de donde crece la palma
So we just got to Cuba and there’s already so much I want to write down and never forget. I miss you all dearly, and I wish I had more access to the Internet to communicate. Although it’s odd being completely out of contact with those I love most, I continue to feel a connection with you all through our shared thoughts and prayer. A sincere thank you once again for helping me get here. Here’s the first post in what I hope will become a series of installments:
On the plane from Chicago to Miami, I read Addie Zierman’s novel When We Were on Fire, a book that continues to remind me I’m not alone in recovering from the spiritual and emotional bruises my time in conservative evangelicalism has left me with. It’s great writing and a great encouragement. The flight goes quickly.
When we arrive in Miami, everyone’s already speaking in Spanish. From the barista at the local Starbucks to the pilot himself, Spain’s tongue seems to flow effortlessly off everyone’s lips. I begin to feel the familiar pleasure of my brain shaking off the linguistic rust, shifting over from English.
After a (not so) brief registration and boarding process, my fellow students and I are eventually allowed onto an airplane that is scheduled to take us on the last leg of our journey – 80 miles or so straight across the strait of Florida and onto the largest, most storied island in the Caribbean.
“What are you doing in Cuba?” I’m asked by the stranger with the guitar as the two of us exit the plane.
“Studying abroad with the University of Illinois,” I tell him. “You?”
He must have not heard the first part of my answer, because he replies, sternly: “Um. I asked you first.”
I repeat myself.
“Oh, I’m a missionary,” he tells me. “Graduated from South Carolina last year with a Spanish degree.”
“Yeah?” I say. “That’s great! So what will you be doing?”
“I’m going to be working for some Charismatic Pentecostal churches in the area called the Pentecostal Churches of Jesus Christ Our One Lord and True Savior*.”
“Huh, very cool,” I tell him. “I hope it goes well!” I decide not to share with the missionary that my one and only possible contact in Cuba is not a Pentecostal, but a fiery Baptist preacher my friend David put me in touch with, a woman named Midiam Lobaina, who apparently leads workshops across the country with the goal of educating her fellow Christians on the Bible, gender equality, and violence against women. (LINK)
Our conversation wraps up neatly and dies as the missionary boy steps off. I mourn briefly, and then it’s my turn to step up to the check-in counter.
Smile, the immigration official tells me. I show some teeth, perplexed, and hand the man my passport.
A la cámera, he gestures casually towards the black Logitec device hanging down from the ceiling. So that’s why there’s a webcam dangling in front of my face. I oblige but the camera doesn’t click so I’m left unsure how long he wants me to keep smiling. After a few minutes, without a word between the two of us my passport is stamped and my documents handed back to me. The exit door buzzes loudly, and I suppose that means I can leave. Still smiling like a fool, I saunter off and wish him a nice day.
We get our luggage screened once again, this time by Cuban security (though the TSA must have personally trained them in the fine art of hostile condescension), and finally we’re out of the airport, breathing in the hot, smoky air of La Havana.
Now I’m riding on a bus and hearing from a tour guide about all the great attractions this country has to offer us. During the half hour ride from the Jose Martí international airport to Hotel Colina in downtown La Havana, I see colorful billboards along all the major roads. Yet instead of being welcomed to the island by advertisements and powerful corporations, we’re greeted by the proud, towering faces of Cuba’s standard slate of national heroes. Giant images of Fidel and Raúl Castro, Che Guevara, and Jose Martí radiate down towards us, patriotic text superimposed over their likenesses: we will never forget what you have done for us Che, reads one sign close to the airport. This is true brotherhood, reads another, featuring a stately looking Fidel, Che, and Hugo Chavez sharing in a warm fraternal embrace.
Close to the airport, even the graffiti seems to be pro-state. Viva Fidel y Raúl reads one such marking, scrawled boldly in orange ink across an aging roadside wall. Cuba, a beautiful country of history and culture and ¡socialismo o muerte! read a couple more works of “vandalism.”
It’s beautiful here. Everything from the musicality of the streets to the bright colonial architecture instills in me a fond sense of home. The roads remind me of some roads I’ve seen in Costa Rica and Honduras, except there are less buses here, less motorcycles, more actual traffic laws, and a plethora of antique cars buzzing confidently around us. Having heard about this phenomenon before I arrived, I’m not completely caught of guard by these ancient automobiles. However, it still feels quite surreal to see so many typically dead and decaying things suddenly all revved up and full of life around you.
We pull up to Hotel Colina, where we will be spending the next few weeks. To get inside, we must walk through the bar, which circles the building’s entrance and spills drunken tourists out into the street. Young foreigners are laughing and enjoying drinks at the center of the scene, and young sex workers (prostitutes) form the periphery, revolving around fat old men. I see many white Americans, so I figure this must be a decent hotel.
We start to unload our baggage when a manager rushes out and explains to us that, see, well, there’s this problem with your whole floor, and desafortunadamente you’re not going to be able to stay here at this hotel but we’re trying to find you another place right now, so if you would perhaps get back on the bus please.
It’s unexpected but I suppose these sort of things can happen anywhere, but perhaps especially in Cuba. We drive for fifteen minutes and we arrive at Paseo Habana, a Left 4 Dead 2 plantation-looking hotel half a block from a center for cardiovascular medicine and the North Korean Embassy. As it turns out, there’s room at the inn, so we get our keys and finally begin the slow process of settling in.
It’s the end of my first night now, and though I’m tired I almost find myself craving human contact. I approach the front desk and begin to chat with a pair of opinionated and phenomenally kind Cubans. Daniel, the security guard, and Celia*, the night clerk, talk with me about languages, American culture, Japan, the current regime, and daily life here. Daniel offers to gift me a couple of books on Cuban history so that I might learn more about the subject, and I thank him profusely. Celia asks me more about my home, and then tells me about hers.
What you have to understand about Cubans, Celia insists, is that we’re not Latinos. We’re Caribeños. Daniel nods rapidly, sísísí-ing her every word with confident enthusiasm. We’re very different than other countries you may have been to in latinoamérica. Tenemos la cultura caribeño, like Jamaica or Barbados. My two new friends cut an amusing pair, both eager to talk about their experiences and to help me understand. They speak at an impossible pace, vibrating in mutual affirmation, feeding off of each other’s energy. There are things I don’t understand, but I nod anyway.
Entonces, I try, ¿ustedes no son latinos? But you speak Spanish.
¡Pues, claro, of course we’re Latinos! Celia staggers. I laugh, confused, and Daniel grins wide and smacks me hard on the back, but in a familial way. I feel welcome.
At that moment, seemingly out of nowhere, a large, graying American steps up to the counter. I step to the side. Without a word, he indicates to Celia that he’d like a room, and he pulls out the local currency and hands it to her. Behind the man, a young woman with black bangs and slender fingers quietly materializes in the doorway. She’s dressed in tight, flattering clothing, and she stands behind him for a minute before walking over to the ashtray next to me to put out her cigarette.
We make eye contact twice and smile politely each time. She seems bashful and I’m not entirely sure why. But then I realize, and I’m immediately full of burning shame and hatred towards this man, towards my gender, towards myself. He hasn’t made eye contact with any of us, and I still don’t know what his voice sounds like. In a flash, the two of them disappear up the staircase.
I look over at Celia, wanting to talk more about what just happened, but I can’t seem to catch her eye.
Conversation goes on politely for a bit, but I think we all sense that the mood has changed. Daniel shrugs at me and smiles good-naturedly, and pulls out a pack of cigarettes. I watch as his lighter flashes twice and soon a trail of smoke is running up and disappearing into the night air.