I've been sitting on these photos for months, patiently awaiting my epic Cuban tell-all to bubble up from the creative depths. As days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, I finally came to the realization that I don't need a flowery, synoptic retelling—or even a fully congealed opinion—of our experiences in Cuba. I can allow my thoughts to remain murky, unfinished, ambiguous—a lot like Cuba itself.
In an effort to jog my ever-blurrying memories, I reread my Tiny Letter written four days after our return, which reads:
What a trip. With pages of scrawled, rum-inspired notes and twelve hundred photos documenting our time in Cuba, I still don't know where to begin, what to think, or how to describe it. Our experiences on the island were everything: fascinating, confusing, captivating, depressing, alluring, maddening, heartwarming, bewildering.
I spent a week in a country that hasn't seen substantial progress since 1960, where the infrastructure is crumbling, the politics are veiled in secrecy and oppression, and the people are patient, resourceful and kind. Stories have holes. Vagueness is the status quo. Self-censorship means survival. I left Cuba with more questions than when I arrived.
Our local guides, Yen and Pototo, along with our seasoned taxi drivers, Osvel and Leo, expertly piloted our adventures through decaying Havana, the lush and fertile Viñales Valley, and trundling Trinidad. We ate like kings, drank like fish, smoked like chimneys, explored like pioneers, and slept like complete shit. Along the way, we quizzed our guides daily on all things Cuba, receiving answers that were oversimplified, lost in translation, and rarely clear-cut.
Not that anyone was purposefully withholding information; I think there's a general sense of apathy and a lack of clarity that blankets the Cuban population. When something doesn't go as planned, doesn't add up, or falls short of expectations, the typical response is a shrug and a resigned, "Bienvenidos á Cuba." Having said that, I cried when we left, feeling like I wanted more—I wasn't finished trying to figure Cuba out.
Those sentiments remain unchanged. After returning from the trip, our travel group continued to exchange emails—sending articles, sharing photo galleries, wishing each other a happy New Year. The group helped immensely in pulling together my article for Access Trips, each sending me their two cents on things they wished they'd known before arrival. (Cuban Pro Tip: keep toilet paper in your bag at all times.)
And even in sharing these fifty photos, I feel like I haven't scratched the surface of our experiences. While they convey the vibrant colors, bizarre dichotomies and cultural mishmash of a country in perpetual and lazy crisis, they hardly begin to tell the stories of the people we met. Pototo, the ever-beaming, snaggle-toothed travel guide. Yen, his studious sidekick who meddled over our group like a clucky mother hen. Fernando, the scientist-turned-farmer who doubled as Cuba's Marlboro man. Anubis, the mafioso cigar maker who dedicates his annual crop to the legacy of Che Guevara. Jesus, the meth-head taxi driver who nearly got us killed on Havana's Malecon. Freddy, the jovial bar owner who got us drunk on canchancharas. Frank, a Trinidad local too verklempt to speak about an old friend. Yiandro, a Havana waiter moving to Queens this year to reunite with his father after twenty-five years. The nameless, toothless, laughing barfly who fed us strawberry empanadas while we sipped cafecitos in Cienfuegos.
Even with the country's progress, however fast, slow or idle, most Cubans still want to leave the country for a new life. As a fortunate-albeit-empathetic American, this migratory desire is hard to grasp. Cuba's systems are irreparably broken; unless there's a new revolution with the twenty-first century version of Castro at the helm, nothing will change quickly. The disconnect between the government and its citizens is too deep, too longstanding, too incurable. The most disappointing part: the seeming acquiescence to this fact.
And so Cuba's mysterious history, storyline and characters continue to live on. For me, they come to life through these memories and photos; I'm grateful to have them as a part of my own storyline, too.