Experiences are always unique and very personal, no matter how similar they might be. Even if two people of the same sex, with similar backgrounds and similar characters, go through the absolute same experience, the result is never the same. Our personalities are molded by our environment and personal biographies, so no matter where and when we live through the exact same things, we perceive them completely differently.
I have been thinking about writing about my experiences in Cuba for a very long time, and every time I started, I pushed them away. I always found other topics to write about, deliberately. Luckily, I have traveled a lot and I have plenty of topics to choose from.
Even right now that I am thinking and writing about them, I am not sure how. My experiences are real: I was there, I interacted with people, and had a small glimpse of how real life on the island is. Still, somehow, I feel that I had such a different experience from all the other experiences I heard of or read about that sometimes I ask myself whether something is wrong with my perception of the world.
Many tourists idealize Cuba and visit it to stage themselves in the mystical scenery of the past. The island is perceived as this cool place full of old-timer cars, where happy people are smoking cigars and dancing salsa in the sun all day long in front of ruins of majestic architecture. A place that memorized Hemingway’s presence and invites people to recall a feeling and a lifestyle they only dream about.
And you find all these things, but if you found only these things then you have not been looking deep enough, in my opinion.
When my friend and I decided to meet in Cuba (we were living on different continents at that time) we did not plan anything besides the first two nights in Havana. The rest, we decided, would depend on how we felt and what our instincts dictated to us.
It was a good plan as after the first two days spent in the capital city, we knew we wanted to leave towards quieter, more rural places and fresher air. The old-timers that you constantly see driving on the streets look great, however, I will never forget the black film of dust on my comb in the evening after returning to our temporary home. That is just the other reality of those cars.
So, we left.
We traveled South and stayed a few days in the Cienfuegos area, but it was when we reached Trinidad that we could feel the essence of the locals and the Cuban history.
It was there in Trinidad that we met Julia, a young woman of 40 who humbly told us her story of how her husband had left her with two small children and went to Europe with another woman. She was struggling to make ends meet by using her creativity and making jewelry from materials she found laying on the streets and in nature.
Her story was not unique. Many people were trying to leave Cuba and we experienced that almost daily. I had just gotten a marriage proposal from our waiter in a restaurant earlier the day we met Julia.
It was there in Trinidad that we had the warmest welcome and stay at Rosa’s casa particular, enjoying her deliciously cooked meals that we had to order a few hours beforehand so that she could somehow find a way to procure the ingredients that were not available in stores.
It was in Trinidad that we laughed our hearts out at the local market with a young man who was feeling like a girl (his words) and fell in love with the shirt I was wearing.
And it was on our way from Trinidad to Topes de Collantes that we sang Backstreet Boys songs from the top of our lungs in Juan’s car and sank in deep teenage memories.
It was in Trinidad that we could really feel how different the lives of the Cubans contrasted with our western lives in apartments and houses filled with stuff. They had so little, still, they were content. I had a lot. I was somehow content, but not on the level the Cubans we met were. Not even close.
I was in a state of melancholy when we returned to Havana and my friend left. I spent an afternoon wandering the streets of the city alone, feeling strange, and experiencing some men whispering to me “Quieres un pene grande?” It was one of those situations that I wish I did not understand Spanish.
The last two days in Havana were special for me. I met up with a Scottish guy that my friend and I had met a week earlier in Trinidad. He took me to several places only Cubans would attend (he had been living there for a few months already and became a sort of insider) as tourists would not even know about them.
That is how I was fed real Cuban food and heard real Cuban life stories. I even met a Cuban artist who sketched my portrait while I was sitting on a chair behind him, my face turned to him while talking to him. He named the portrait “The angel in the earth.”
I returned home dragging the dichotomic memories of Cuba after me, like a shadow that I can only escape when there is complete darkness. They became a part of me and ignited a process in me leading to minimalism. That is the biggest souvenir I have from Cuba.