.
Learning The Value of Slow in Valle de Viñales
If I was going to describe Valle de Viñales to someone in the United States in a way that gave it context, I'd probably try and recount some of the magic of the wine country in the Napa Valley, even though that wouldn't come close to doing it justice. Viñales is where I was able to forget a version of myself, and I mean that in the best way. This place is prime for existing in the most simple and human form.
The valley has environmental protections requiring that no pesticides or machinery be used. Hard work, but purely magical.
We hiked far and wide in Viñales... we strolled through tobacco fields, orchards with fruit bearing trees, went caving, and visited a coffee farm that shells the berries, roasts, and grinds the beans all by hand! Everything happens at its natural pace.
Here in the valley, I was able to forget who I came here as, I was able to silence the buzz of productivity and recapture a pace that felt authentic and sustainable. We are not machines, and in the day to day shuffle where everything is telling us we need to be more productive, and essential in some illusive way in order to stay relevant and survive...it's places like Viñales that can remind us that our natural, human pace is beautiful.
While staying in the valley, we rested our heads with a wonderful family that felt like our own. At the end of our stay our surrogate grandmother who bore a strong resemblance to Maya Angelou, cried at our departure, and it was certainly enough to make me feel like we were leaving home. We continue to keep in touch with them and I hope to visit them in the valley again. Spending time with this wonderful multi-generational family led to some wonderful insight and varied lenses on the climate in Cuba and its history. The experience I had here felt so pure and is truly dear to me.
Finding a Rhythm
In Santa Clara we visited bars and galleries, walked the town square, visited the theatre, made sweet friends in the queue for ice cream, danced our asses off at a gay club, and found one of the best bars that has ever existed. Santa Clara turned out to be all about connecting. Lauren and I had been wandering around one hot evening and decided to hop on the line for ice cream. As we stood in line waiting two sweet folks in line in front of us asked us if we were dancers, which kicked off a really beautiful friendship and the rest of our time there spent hanging out with them and getting to know each other. Santa Clara felt to me like a city or town I was familiar with, and it was easy to sort of develop a routine. We stayed at the Hostal Florida Center, which was super walkable and full of greenery for when I wanted to just relax and paint in the courtyard. Time and activities in Santa Clara, felt the most similar to what I was used to in San Francisco, the visit here organically developed into just feeling like normal life, and less like vacation, which was a really nice slice in the pie of the month long trip.
The time I spent in Cuba was completely experimental in that I had no idea what I was getting myself into. This was both somewhat unsettling, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately really awesome. I had no expectations of Cuba, and was delighted by the varied experiences I had that were not influenced by anything other than each moment. The month in Cuba wasn't enough, but I would compare it to a tryst or some short-term evolving relationship. The different cities exist as different sides of her personality, and I was lucky enough to experience what I did. I felt safe the entire time in Cuba. I didn't always feel sure of myself or what was going on, but I always felt safe and figured things would work out.