*Names of individuals have been changed for privacy purposes*
It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve returned from my trip to Cuba. If you follow my personal Instagram (@gabfshr), you know I promised to write about Cuban/American romance, the consequences of rum consumption and why Cubans are the kindest people I have ever met. I promise, I will deliver on all of these things between this post and the next, although I’m not quite sure how I am ever going to scratch the surface of what an insane, unique, and rewarding trip this was for both my friend Sam and me.
I was going to write a bit about Cuba in terms of where to go, what things to see, what you should do while you’re there, but really, our experience was the people. I want to TRY to explain Camilo to you, our “tour guide.” There’s a reason tour guide is in quotes. It wasn’t a typical tour guide experience. Camilo WAS our Cuban experience. When I think about the adventure that was Cuba, I think of Camilo. He’s 49 and has lived in the same neighborhood his whole life, Cerro, in Havana. Camilo is about 6’2, thin as a rail, his entire head is shaved except for a very small hair patch in the lower back portion of his head. When you walk around Havana with him, he knows everyone…literally, everyone. Even if we found ourselves in some desolate area, we would turn a corner and he would run into someone he knew, and would greet them with a handshake and kiss on the cheek. He has about 1,000 “Godsons” and “nephews,” younger men or children who he keeps an eye out for and loves like his own.
When he refers to Cuba, he says “my country” and spits out the phrase “this is the real Cuba” multiple times a day. He’s proud of his people, but despises the government. He buys little cartons of rum on the black-market, multiple times a day, and squeezes it out into a discreet plastic water bottle ( ¾ rum and ¼ lemon lime soda). One day, we took a day trip, he fell asleep for half of it, and we had to head home early…because, you know, the rum. He smokes what I believe to be one million cigarettes a day. He says that money means nothing to him (and I believe him), and that all he needs is his friends. His favorite meal contains sardines, carrots, and green beans, heated up in canned tomato sauce. Some days he doesn’t eat at all, and other days he orders three entrees at dinner…only if someone else is paying. He puts so much salt on his food that it looks like confectionary sugar on fried dough.
His laugh in contagious. He litters all the time, even if there’s a trash can near him (Sam wants to start a “Keep Cuba Clean” movement because of this.). He loves to use the phrase “fucking motherfucker” whenever something or someone pisses him off. He hates lines and sometimes pays people to skip it, because “money talks.” Camilo loves to dance and one of his favorite songs is a reggae version of “Hello” by Adele. He’s trustworthy and made Sam and me feel like a part of his family. When I was sick, he spent his own money to buy me medicine and came to our apartment at least five times throughout the day to check up on me. Camilo’s kind and caring. He has educated himself through books and movies. He told us things about Cuban history that nobody knows, unless you have an honest discussion with someone who has seen the thick of it, like Camilo had. His English is outstanding and he loves Americans. Whenever we mention a well-known U.S. city, he says he loves it, even though he’s never been there.
Cuba was the most authentic cultural experience I’ve ever had because of Camilo and the lovely people we met. I was welcomed with open arms into strangers’ homes for dinner; I was warmly greeted by every person I shook hands with as we walked down the street and I was honored to witness the love, friendship, and respect the Cuban people shared with one another.
What people don’t have in material things, they have in human connection. The sense of community I felt in Cuba was unique to anywhere else I’ve ever traveled. On the day we were leaving to return back to the states, it was pouring, although it had been sunny every other day of our trip. Sam and I gathered our belongings and said our goodbyes to Luis, whose home we stayed in. We had also grown close to Luis during that week. He’d bring us breakfast each morning and stay to chat for a half hour or so he could practice his English (and so we could practice our Spanish.) As we were hopping in the cab to head to the airport, Luis pointed at the sky and then held his hand over his heart and with a longing, sincere face, said, “Cuba is crying for you.” Ditto, Cuba, Ditto.