I stood in the immigration line at the José Martí International Airport, and I swiped through the photos I had taken of cigars and rum, of the Malecón and of Jorge, the Cubs fan I met near Hemingway’s Finca Vigia. I had so many pictures and had yet to share them on Instagram because of Cuba’s limited wifi. As I waited, I swiped, and I thought of clever captions for the photographs.
Four days earlier, I checked into Chicago’s O’Hare airport and shared that I was traveling to Havana, Cuba. The post got 76 likes and 22 comments. Cuba is cool to Americans; similar to the way slow-drip coffee and man-buns are cool. The idea of visiting Cuba inspires the visual of history persevered, of the 1960s still alive in the well-known cars and colored buildings of Havana.
But that’s not what I found.
In the right sunlight and with the right filter, Havana can look like a Caribbean-themed town in Candyland. Those colorful cars, the cars that tourist pose next to and pay a steep price just to ride along the Malecón, are the gilded facades of a machine that uses patched-together-parts from different cars of different make, model and manufacture. The streets behind El Capitolio are littered, unlit at night and lined with unkept, colorless buildings. In some parts of the city, cars can’t even drive the full length of the street because of giant, untended holes stretching the width of the pavement.
The people are fast, curious and proud. I met some passionate Communists, which I found surprising and interesting as hell. My American, democratic-capitalist upbringing taught me that those living in Communist countries were oppressed; and who can be happily oppressed? From these enthusiastic Communist, I learned that Fidel declared war on racism and discrimination in the 1950s, that the Cuban Constitution guarantees women the same opportunities as men in the hopes of women’s full participation in society; that healthcare is free and includes abortions.
To that last point, I learned the Cuba is having a bit of a population crisis as people are choosing to not have children, fearing that it would be too difficult to provide for them.
Instead of riding in those colored cars along that famous, sea-side road, I chose to wait along the street called Neptuno for the “machine.” These were basically collectivos, but in old, beat up cars that had holes in the floor, uncomfortable seats and no pretend of glamor. For the cheap price of 1 COP, I’d wait on the side of the street with other locals and shout where I wanted to go at approaching cars. If the drive glanced at me and gave me a curt nod, I got to ride across town, wedged onto bench seats with locals that eyed me but ignored me.
When I flipped through my pictures, I wanted to capture those moments; the moments when Cuba was more or less sitting on my lap as we bumped along poorly kept roads, dodging bikes, and others would-be-riders when they jumped into the street, shouting where they wanted to go. Or when I paid less than a CUP for a Cuban sandwich and ate it on the curb while some kids entertained me with a soccer game. These pictures were dark, grey and required more explanations than Instagram optimizes.
“Can’t wait for wifi, aye?”
My Australian friends, whom I met while we waited near baggage check, caught my attention in line. The couple, about my age, had woven back so we were right next to each other though 100 people or so separated us in line. They are from Queensland and currently six months into a one-year trip; both having quit their jobs and packing their lives into backpacks.
“I’m obsessed with Instagram; trying to decide what to post first.”
“Were you able to get online at all while in Cuba?”
All three of us say, “Koo-va” like the locals, as if our short stint on the island was enough time to delve into the culture and possess it like a stamp in our passports.
“Yes, but not for very long.”
“Those wifi parks were crazy,” the Australian woman said. “You walk by them at night and they seem to be glowing. Everyone outside but focused on these small, little screens.”
We talked a bit longer about Cuba, how the island compared to our expectation and living out of a backpack.
Then the line moved and so did they.
That is when I noticed the man in front of me was making crude gestures towards an unidentifiable person in the crowd; he was licking his lips, sticking out his tongue and biting it, even grabbing the fabric of his pants.
My feelings hover somewhere between disgust and entertainment.
When the line shuffled forward, he aggressively pushed his way to the rope that separates those waiting to immigrate out of the country and those lingering on the outside. He embraced a woman over the rope. Both were shaking. I couldn’t see his face, but I saw hers, gaunt with sorrow, red and wet with tears.
I felt rude for watching, but I was transfixed.
He pushed away from her and held her face between his hands. He spoke to her, and she sniffed back a few sobs, nodding. They kissed and then he moved away, assuming his place in front of me without hesitation. Proudly, he wiped his face with his hand, no hint of shame about his tears. The woman remained by the roped-line, her hands crossed at her chest, nodding as she suffered to smile.
Next to her, a family sobbed and took photographs of the crowd, their focus slightly ahead of us. I wondered, Are these the last photographs they will take of their loved ones? Am I just a nameless figure in the backdrop that will be the last time these people–who love each other to tears–will see one another?
The family was bidding a woman and her son goodbye. The mother was crying, but made no effort to hide her face or wipe away her tears. She seems to eat them as she cried and waved at the family. Behind her, a young boy hid behind a dishtowel, his whole hand holding it to cover his face so just his red eyes, glistening with tears, could be seen staring at his photographers.
I was devastated; I started to cry myself.
A long weekend away, which was easy enough for me to plan as it is to perform a few Google searches, was liked and praised and marveled. I travel. I have no reason. I have no objective. I simply travel because I’m interested in doing so and because I can. How profoundly awesome and selfish and fucked up is that? What is my vague interest and a collection of ink in a government issue booklet compared to the necessity these people feel to leave those they love, not knowing when or how they’ll see each other again?
My own tears became heavy and choking, and I covered my face with my hands. I felt the dull pressure of shame.
A family was eventually sorted behind me in front of the immigration window—a mom, a dad and two little girls. They have obviously vacationed in Cuba, the little girls loud and energetic as they nag their parents impatiently. The mother wore a green beret with Che Guevara’s likeness on it, a souvenir to visually brag about where they’ve just been.
But like me, they can’t have the slightest idea.