Cuba: Far more than cars and cigars

11018602_471135083033550_5882556190557011598_nIn the weeks leading up to my trip to Cuba, it seemed like every time I mentioned my travel plans, someone’s jaw would drop. “Cuba? Didn’t they just start letting Americans go there? Aren’t you nervous?”

Yes, I was.

I had no idea what to expect. I was going with a class at Ball State University (in Muncie, Ind.), and although relations had begun to thaw between the U.S. and Cuba, the trip was planned prior to President Obama’s December announcement that the there would be a shift in policy.

I had no idea what to expect. At the end of February I packed a suitcase, left my laptop at home (we were told there was very little Internet access), stuffed $500 into my backpack and got on the plane with my classmates.

it didn’t take after arriving outside of Havana to see just how different things were from the States. There were no McDonald’s or Starbucks. There was Internet in the hotel, but it cost money, and rarely worked. And the hotel itself was s luxurious but it stood out in stark contrast to what was beyond the property:  broken down houses and people living in poverty. The restaurants, the bars, the nightlife seemed to be there only for the tourists, as few citizens could afford them.

A couple of days into the trip I realized I wasn’t afraid anymore. The people were all welcoming. Each meal was as good as eating in a five star restaurant in the U.S. The music was passionate and vibrant.

But it wasn’t until we got to Trinidad in central Cuba (a UNESCO World Heritage site) that the true importance of our trip hit me.

On our first night, we went to a party thrown by the CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution). Essentially, we were going to a communist block party. At first, our group from the U.S. stood on one side and the Cubans, smiling but looking just as nervous as we did, stood on the other. Then the music was turned down and a man began to speak. A translator told us what he was saying: “We want to welcome you to our country. When you dance with us, we will know you are our friends.”

Tears welled up in my eyes. I realized we may have been just  a small group of college students, but that by being there at the beginning of a profound change in Cuba/U.S. relations, we could hopefully play a small part in strengthening those new ties.

A little girl named Melanie clung to my arm and danced with me. Her mom brought me cake and drinks and fruit. I spoke to Melanie in my limited Spanish and already felt like I had a bond with this 7-year-old, who held my hand while the other children brought me flowers.

These little kids grew up with so much less than I did, but wanted to give. Their hearts were so big. I reached into my purse and started handing out sticks of my gum. Gum is scarce and expensive there, and the next thing I knew, I was surrounded by all of the kids. I sat with some of them and showed them my iPhone. They asked me to take their picture and to show them to them over.  They were having the time of their lives, but so was I.

Melanie pointed to my necklace, telling me in Spanish that it was pretty. I took it off and put it around her neck. I took off my bracelet and handed it to her, and then removed my earrings and placed them in her tiny hands. I knew I would never meet or talk to Melanie again, but it felt she had become an integral part of my life, was now the face I would think of when remembering the trip.

I could fill up pages with my experiences. I played bongos with a Cuban band, got cornrows in a straw market, jumped into a waterfall and rode a pink Chevy convertible along the shoreline. But I will never adequately be able to explain how profoundly Cuba affected me. I have been to almost a dozen countries across the world, but Cuba has my heart.

Miranda Carney is a student at Ball State University

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