by Rebecca Esparza
Red, blue and orange vacant buildings, rusted cars and garbage are what I continued to see as I walked through Havana. I kept seeing lightning and hearing thunder, hoping it wouldn’t rain on me as I was searching for something to capture. Mind you, I wouldn’t be walking in this weather if I was back home, but it seemed normal for the people here.
I didn’t know where to start or what to look for but I wanted to make the best of my surroundings. I decided to make way towards the community rather than the main streets or the sea wall. I noticed an apartment complex much like the rest of those nearby, except this one was a bit different. There were a child and an elderly man sitting on their patio. I stared at them for a few moments from a distance before they noticed me and smiled. Watching the father read a book to his daughter and then show her his phone only made me think of my how my grandfather used to be when he was around. I asked if I can take a picture and without hesitation, he agreed and went right back to what they were doing, still being candid. The child was very happy and never lost focus of her father, it reminded me of feeling safe and compassion with my dad.
Family seems to make everything okay regardless of the circumstances, even though their living environment was better than most, but not the norm of what Americans usually see. The scenery was so beautiful because people can make the littlest things the best of what they have. This walk was something I plan to get used to over the next week or so, hoping to understand more about the people of Cuba.
If I thought walking in the rain was worse than walking in the sun, I was wrong. It was probably a work day experience that I would only experience here in Cuba, but I guess it’s just a regular day for the locals. I thought I was used to the weather by now but I barely made it through the day.
I had asked the translator to show me more areas in Havana that were more poor, specifically poverty areas. However, poverty to many Americans is what the middle class basically is in Havana, nowhere near the luxury but the same concept I suppose. We walked, and walked, and walked until we came across a little alley with graffiti and it felt very similar to walking through the Mission District in San Francisco. Kids were bathing in the street but in a legit bath tub with their mom around watching the rest converse. A few came up to me asking for money but I had no change so I gave them the rest of my soda to share, which they were happy to receive. I noticed men playing a game that looked similar to checkers, men selling CDs and of course drunk men roaming the street.
I have witnessed all these things in my old neighborhoods, I guess it really signifies you’re in the “hood.” While many of my colleagues were uncomfortable, I felt used to it; it was almost expected that I would see this. A majority of neighborhoods here are considered poverty stricken areas but Cubans know nothing better. It reminded me of my personal experience living in unstable environments and not having any food to eat all the time, thinking that it was okay because I was so young, even though it really wasn’t. At least the Cubans are happy here, and that’s a big difference.
Imagine being asked to leave the house that you grew up in, the house you were brought to from the hospital, the house you rode your first bike, the house that you call home. Many times in Cuba, families are asked to leave their homes so the government can move them to a safer house, but it’s often farther away from where they grew up.
The house is on the verge of collapsing, there’s no electricity throughout the days and there’s no proper construction. Often times the family rejects the offer mainly because all they know is where they live, where they call a house a home and the community around them. I walked through a few apartment complexes and houses where multiple families lived. They were dark, molded and rusted. Even though families knew the consequences and risks of staying, they decided to stay anyway and come to think of it, I probably would have to.
I told my translator, Santana, I didn’t have many questions to ask because I felt that I didn’t need to; everything was right in front of my eyes. People live the way they live because they know how to survive in unpleasant circumstances. I can’t say I know exactly how it feels to live at this level of poverty because every circumstance is different: different countries, governments, cities, etc. One thing I do know is, for people like myself who have struggled in life, we can share emotions and an understanding of one another without even knowing the same language. Receiving a few food stamps from time to time is similar to the rations people receive here in Cuba, but just like in the States, some people don’t take it because of their pride. The struggle is real everywhere you go, and sometimes you might have it better than you think.
Home at last. Out of all the things I missed from the States, it was my family that I thought about the most. I got bit by bugs about seven times while at the airport waiting for our delayed flight and it was amazing. (Not really, but I guess every time I itch I’ll be reminded of Havana.) I couldn’t wait to come home and surprise my grandma with her souvenirs and my sisters because they didn’t really know when I would be back!
We literally took a bus about 50 feet away from the airport exit to the plane. I didn’t know whether to be irritated that we were lagging or compassionate because the Cuban people cared about our safety and didn’t want us to get wet. Whatever it was, it happened for a reason. I was lucky enough to have my whole row with people from class who I had bonded with, but we ended up falling asleep on the plane ride.
I rushed to my next flight because it was within the next hour and I was already four terminals away, so I didn’t get to say bye to anyone. I felt like I built friendships that will last a lifetime and I guess that was important to me. I really had no idea I would be this close with strangers, especially on my birthday. I wanted to cry because I felt so loved and surprised. Cuba was a great experience, but my birthday in Cuba was a once-in-a-lifetime experience! Though I may not miss the humidity or the food, I will definitely miss the memories I made and the happy people I met. As much as I enjoyed my stay, it was time for me to go home. I hope the little city never changes and if so, changes for the good of the people.
Originally published by The Pioneer Online, published here with permission of the author.