“How was Cuba?” they ask. “What was it like?” And I struggle because I can’t distill the trip into a brief and pithy summary suitable for cocktail conversation or breakroom chitchat. Because now, even a few weeks later, Cuba is still a mosaic of discrete moments and images that I cannot make a story out of at all.
There were the Soviet cinder block buildings, crumbling in place now, painted incongruously Caribbean colors.
There was the airport experience that offered a perfect mash-up of the stereotypes of Communism with the stereotypes of Latin America.
There was the day we hit 65mph in a ‘52 Chevy, dodging potholes along a sugar cane field, Latin pop blasting, salt from the Bay of Pigs drying on our skin.
There was one of many horse-drawn carts we passed, this one on the main highway outside Cienfuegos, the teenage driver holding the reins in one hand and a smart phone in the other.
There was $2000 in $50 and $20 bills to pay for everything, because US law prohibits banking relationships so we had no ATM access and no credit card, and had to pay a 10% penalty when changing US dollars, which—if you think about it—is a relatively minor form of payback for all the shit we’ve put this country through, all the way back to when we stepped in to “help” them win independence from Spanish colonialism, and then “forgot” to invite any Cubans to to the peace talks or even to include their country’s name when we named it the “Spanish-American” War.
There was the early-’70s Soviet Lada, lifted, with shiny rims and a candied-bronze paint job.
There were the billboards, advertising the revolution like it was brand of beer.
There was universal access to health care and gender pay equity (a little heralded side effect of communism), and an observable preponderance of cross-race social groups and couples.
There were ration books, the kind that were already obsolete in Russia by Yeltsin but still feed a significant portion of the Cuban population, not least because there aren’t other markets.
There were the odd clusters of people down side-streets, crouched against the back side of tourist hotels, drafting off the wifi signal because the internet is new there, and still centrally controlled.
There was ropa vieja, the national dish that I ordered over and over trying to find a version that justified its fame. There was look my daughter gave me the 27th time she was handed a ham-and-cheese-on-white-bread sandwich. There were the two plates of Souplantation salad we each ate straight from the airport because we hadn’t seen a vegetable in eight days.
There was the time I pointed to the first graffiti mural that did not feature Che Guevara and asked, “Who is that?” “Chavez,” came the response. “Cesar?” I asked, confused. “No. Hugo, of Venezuela, our country’s greatest friend,” was the smiled answer, a reminder that where you sit defines how you see the world.
There were the carefree Europeans, staying in the Hotel Nacional, slapping down credit cards for meals, whisking off to the beachside resorts we Americans are forbidden from visiting, seeing a profoundly different Cuba.
There was cultural and emotional whiplash each time a flashback to Colombia circa 2015 was followed immediately by a flashback to Russia circa 1993.
There were the full-sized trees growing out of the edifice of every fourth building, sprouting straight out of a crack in the facade or the gutter of a crumbling balcony.
There was showing up at a tourist beach and realizing there were no vendors: no restaurants, no churros, no beer, no Che Guevara t-shirts, no water. Nothing.
There were Daniela’s affectionate stories of how much Fidel cared for his people, and Joel’s detailed explanation of how the kickback system works between casas particulares hosts and taxi drivers.
There were endless mojitos and cuba libres and the requisite cigar.
There was a clear understanding that no vehicle on the road would pass a smog test.
There was the day that I turned to my husband and said, “Next vacation, let’s go somewhere easy.”
And, like everywhere we seem to travel, there were no seatbelts.
(Most) photo credits: Retta