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Mi familia Cubana
A car is speeding down a mountain range. A vintage Cuban one, green and white colour, rims covered in dust. The headlights barely light up the road. The driver checks his phone messages. Nine people are sitting in the six available seats. Reggaeton blares from the speakers. Two bottles of rum are in my lap, the third is being passed around. The driver takes a sip.
I’ve made my way down the rabbit hole and landed in real Cuba.
Behind me in the bus to Santiago de Cuba sits a talkative Cuban woman. After chatting for a bit I learn that she lives abroad to support her family. She’s here to visit them and she invites me over to swing by her family home if I’m ever around. After two uninteresting days in Santiago I take her up on that offer. One of the best decisions that I’ve taken in my life.
I get picked up in a village nearby Santiago and get dropped off at her family home. Around fifteen people greet and hug me. Before I know it I’m sitting amidst her family with three plates of food in front of me. I tell about my travels and home country, they tell me about their day to day life.
The next morning I wake up profusely sweating. The daily electricity blackout has silenced the fan. I open the half broken wooden blinds and peek at the mountainous landscape that’s being fried by the sun’s rays. I hear the sound of chickens and a pig, patiently awaiting the mountain’s fate.
I glance at the house I’m standing in and its interior: it’s a stone box with a roof and basic facilities. The bedsheets are partially torn apart, the chairs are without cushioning and some walls are painted. The kitchen consists of two gas stoves. The dish washer is a stone stink and a bar of soap in the backyard.
Nevertheless, I can do nothing but respect my friend for having purchased this house for her family, doing her utmost best to provide them with all she can give to them.
In the bathroom I imitate a shower with a bar of soap, a cup and a bucket filled with rainwater. Afterwards I walk outside where more plates of rice, avocado and cucumber are waiting. My offer to help cleaning up gets answered with laughter.
For two weeks straight we spend the morning tranquil and in the afternoon we head out to friends to eat, go to pristine, secluded beaches or make our way to rivers somewhere hidden high up in the mountains.
During weekends my lively friend turns her house into a festival and the living room becomes a ball room where everyone is salsa dancing the night away.
Rum gets passed around, sunsets get enjoyed, Cuban delicacies get tasted and a special bond is formed.
With my Spanish skill set I understand about half of their dialect - Spanish sentences dipped in a fiery Cuban salsa. But their smiles, hugs, generosity and overall kindness fully compensate the vocabulary that we fail to translate.
I fall in love with these people and this tiny piece of heaven.
Every day I wake up hoping there would be a way to help them upgrade their current situation (even though I know they probably wouldn’t let me). But I am not in a position to do so, nor do I inform them of my own situation. And even if I could help: the supplies are just not there. A bag of cement, a window, the missing parts for a functioning toilet and shower: unobtainable.
So I do what I can do: become a friend and appreciate every single thing and moment they share with me.
After two weeks an experience that will forever be cherished comes to an end. The bus that will carry me back to Havana pulls up. The adventure gets concluded with hugs and kisses.
My final embrace is for the woman that made all of this possible.
A woman living abroad, far away in a country that she dislikes. Working twelve hour shifts, six days a week. Saving nearly every euro to take care of her family, to provide the ones she loves with a better future. Longing for the day that she can return to Cuba for good and live the life she craves and deserves.
I hug her and thank her, tell her how much I respect her, tell her how she’s the foundation of an unforgettable chapter in my life. She merely smiles her beautiful smile and tells the bus driver that there’s a big group of Cubans waiting for him if her gringo friend doesn’t get to his destination safe and comfortable. I laugh - got to love Latinas.
The twenty-plus hour bus ride commences and the next day I fly out to the next stop on my life’s itinerary.
I glance at my phone, scroll through my pictures and read all the messages they sent me. Wishing me well, saying that I am always welcome and that from now on I’ll have a second family on this troubled, gorgeous island.
My goosebumps reach an all time high upon reading the final message: “Don’t forget us.”
“Never,” I reply. Knowing that my return to Cuba shall not be a question of “if”, merely “when?”.
Gracias, mis amigos. Los amo.
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