People to People in Cuba

For two weeks this February my best friend Jen and I went to Cuba to explore our island nation neighbor to the south. We created our own “people to people” itinerary centered on staying with families and travelling mostly by bicycle. In the month leading up to our trip we dusted off our creaky high school Spanish repopulating our brains with vocabulary, practicing conversations and wrestling with verbs.

Our mission was to have meaningful interactions with Cubans and understand the country better. As I imagine is the case for many Americans, we knew little about Cuba, our complicated shared history, and the impact of the US economic sanctions on people’s lives. We learned quite a bit through readings in advance of and after the trip, an educational tour in Havana, the Museo de la Revolucion, conversations with our hosts and new friends, and observations of commerce, the food system, and government billboards placed roadside.

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Once the reality of the approaching US presidential inauguration in DC set in, my intrigue in Cuba spiked and we booked our tickets. Only a few friends had been there and I’d speculated that our new freedom to visit, sadly might soon be in jeopardy. So, we decided that the time was now.

I like to say that being in Cuba was a full body experience – it ignited all my senses in mind, body and spirit. In mind, speaking the language and exposing ourselves to stories of the Revolution and Special Period. In body: eating, cycling, dancing, and riding horses. In spirit, moved by honest conversations and revelations, enchanted by the land’s beauty, and humbled by lessons of the past and hope for the future between and within our nations and people.

We stayed with six families during our trip in Havana, Las Terrazas, Soroa, Vinales, Santa Lucia and back to Havana. Our hosts were incredibly kind, their homes welcoming and comfortable. We were humbled at their generosity and care. In the mornings we literally feasted on piles of fresh fruit, including the best pineapple I have ever tasted. I swear it was infused with the flavor of coconut. “La pina es como el coco!” I confessed to my host. “No, no! El coco es el coco!”. She thought I was crazy, in a good way.

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Between Havana and Vinales we had two insane days of biking in the heat, humidity and awesome hilly relentlessness of the countryside. On countless occasions, actually on basically every occasion, when someone passed us whether in a giant truck, old American car, motorcycle, or even horse-drawn or oxen carriage, they honked, blew kisses at us and waved hello.

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Guess we were a sight – two women on rented road bikes clad in spandex and helmets, our rear racks saddled with two panniers each. On one dusty road we barreled through, a young boy about 9 years old ran towards us asking, “Tiene dulces?” His words hung in the air and my mind translated them with a minor delay. His afternoon craving, “Do you have any sweets?”

It was hard not to love the rainbow of classic American cars chugging up the roads. Some shiny and restored, many patched, beat up and rusted to varying degrees. All hanging on for nearly 60 years or more, best that their owners could afford and manage to repair them. They came in every hue from baby blue to lipstick red to Kelly green and everything in between.

Riding the roads, the thick belches of black smoke from many vehicles were awful. Run on low grade diesel, these old engines spew some serious exhaust. Especially when you’re panting on a bike mashing up an incline. I found the cars a real irony given their tourist appeal, yet they’re an environmental and health disaster.

Anyway, I digress. Here’s a shot from the end of our first riding day.

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Dinners after cycling tantalized our tastebuds and satiated our yuge appetites. Our hosts really impressed. We devoured wonderfully spiced chicken followed by homemade cheese and guava sauce for dessert at Ani’s family farm in Las Terrazas. Then scrumptious yucca chips, lobster and kickass vegetable soup at Yunier’s pretty compound in Soroa after a day of riding up and down steep roads buried in forested mountains.

In Vinales, we met our Cuban mom, the most amazingly sweet, funny and talented, Reyna. By the time we arrived at her house, our Spanish improved bigtime. Good thing since Reyna spoke no English. She took care of us for four days as we rested and explored the area. We loved having a little Havana Club rum with her before, during or after dinner as we did our best in fits and bursts to tell her about our day. In return, she shared many fast spoken nuanced stories about her son, cooking, singing and the Special Period. We endeavored to understand what her life was and is like. I cherish the moments when we made each other laugh. It was a true human connection, sharing and relating, people to people.

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My favorite day was spent horseback riding through the Vinales Valley. Among the karst landscape we rode past miles of tobacco farms and scattered mogotes, which are steep sided limestone hills riddled with caves.

That day, we visited two caves. One had a series of underground lakes where you can swim. Ariel, our wrangler and guide pointed out the cool dark entrance and tied our horses up under some tree shade nearby. A few Cuban men with flashlights greeted us and expertly showed us which slippery rocks to hop crisscrossing and winding our way through the dark tunnel. We steered clear of huge stalactites and stalagmites dripping from the ceiling and growing from the floor.

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From the entrance it was maybe 200 feet in to the first of three lakes. It was crazy to think that these men spent many hours a day inside the cave. When it hit me that I was inside of a mountain, gah! I had a wave of claustrophobia and fear come over me. Summoning my Zen, I intentionally chose awareness, breath and rational thought. I didn’t want to leave, though my mind’s eye imagined riding outside in the sunlight. Decided to push past through my fear. When we got to the lake, I surprised both of us when I dropped my bag in the dark, used the light of my cell phone to find my swimsuit and quickly changed. For a few minutes I slipped into the cool water and swam in the darkness.

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After the cave we continued on trotting along through the gorgeous valley. One afternoon stop was a small house tucked in between the coffee trees. Ariel took us to his grandmother-in-law for a quick rest and visit. This old woman was spectacularly beautiful and resilient on the inside and out. She lived alone and seemed to be very self-sufficient. Offering us coffee made from her own beans, she was drying more spread out on a blanket in the sun. She proudly shared pictures of her granddaughter as we sipped deliciously fresh coffee. I couldn’t refuse even though I’m not a coffee drinker!

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One thing I really wanted to do in Cuba was to go dancing. At home, I’d been taking regular salsa lessons at a local studio and discovered a new passion. Since Jen was new to salsa, we asked Reyna if she knew anyone that could teach us. She did and we invited two other women to join us. Reyna’s neighbor stopped by later that evening to make arrangements for the next night. She asked how many guys we wanted!? Hmmm… didn’t know that was an option, but it made perfect sense. Well, since there were four of us, we asked for four guys! So the next night, our group met on the plaza in front of the town church and walked to a house ten minutes away.

I was stunned. They had cleared the living room of all the furniture. Everything was crammed into the bedroom and kitchen hidden behind a curtain pinned up on the ceiling and hanging to the floor. Neighbors had gathered in the street and watched our lesson through the open windows and front door. With the salsa music playing, we danced and spun and laughed and made new friends. Afterward, we returned to the town center and danced with the locals!

Our trip to Cuba was an amazingly rich experience in so many ways. It definitely widened my awareness of the lives of the Cuban people. There is so much heart, determination, and creativity there. I absolutely look forward to another visit. Let us  continue to reach across the water and connect with the people. Let our visits enhance their lives and livelihood while preserving and honoring their culture. And, for the US’s supposed new policy on Cuba, I am glad that many regard it as having “more bark than bite”.

For the world you will be someone for someone. For me you are the world.