The Difference Between Then and Now

So much about this trip, this country and this traveler is exactly as it was two years ago.  I carry much of the same clothing, from my blue and orange dress to my running shoes, tinted pink from Cuba’s clay soil.  I still thrive on books and music, and breaks to watch movies and television in order to feel grounded.  I am constantly surrounded by people, which leads inevitably to crankiness as well as close friendships. 

I cab everywhere now.  In general, this trip is more expensive than the last, although I’m not always paying.  It’s strange to me how rarely the students walk anywhere, and yet how often the complaints of heat and distance come.  And yet, they barely drink their water. 

We have an elevator, which has only broken a handful of times, and even then only for a couple of hours.  We also only live on floors two, three and four, making the trek to the 14th floor penthouse seem unimaginable.  And while we’re on the topic of the penthouse, it couldn’t have been more of a misnomer.  Here the water is hot, there are no ants, and the lights work.  Rooms are only shared by two people, and each has its own bathroom with shower.  But then again, there is no balcony (the biggest crime in my book), and the bed and pillow situation is equally crummy. 

While I have a much higher volume of food, more meat, and much more chicken, I still miss the good homemade touches.  Fresh, homemade jugo de mango, guayava, pina or watermelon used to accompany every breakfast and most dinners.  We also used to have access to a fridge, which meant leftovers were an option.  I also miss black beans on the side, when they’re all soupy. 

This group seems younger, but I think I’m just older.  Mostly 19 or 20, with a couple over 21, they have about the same age spread as my group back in 2010.  Only a couple of them have gone on dates with Cubans, but there are rumblings of various couples within the group, which is common on Dialogues.  Unfortunately, so is breaking up wordlessly as soon as they return home.  We’ll see how that goes.

The biggest difference is that the majority of this group patently does not care about Cuba and does not want to learn about it. That has been hard for me to see.  I want to be a resource, and some ask me questions, seek out Cubans, and do their best to learn as much as they can.  Many, though, didn’t complete the required reading, fall asleep in class and complain when they are expected to do anything other than take photos. 

It’s been difficult for me to watch students drink and sleep their way through Havana, photographing foreigners who they think are Cuban, or Latin tourists who they assume are Cuban.  But for the group that has really dug in, their photos are better, their connections stronger, and conversations more interesting.

Patina o Muerte

wednesday 594Last Wednesday was a good, good day.

Kade is doing his project on recreation in Cuba, so it was only a matter of time before running into the ninos, the skate kids Mi les befriended who were the inspiration for Cuba Skate.  I hung back and searched faces while Kade chatted them up and started taking photos.  At first they seemed suspicious of us, but as soon as one kid saw a picture where he looked good, the entire mood changed.  Suddenly no one was lounging in the shade, sitting on boards or staring lazily at the rollerbladers.  Everybody was up and showing off, doing tricks and mugging for the camera.  As Kade found a few guys who speak English, a familiar lanky Cuban skated up: Yordi.

wednesday 604There was no question it was him.  Oye, Yordi.  He stared at me like I was an alien trying to take his wallet.  Que bola, asere?  Now sure I wasn’t addressing him by accident, he squinted at me for a minute.  The look on his face changed from suspicion to Holy Shit pretty quickly, and I got a big hug and a how’s everything?   Suddenly we were talking plans, and this place feels a bit more normal.  A bit more mine.  He skated around, vogueing for my pictures and flirting for the camera.

Yordi looks so much older.  Head of big blond curls, distinct angular face, still rail thin.  He’s clearly looked up to, and he has even more swagger than before.  I’m sure there are more tattoos, and more skipping school.  It’s amazing to me how skaters have the same swagger, no matter where they are in the world, how much money or supplies they have, or even what they wear.

It’s nice to see somebody from before and not feel like it was all a dream.  Hector remembers me,  but I’m in his photos, he knew I was coming, and I saw him when he spoke on campus.  But I ran into his son and was too timid to say hi, even though I’m pretty sure Gabby knew something was up.  I took a picture of Rueben, and I’m pretty sure neither of us recognized each other.  I haven’t yet worked up the guts to go to the corner of primera y a, or to go up Alex’s front walk.  I expected Faya not to remember me, but that doesn’t make it feel any less weird to keep this place in mental amber and have it not remember me back.

wednesday 572The ninos, after all, were among some of the people I truly trusted and felt comfortable with.  They reminded me of my cousins who skate and are a little older than them.  More importantly, in a city where mostly I am seen as a woman, a tourist, and wealthy person, they made me feel like Delia.

There’s something comforting about finding my own way, chatting people up in Spanish, stopping for snacks whenever I feel like it, and seeing familiar faces that remember me back.