Cuba’s Charisma : Why I go

Why do you keep returning to Cuba?

During the last 3 years I’ve been asked that question thousands of times and in a hundred different ways:  What is the appeal of Cuba?  What do you see in it?  What do you do there?  Why this absorption, this obsession?  Truth is, I’m not sure I really know why I go.  I just know that I have to return.

Exhaust from an old car for sale in Havana Cuba
In a series of sweeping economic changes, cars can now be bought and sold in Cuba. Many of these relics run on handmade parts, rigged and cajoled and smoking through the streets of Havana.

Before I went the first time, I read Carlos Eire’s “Waiting for Snow in Havana” and was enthralled by his description of Havana’s radiance… the turquoise water, the light, the sunsets.  But one part of his childhood description stuck with me–and came rushing back almost word-for-word the first night I arrived in Cuba–the part where he describes the car nearly tipping over as his dad drives through the crashing waves along the Malecón:   “That was the beauty of it, and the horror.  So much freedom, so little freedom.  Freedom to be reckless, but no genuine freedom from woe.  Plenty of thrills, and an overabundance of risks, large and small.  But so little margin for error, and so few safety nets.”

So, what does that have to do with why do I go?  Why have I been six times in the last 3 years?  Why do I already want to return?

Cuba seems to call to me…beckoning things that I’ve forgotten, lost or restrained.  Adventure.  Audacity.  Creativity.  Purpose.  There, I feel an openness and confidence that seems compounded and exquisite.

I’ve tried to explain why I go to Cuba with photos, and with stories of what I’ve seen and done there.   It’s hard to define, to draw a picture that helps a curious person understand…How can I explain the light of the sun and the shade, or the smell of the humidity, or the raw elegance in the decay.  How do I explain hearing in my Cuban friends’ stories the vast hope and repeated frustrations as Cuba’s many reforms zig, zag and snowball?   How can I explain how my skin tingles from partaking in the random little bits of risk in Cuba, or from seeing the creative resourcefulness of their fixes for things broken or not available?

Maybe I can never really explain my enchantment with Cuba because I don’t yet understand it well enough myself.  Or maybe because I don’t understand myself…what draws me to these raw edges.  The pattern is not yet revealed.  I do know that I will keep on going back…witnessing the changes–both in Cuba and in me.

Obelisk overlooking Havana
An obelisk’s shadow marks time in Havana.

 

Elegance decays
Marble steps fall away, wood decays, keyholes give out…and Havana goes elegantly on.

 

Overgrown Anfiteatro in Parque Lenin
A Cuban friend reminds me often that, without people, Cuba would return to the jungle in only a few years. This amphitheater in Parque Lenin is proof. What was once a clear pond surrounding the stage is now covered with algae, and tall grass grows around the stone seating.

 

Stitches repair this concrete cover
Stitches keep this concrete cover together on a rooftop in Havana.

 

Beams prop up this old building behind el Capitolio in Havana
This 5 story building behind the Capitolio used to be a hotel. Now it’s home to 50-60 families. The door and elevator are boarded up, the bannisters are missing in places, the stairs are becoming detached. We went in and carefully made our way to the top floor, talking our way into an apartment crammed full of trinkets. Another place was burned and empty. These families await relocation to a safer living space. And likely this prime real estate will again become a posh hotel or apartment building once el Capitolio’s renovations are complete and the parliament moves in across the street.

 

Fumigation on Calle 23 Havana
Early one morning, I saw smoke traveling down Calle 23 in Vedado. Fumigation trucks (and airplanes) keep Havana mosquitos in check.  About a minute later, I could smell the pesticide in my room.

 

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