As I continue to parse out my thoughts on my trip to Cuba and endeavor to (admittedly) be less cranky about the experience, I hope the benefit of time starts to dull the sharp edges of memory.
When I reflect back, I can’t help blanching a little inside at the native-to-a-Third-World-country experience of folks frequently coming up to foreigner on the street hoping to sell them something or scam them. Sure, there are people who just see someone clearly out of the ordinary and they’re curious to strike up conversation and share, but those experiences are often few.
I want to continue to make clear I don’t begrudge people for trying to make a living. I get it, and as a privileged white American woman, I can only scratch the surface of my imagination on the struggles of people in poverty and in politically suppressed countries. BUT as an American with no access to debit or credit cards, the lack of funds simply through a wrench in my normal travel experience which entails a generous giving of gratuities and purchasing of wares and experiences. Walking through markets rich with handmade goods and intersections clotted with taxis and pedicabs, it was hard to be hit up for business every few minutes when my companion and I simply did not have funds beyond those set aside for two meals a day, beverages, and taxis.
Friends who have heard my Cuba stories since my return ponder aloud the “unique to Americans” choice between traveling in a foreign country and having to carry all your cash on your person or simply not traveling there at all because you don’t have traditional access to funds (or would have to take an organized tour). It’s a tough choice, to be sure. However, I’d also like to make clear I never felt unsafe or threatened when my female friend and I walked alone day or night through sometimes questionable-looking streets.
There are two interactions that stand out in my mind when I think of the memorable exchanges we had with Cuban people. I’ll share the first one today and the other in a later post.
In Havana on a hot, humid December day, a man with Ghandi-like handmade metal glasses perched on his nose approached us on the sidewalk as we were photographing the architectural details and stonework of a stunning old hotel. After the cursory second question, “Where are you from,” he told us he didn’t know geographically where Seattle was but that Cubans say “Seattlie” for our city. Good to know and a reference I used for the remainder of our trip when asked the dutiful second question. I wanted to say “California” because everyone knows Hollywood and the Big Apple when they think of the U.S., but my friend wouldn’t have it.
After a few minutes of friendly banter, he asked if we’d like to tour the building we were photographing. He assured us it was worth going in. Suspicious of a hidden agenda, but curious, we warily followed him into the hotel.
He spoke with a woman working the front desk and then to a bellhop, who instructed us to take the lift to the third floor, enjoy the rooftop, then take the stairs down when we were ready. Our Ghandi-like gentleman, who never shared his name, told us he’d wait for us in the lobby.
We did as instructed, and this stunning stained-glass, atrium-like roof is what we found on the top floor, completely hidden from the sidewalk:
When we came back down, our Ghandi was gone. We suspected he’d been asked to leave since his rumpled clothes and the plastic shopping bag he carried didn’t evoke the image of a typical patron of that kind of hotel. We stepped outside and looked to our right, to the spot on the street where we’d met the man; there he stood smiling, illuminated in light, blowing us kisses, waving goodbye to us as he turned to walk away. No scam. No hidden agenda. No hitting us up for cash.
He simply wanted us to see inside what was not visible outside, and like many things in life, isn’t that often the case?