Where do I start? How do I share everything I saw and heard over nine days in a country that remains a mystery to most Americans? How do I describe all of the emotions that took me weeks to process after I returned home? I know this for sure–my trip to Cuba was unique and unforgettable. Even if I never have the opportunity to go back and visit the people I met or the church where we worked, the experience will stay with me forever.
In a foreign country where I spoke a broken version of the language, the Cuban people made me feel right at home. They laugh; they dance; they sing; they talk a mile a minute, all at the same time; they argue over their games, everything from the rules to the winners and losers. And they do it all loudly which reminded me of my Italian family get-togethers as a kid! I love the Cuban passion for life, for God, for each other, and for us. The Pastor’s family and members of the congregation greeted our group with hugs and kisses (usually double kisses on one cheek) every time we showed up to the church, and they sent us off with hugs and kisses when we departed. No matter how briefly we were away at our hotel, every single one of them would offer the same sweet welcome as we returned for the evening. And each night, they gathered around our taxi to say good-bye and wave until we disappeared from their village street.
Not only do the Cubans possess a zest for life and relationships, but they’re extremely generous. They have so little, and yet they were willing to share everything they have with us! Several women from the church cooked huge meals for us daily. The staples included rice and beans (enough to fill a cooler); chicken, pork, and hotdogs to put over the rice; avocado; and plantains. The food was absolutely amazing! I have no idea how I ate so much and didn’t gain 10 pounds, ha. Shrimp caught locally, potatoes, mangoes off their trees, and a sweet papaya concoction were served as treats. And we could drink coffee at every meal–strong, espresso coffee with the sugar brewed right in. We tried to do the dishes and clean up the kitchen; but if one of the church members started first, they wouldn’t let us help. At times, I wondered why they accepted ME and why they were so kind to a stranger from another country. But their affection and interest were genuine. I made some wonderful new friends, and I miss them dearly.
The trek to Cuba marked my first time in a Communist country, the first time I’ve ever been to a nation where the people are not free to live, work, or worship the way they choose. Seeing this in person broke my heart. As the government welcomes hoards of new visitors from the United States, popular tourist spots like old Havana are under construction. Modern hotels and museums are going up everywhere. Other landmarks are being cleaned up and renovated. But it’s largely window-dressing. A few miles outside the capital city, homes and businesses are in desperate need of repairs. The roads are wrecked, and trash is piled up in many spots. People keep asking me about the classic cars in Cuba. Yes, the streets and parking lots resemble antique car shows. I was in awe until I realized how often they break down. Very few Cubans can buy parts to fix them or buy newer autos, so they do whatever they can to get their vehicles back on the road. Only a small percentage of adults own a driver’s license.
The “private sector” is nearly non-existent in Cuba. The majority of the work force is operated by the government. Some people farm or cook and sell food out of their homes; others use their horses and buggies to give taxi rides. But the Communist state controls the economy with a tight fist. Cubans can’t “get ahead” if they work hard and excel at their crafts. All the money made by the influx of tourism goes directly to the government, not the people who need it. Because of this, visiting the country is like stepping back in time. They’re stuck. They don’t have a viable postal system; in some places, they don’t even have mailing addresses. The worst part, though, is the people aren’t allowed to leave. Very few visas are granted for travel outside Cuba because the government is afraid its citizens won’t return. After witnessing their quality of life and oppression over nine days, I began to understand why some risk their lives in desperate attempts to flee the 90 miles to Florida and freedom.
Since returning home, I’m overwhelmingly grateful for the blessings we enjoy as US citizens. Remembering what I saw and heard keeps me from complaining about minor inconveniences that seem so insignificant compared to the challenges of living in Cuba. I’ve also wrangled with sadness, anger, and helplessness. I want to do more to help my new friends. I pray for their safety and for changes to the government, and I enjoy communicating with them on Facebook and email. I also read the notes I scribbled in my journal about my favorite moments from the trip–teaching Sunday school class and sharing snowmen, penguin, and reindeer stickers with the kiddos; playing kickball and other games with the youth group on a dirt field behind the Pastor’s house; and spending the day at Varadero, the beach they call the most beautiful in Cuba.
I won’t forget talking about béisbol with Camilo or laughing with Sucel or riding in the front seat of our cab with Daniel who navigates the crazy Havana traffic like a pro. I still smile about playing “water games” on a wet, soapy tarp inside the church; giving the Pastor all the school supplies I could pack into my suitcase; standing in line for two hours to eat gobs of ice cream at the famous Coppelia; tearing up when we sang Amazing Grace on Sunday morning; and snapping pictures for 20 minutes as we said good-bye the last night.
I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to Cuba. I would love to visit the Pastor’s family in the future, but I have no idea if the circumstances in my life will offer the opportunity. What I DO know is that the experience of traveling to Havana will stay with me forever. And as long as people will listen, I will share my stories and the memories from deep inside my heart.