As our bus drove through and away from the streets of Havana, with Cuban music thumping in my ears, I took in the last scenes of our sequestered neighbor, also known as Isla de la Juventud, that I am likely to see for a long time. Classic cars ambled by; people sat on front porch steps or bustled through their Sunday routines. I had no desire to leave yet, and I found myself holding back tears. There is too much more to learn, too many more people to know, too much more Caribbean sunshine to soak in.
Every other time I’ve returned to California, I’ve been glad. Stepping out into the crisp Northern California air at the San Francisco airport has always been a ritual of comfort. It’s usually a relief to return to all that I’ve established here, to eating what I want, driving my car, and to the shower pressure to which I’ve become so accustomed. Even returning to Washington after more than two months in Italy brought some relief. But this time, the relief simply didn’t come. In traveling with no phone or Internet access, wearing skirts, sleeveless shirts, and sandals, and speaking another language, there was liberation. I hardly wore any makeup because I knew the sun and humidity would melt it right off anyway. My freckles popped out and a natural glow took over. There was so much less to carry.
There’s something so fascinating to me about Cuban culture, more than any other culture I’ve experienced. Its population is multiethnic, with Spanish, African, and aboriginal Taíno and Ciboney roots. Its culture is influenced heavily by Spanish colonialism, a close Cold-War era relationship with the Soviet Union, African slavery, and, obviously, a history of political strife, repression, and persecution. While the socialism of the state certainly does not eradicate poverty, to some extent, it blurs the lines of socioeconomic disparity in a way that is incredibly novel to me, coming from the United States.
The parts of Cuban culture that I am most intrigued by are Afro-Cubanism and the practice of Santería. About 17.4 percent of Cubans practice folk religion. Santería has roots in the West African Yoruba religion and Roman Catholicism, and is known for its rituals and ceremonies. While in Cuba, I saw a couple of altar-like arrangements for protection that feature many obscure objects, including desiccated bananas, animal jawbones, and doll heads.
The men I met in Cuba were suave, charming, and persistent. Rather than being off-put by my nationality and whiteness, they seemed to embrace it, just as I embraced their appearances and heritage. Though a Communist leader represses them, they are impassioned and unafraid to speak their minds. Surrounded by Cubans with dark skin thanks to their African roots, I was like a kid in a candy store.
Over several hours of making my way back to California, my anxiety about returning continued to grow. In Cuba, everything was suspended, but back at home there are so many things on my mind. I dreaded coming back to capitalism, back to Facebook and text messaging, back to passive aggression and the grueling job hunt. The rain that persisted for a couple of days after I returned didn’t help after sunshine, 80-degree days, and swims in sparkling teal water. It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like the grass is always greener on the other side.
But today, lying in the warm sunshine on a Monterey beach as I write this, things don’t seem so bad. I just have to remember to chew one bite at a time. Hopefully someday I will be able to return to Cuba. I hope for my next stops to be Haiti and the Dominican Republic. For the meantime, I’ll remind myself of this: “Wherever you go, there you are.”