Let’s take a moment to travel back to the first week of November, 2016. President Obama was still in office, the election had not yet taken place, and this gringa stepped foot on Cuban soil for the very first time. Little did I know the huge impact this tiny island would have on my life. To give you a better understanding of my experience I will give you a bit of background on myself.
I was born and raised in the tiny central Florida town of Dade City, where I spent most of my time on my grandparents cattle ranch. My family was extremely tight-knit growing up and I had not been exposed to much else other than southern culture until I spread my wings and flew off to college. When I moved to Miami, this city opened up my eyes to the world and I fell in love with experiencing different cultures on a daily basis. Hence my love of travel which led to planning a trip to explore Cuba and my wife’s roots, who is a first generation Cuban-American.
I was nervous about the trip because of the extreme polarization of people’s viewpoints on the island, especially here in Miami. I did not know what to expect so I did my fare share of research on Cuban history, the revolution, what led up to it, and how the country functions today. I must say that the results of my independent research shared some strong contradictions to what I remembered learning in school. However, this trip was about learning what the real people of Cuba wanted to share with me about their life and opinions.
We started our journey in Havana which eventually led to Santiago, climbing the Sierra Maestra, traveling through Bayamo, Trinidad, Camaguey, Santa Clara, and back to Havana. To say the two week expedition was exhausting was an understatement, but oh the experiences. I can now say I have multiple families throughout Cuba that I love dearly, I am now a master of the Viazul bus system and I can find Mexican Coca-Cola and malanga anywhere to get me through some rather challenging stomach moments. None of this would have been possible without the amazing hospitality and help of every Cuban and their family I met along the way.
There is an atmosphere, or vibe if you will, that is almost tangible the moment you land in Cuba. It feels as if you are home and everyone is either family or a friend. I do not know what I was expecting, but this was not it. I wasn’t sure how people would react to Americans, and there is no hiding me or my nationality, I am six foot two with blonde hair and blue eyes. To say I sometimes became my own tourist attraction was an understatement. To my surprise though, everyone we met was thrilled to know we were American and we were visiting there. They also came ready with questions about how everything was going in America and how our systems worked in the states in comparison with theirs. I found that almost every Cuban I met on my travels was very curious, wanted to chat, spoke at least two languages and was college educated (it’s free!). The people of Cuba and their stories are the most enchanting thing on the island and believe me, there is some stiff competition as I found even the buildings and cars all have their unique charm there.
Last year I traveled to the UK, France, Spain, Greece and Italy for different lengths of time and I cannot say that I made a strong human connection or a “friend” in any of those places. That is not to say the people were not friendly, it is just such a stark contrast to the people of Cuba. Cubans love to talk and being “plugged-in” doesn’t yet exist there, thank God! I imagine the social interaction I experienced is somewhat like it was here in the mid to late 20th century. It was so refreshing to have people who actually wanted to have a meaningful conversation with you, it sounds so sad saying it out loud but I cannot recall the last time I had a real conversation with a stranger in Miami or just made a random friend walking somewhere.
There were so many random acts of human kindness displayed throughout my journey. From complete strangers walking us home late at night when we were lost, to the house Mom making me cafecito at 1AM for a bus departure, or the Abuela in Trinidad who let me cry to her when I learned that Trump was the president elect and to all the other Cubans that helped me get through that heart-wrenching day. It is very obvious that the human connection and compassion live on in Cuba and seem to be displayed much more there in comparison with everywhere else I have traveled. Our guides on this trip became family as well, on our departing night in Trinidad our guide even hosted a dinner at her home for us and gave us her favorite book as a parting gift. The people were so genuine, family oriented and happy, I found it similar to my small-town southern upbringing and it made me feel so at home and just really, really happy.
Now to address the title of my piece, what, might you ask, is your American duty? This. I feel it is my American duty to share my story of how wonderful the people of Cuba truly are and what an epic journey people have in store for them, should they decide to travel to this magical little island. This island and it’s people saved me from some of my darkest moments in learning about the future of my own country while I was there, to learning about the past of theirs, and how most Cubans fully embrace it. I will not get into the political side of my journey, as I’ve learned the hard way that this is an extremely sensitive topic in Miami with 200 shades of gray, but I will say there is a lot to be learned from Cuba and its people regarding every aspect of life. Many think that what Cubans want from us when traveling from America is things, as we all know the blockade has placed a real burden on the island for years, but it is not that. All I was asked of when I was there was to spread the word to my fellow Americans of how it truly is there as they are all very excited about the prospect of increasing American tourism. This duty of mine feels so small in comparison to what the people of Cuba gave me, but it is a duty that I take on with pride as this is what they asked of me.
The end of the blockade is such an indefinite thing, especially with our new leader, the people have learned to not rely on our “things”, so the one “thing” we can give them that will last is a boost to their tourist economy. Since I have come home I have shared my story in depth to numerous close friends, and so far 3 separate groups of my friends have made the journey and come back with similar stories. The spirit of the Cuban people is resilient, contagious and alive and well and I owe it to you and all of my Cuban comrades to share my experience. Now go have your own experience in Cuba, and come home to fulfill your duty as well.