I love Cuba – the people, the music, the dance, the love, the rum, the wild sex, the sun…Im not an American. So I get to go to Cuba, no problem. And in 2004ish, I actually did. For a week.
I came back home with amoebas in my appendix and had to have an emergency appendicectomy, but thats another story for another day. Couldve happened to me anywhere, right?
To many of you, Cuba is something of a mythical place, like a Soviet Gulag or anywhere in North Korea. Or maybe if youre one of those Che Guevara t-shirt-wearing, stick it to the Man types, the country is a Socialist utopia, the very definition of everything that is wrong with consumerism and materialism and the US of A. And if youre an ignorant hick, you probably think Cubans are neanderthals.
Which is obviously not true.
Before my trip, Im not sure I had an opinion on Cuba, political or otherwise. I was a gymnast, and my coaches were Cuban. Sometimes they were strict, but they were good coaches. Sometimes they yelled at us and I really had no idea what they were saying because I couldnt understand their slang or their accents. But, you know. I guess I expected to see nice beaches or something. And I hoped Id do well at my competition, which is the reason we traveled there in the first place.
But other than that? I didnt think Cuba was going to be that much different than, say, Guatemala or Mexico, where Id also competed in the past.
It was different, though. Very.
It began nearly as soon as the plane touched down on Cuban ground, at customs. I was taken into a teeny little dark room, sans parents, so the officer could take a look at my passport. I felt that Id done something wrong, like I was being interrogated. And then I made it through. Phew.
The next thing I noticed were the cars. They were all so very 1950s, like something out of an old black and white film. It was one of the coolest things Ive ever seen.
And then, things got real Communist real fast.
I sprained my ankle in training. After a few practices, I ran out of athletic tape, as did my coach and my teammates. So my dad and I set out to find a pharmacy.
No tape, sorry, said pharmacist one.
No tape, sorry, said pharmacist two.
No tape, sorry, said pharmacist three.
My daughter is injured, said my dad. She needs something to support her ankle.
Maybe go to one of the nice hotels, said pharmacist one hundred and seven. They might have tape for the tourists.
Okay, said my dad. Do you have anything she can take for the pain?
No, the pharmacist said, pointing to the empty display racks by the wall. We only have one bottle of medicine. Were out of rations.
Rations? For Tylenol (or its Cuban equivalent)?
In the end, I never even competed. My ankle had swollen into the size of a ripe mango.
One night, we decided to go out to dinner (if youre thinking hah! again, youre totally wrong). We hailed a cab circa 1954. Asked him to take us somewhere good.
Well go underground, he said.
Yeah, he said. Restaurants this size are illegal, you know. But this place is really good.
After some driving and lots of pretty scenery, we made it. It wasnt really a restaurant, though. It was a house. Or a shack, rather. With many, many tables in the backyard.
Right as we slipped in, we witnessed a clandestine transaction between the cabbie and the restaurant owner. It wasnt drugs, though. It was a bag of beans. Thats when I got it: the cabbie brings in the business and gets free food in exchange. Pretty brilliant.
(Later, the cabbie admitted that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, they havent had enough to eat. I couldnt help but think that the Soviet Union collapsed a pretty long time ago. Thats a long time to go hungry)
I dont remember my meal, whether it was delicious or if it tasted like sandpaper. I think I was basking in the thrill of doing something so damn illegal.
Throughout the rest of the week, I experienced more of the same. Gutwrenching poverty. One bedroom apartments filled to the brim with children and grandchildren and fussy infants. No electricity or running water — at least not for the locals. Rotten tomatoes and fancy hotels that ran out of rations.
But there is something else about Cuba: the resillience of the human spirit. I met men and women who break the law everyday to feed their children. I met some who wont talk politics in the lobby because theres security cameras, but theyll gladly complain about the government in the restroom, if youd like to hear it. And I met people who are thankful, because at the end of the day, we could all have it so much worse.