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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

110

Ten Days Alone In: Cuba

In November, Melissa went to Cuba.

Edith Zimmerman: Cuba! How easy is it to get there nowadays? Or, what was your progress?

Melissa: It wasn’t too bad, actually — I spent a lot of time on internet forums researching, but you just need to fly to a gateway city (I flew through Cancun), then either buy your ticket to Cuba at the airport or, as I did, buy tickets in advance from a Mexican travel agency that ran my credit card through Belgium. The difficulty lies mostly in the planning. Internet is sparse in Cuba, so it’s hard to get in contact with people or book any accommodations in advance.

And why Cuba? Did you know anyone there?

A few weeks prior, I was at a point in my life where I felt like I was just treading water. I was coming on 10 years in New York, hit the ceiling at my job, generally dissatisfied in the love department — I was just feeling stagnant and not terribly happy in general. I always wanted to travel more, and to Cuba in particular, and decided I had to do it rather than sit around talking endlessly about it or bemoaning the fact that I wasn’t. So I quit my job and booked a flight to Havana via Cancun.

I didn’t know anyone there, but that was sort of the point — to go somewhere completely on my own terms. There was, of course, also the allure of going somewhere I technically wasn't allowed, so I could feel like I had made some small act of defiance. I’d also always been enamored with the '30s and '40s, and I wanted to see this place that was trapped in time before it became untrapped — although perhaps that is the most cliche reason of all.

Where did you stay?

I splurged on an expensive hotel the first night, since I got in so late and I didn’t want to risk ending up anywhere too shady. The rest of the time I stayed in “casa particulars," which are basically extra rooms in Cuban households that the owners are licensed to rent to tourists.

In Havana I stayed with a couple who lived on the 5th floor of a building with incredible views of the city’s rooftops and ocean, and a particularly handsy lift operator. There was a boy they hired who would answer/open the door in the evenings; since I wasn’t comfortable doing the nightlife scene by myself, I ended up spending some evenings just hanging out with him over the kitchen table. That I didn’t speak any Spanish at all also posed a bit of a challenge, but we managed, and listened to a lot of pirated Adele and Phantom of the Opera from his MP3 player.

In Viñales, the most incredibly beautiful valley west of Havana, I stayed with another couple, Lidia and Juan. They didn’t speak a word of English (and again vice versa), but it ended up being more than fine. The actual town in the valley was tiny, and everyone lived in colorful little bungalows with rocking chairs on the porches. I spent every evening rocking on the porch with Lidia, Juan, and their dog, somehow managing to discuss everything from politics to family values with many hand signals and a lot of rum.

What was the room like? And I want to hear more about Lidia. [Melissa mentioned her specifically in an earlier email.]

This was the tiny bungalow with the rocking chairs — it was just a simple room with two single beds, and a small bathroom off the side. It’s funny how “hot” water can be a very loose description. Lidia, however, was a larger than life woman who enveloped me in a huge hug the first second I met her. I think she became a bit protective of me since I was traveling alone; she told me not to talk to strangers, had her friends take me around on horseback, proclaimed herself my “Cubana Mama," and we just ended up becoming very close while I was there. One day, she had gone to her father’s farm for his birthday, and in the evening she came back with a slice of the coconut birthday cake she had wrapped in foil and saved for me. When I left, we both cried a lot, and she wrote me a note to give my actual mother.

The translation comes out to something like: “Dear mother, congratulations on having a daughter that is so cute and beautiful. Here she has a mother and father that will never forget her. She has earned our affection as her real parents. Kisses, Lidia and Juan."

[!] And what about the truck driver / beach story?

I took a bus out to a pretty remote beach, Cayo Jutias, for a day; the only people around were mostly just the 15 other tourists who bussed in with me. I was walking along the shore in search of a lighthouse when I met a Cuban man on the beach. We just fell in line walking together; when I asked him if there was anything farther along the shore, he said something about “stars everywhere," drew a star in the sand, and said he would show me. In retrospect, it was obviously not the wisest decision to follow a strange man farther into a deserted area in a strange country, but … I did. And he said there would be stars!

Somehow I ended up walking with him through the water and fallen branches in some areas, and through small pine forests for about 45 minutes. At one point along the way, he pulled a coconut from a tree and smashed it against a tree to open it for us both to drink — ridiculous and delightful. We finally got to the beach, which was just an incredible expanse of beautiful crystal clear blue water and not a soul in sight. We left our things in the sand and waded in; the water was shallow to our knees for 40 feet or so until it dropped deeper, and in the shallow area there were just starfish — huge, bright red starfish every few steps. It was breathtaking.

We swam together and chatted in broken Spanish for a few hours — about guys, food, the States. He was a truck driver — every day he would transport a truck of fishermen to and from the water where they would fish perched on inner tubes. It felt so natural and of the moment to just be there with this stranger, laughing and not thinking anything of it, and just have that be that.

Afterward, we walked back and drank questionable rum while watching the fishermen come back from the water one by one with their haul.

What did you spend most of your money on there?

Food and shelter — not much else since I couldn’t bring anything back. Oh, I actually did end up bringing back a peso cigar that I wrapped in a sweater in my luggage. The minute I got to New York, I dumped everything in the laundry machine, because I'm neurotic like that, and I ended up putting my contraband through a lavender-scented wash cycle.

What's the first meal from the trip that comes to mind?

The first night in the fancy hotel, I'd gotten in so late that I didn't want to venture out to find food, so I tried the hotel/restaurant buffet. The price at the door was scary expensive, though, so I turned to leave, planning instead to fall asleep in my room eating Clif bars, but the host took pity on me and let me in for half price.

It was a huge banquet-style room with a very elegant buffet spread and chefs manning the stations, mostly empty except me and a few Chinese businessmen. The presentation was beautiful, replete with silver serving platters and such, but the food was less so — mostly lukewarm pieces of under-seasoned pork and some sad, mushy carrots. The old grandpa manning the fish station was really kind to me, though, and came over to my table repeatedly to talk and make sure I was well-fed. Between that and the host letting me in (and food aside), it was a pretty comforting welcome meal after hours of travel.

Did you have any unexpectedly intense moments with other people? Sitting and talking with someone when things just came out really straightforwardly?

Language was definitely a barrier to being able to open up to people, so … perhaps just many, many emotionally naked moments/conversations with myself?

There were many moments where I felt really lonely, scared, and dumb for even thinking I could do the trip on my own. Sometimes I’d just want to stay in for the night and read, and I’d have to will myself to leave the house … because who goes to Cuba to read in their room alone?? So it really made me give myself little pushes, and forced me to be a little more open. In the end, I was never wanting for amazing experiences or random company: Cuban ice cream with a French-Canadian investment banker, meeting an Ethiopian boxer, being stood-up by a Venezuelan tour-guide of teenagers from Denmark, swimming and drinking with the Cuban truck-driver and fishermen. (Listing them like that makes them sound like action figures or baseball cards.)

In a strange way, I couldn’t have even imagined before that I’d be a person capable of having these kinds of stories. So, I don’t know — it was an eye-opener in a lot of ways.

Are there still a lot of '50s or ... '60s-era cars there? (I am now nervous this is a stupid question!)

Yes! They call them almendrones, or “almonds,” and most operate as taxis/buses along set routes. They’re a beautiful sight to see and it’s a wonder that they're still running. I only rode in them twice, as you have to hail them along the route and I chickened out usually — all the drivers are tough Cuban James Dean-types. The first time I hailed one, I was going to L Street, so I made an “L” sign with my hand. The driver laughed the whole way, making Loser signs on his head to his friend in the passenger seat, while the old woman sitting in the back with me gave me a furious scowl.

Did you dance?

No, I wish I did; it’s a big regret. Everyone dances, and asking you to salsa is a universal pick-up line in Cuba. I was just too shy, and I regret it. The last day I was there, I saw some teenagers hanging out along the Malécon, the waterfront/seawall, with a boom box just moving and contorting their bodies in the most amazing ways … I do really wish I had danced.

Did you lose anything?

I didn’t lose anything physical, but at the risk of sounding very cheesy, I lost a lot of my inhibitions and shed a lot of anxiety. The truck driver was actually not the only strange person that I rashly and stupidly followed into a potentially questionable situation that I emerged from unscathed and better for it.

I also lost a cute Venezuelan man somewhere — he drew me a very bad map to where we should meet for a drink at midnight. I couldn’t find the bar and no cellphones (!) so I ended up wandering back and forth along the windy Malécon alone in a very dramatic way. When I returned to the house, the man I stayed with huffed, “That never would have happened with a Cuban man.” Missed connections international?

GAIN anything?

I’m going to risk another terrible metaphor here and say that I gained back a lot of trust in people. Living in New York for so long, I realize that I often default to being skeptical and very cynical in general. Perhaps it was that everyone I met in Cuba was so genuinely kind and seemingly mostly absent of ulterior motives, but I somehow became a little less jaded.

If you close your eyes and picture one moment from the trip, what is it?

The starfish beach, undoubtedly. Floating on that water without anyone around, I felt more at peace than I ever have.

Previously: Biking and Camping Alone Along the Pacific Coast

Melissa is a graphic designer based in Brooklyn.



110 Comments / Post A Comment

PatatasBravas

This filled me with joy. Thank you for sharing it!

thiscallsforsoap

Haha, at first I was like "Uh, you just go to Cuba, what's the biggie?" and then I was like "Oh, Americans".

(This has to do with the first bit, of course; the rest of the trip sounds wonderful).

gobblegirl

@thiscallsforsoap Me too! I was like, "'How easy is it to get there?' Uh, pretty easy since the invention of the airplane."

planforamiracle

@thiscallsforsoap me too! haha :)

kickupdust

@thiscallsforsoap yeah, I didn't even know that was still a thing for those folks! sorry, Americans!

Living My Best Life Far Away from the Hairpin!

@thiscallsforsoap I'm American, and I remember being in Canada in the spring one time and seeing all these ads everywhere that were touting Cuba as a vacation destination and I was like, "Whaaaaaaaa??????????...oh yeah."

Kristen

@thiscallsforsoap Along those lines, attention Americans! While Cuba sounds amazing and I would love to go there someday, be aware that a vacation to Cuba, even when done "legally" - via a church group or what not - can prevent you from getting cleared to work for the government, even many years in the future! I recently applied to the foreign service and there is a woman posting on the boards right now who went to Cuba while working for the UN, and they initially denied her clearance and refused to clear her to take the job. They eventually reversed the decision because she could prove that it was absolutely, 100% for work, but still - yikes! I know that for most of us, the travel ban might seem like something of an old-fashioned joke, but it breaking it can still have real repercussions.

/themoreyouknow.

This is my new username

@thiscallsforsoap Haha, I am glad I am not the only one that was like "umm book trip to Cuba and go". I keep forgetting it doesn't work that way for Americans.

laurel

@Canadians: Congratulations how wonderful.

meetapossum

@Kristen Ugh. That is straight-up crazy and stupid. Maybe once Raul retires in 2018 we can finally end this ridiculous embargo.

shawbaby

@thiscallsforsoap WAIT could this be why when I was desperately applying to every single park service job I could find, and even had a former government HR person helping me fill out the application to meet all the key words and everything, I STILL never heard a single word for any of them?? I went to Cuba when I was 13 illegally and we got caught on the way back, it was pre-Bush so they just took our passports into another room, came back, and then let us go on our way and I figured it was NBD...

harebell

@Kristen
Really!?!
How can this be true. Just to be on the safe side at age 22 when I wanted to go to Cuba I went and got a proper visa and delivered humanitarian aid and everything -- totally legit. Arrrrr such a disappointment being a citizen of this fine nation sometimes.

jhonsons

Original...@j

Rachel Greene@twitter

I'm hoping to be in Cuba for six weeks this summer (pending grad school travel grants... fingers crossed!) and this article actually made me salivate. Everything looks and sounds incredibly gorgeous -- great interview!

parallel-lines

Oh man I am soooo jealous on this one. My husband and I were in Central America this summer and I was trying to convince him to do one of those quickie flights from Mexico City to Havana but because of our jobs (and my nursing school applications meaning that my background will soon be dissected with a fine toothed comb) we have to be very mindful of having any sort of legal no-nos so he put the kibbosh on it. But I haven't given up--I still want to go!

damselfish

I grew up in the Cuban exile community so hearing about people vacationing in Cuba always fills me with weird/mixed feelings. Though it's more because I had clueless Canadian friends who jaunted down there because it's so pretty/everyone is so nice and I feel similar about other tropical paradises with raging poverty. Yeah haha, those bartenders are so nice because you give more in tips in one evening than they make all month. A friend of mine has this experience because she grew up in Hawaii. "Oh we LOVE Hawaii! It's so beautiful! You must be so happy to have lived there!" "Actually Hawaii has some of the worst poverty and lowest education rates in the US." "...Hawaii is so beautiful!"

Cuba is an awesome place, though, and I want to visit but my grandparents would deafen me with speeches about how the REAL Cuba doesn't exist anymore. Which, people in Cuba feel a wee bit differently about.

Great interview!

damselfish

@damselfish That said, Cubans are pretty effin' nice, and I didn't mean my comment to sound so negative! I was only musing on how often I hear about people going who are absolutely clueless about anything but pretty beaches and classic cars.

iceberg

@damselfish I really appreciated your comment! I think those issues are good things to keep in mind. Privilege can be pretty blinding sometimes, and I personally wouldn't like to let it allow me to step on other people's toes.

planforamiracle

@damselfish I definitely had lots of conflicted feelings when I visited Cuba on a family vacation when I was a somewhat rebellious 18 year old. My parents and brother wanted to go on a resort-type beach holiday, and I was all adamant and shrilly insisted that we go on a REAL TRIP with CULTURE AND STUFF. So Cuba was our compromise, and it worked out OK. The only parts of the trip I actually remember were the times we left the resort to bike down the highway to the nearest town and bum around, or got a local teenager to guide us around a wilderness preserve.

polka dots vs stripes

@damselfish I also have very, very weird/mixed feelings about beach/island vacations too, especially cruise-based ones. I don't even really have much to add, just putting out there that you're totally right.

leonstj

@damselfish - This privilege & travel thing is so tough. The first time I ever left the border was a just barely...about 2/3rds through a month long roadtrip, we crossed the border into Tijuana (this is about 13 years ago).

The first 20 minutes were magical. Tacos are so cheap and delicious! We can buy any kind of goods we want here! Within a half hour, we were sitting on a rooftop of somewhere horrible, probably a fucking senor frogs (we were young & dumbasses, and it was cheap with beautiful waitresses).

We're on a second floor balcony, pouring absurd quantities of tequila down our throats, tipping triple the cost of a drink, acting like kings for the first time in our life we could ever afford to.

Then, I looked out the window, and noticed the kids running along the street, trying to sell gum to the clueless gueros - my people. I felt completely disgusted with myself, one of the strongest self-revulsions ever.

But it's a complicated thing, because on one hand, I'm taking advantage of currency differences, price differences, poverty etc for my own benefit. But on the other hand, when you travel to a place poorer than where you are from - that money you're spending is being spent on the local economy, which I mean, is more of a contribution than just ignoring them altogether?

I dunno. I still feel weird about it, and have never really traveled much outside of the states since. I wish someone could just explain it all and make it feel right, but then, that's certainly an attitude of privelege - "Let's just use some words and make me feel good about, ultimately, being one of the most fortunate people in the world, just by virtue of where I was born!"

damselfish

@leon s The money from foreigners is really important, though in a lot of places it never reaches the locals (so tip generously!) and the question of whether tourism helps/hinders is a really complex one. Which is why I don't say "never go there eeeeeever" so much as "you know your tropical paradise has blemishes, right?" 'Cause it's the lack of awareness that kills me, or the idea that it's so beautiful so the people there absolutely must be happy-- which I hear so often that it can't just be one idiot with crap opinions. Like, woohoo, you're homeless but at least you're homeless on the beach, awesome!

Or the scorn people heap on the locals when they visit, which your comment reminded me of (not that you did it, you just reminded me). A lot of people are super annoyed by kids selling chicle and so on and I'm like, gosh sorry their dire circumstances harsh your buzz, man, that must suck so bad :( Which isn't to sanctify people either because there's also legit concerns about pickpockets and so on, but the dehumanizing language relatively wealthy tourists use....

stuffisthings

Both Mexico and Cuba are considered upper-middle income countries. (Mexico is right at the upper threshold and a member of the OECD). And if anything shouldn't you feel BETTER about spending your money in a poor country vs., say, importing a German car or a Japanese game console?

ETA: To put this in context, the threshold for being a "middle income country" is a nominal GNI per capita of about $1,000 per year. Cuba's is about $5,500 and Mexico's is $9,420. In PPP terms those are much higher (about $9,900 for Cuba and $15,000 for Mexico) because products are cheaper there.

In short: Cubans and Mexicans may be poorer, on average, than Americans, on average, but they are still among the richest people in the world.

gobblegirl

@stuffisthings What also bothers me is when people swing all the way to the other attitude (without any additional understanding) and are all like "I saw the 'REAL' people, I really connected, I saw the dirty underside and now I know their pain."
Seeing someone as only (how you perceive) their circumstances is just as thoughtless and dehumanizing as ignoring them, and being a tourist to their poverty is just as creepy as pretending poverty doesn't exist.
I'm not saying don't stray off the beaten tourist path; nor should you feel guilty if you just want to be somewhere sunny, or birdwatch some toucans. The important thing is just to be aware of what you want to get out of it, try to know where your money is going (for instance, use a safari company that trains and hires local guides, and ask what they get paid), and overall treat people like fellow human beings, not servants or exotic displays in a living museum.

Beatrix Kiddo

@leon s I see what you mean, but as long as you're mindful of your privilege and respectful of the locals wherever you go, I don't think you should let that concern prevent you from leaving the US.

redheaded&crazy

@damselfish I was in cuba last year and the question of to tourist or not to tourist was on my mind constantly. Because of course, the tourism jobs are the best ones in the country so by going there ... are you ... yeah, I mean you already said it. Are you helping or hindering? We befriended the lifeguards (mostly my friend who spoke better spanish than I do) which is when I learned that they make $14 a month - it's not an easy comparison because they have a lot of things subsidized (though from what I know it's something like 4 eggs a month for example) but obviously $14 would not get you anything in North America. I think the key is really to go down there and be aware - spending $600 on your all-inclusive vacation, you should be tipping every single person, generously.

loren smith

@damselfish Thank you so much for your comment; you really articulate a lot of things that float around my head. I travel regularly to southern Mexico and I've spent a lot of time thinking between the hard-line "no vacations anywhere, ever, period." people I met in grad school, and the all-inclusive trips so many people I know do.

josefinastrummer

@leon s You could have that same experience in my American city, delicious tacos, poverty and all.
Go on vacation and be nice. I don't think it has to be so complex.

stuffisthings

I mean, look: people are people everywhere. There are poor people in Mexico, and also the world's richest man. Just because someone earns the equivalent of $300 a month doesn't mean they live in a world of unadulterated shit. They eat, hang out with their family, go to school, laugh with their friends, and do all the same basic things that Americans do. The average Mexican earns more than someone subsisting at the poverty line in the United States. And if they live in a smaller town or village with their family, their quality of life may be much better since they aren't dropping 2/3 of their income on rent and have access to relatively decent basic health care and possibly fresh food (if their family are farmers.)

If you've ever been a waiter or bartender at a trendy spot in a big city, you've probably been on the other side of a wealth gap far larger than the grad student / Latin American lifeguard divide, and it didn't irreparably corrupt your soul, did it? Think of all the corporate folks who drop $200 on dinner a couple times a week. Why get upset about spending half a laborer's daily wage on a delicious plate of tacos? It's not an underage sex tour of Cambodia we're talking about here.

The basic rules of treat people nicely, tip as well as you are able apply everywhere. There's always going to be concerns about the negative effects of tourism but that's equally true in Miami and Paris as in Cancun. If you're really opposed to it, don't go, but really there's no sense beating yourself up about it. I guess people tend to use tourism as a nexus for these issues because it's often through tourism that they're first exposed to some concept of "third world poverty" , but the reality "third world poverty" is both worse AND better than what people imagine when they see Mexican street kids or whatever. And the money that flows in from tourism, in my humble opinion, does far more good than harm.

(This isn't in response to anyone in particular, I just get weirdly antsy when people get all worked about poverty and tourism, because, really, it's OK people!)

frigwiggin

@stuffisthings But what would I do with all my free time if I could stop worrying/feeling guilty about my privilege? (I really wonder this. I know it's stupid but that doesn't make the wad of anxiety and self-loathing go away! Hahaha sob.)

stuffisthings

Oh yeah, the other thing I forgot is that in most poor countries the local elites are WAY more assholeish, harsh, demanding, cheap, and unsympathetic to service folks than even the worst Ugly American tourist. I'm sure any Third World waiter would much prefer explaining why they don't have ice to a Midwestern family for a 300% tip to dealing with some local oligarch's spoiled children trashing the place.

stuffisthings

@frigwiggin You could read inspiring stories about poor people improving their lives through their own agency! Then you don't have to feel bad that you, the Rich American, are not Lifting Them Out of Poverty. (I mean this non-sarcastically! You should really seek out such stories. Note that this doesn't mean I think Foreign Aid is Bad.)

leonstj

@stuffisthings - I should point out that I'm also so neurotic and class-conflicted that I don't even like paying for shoe-shines and once had an hour long argument w/ a roommate over him hiring a person to clean our apartment. I'm not really good at class issues, even though I have no actual objection to anything you're saying.

conniving little shit

@stuffisthings are you joking? tourist destinations get socially fucked in order to keep them tourist destinations. just because you don't want to feel responsible doesn't mean you're not.

TARDIStime

@leon s re: hiring a cleaner - my Dad was a cleaner and made in a month what I make in a year in a part-time corporate position.
I have a sneaking suspicion that he possible made more money than the people whose houses he cleaned, too.

leonstj

@TARDIStime - I'm not actually opposed to it in general - I don't think hiring a cleaner or paying for a shoeshine is any different than going to a restaurant or a tailor - I mean, I know how to hem my own pants and cook my own dinner, but sometimes I don't want to. Why not pay someone else to do it?

It's just dumb personal stuff about signifiers of class than anything actually rational.

melissafaustine

@leon s - Hi guys, Melissa here. Not sure I can even touch on this without it being a gross oversimplification of a really complex issue, but.. here it goes.

I did wrestle with a lot of these sorts of conflicting feelings on this trip, but what I will say is that I'm not sure the alternative is not traveling, or only traveling to developed countries, or never trying to expand your personal field of vision, because of first world guilt. I think also sometimes these complex feelings about privilege come from a place of superiority and the same kind of objectivism that we feel uneasy about.

People *are* struggling, and life *is* extremely difficult in a lot of places in ways that are completely incomprehensible and we should help where we can, but also viewing them as faraway poor people to be pitied rather than actual people with, as @stuffisthings said, friends, daily choices, family, laughter, sadness, grief, also defines them as objects and takes away their agency… it objectifies them in a different way.

I'm not saying tourism is the answer (by any means at all) but I can only imagine that it does help bolster any country's economy and help aid development. Obviously there are a lot of negative effects of tourism too, but again I'm not sure the alternative is to never be a tourist.

So… I'm not sure. We can try to travel mindfully, kindly, and respectfully, and try to be decent human beings and not assholes wherever we choose to go.

stuffisthings

@conniving little shit More than twice as many tourists visit New York City each year as all of Mexico. I guess that explains why NYC is so socially fucked, thanks a lot Bloomberg!

03313961h

@damselfish I didn’t know anyone there, but that was sort of the point — to go somewhere completely on my own terms. There was, of course, also the allure of going somewhere I technically wasn't allowed, so I could feel like I had made some comearredareilbagno.it

iceberg

I'd like to go to Cuba; I am obsessed with the Buena Vista Social Club since I got the CD... the documentary only made it worse.

barefoot cuntessa

@iceberg Me too! The husband and I were seriously considering the Mexican riviera/Cuba for our honeymoon. Then all the cartel wars intensified significantly and we went to Europe instead. I'd still really love to go. We've had a few friends go legally and illegally. The desire intensifies.

julia

This series is the best thing.

cei-face

@julia Right?! I seriously can't stop re-reading them. The travelers itch!! IT BURNS

fabel

@julia It is---at first I avoided reading these, because I didn't want to fall into a "I do nothing & go nowhere, what is my life?" spiral. But it's somehow--comforting? reading about people's experiences. (Sorry to insert myself here, I just wanted to jump in as a convert to this series)

RachelTheC

My mother emigrated from Cuba in 68. Getting letters of calls from family we have there is difficult to impossible. It's supposed to be easier for people with families in Cuba to visit, but the average age of 'known, maybe still alive' relatives is 79. Reading about any American's vacation to Cuban fills me with so much sadness, shame, and jealousy!

angermonkey

@RachelTheC My husband's father (and family) left Cuba in '58, and: Exactly. I talked with him a while back about how we should try to plan a family trip back at some point, and while he's on board and would love to see Havana again, being called "worm" at the consulate and hiding out at home for 6 months pretending to be "sick" while their American visas cleared... those pains are still REALLY fresh.

laurel

Melissa, your pictures are exquisite and I'm so charmed by your affinity for the sea stars.

BRB, off to paint my house pink.

flimflannery

This is basically cementing my need for a solo vacation. I want to go horseback riding in Ireland.

josefinastrummer

Should you have your full name on this piece? It is still illegal for Americans to go to Cuba. I don't want this to be you!
http://travel.usatoday.com/destinations/dispatches/post/2012/07/us-tourist-ordered-to-pay-6500-fine-for-illegal-cuba-trip/812249/1

iceberg

@josefinastrummer Isn't it only illegal to go there FROM the US? ETA: that article says: "(Sanders) is being fined for failure to return the form, not for actual travel to Cuba." so apparently it's more of a paperwork thing.

stuffisthings

@iceberg It's also technically against Treasury Department regulations for an American to spend money in Cuba, I believe, but usually they don't have the ability or desire to prove that you did so.

Alexmen

have your full name on this piece? It is still illegal for Americans to go to Cuba. I don't want this to be you!...UGR

hrdept

Nice interview. I love Cuba (and seriously consider retiring there, assuming things are slightly smoother on the legal front in 10-20 years). With the US' begrudging blessing, I studied Spanish and Cuban culture/politics there in 2004 under the tutelage of some professors from the university in Havana. Beyond classes, wandering around with a couple friends (and sometimes the professors) to local haunts (in Havana and other cities) and hearing their and others' stories was an experience I will not forget. The beauty of this island and its people can consume you - I could spend a life at Vinales reading and playing soccer. But at the same time, being there, you cannot help but be confronted with some of Cuba's tragic realities. I remember going to the main outpost of Coppelia, the state-run ice cream parlor (which is freaking amazing), and having waited hours in line, "se acabo" - they ran out. [Kids and adults were crying; on another more successful trip, I'd seen people packing the ice cream in large containers because it's so good and cheap.] But the "tourist" outpost, which charged higher - though still relatively cheap - prices, was still open. Anecdotes like these or about my professor's brother having rotted in jail under Batista or an artist friend's skirmishes with the current regime or being allowed into/banned from places because I "look Cuban" only begin to frame the contours of a narrative for your [my] experience, challenging or fleshing out the story you've cobbled from our government, their government, family, friends... till you realize that even a single person's understanding of Cuba (like many other rich, complex things) is an anthology.

cherrispryte

I absolutely love these, and this one especially, but wow, they remind me of what a neurotic and anxiety-ridden person I truly am.

TARDIStime

@cherrispryte Haha, right? With the random on the beach and the sea stars? I was like "don't do it!!!" And then she was FINE.

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Oh my goodness, this sounds amazing.

wanderluster

8 days alone in Mongolia? Hairpin takers? :)

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@Kristen
Really!?!
How can this be true. Just to be on the safe side at age 22 when I wanted to go to Cuba I went and got a proper visa and delivered humanitarian aid and everything -- totally legit. Arrrrr such a disappointment being a citizen of this fine nation sometimes.

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@Kristen
Really!?!
How can this be true. Just to be on the safe side at age 22 when I wanted to go to Cuba I went and got a proper visa and delivered humanitarian aid and everything -- totally legit. Arrrrr such a disappointment being a citizen of this fine nation sometimes.

Snufkin@twitter

Great essay and the details bring back memories of my visit to Cuba back in 2001. The part about learning to trust and people being generous is true. Seriously the nicest people in the world. And it reminds me one experience where I'd gone with some friends across the Sierra Maestra Mountains (past Gitmo 2 months before 9/11) with a hired driver. On the return trip, we were driving in the dark and starting to feel the call of nature. The driver actually took a detour so we could use the bathroom at his aunt's house! Which I can't imagine anybody else doing instead of pulling over to the side of the road. And his aunt was so damn friendly and nice to us.

sbizzle

I did a study abroad program in Cuba through my college for three months in 2008. Everything she said about the people being nice and helpful absolutely reflected my experience. The locals we ran into every night on the Malecon would talk to us for hours. And Viñales really is the most beautiful place. The mogotes are an incredible thing to see. Basically if this made you want to go there, do it do it do it. It's a seriously amazing country

whimseywisp

I am super impressed/baffled that you decided to go to Cuba alone without being able to speak Spanish. Good on you!

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