Sitting in the middle of the ocean near the Caribbean islands, we awaited the announcement that would determine where we would spend the next three days.
The wind whipped my hair across my face. I repeatedly pulled strands out of my mouth, losing against the relentless flapping. I gazed at the sunset on the horizon. It looked as though it were melting... oozing into the sea. Tomorrow, I would be moving to solid ground, from the back and forth swaying that my body had become accustomed to... but I did not yet know where.
When the hues in the clouds greyed and blued, I fought
the door, heavy against the wind, to step inside. I suddenly felt the cool that
had been surrounding me, and my face flushed from all the beating gusts it had
endured. I curled my legs up to my chest, leaning against a wall, and pulled
the book up to my face. My finger was numb for using it as a placeholder while
my mind was taken away by the colors of the clouds and
the vastness of the sea... and the wind that washed away my thoughts.
I pondered the world. All the places in it. The dangers, the safeness. I had been seeking freedom all my life. I felt stifled… repressed… not welcomed… afraid of being myself, like I wasn’t good enough. But soon I would be unleashed again and again with new freedoms. Or at least what felt like ‘new’ freedoms. Half a thought lingered in my mind pondering what exactly had restricted my freedom.
I knew nothing of politics. Growing up, I didn't watch television, and I read only to learn specific things. I had not exposed myself to many of the complications of the world. I was sheltered from learning about the invisible political strangleholds particular to each society, only aware of the social taboos that kept people in my vicinity from being open about certain things.
I knew I was ignorant and not worldly – though I didn’t realize I was only a little bit more ignorant than the average person. The world is so full of shocking realities. Most of us are unaware of whatever is not in our own worlds.
So, when I was told that I would be safe in this country, I did not understand the politics behind that: how my country of origin created a random force field, having nothing to do with me. I did not know that not everyone was safe. Soon I would understand that in a way that would never fully register in my brain… that would forever inspire a panicky confusion and rebellious helplessness against reality. There are many hard truths, and life is certainly not always fair.
At that moment, in my blissful ignorance, I searched the first Lonely Planet book I had ever seen for a national park near the capital. I found one that boasted of its limestone cliffs and waterfalls. I took a few notes and closed the book.
If I stepped off the ship onto this country’s shore,
I would rent a bicycle to explore the land that would bring me to those
waterfalls where I could learn something about the plants, animals, and
ecosystems that resided there. My eagerness grew as I pictured myself cycling
through towns to tropical forests with my tent and sleeping bag snug in my
backpack. I looked at my watch. It would be late soon. That was enough of a
For all my planfulness and detail-oriented mind, the promise of safety and the uncertainty of the arrival freed me from hours of researching particulars that would diminish the unknowns.
It dawned on me that I did not need to know much of anything though. Living my life up to this point had prepared me already.
I returned the book and crawled into my twin bed that night, knowing that I’d rather spend my energy the next day rather than in the anticipatory atmosphere of the night. I did not like to wait for answers. This news would await me in the morning, no matter what I did.
As it turned out, even the last person to let sleep take over was not rewarded with an answer.
I slipped through the somnambulatory tunnel from dream to wakefulness swiftly, as I normally do. It was 5:00 a.m. when I stood on the deck alone. An island beckoned in the near distance.
As the light filtered over the horizon, I was able to see the outline of what I took to be great mountains protruding from the sea. My body was alive with sensation.
One by one, then two by two, then in a stream of clusters, people joined me in the damp dawn coolness to witness the decreasing expanse of sea as we approached.
As we neared, the mountains seemed to grow smaller as clouds, colored blue from pre-dawn dimness, lifted higher into the atmosphere. The mountains that had awed me were not mountains at all! They were only clouds’ illusions. Those clouds rose with the sun’s touch. Later, only a few mountains remained, refusing to ascend and follow the drifting illusions.
My journal weighted one palm while my other grasped a
paint brush that strove to imitate the scene before me. I let the shape of the
island and the clouds of its sky form
on the paper of the very first page. I knew this sketch would soon be filled with the company of thoughts and feelings, ponderings and places.
Everyone peered over the railings, and even a few people had found the secret place on the deck that I had discovered. They paid no attention to the brush in my hand and the sketchbook in my lap.
The images changed with every second as dawn transitioned to day. Painting was the best way that I could channel my quiet excitement for what was to come.
As I completed my last stroke, I heard the same thousand voices cheering in excitement. I smiled almost too calmly. Our question had been answered: We had been permitted to land in Cuba.
Walking down the gangway amongst six hundred classmates, whom I had met only one day before, I felt a reassuring excitement that the wind would blow me somewhere special – if I let it. I was ready to step into the unknown, like an autumn leaf leaving its tree for an unpredictable ride. I was nineteen. And it was February 1999.
A line of ten buses sardined us inside of them, taking away from that freedom-feeling of stepping into a new place. It was an overwhelmingly massive group, and I didn’t recognize a single face.
"When we arrive at Havana University, we must all stay together for the welcoming ceremonies." Announcements continued for a while, and we were reminded that we would not be able to reboard the ship without our passports. Nobody was listening. I talked to the girl seated next to me, but when the bus came to a stop, our conversation was interrupted and quickly forgotten.
In the square of the university, women in bright, frilly dresses danced a welcoming dance as the bands played vibrant music. I felt there was something unnatural and programmed about the scene. I found it claustrophobic. I could not put my finger on anything that was wrong with it, yet I felt like a figure on a chessboard.
University of Havana students greeted us with standard questions: “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” “What do you think of Cuba?” Parrot questions with parrot answers.
I wanted to explore this new country. To discover its culture, its land! To be a part of the party. I had only three days! I didn’t want to be a part of a crowd or a tour during any of that time.
I looked away from the commotion. The buildings oozed with artistic beauty –discolored, with stones missing or cracked like ancient pottery. The roots of tropical trees forced jagged fractures in the walkways.
Beyond the ceremony, there seemed to be nothing disturbing the peaceful breeze. The air was thick with moisture, and my mind was absorbed in all the images around me. I examined the angles and colors of everything, making a mental note to include these details in some future painting.
I found myself wandering away from the commotion. My eyes followed a tangle of circuitous branches reaching toward the sky. I examined the lush leaves and blotchy bark. Plucking a leaf between my fingers, I studied it for a moment. Soon I glanced around me, looking to see if anyone had noticed my absence. I was the only one who had diverged from the group.
My eyes shot back toward the stone steps that ascended from where I was standing. How beautiful the stairs were! Mischievous vines crept over the uneven grayness of the stones. I turned away from the ceremony and let myself walk in whichever direction called to me.
I was enjoying my solitude, when a voice broke my placid state. Three people were walking toward me, and I was immediately alert as I made the transition from my own thoughts to acknowledging that time, in fact, had not stood still.
I said hello, as we passed each other. But they’re answer came after a moment of hesitation. The rest of the university grounds had seemed empty, so I thought they were students from my ship; but their accent told me otherwise. Their pace and manor were as relaxed and cheerful as the warm tropical breeze that caressed my skin. I suddenly felt a rush of excitement. I wanted to meet them and to speak Spanish; I did not want them to pass without extending a bit of friendliness and an opportunity to connect.
“Hola!” “Vosotros son Cubanos?” I covered my mouth with my hand, embarrassed. I should think more before I speak. “Ustedes son Cubanos?” I corrected myself, using the formal plural “you” form of the pronoun. It was awkward, but at least something came out!
They turned around with quizzical, but equally interested, smiles. “Si,” two of them said, while a third “Yes” came as a delayed reaction. Not much different from the staged meetings at Havana University, they asked where I was from. Though the atmosphere was completely different. So much more personal! Like we were talking to each other, not having a robotic interaction.
“Estoy de Colorado, en los Estados Unidos… y llegar aqui… por la Universidad al Mar... es… una barca…”
“A boat?” They interrupted my slow and clumsy Spanish.
“Si…” I couldn’t speak fast enough. My nervousness made it hard enough to think in English!
“Speak English?” They suggested. I was so eager to speak Spanish, but it wasn’t going to work. It would take me ten times as long to say anything.
I felt embarrassed as I explained that I was taking classes on a ship that was traveling around the globe, embarking in ten different countries along the way. I felt so privileged and presumptuous! I wanted to let them know that I was down to earth and not a pompous, entitled rich girl. Or was I? I could only be there because my parents paid for me to go. Of course I wanted to travel around the world! But I struggled with the notion of being born with that undeserved privilege. I also thought that spending a few days in a country was so short it might cause me to make assumptions rather than to truly learn about a place. But I chose to go… to accept my privilege.
They did not seem to pick up on my discomfort, and their warmth and calm put me at ease.
Then there was silence. I needed to think of something more to say – to ask a question. And I had an obvious one!
you know where I can rent a bicycle?” I asked. They looked at each other,
speaking words I could not understand. Then they responded to me in English.
"No. Sorry. We never see bicycles for rent." I was surprised. Did Cuba not have bicycle rentals, or had they not understood? They continued to confer while I tried to think of another thing to say. I told them where I wanted to bike, and I explained that I carry my tent and that I have traveled like this before.
"We walk with you in Havana to look."
"Oh! No. You don’t have to do that! Estan preocupado, no? I don’t want to inconvenience you!" That was true, but how wonderful if I could spend some time with them!
"No. We have nothing to do," said the curly-haired one.
we walked away from campus, I learned that they were graduate students at the
University of Havana. Fernando, Humberto, and Hugo. They had skipped classes that day for no particular reason.
Hugo and Humberto walked in front, while Fernando and I lagged behind, engaged in conversation. I studied the curls of Fernando’s hair and the way they framed his carefree face. I was struck by the open expression in his eyes. Warm and welcoming, he wordlessly seemed to tell me that I needn’t be shy. My eyes must have said the same, as I saw him shed his layers of reservation.
Though I didn’t wish to part, I asked again about the bicycle. “Don’t worry, cra-sy girrl, we’ll take you to more-beautiful mountains and waterfalls,” Fernando promised.
We were continuously interrupted by the passersby on the streets, and there was on occasional question and comment involving bicycles. I was overwhelmed by the friendly, social atmosphere. A mosaic of smiles surrounded us, greeting us with friendly words and warmth. I wondered what it was like to grow up, surrounded by this seemingly ever-present social atmosphere. The people seemed so much more welcoming than the people where I was from. I couldn’t imagine my classmates marked with so many smiles, all at once.
Walking down a quieter street, we came to the gate of an apartment house. Children played on the metal bar outside. “Sorry. We find no bicycles.” Fernando announced. “Humberto’s house,” he gestured, and with a big smile, he said “Cra-sy Girrl!” He told me it was too far to bike, anyway. I retorted by saying “estoy muy fuerte!” (I am very strong).
Before going into the house, I hesitated, wondering if these seemingly nice new friends might be dangerous. I cautiously followed Fernando up the stairs. We were soon on the balcony of the sixth floor. Humberto had parted ways earlier, but his friends and I walked in freely enough, without any locked doors hampering our path.
Humberto returned soon with his girlfriend, Maruchi. He kneeled in front of me. Looking me in the eye, it was hard to stare back at him without studying his handsome features. In a very serious tone, he told me I look Cuban. "Please do not speak when we are out. If you don't speak, everyone thinks you are Cuban. But they hear your Spanish or English and they know you are not Cuban."
I knew there were local discounts for local people. Or rather, prices were higher for tourists. I assumed that was the purpose for these instructions. Though his serious demeanor clung to my subconscious, I agreed without asking further questions.
We spent the afternoon at Humberto’s house. We shared tidbits of our life stories, and I marveled at the joyful demeanor, hospitality, and warmth that emanated from my new friends. I wondered if it was because of the lack of exposure to the United States. I always felt that the materialism that was woven into my culture corrupted people’s natural inner beauty. And it wasn’t only my new friends I was observing. Walking down the streets, people seemed so vibrant! Whatever entangled so much of life with tension, draining the ease and genuineness from interactions back home, was not present here.
Still, knowing almost nothing about the history, it occurred to me that the embargo may have preserved a lightness and freedom of spirit. Whatever it was, it felt magical to be in this atmosphere. That ease and friendliness is something I had always wanted for myself.
Cuban music played on the radio, and Channel, the small fluffball of a dog, jumped into my lap seeking my masterful massage. Fernando sat in front of me. He looked at me and blushed a little as he asked, “Can I ask you a question?” I nodded. “Why you want to bike so far, Cra-sy girrl?” He squinted is eyes, as if trying to figure out a puzzle.
I laughed, aware that I didn’t know anyone else who traveled by bicycle to go backpacking, like I did. “When I was seventeen, I got my license to drive.” He nodded as I spoke. “Three months later, I stopped driving.”
“Oh, why? Did something bad happen?” Fernando’s brow wrinkled with concern.
“No. Something good happened.” I watched the tremendous changes in his face with each new thing I said. “This world is so beautiful. I don’t like to take much from it. If I don’t drive, I won’t be using as much petrol.” He pondered this but said nothing. Channel wagged her tail, approvingly, and rolled onto her back. Stroking her tummy, I went on: “It’s important to me to persevere the environment. I try not to waste things, and I love biking! I love seeing beautiful places. So, I decided that I could bike wherever I want to go.” I smiled, re-kindling my wish to go my whole life without owning a car.
“Cra-sy girrl,” Fernando shook his head, but his eyes sparkled.
The “tsu-tsu-ka, tsu-tsu-ka” sound of raindrops hit the roof and streets below. A remarkably strong downpour and the subtle reaction I saw in Humberto’s face told me that our plans to head out would be delayed.
When our conversation paused, and Fernando walked over to Humberto, I took out my paints, and wondered how I would broach a subject that was growing on my mind. I had already decided that Fernando would be the one to represent Cuba. But I felt a little bit of hesitation because I was afraid that he would laugh at my request… or see it as a “project” rather than… well, I guess I saw it kind of as a celebration of a new friendship.
Back in the States I had taken a pottery class the semester before I left on this study abroad. I had decided to make beads for my hair, and that idea began to transform and take a new shape. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to make a bunch of clay beads, and ask my friends to paint them? I could wear their creations and take them with me, everywhere!
It turned out it was hard to make the beads very small, but I formed a collection of spherical and flat clay pieces and got them fired in the kiln. I asked friends from college and my hometown to each paint one. Then I strung them onto a necklace. It’s a gaudy piece of work, but so meaningful to me. Each bead hanging from the sting is overflowing with memories and stained thick with personality.
Here, in Cuba, it was time to begin my ‘world necklace.’
Fernando came back, now staring quizzically at my paints, as if I was up to something mischievous. I smiled shyly, spilling the whole array of beads onto the floor. I asked him to pick one.
"What's this?" he asked.
"I made these in a pottery class." He chose a spherical bead as I explained what they meant. "I bring my paints with me everywhere,” I continued. He listened, shaking his head. Then I asked, “Can I ask you a question?” He smiled. “Would you paint one for me?”
"Mi? No puedo pintar." But even as he said it, he took a closer look at the bead.
“It doesn't matter what it looks like. I want to have something made by you." He took the sphere meaningfully between his fingers, then a paintbrush, and he opened the five tubes of acrylic paints.
He became pensive and thoughtful, as he turned the bead in his fingers. I walked to the balcony to watch the downpour but glanced back to see Fernando’s concentration. He held the paint brush in one hand, examining the bead, as if to estimate whether his idea would suit the limited space of the hard, clay ball. It was about the size of a large cherry, spherical, and smooth. Once he brushed his first stroke, he did not rest until the bead was complete. He held it carefully to dry, until my curiosity brought me to kneel in front of him.
Wordlessly, I looked into his eyes. He held out the bead. The rain stopped, and sunlight quickly set the sidewalk to steam.
I brought the bead to the balcony, where light poured into the house. I was surprised that there was no painting at all, but words covering the surface. I followed the trail of words, as they wrapped around the bead, in a perfect balance: “I WANT A HOLE WORLD OF PEOPLE LIKE YOU.”
I turned the bead in circles. I loved that the little spelling mistake memorialized the coming together of our two different backgrounds. Throughout the short time we spent together, his genuineness struck a chord in me. He seemed so constant and pure. I knew I hadn’t had enough time to really know him yet, but I felt like I could see who he was, and I half believed that I did.
Crazy as it seemed, I wanted to become a part of his world – his warmth and the friendliness of the Cuba that was surrounding me. Did I really have to leave after only three days? I didn’t even know if I would be able to return… because of the embargo. (It was 1999. The penalty for coming to Cuba could be a $250,000 fine or six months in jail! There were no semester abroads to study in Cuba because of the political environment.)
I was with him now, at least. I would not let one second escape, as every moment was too precious to let pass by. I sat in Fernando’s arms as I drew a picture to express my thanks and appreciation. I hope he knows how much I will always treasure his gift.
“Let’s go!” Humberto punctured our bubble. “We will take you to see something in Havana.”
When the damp street’s sizzling steam had nearly all made its way into the sky, Fernando began singing in the sunshine.
I was thrilled to watch Fernando sing song after song in English. His accent added to his charm, but what attracted me more was that he showed no hesitation. The melody was alive in him. He had no reason to bottle it up inside. Keeping the tune, saying the right words, and whether or not he had a good voice were irrelevant. He didn’t think about those things, only enjoyed the act of singing as we walked down the street. I was impressed, too, that Fernado knew more songs in English than I did. I enjoyed so much to listen to him with that adorable accent and smile.
We visited a few historic places of interest, and I kept my mouth shut, as I had promised. But I was far more interested in simply being with Fernando, Humberto, and Maruchi. I let them lead and did not fight the direction the wind was blowing me.
“Do you have a dress in your ship?” I frowned, not knowing if I had the right dress for whatever they had in mind. “We are dancing tonight. You come?”
I hadn’t had time to think about dancing yet! Yes! I want to go dancing in a dancing culture! “Si! Me gusta bailando! No se nada, pero me gusta movar a la musica!” I tried to explain that I don’t know how to dance but I love moving to the music. For me, music was like a puppeteer who moved each part of me to its will. I let myself get absorbed, and it told me what to do – when I was alone. I would try to let go of my reservations tonight, though, and just feel.
“Perfecto. We go back to your ship, and you come back with your dress.” Fernando winked. I tried to reciprocate, but my wink was more like the slow-blink of a cat. He laughed at me in his laid-back way.
By this time, I knew my Cuban friends much better than anyone on the ship. They said to invite friends, so I invited my cabin roommates and the only girl I had started to get to know – Karla. I changed quickly and ran back out as fast as I could.
We hailed a taxi, which took us to a small pub with a local band playing, and the dancing finally began. Fernado was a good enough dancer to move my body in all the right directions. I was spun around and back and forth in this intimate amusement park ride. I didn’t know if I was learning Cuban salsa, but I liked whatever Fernando was doing. We swapped leading roles, freely, and he moved fluidly to whatever I did. It wasn’t ‘American dance’ of any sort, but more akin to Middle Eastern dance, Indian Bollywood, or belly dancing. That was the movement within me… it was just what I did, and I didn’t know why. Lots of flowy arms and back-bendy motions.
We danced into the small hours of the morning. But, as the hours of dancing drew on, I became more and more tired. I hadn’t eaten much that day. So, the spins died down with my energy, but Fernando led me, even after my eyes closed with the weight of comfort that pervaded my body. I could have fallen asleep on his shoulder, the way he moved me around without my expending any effort at all.
was almost 3am when Fernando led me back to the ship. "When we meet
tomorrow?" He asked. "I wait here for you.” He indicated the spot
where we were standing, both of my hands clasped in his. ”Que
"What time do you wake up in the morning?" I was exhausted. That didn’t matter, but I didn’t want him to feel tired or icky.
"Doesn't matter. I come here anytime." He assured me.
"A las seis?" I could have 3 hours of sleep. Normally, I only took five, and I was always full of energy. I wasn’t sure why I was so tired now, but maybe it was the lack of food, or maybe my feelings were wearing me out!
"Six O'clock. I see you here." There was no hesitation in his voice. He seemed like the type of person that would be a late riser, but it also seemed like no hour was too early.