A Country of Changing Tides

Salsa dancing, white sand beaches, and communism. What do all three of these things have in common? Yep, you guessed it. Cuba. A nation, despite only having a population of 11 million people (for context, New York City has 8 million people), which has had, and continues to have, a large impact on the world whether it’s politics, medicine or the sheer beauty of the Caribbean. And, if you look closely enough, you’ll see that the tides are changing.

Waiting in line to exchange money in Havana, Cuba
Waiting in line to exchange money in Havana, Cuba

Why Cuba?

But, I didn’t go to Cuba for salsa dancing, white sand beaches or communism. Well, maybe sort of the last one, but that wasn’t my main reason. My lease in Costa Rica was coming up, and I had nowhere to be for three weeks before returning to the States. Even though I hadn’t visited every country in Central America (still need to go back for El Salvador and Honduras), Cuba was the first and only country that popped up in my mind in terms of where to go to next. I did a bit of research and saw that the whole “you need a special visa to come, etc., etc.,” didn’t really matter anymore (obviously, things may change with the States’ recent change in administration). So, I booked a flight. My main draw to Cuba was how “off-limits” it always felt to me. What kept me there was this feeling of electricity, as if the entire country itself was on the precipice of a new Cuba to come. That it was truly a country of changing tides.

See a video of my travels below:

Growing up in the States (at least, when I did), Cuba was perceived to be a country that, despite its lush beauty, wasn’t welcoming to Americans or any ideals associated with capitalism. As I became older, I had met a few friends who had gone, but they told me tales upon tales of how they had to come up with an official itinerary, procure a special visa, document their stay, sometimes pay thousands of dollars for a sponsored group trip, and basically do all they could to not get in trouble while over there. But, with the Obama (thanks, Obama) administration “normalizing” relations, things began to change. Visa restrictions were reduced to a formality and the doors to the land of Fidel, Che (not from there, but may as well be), revolución and greats such as Benny Moré, Celia Cruz and more opened up to millions of people. I had to go. And, flights were cheap!

A Cuban man fishing on the Malecon in Havana, Cuba
A Cuban man fishing on the Malecon in Havana, Cuba

A Land of Immense Beauty

What I found in Cuba was unlike anything I could have ever imagined. The overwhelming hospitality of the Cuban people. The carefree way they go about so many things that many of us in other parts in the world fret over. Their love of music, dancing and spending time together. And, yes, the immense beauty of their white sand beaches. But the equal, if not greater, beauty of Viñales, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and much, much more beyond the bustling bohemia that is Habana.

The gentle giants at the Rafael Trejo Boxing Gym in Havana, Cuba
The gentle giants at the Rafael Trejo Boxing Gym in Havana, Cuba

I danced my ass off in the cave turned club of Disco Ayala, smoked Cohibas on the breathtaking beaches of Playas del Este and Varadero, had my taxi’s tire literally explode, exchanged stories with tobacco farmers on the rich-soiled plantations of Viñales, surveyed the land hundreds of slaves toiled at Manaca Iznaga from the 180-year-old watchtower, rode in countless 50-cent colectivos, ate a huge cup of ice cream for 10-cents at Coppelia, had a very sketchy experience at a “coperativa,” hung out with Olympic boxers, got lost in the iconoclastic Fabrica de Arte,  made a handful of friends from around the world and did a dozen other things that made me hold my breath.

Some people think Cuba is overrated. But, as with any and every other place in the world, don’t be too quick to pass judgement until you go there. There is something going on beneath the surface there. It’s electric. With the death of their six-decade leader, Fidel Castro, the political climate is rapidly changing and the views of people are changing with it just as quickly. And while I thought I had made it before an influx of tourists (like myself, of course) could get their hands on the island, I was wrong. The time to go was yesterday. But, now is as good of a time as any. ¡Viva Cuba!

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Mateo is a writer who quit his flashy job in NYC to live life on his own terms. He’s done everything from working at an orphanage in Nairobi to building a new university in Abu Dhabi to sleeping on volcanos in Guatemala. And right now, he’s working to get an agent for his first novel. His writing has been featured internationally in publications including Matador Network, GoAbroad, Víkurfréttir, Caribbean News Now and Black & Abroad. Regardless of where he is, he’s always working. To keep up with him, follow him on Instagram & Twitter at @AskMateo and subscribe here to read more of his upcoming elaborate stories.

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