As we approached the customs booth tension appeared in my body, internally preparing me for a “denied entry” stamp on my passport…
As we searched for a cab we were offered a better exchange rate by an older woman who held a stylish broom that was exactly that, just for show. I was certain I was going to get kidnapped in the bathroom stall as I swapped USD for CUC under the divider…
I was counting down the minutes until our cab, a 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air Sedan would make a sharp turn that would take us right back to the airport, like it was all a mistake. I wasn’t supposed to be there.
…Jerry Rivera’s voice drifted my mind into a calm state. Meditative almost, “amores como el nuestro quedan ya muy pocos.” It was right then and there that I realized and felt it, I was in Cuba.
We stayed at a casa particular, Hostal Chez Nous hosted by Gustavo and la señora de la casa. A lovely stay with access to great cafecito, a balcony that let in the sweet sounds of Havana vieja without an ounce of hope for wifi for 30 CUC a day. It was the perfect home for the week.
We sat and had our first mojito at La Bodeguita Del Medio, a tourist spot but worth it. We soaked it all in as we sipped our drinks, ate ropa vieja, arroz congri and tostones, we were in Cuba!
On the third day we drank Cuba Libres and watched the sunset on the rooftop of Saratoga Hotel. The staff took a liking to us and allowed us to sneak a swim in even though we weren’t guests, towels included. A gracious experience indeed. Wifi optional. During the day we breathe in the sea and at night we consume the city. El Malecón was built as protection for the water but serves as a promenade for the locals day and night, we joined them.
On the fourth day we met, Dailenis. As she stood across the street I instantly felt as though I had known her my entire life. Before this night I had no knowledge of her existence, and there we were in a place called 1830 at the end of El Malecón putting our cinturas to work. We danced to the sounds of reggaeton. As the night came to an end we searched for a ride, and by search I mean we hitch hiked. It was exhilarating.
I continued to meet family I had never known beyond short stories my grandmother would share. I met tio Nene, whom upon recently turning 100 I asked, “What was your favorite age in life.” and he responded, “The age I am now, because if not I would miss out on today.” He stood up and danced to the music playing on the television. My eyes watered as I yelled, “Wepa.” This is Habana, this is where they live, this is how they live, happily.
I was introduced to another girl Id never met nor knew existed, Diamir, my cousin. She rode 5 hours with us to Matanzas where my grandmother was born and where additional family members resided on a farm. Diamir was a hustler, she managed to bring the cost of the ride down by half. I knew right then and there we had to be related just by the determined and demanding way she used the word, “tranquillo.”
Los Arabos, Matanzas is where my grandmother was born. I had heard stories about this place my entire life and now I was driving up with a Bucareno beer in my hand my fiance in the front seat and no idea what to expect.
Upon arrival we were greeted by Isabel. She had a smile and aura that I will never forget, she was my grandmother’s sister and I could feel it. I met more of my grandmother’s sisters, Chichi and, Milargro and Anna all with stories and nothing but love. There wasn’t boxed wine, bottled beer, or children consumed by social media. There was genuine conversation, intent listening and happiness in the air. Isa, short for Isabel prepared dinner for us and Chichi, taught Tomas how to dance salsa in the kitchen as we all gathered, laughed and loved.
The next morning we woke up to fresh mango juice from the family mango tree, we rode the family horse, visited the local nail salon and ate fruit which I still have no idea about. Isabel used old bra clips to replace a defective zipper on a dress that I had brought with me and we watched la noticia together. I had never met a more resourceful group of individuals and grew grateful for my relation to such resilience. We sat for a final cafecito before they walked us out and wished us farewell.
Varadero, Cuba can only be described with one word, PARADISE! I immediately fell in love and wanted to share this newly discovered paradise with the family that was so gracious of my visit to the country. How could I selfishly enjoy such luxury as they kindly escorted me, fed me and loved me, ME, a stranger.
I extended an offer for my cousins to come visit on our last night in the villa. I wanted to let them experience what I had in their beautiful country. Thrilled about them having agreed to visit I awaited their arrival. Our hotel phone rang and I answered to the head of security asking if we were expecting native Cuban guests. “Of course, mi primas!” I responded happily.
It turns out Cubans are not welcome to the luxuries that tourists are presented to in their own country. As a Cuban-American my heart was broken. I dug deep for the determined “tranquillo” voice and managed to come to an agreement. $160.00 CUC pp and they could enjoy ALL the amenities of the resort until 5pm (a standard night at the hotel is $110 CUC.) Only, American tourists are on a daily spending limit, on the last day of our stay we did not have $320.00 CUCs to spare. Diamir and Dailenis kindly offered to turn around after their three hour journey.
…We finally sat down for our first meal of the day. The waitress asked for our food and drink order. Daimir asked about the side options. The waitress listed several choices, Daimir replied, “All of them.” We sat there and laughed as they sipped champagne for the first time and told old Cuban jokes.
We drove over the Bacunayagua bridge overwhelmed and in awe. We realized that in all our journey not once did anyone say they wished they were in America, they didn’t associate happiness with smartphones and wifi, they just said it was different.
I cannot imagine a trip more profound than this one in my life and to this moment I still feel like I will never find the proper words to articulate my joy and emotions. I love Cuba, and even more so, I love its people.