By: Justin Nail
Cuba: a country so close to home–90 miles to be exact–but unlike anything I have ever experienced.Prior to departing for Havana, I had no idea what to expect from Cuba. I had some working knowledge of Cuban history and politics–but not much more than that which could help me answer a $200 question on Jeopardy. My only knowledge of the social climate in Cuba stemmed from Strawberry and Chocolate and Juan of the Dead which, albeit great films, were a little outdated and only tackled a small range of social issues. I intentionally limited my intake of anything and everything related to Cuba the months leading up to my trip. Why? There’s nothing I love more than exploring a place from a non-biased and uninformed point-of-view. Not only is my desire to learn and experience strengthened, but my retention and interest in everything that I take in certainly peaks.I didn’t look at the itinerary a single time before or during the trip, which made my 11 days in Cuba much like a treasure hunt–I never knew what I’d find or where I’d drift next. And if there’s one thing I learned about Cuba, it’s that being your most flexible self is imperative. From bus break downs to sleeping on box springs to substituting air-conditioned porcelain thrones and toilet paper for outdoor stone bowls and tissues–being in Cuba means you’re always at risk for a malfunction, glitch, or slap-in-the-face from your first-world privilege. But those are the experiences that I live for: the smoldering in a bus on a mountainside for three hours while a repair *slowly but surely* makes its way, the acceptance that you’re not going to be able to pick every ant off your loaf of bread at lunch so you just acknowledge that your meal has a little *extra* protein, the chicken that isn’t chicken nuggets and looks suspicious but you force yourself to eat it anyways because all you’ve eaten all day is a piece of bread at breakfast because you have a physical fear of guava and the tap water you accidentally use to brush your teeth when you come home a little borrachito and the impending death you think is awaiting you because of it.So many of my experiences in Cuba were true, authentic, Cuban experiences. And if there’s anything that Cuba is, it is true and authentic. Sure—the elaborate and elegant mansions constructed during the era of Spanish colonialism still stand tall, and revolution-era propaganda still greets anyone who opens their eyes in Cuba, but Cuba has forged its own unique personality as a nation—one that you can’t really understand until you experience it for yourself.From the beats of bongo drums to the sweet aroma of cigars to the greens, blues, purples, and pinks, of decaying, beautiful edifices–I miss everything about the tiny island that became my home for a period of time that definitely didn’t last long enough.On May 7th, I boarded the Delta flight, sat beside my fellow ranch-loving/fearing traveler Katherine and watched Moonlight in its entirety, not realizing that the other students sitting around me would start evolving into my second family before the day expired. As our flight touched down at the Jose Martí international airport, I still had no idea what to expect from Cuba, but I knew that Beyonce had meandered through the same airport not too long ago, so I felt inspired and invigorated. Every time I travel to a new place, I try and give my all to that place so that I can get the most out of my experience. Day 1 was a testament to that—cue sore calves, the first (of many) Cuba Libres, and salsa dancing where there is *no* room left for Jesus. My first night in Havana was all I needed—I was already in love in Cuba. The remaining 10 days—spent city-hopping from Cienfuegos to Trinidad to Santa Clara and a plethora of places in between—did nothing but strengthen my love for Cuba and the people I got to experience it with. I’ll forever remember jumping (or—as I hesitantly recall: flipping/belly-flopping) into the swimming hole with everybody. In 5,000 years—after our world has experienced another ice age—my Apple Watch, which still resides at the bottom of said swimming hole, will be excavated, and I will be a part of archaeological history. Positive thinking—that’s what Cuba’s all about… plus Kanye was right—how could I be mad on vacation?I’ll forever remember the dance battles I was roped into which required me to invent unique hybrid-moves, like my knee-backbend (which I still am nursing wounds from). I’ll remember the extreme and utter obliteration of anything and everything labeled “Havana Club.” I’ll remember the 2 AM beach parties and learning the true meaning of a Cuban sandwich. I’ll forever be haunted by “Bienvenido al Hotel California,” the never-ending, vertical stairs of that tower in Trinidad, and Daniel’s VERY informative explanation of Hemingway’s death for the rest of my life. I’ll remember going to Jovellanos and singing “La Bicicleta” with Tiffany and the beautiful girl we visited—my favorite rendition yet. I’ll miss the random facts about tarragon and mangoes and [insert literally any spice, green, and/or fruit] that I was subjected to every day. I’ll miss the cave club, the puppies, my sweet Gina that I had to leave behind in Trinidad, the architecture, and the constant having-to-swerve to avoid ramming into buses, horses, pedestrians, bicycles, tractors, wagons, or [insert anything that can move], which frequented the highways. I’ll remember the late nights on rooftop terraces—smoking cigars, looking at the stars, and just thinking about life and existence. I’ll forever remember so many things about Cuba, but I’ll forever keep them close to my heart.My experience in Cuba would not have been the same without the people I experienced it with. From El Loco’s hysterics, to horse meat (ha…hahahaha), to ranch attacks, to jilted brides, to “LOOK AT THAT,” to the bread at that French restaurant, to foals—we all became sort of like a family through the experiences we endured together. While I could write a paragraph about every person I went to Cuba with—how beautiful and brilliant each and every one is—I am just going to give a general “gracias” to Georgeann (SASSMASTER), Baker (aka the nicest person alive who, at 19, still uses “Miss” before addressing older ladies), Brittany (the WILDCARD and my beloved, jilted wife), Calista (my confidant and fellow believer in the power of Cuban spaghetti), Katherine (a fellow victim to the ranch and my beloved word mix-up plane game partner and Tide to go supplier), Callie (my country music & Zaxby’s-loving small-town sweetheart whose Tide to Go pen came in clutch also), Menley (my spontaneous and adventurous travel companion x2), and Ethan’s adam apple. I also have to extend all my love to Pam (my salsa queen), Angela (my mother and favorite human on earth), Dave (you are my idol tbh), the tour guides for helping me fall in love with Cuba, and the drivers for being the reason I was able to experience Cuba’s beauty first hand (especially you, Francisco—your flower proudly pokes out of one of the *many* vases I purchased at Hector’s farm). Lastly, Tiffany, I wanted to extend the sincerest of thanks to you for being such a passionate person and overall amazing human being. Your love for Cuba is raw and real, which makes traveling there with you so meaningful and enjoyable. You’re easily one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met, and I’m so proud of and amazed by the work you’ve done and continue to do. Thank you for inspiring me and for being the best faculty advisor ever.I would also like to say that I miss you, Papi. Hope you’re somewhere hitting the mariposa in my honor.Thank you, Cuba, for being such an amazing country full of fascinating culture and vibrant people. I’ll love and miss you forever… or at least hasta que se seque el malecón.Now, who’s ready for Salsa Club?