It would take me a lifetime to adequately reflect on two weeks in Cuba. Thus, while I suspect that my peers and I may well spend the rest of our lives feeling the effects of this trip, I have neither the desire nor the means to articulate our experience or its impact.
(…and then this is the part where I have to attempt whatever I just refused to do, right?)
Regarding the title of this post: if you can’t really parse out Spanish and you A) have no access to a Spanish dictionary or B) don’t feel like leaping up to grab one or C) are so far gone and so comatose that you lack the will to hit up google translate–if this is the case, please double check to make sure you’re still breathing–or D) you do speak Spanish but my Spanish is crap and makes no sense……. then the title of my post was written with the intent of headlining the fact I found Cuba’s incredibly unique and compelling beauty to be rooted in contrasts.
This is immediately noticeable in traffic. We might be roaring down a boulevard in our oversize bus, and with the percussive force of Rumba rhythms rattling the windows and our teeth, trying to note our surroundings. The lanes are splattered with retro Cadillacs or Corvettes in eye-popping colors; any interstices between these cars are filled with dump-trucks, with men riding in back, drinking beers or sodas or holding shovels or just watching. And into the rush of this incredibly eclectic oncoming traffic rides a man on a two-wheel horse-drawn cart.
Somehow we find ourselves comfortable and at home while walking down streets in Havana, which, in any other environment, would not seem so prudent. We look to our left and there are multi-story buildings replete with frescoes, painted lavish shades of cyan, turquoise, mango, or rose. We look to our right, and on the opposite side of the street there are houses that look as if they’ve been partially burnt down; ragged windows embedded in scorched walls that stand in a yard full of dirt and rubbish. We peer inside the windows of crumbling, architectural masterpieces adorned with peeling paint and shot-up pillars; seemingly grimy exteriors that hide the modest pleasantries of home-life from unscrupulous eye: a woman hanging laundry on rickety balconies, the pulsating light of a TV, rugs on the floor, art on the walls, a boy seated in a plastic chair swinging his feet. We have the pleasure of encountering affectionate, enthusiastic dogs of every known variety on the street and in people’s homes. We equally experience the leaden sadness of seeing dogs stumbling along with disjointed gaits, covered in flies and sores, and other dogs crawling off to die in the shade.
Life in Cuba is beautiful because it is unapologetically upfront, and you need not seek out any “authenticity” if you are willing to observe Cuban life without selective vision. Everything is there, regardless of whether or not you find certain aspects of it appealing. You don’t have to see the urban poverty if you don’t want to–there are plenty of prettier houses to look at. You don’t have to see rural poverty–you could look at the hills and put your iPod on shuffle. You don’t have to see money’s effects on people–you can delineate their interactions with you and your shared exchanges from their reality. You can delineate your treatment and perception of others from your own reality. Who did you see when you drove through that town: the cute little girls waving? the blown kisses? The kid raising his middle finger to your glossy bus? The old man who smiled, or the one who spat? Did you just embrace the sweetness because the resentment seemed too uncomfortable to look in the eye?
Cuba is challenging because it’s so giving. The culture literally offers itself up on every block of pavement and every stretch of dirt. It asks you to see so many similarities and fundamental human commonalities that you start wondering if you can say “Look at Cuba, it’s so beautiful; we’re all the same, aren’t we?” That’s the catch. If you don’t see and respect the differences, then you can’t really love the contrasts, and as far as I’m concerned, if you don’t love the contrasts, you don’t love Cuba.
If you espouse a love for Cuban life, revel in the countryside as you drive past. If you look between the trees in an orchard, you might make out a few graves. No cemetery, no marble headstones, no cremation. White makeshift crosses and mounds nestled amid roots mark the places where people physically laid loved ones’ bodies to rest in the very land they had worked. If that doesn’t grip you as being one of the most alienating but compellingly human things you could lay eyes on, I’m not sure I could ever find a way to explain my experience of Cuba to you at all.