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From My Seductive Cuba by Chen Lizra
On the afternoon of the last day of my last two-month visit to Cuba, I found myself in Centro Habana, walking back to my hotel following dance classes. To my right were kids playing with an old ball that hardly had any air. It didn’t matter; they were having fun. A mom appeared on the balcony and called her daughter in. I kept walking; Cuban men were coming on to me saying sweet things as usual.
Nowadays, kids play Nintendo or sit and chat on Skype or MSN. If your mom needs you, she’ll call your cellphone. The world has changed a lot, but is it better? I don’t know. We’ve lost so much of our simplicity for the sake of comfort and technology. They should come hand in hand, but in reality one seems to come at the expense of the other.
Why is it that we want everything to be so new when the old is so charming? I wondered if they’d get rid of the old cars when Cuba changes. I used to come here and be fascinated with every car. They have so much character. Now it’s just part of the landscape. It seems silly to take pictures of them all the time. But without them, it would feel like something’s missing. Another thing I love about Cuba is that no one ever asks how old you are and classifies you according to your answer. You just live and enjoy the moment.
Later in the evening I went with Orly—my talented French-Israeli singer friend who lives between Paris and Havana—to grab a bite and share some deep conversation. She walked me back to my hotel after dinner. It was really hard to say goodbye. So many hugs. I just couldn’t let go, so we just stood there. I looked at her and said, “Orly, where am I going? I live here, no?” and I laughed. It did feel strange to leave, like leaving home. I love Cuba. It’s always so hard for me to leave it. Meeting Orly on that trip made it even harder, because we became so close and shared such a deep friendship, like two sisters.
Eventually my eyes were shutting down. We squeezed each other one last time and I was off to bed. I lay there, eyes shut, trying to fall asleep. Around 1 a.m., I heard an SMS come in and had the feeling I knew who it was from. I opened my eyes, rolled over heavily, and read it. It was Orly saying one last goodbye and how much all of this meant to her. I sent her a text message back saying the same. My eyes were all watery, the best kind, when you love people. I flipped over and fell asleep immediately.
In the morning I woke up way too early. I was too emotional to sleep. The Malecón was so calm at dawn and the colors were so pretty. I’m never awake at this time. Car headlights and street lamps reflected in the water, yet there was already enough light to distinguish the sea with its unique colors. So calm, so peaceful. There’s never a reason to rush anywhere in Cuba. Where to? What for? That’s part of the beauty of this place. I packed my things and went to say goodbye to Melba and Alberto, my friends who own a beautiful casa particular. It was time.
Then I took a taxi to the airport. When I asked the driver to turn on the air-conditioning, he laughed and said, “You are getting ready for the change in climate?” Yes, I said, laughing back. It was the first time I had ever ridden anywhere in Cuba and the driver (after that sole question) did not exchange even one word with me. I wondered if he was trying to give me the space he thought foreigners needed. At that moment, it felt like I was about to leave; things were already changing back to foreign mode.
Cubans often get confused when I look Cuban; sometimes it creates the strangest situations. For example, taxis don’t always stop for me because they assume I don’t have money. This time around, while at the airport getting my bags scanned, an official asked to see my passport. When he saw I was Canadian, he said, “Parece una cubana” [You look like a Cuban]. I replied, “Casi cubana después de cinco años, pero no” [Almost Cuban after five years, but no]. He laughed with me. I realized that as a Cuban it must have seemed strange that I had so much electronic equipment and videotapes with me—I filmed all my dance classes—but for a foreigner it made complete sense.
I sat at the airport waiting for my flight, this little airport that feels as if you landed in a little village, and you’d get off the plane and walk straight to the local mama’s house for a delicious meal. I sat there working on my computer. Every once in a while, some foreigner would come up to me and ask, “Do you have an Internet connection here? How?” And I’d reply, “WiFi at José Martí Airport? Maybe in 10 or 20 years. I am just working on my laptop,” and I’d smile from ear to ear.
(Note: . In July 2015, ETECSA, Cuba’s state telephone company, rolled out 35 new hotspots in Cuba. As at May 2016, there are 20 public hotspots in Havana and an average of five in the rest of the provinces. All hotels have wi-fi as well as the airport.)
The Cuban men working at the airport were being typical cubanos, checking me out wherever I walked—to the restrooms, to get some food, even just to stretch. Yes, I for sure will miss this place, my great friends, the dance classes, the seduction, Havana nightlife, the charming messiness, everything.
I got on the plane, and as we took off, the air-conditioning system tried to moisturize the cabin, and it looked like smoke. The pilot told us not to worry. I was certainly leaving, I thought to myself. No one bothered announcing anything on the domestic flight from Havana to Santiago de Cuba when that plane became filled with smoke. But that’s how things work in Cuba; you just figure things out on the fly. There’s something really charming about constantly living the moment, and it’s a nice break from the fast world out there.
My flight to Toronto took three and a half hours, and the flight attendants were so nice and formal. I just kept wishing things would be a little less formal and a little warmer and more personal like in Cuba. But that didn’t happen. Step by step, I was leaving Cuba and its warmth, and landing in another more detached world.
After going through passport control in Toronto, I went to get my suitcase. While waiting at the baggage carousel, I felt like I was being bombarded with a million sales pitches. It’s shocking to see advertising all around you after two months without it. I got my suitcase and went to find the shuttle to my hotel. Everything was smooth. It felt so strange.
The first thing I did upon arriving at the hotel was order a plate of tomatoes. It sounds strange, but after so long without tomatoes, I had to have tomatoes. The guy at reception, seeing my reaction to everything, said to me, “You’re in culture shock.” I smiled. I must have looked disoriented.
Everything was so efficient and perfect. Too perfect. I felt no real connection with anyone; I could not even feel the heart of one person. In my room, the toilet paper was soft and there was hot water. I stood under the spray for 20 minutes, not believing there was real pressure. My hotel bed was so comfortable that I felt uncomfortable. It was too quiet. I had a very hard time falling asleep—no music on the Malecón, no crowds outside. It felt lifeless. Some people might not see anything wrong with this picture, but after two months in Cuba, it all felt wrong. The receptionist was right: I was in complete culture shock.
After a few days, I returned to Vancouver. I managed to fill my refrigerator with just about every kind of food possible. I kept opening the fridge staring at the food and not believing the variety. Going to the supermarket was like going to Disneyland. There were so many options. I was slowly adjusting back to Canadian life and thinking how much I would have loved to have this comfort combined with Cuba’s strong sense of community. But it seems that the price we pay for perfection is a loss of connection to the moment and to other people.
Yes, Cuba has many problems. It’s not an easy place to live in, and some things need to change. But as a good friend once told me, “The good and the bad about something always come from the same place.” In fact, the very things we feel must change in Cuba are precisely the things we love so much about the island. Cuba truly has something special to offer that no other place I know even comes close to.
Returning from Cuba after two magical months showed me how much we take things for granted. Every year, I let Cuba inspire my heart and remind me to not take things for granted. By the time I start to forget, I go back and let Cuba inspire me all over again. I miss Cuba whenever I’m not there, like home. And as soon as I set foot on Cuban soil again, it feels as if I never left. But don’t worry—I’ll be back soon.
Chen Lizra, an Israeli-Canadian dancer, TED speaker and entrepreneur, is the best-selling author of My Seductive Cuba, an award-winning unique travel guide that mixes her personal anecdotes with practical travel advice. Imagine “Eat, Pray, Love” meets the “Lonely Planet!” Chen has been leading boutique tours for only ten people inside authentic Cuba since 2008. Her connection to the arts scene through years of dance training gives her an interesting angle on the island and an interesting network. www.myseductivecuba.com/cuban-tours