the way things go
If you’ve visited a travel review site or otherwise conducted any cursory online research on tourism in Cuba, you know that this country has been described as “frustrating” by a good number of foreigners.
But waves of visitors still arrive each year because this island is still enchanting, still exotic and alive and like nowhere else in the world. My own small study abroad group has gotten a small taste of this by staying in the capital, La Havana – a delightfully diverse city of approximately two million inhabitants, full of streets that would take years to explore. On any given block, one is likely to find parks and ice cream shops, intimate little nooks, ornate hotels, lively urban jazz bars, silent seaside paths, 24-hour pizza joints, and endless rows of taxistas offering to take you to all of these places and more, for just a few pesos.
I’ve already written about how my group was unexpectedly redirected from our original destination (Hotel Colina in downtown Havana) to alternate accommodations in more suburban Havana. Although the fluctuating housing situation has certainly been a bit inconvenient, it hasn’t been wholly disheartening by any means; changing hotels has given me the chance to see parts of this town that I otherwise might not have seen, and for that I’m grateful. I write about this experience not to complain, but because I can’t help but thinking that this story is fairly indicative of how things sometimes (don’t) work on the island.
A couple of days ago, we are told that we have to leave our quiet, spacious Paseo Habana and head back to Hotel Colina for the remainder of our trip. It is a small inconvenience, but we happily pack our bags and bring them downstairs for the transfer.
Some time later, at the institute, our program coordinator gathers us together over café, galletitas, and té. Smiling, she asks if we would prefer to return to our original downtown hotel or to stay at the current one. “Let’s see a show of hands, we can have una vota: how many of you want to stay at Paseo Habana?” Five of us raise our hands. The majority.
“It’s decided then, you all will stay,” she concludes. I’m relieved that we don’t have to move, because now I can just bring my bag upstairs again to unpack, and I won’t have to tell my contacts that I’ve once again changed locations.
We learn more about the history of slavery and colonialism in Cuba, and after class ends we take a bus downtown, to visit a local cigar factory.
Our tour guide’s name is Rubén, and he chats politely with us as we make the ride into Old Havana. Rubén also took us on our first tour of the city, on the second day of our trip, and immediately we are, all of us, entirely impressed with him. Rubén’s title is an investigador at our school, the Center for Martirian Studies, which means that he performs professional research on the life and writings of that ever-present human monument – Jose Martí.
Key to Rubén’s providential charm, both as a tour guide and a human being, has to be his “resting face,” which naturally curves upwards into a pleasant smile. And his mannerisms match his outer disposition. Every time you say hello to Rubén, you are without exception greeted with a trusting wink and a wide grin. Over the past few days, we learn that his grandparent was a strong Marxista revolucionario, and parents are Cuban diplomats, a privilege which has allowed him to travel internationally for both studies and adventure. He graduated with an advanced degree in development studies from the University of Murcia in Spain, and he speaks English and Spanish very well.
Soon, we step off the bus for a tour of the cigar factory, which several of us are particularly excited to see. Although neither of my parents smoke, my mom has always impressed upon me the depth and complexity of tobacco and smoking culture, and I want to be able to tell her firsthand about how these famous cigars are made.
However, the site we walk into turns out to be a partially abandoned building, full of middle-aged men splayed about, gambling on rusting tables. Rubén is able to ascertain that this plant was actually shut down a few years ago, and we are directed a few blocks away, to the new production facility.
When we enter the new factory building, we show our government-issued ticket to the security guard in the entrance. He waves the students to the side, where we are told to wait in a lounge area, while our professor is escorted into the office of the plant manager. Several of us fall asleep waiting for him to return.
Some forty minutes later, our teacher and Rubén return, flustered, with the news that they were unable to convince the plant manager that our paperwork permitted us to tour at this time. We would have to return the next day. We leave the building and end up catching a ferry over to La Regla, there visiting a Catholic church and a fascinating Santería museum.
* * * * *
On the ride home, smoky and sunburnt, I stare at Ruben as he explains that the hotel we had chosen to stay at didn’t have room for us any more, and that we would indeed have to move back to Hotel Colina, despite our group decision. “Welcome to Cuba,” Rubén tells us, smiling and laughing. I make a joke about how democracy is clearly valued in this country, and a couple of people laugh. No one seems too upset by yet another change. We just don’t get caught up on stuff like this. If we did we would drown.
Because that’s just the way things go in Cuba.
You expect to stay at one hotel, and then you’re moved back and forth, to and from a completely different one.
You set out hoping to bring some souvenirs home with you and to send a few postcards and to blog and to talk with the girl you love, and it turns out you’re not really able to do any of those things.
You leave your hotel room one night in search of a quiet place to spend an evening just writing and praying and self-actualizing, catching up on your me time, and you end up sitting in another hotel’s bustling bar, surrounded by total strangers.
But in the end, you still have fun at that new hotel. And when you think about it, maybe you needed a little break from things back home anyway. And in that bustling bar, surrounded by total strangers, you end up meeting a missionary from Houston, a Presbyterian who gives you your first truly authentic Cuban cigar (and your second, and your third…), and a smile lingers on your lips for hours as you the two of you talk theology, Tolkien, and Star Wars, drink way too many mojitos.
You still have fun because you’re learning that hang ups and sudden changes and plans gone awry are just the way things go here. Though the waiting around can be frustrating, the not knowing what’s coming next never really bothers you. Most of the time you find yourself smiling. You can’t help it.
Because even when it’s three in the morning, even when you need to be up in five hours and you haven’t even started coming down, wandering through the hopping midnight streets of La Havana instills in you this sense that this is how you are supposed to be living. Wrapped up in the unexpected, marinated in spontaneity, surrounded by noise, defiant of responsibility.
Because you are an American and you’re standing in Eden, surrounded by delicious, forbidden fruit. Nothing can break the magic and the musicality of what surrounds you, and you’re pretty sure it’s not just the buzz.
And the bright lights of the island continue to enchant you, and more and more you live moment-to-moment, discarding routine, feeling oddly at home in a city where your personal mantra, adapt or die, are words to live by.
And that night you fall into your bed, reeking of wonderful cigars and desperate pizza, and you don’t even brush your teeth.
PS – we’ve been at Hotel Colina two nights, but on Sunday I believe we’re moving back to Paseo Habana.
PPS – yes, we’re back at Habana now. Reach me there in case of emergency or at email@example.com to connect.