Cuba was my bucket list. I’m obsessed with Dirty Dancing (which is odd considering I cannot dance), and I have dreamed of going to Cuba ever since I saw Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights on ABC Family (now Freeform) while I was in high school. I pictured myself in 1950s garb, strolling the streets of Havana with my Cuban beau/dance partner by day and being king and queen of La Rosa Negra discoteca by night. A few disclosures:
1. I cannot dance.
2. La Rosa Negra does not exist.
3. Cubans do not wear poodle skirts.
4. Also, I cannot dance.
If you can’t tell from my fantasy-version of Cuba, I had no idea what to expect. That’s kind of my thing: go into life-changing situations with no expectations other than to have my perspective on life altered and maybe learn something new. That was my mentality approaching my internship last semester, and it was my mentality going in to the Cuba trip. It’s a great approach to somewhat terrifying experiences; if you have a general expectation of having your life changed, you will leave with a new appreciation for your life and great plans for your future.
A few days before our departure, I was suddenly hit with reality. In a mid-finals week delirium, I realized that I was about to go to a foreign country that had tense relations with the U.S. (at best), with a group of 12 strangers, and my Spanish skills were rusty (at best). My nerves only got worse when I arrived in Miami at midnight to a dark hotel room with 3 of the 12 strangers already fast asleep. I was ready to lose my Starbucks on the plane over the Gulf. Once on the ground and through customs, I threw away all memory of childhood safety warnings and got into a white van with two strange men – one of which did not speak English. And I got into that van quite happily I might add. I fell in love with Cuba before the plane even hit the landing strip. The green farmland we saw on our descent to Jose Martí reminded me of summers spent at home and at the lake. I was achieving the number one goal on my bucket list. It was going to be an epic adventure.
Now I could go into detail of our itinerary like others in my travel group, but there’s no way I could say anything about our shenanigans around Cuba that my friends have not already told. Instead, I will give you a general, birds-eye view of the life-changing experience. Now, back to getting in the white van with strangers…
In all seriousness, the men in the vans were our drivers and guides. By the end of our trip, they would be lifelong friends for all of us, so allow me to give some introductions. Our drivers were Magdiel and Yoandi. Neither spoke English, but both had excellent taste in music. Yoandi could bust a move at the díscotecas and had an appreciation for Celine Dion. Magdiel sang for us on our long drives through the Cuban countryside, even when most of us were catching up on sleep. I was in Magdiel’s van most of the trip, so I got to know him better than Yoandi. Magdiel really seemed to get a kick out of the random questions from the Americans, and he used us to learn more English while letting us practice our Spanish. Both drivers were amazing, and both were committed to taking care of us. Our guides – David and Domingo – were equally committed to our troupe. They both had so much to share about Cuba, and not just history. They were willing to address the touchy subjects of politics and Cuban-American relations. Domingo was a fatherly figure for all of us on the trip. He had so much wisdom to share with us, and he gave us encouragement as we tried new foods. David was like a cool older brother, and he gave us the 4-1-1 of our Cuban peers. Both David and Domingo shared their dreams for the future, their experiences in life, and where they hoped to see Cuba in the near future. Anywhere we explored, our guides and drivers had our backs, and it was clear that they loved seeing our reactions to their beautiful, wonderful country.
Let’s move on to the landscape. Habana was almost what I expected: colorful, colonial-style buildings, classic American cars, and relaxing tropical plant life. As we moved across western Cuba, we saw towns and cities with architecture styles that varied based on the town’s history and the needs of the people. Now before I decided on accounting, I wanted to work in architecture or building design, and I have always loved photographing the architecture and landscapes of new places. Buildings reveal so much about a place. Architecture is a living autobiography of a culture, and it exposes the needs and priorities of a people over time. The architecture in Habana revealed the Spanish and various European influences at the foundations, but the open balconies and bright, chipped paint on the walls exposed the harsh reality the Cuban people have faced. The people are doing the best with what they have, and just like the bright colors that vary from one building to another, they are optimistic for a brighter future. Life is hard, but these wonderful people are resilient. More than resilient, the people are hopeful and inviting and kind. Yes, these people are kind even to silly American girls (and token guy). They want to share with us as much as we wanted to learn from them. Just like the architecture and the natural landscape, the Cuban people are bright, welcoming, and full of life. From Habana to Cienfuegos to Trinidad to Jovellanos and back to Habana, I fell more and more in love with this place I had only dreamed about. Cuba was my bucket list, and it broke my heart to fall so in love with a place – and its people – only to leave it behind so soon.
In short, Cuba changed my life and made my heart grow three sizes in the course of ten days. The people were warm and welcoming, and by the end of the trip, our hodge-podge group of thirteen American travellers had expanded to a somewhat dysfunctional family of Cubans and Americans who desperately wished they could change their genetics just enough to be a little more cubana. I cannot wait to go back and visit my “familia cubana” again, and until then I will revel in nostalgia by looking through the 1,000+ pictures I took.
P.S.: I even learned how to dance! I’m still not great, but I can follow a good lead 💃🏼