It seems that everyone and their mother these days is going to Cuba.
Back in spring of 2015, when the travel ban was still in effect, I had to ask a Canadian friend to purchase our flights (which were routed through Mexico) because my computer automatically blocked the transaction on my U.S. card -- even though I was using a VPN plugin to trick the search engine into showing the flights in the first place.
Now that relations have "thawed," American travel to Cuba has skyrocketed, and it seems I can't go a week without encountering another friend or colleague who is planning their next vacation to the island.
And yet, when people ask me "what it's like" in Cuba, I have no idea what to tell them.
So I don't tell them anything. Instead I say: "I'd love to chat about your experience once you've come back." On a level I suppose I feel that, by refraining, I am doing them a service; allowing them to proceed into the unknown without expectation, free from the burden of my interpretation.
But here, I get to tell whatever stories I want.
So if you choose, at this point, to continue reading, know that you do so at your own risk.
When I think of Cuba, I don't think of entire days spent on chilled Chinese-manufactured buses with blue fabric seats, or jars of pickled vegetables imported from Germany lining the shelves of otherwise depressingly empty grocery stores. I don't think of the elusive "Cuban sandwich" that you can get anywhere in the world outside of Cuba, or the time I told our hostess that her homemade spicy salsa was SO GOOD that she should seriously consider selling it -- only to have Bruce remind me gently, after she'd retreated, that selling it was not exactly an option for her.
And I TRY not to think about the seasonal migration of flamingos -- thousands upon thousands of absurd, lanky pink birds -- which we traveled all the way to Ciénaga de Zapata in search of.
Because, after traveling all that way south (and witnessing countless purple-red crabs getting crushed under the relentless tires of our fancy tourist bus), we were immediately informed by Dalia, the owner of our hostel, that "ya se fueron" -- we'd JUST missed them.
"Maybe you'll see one or two,"she said, shaking her head mournfully, "but at a great distance."
(Later -- after we'd agreed to book a different birding tour through Dalia and fallen in love with our guide for his childlike happiness just to follow a blue-headed pigeon half a mile through the forest and shake a sleeping owl awake from its hiding spot inside a hollowed-out tree -- we sat down at a beachside tiki bar where the bartender, who turned out to be Dalia's cousin, expressed confusion at our Flamingo Lament. "She lied," he said. "The flamingos are still there. You can go tomorrow." But we were out of time.)
Rather, when I think of Cuba, I remember the old man who picked us up in his ancient blue taxi, from the top of a jungle-covered mountain somewhere north of Trinidad.
When he learns we are American, he exclaims with something akin to joy. "We don't get too many Americans," he says with a grin. "Canadians, Australians, Germans, sure. But not Americans." He asks a few standard questions, what state we are from and how we like Cuba.
And then, almost to himself, he says: "Oh, but you're so young. You couldn't know... It's not your fault."
Then our driver starts telling us stories, in Spanish, of all the things he's witnessed in his 70 years in Cuba.
When he was five, his father wanted to send him to the States. The US was telling everyone there was no future in Cuba. They said you had to get your kids out now, if you wanted them to have a shot at some kind of decent life. And his father had believed it; but he'd refused to go.
"And do you know what they called it?" he asks, not looking in the rearview; and by this time I know he is no longer talking to me. "They called it Operation Peter Pan," he spits, as though the terrible irony of the name is not lost on anyone. Then, with a snort, he repeats it. "Operation Peter Pan."
"And do you know," he says, his voice quietly escalating, "that in these very mountains, entire families were killed at the hands of rebels who had U.S. backing?"
On a roll now, he gradually crescendoes:
"... Y déjame decirte algo,porque quiero que entienda algo, que NO SOY un comunista. Lo sé que nuestro gobierno nos falta, que hay problemas cuando todos tengan acceso a la educación y la médica sin tener que hacer nada, que muchas personas se pongan en borrachos sin participar en la vida, que no tengan trabajo ni casa. NO SOY un comunista, pero lo que soy, yo soy un CUBANO, un VERO Cubano. Los Estados Unidos se han estado ES-PER-ANDO, pa' que los Cubanos se pongan amargos con la vida y con su gobierno. Pero eso no va a pasar. He vivido toda la vida aquí en Cuba, he visto todo, y soy un vero Cubano."
[TRANSLATION: "Let me tell you something, because I want you to understand something, which is that I am NOT a communist. I know that our government has failed us, that there are problems when everyone has access to education and medical care without having to do anything for it, that many people become drunks and don't participate in life, don't have work or a house. I am not a communist, but what I am, I am CUBAN, a REAL Cuban. The U.S. has been WAITING, waiting for the Cubans to become bitter with life and with their government. But that's not going to happen. I've lived my whole life here in Cuba, I've seen everything, and I am a real Cuban."]
And then -- silence.
Ten minutes of silence, as we make the final turns into Trinidad.
It is as though he'd forgotten himself, and his audience, and gotten swept up in his memories and his latent, long-swallowed anger, and had only just NOW remembered -- that the two people sitting in his car had not even been alive for any of the decisions or events that he is remembering.
And when we pull up to the curb in town, he gets out and dutifully lifts our bags from the trunk, and I pay the fare and shake his hand. And it is as though the impassioned person who had shared his story has disappeared -- replaced by someone more resigned and more removed and more alone than ever.
And then, you return to the States -- and months later your friends are preparing for their own trip to Cuba, and they look at you with bright, eager eyes and ask: