By: Katie Huey, TWP Tour participant, Cuba Company Retreat 2020
I haven’t had many opportunities to travel the globe. I was taught as a child that the world is big and the tiny space we take up makes a difference. We are small in the grand scheme of things, and still have power to influence others positively as we walk through the world.
I’ve explored parts of Europe and frequented Caribbean beaches, but rarely have I had the chance to step into foreign places with a local lens. When leadership at Trebuchet Group announced we were partnering with TWP Tours to go to a new place I was thrilled. And anxious.
The caring TWP Tours staff planned a beautiful itinerary and took care to make sure our needs would be met. In my traveler survey, I asked for coffee in the mornings. Other than that, I was ready to go with the flow.
I was promised strong coffee in tiny cups and knew I would be in good hands.
We were met at the airport and the smoke from burning trash in fields nearby made my eyes water as I stepped down off of the tiny airplane. We went through customs and I was asked if I had recently traveled to Asia – the coronavirus epidemic was just weeks away from reaching the tiny island just 90 miles off the US coast. I couldn’t understand the custom agent’s accent and was flustered enough to mutter out a no after she repeated her question three times.
Entering new places can be disorienting.
We settled into our apartment, took sips from a fresh bottle of Havana Club rum, and went to dinner at a charming restaurant perched in a tiny building at the top of a steep flight of stairs. All the flights of stairs are unbelievably steep. Sitting at the large table in the middle of the room, I ordered in my broken high-school level Spanish. We looked out the windows laced with twinkle lights into the dark night below.
Throughout the week, our small group was introduced to local artists creating magical pieces out of limited resources. Paper and paint are hard to find and still, behind worn doors, kind creators invited us to step into their makeshift studios split with their living quarters. They shook our hands and asked for input on their work.
We met organic farmers who are teaching Cuban people to prepare and enjoy vegetables. We met entrepreneurs teaching young people business skills and drank cocktails made fresh by the students of bartending school.
We smoked cigars freshly rolled and watched performers wearing tall red stilettos play music to tourists from all over the globe in the birthplace of the daiquiri. We swam in the warm, turquoise ocean and drank a cold Cuban beer right out of the can with sand on our toes. We walked where Ernest Hemingway lived and I jumped up and down when I saw the typewriter he used to make his masterpieces. We drank cane sugar juice on a porch of strangers.
In our walking and our wandering, I continued to be delighted.
I ate creamy coconuts out of frozen husky shells, and sipped strong coffee out of white cups. I also had to choose again when my first choice items were out of stock. Chicken was hard to come by. Bottled water scarce in the touristy town three hours from Havana. Beer from the State brewery flatter than the craft brews I was used to from home.
Each day I kept saying, “I’m struck by the juxtaposition here.” My teammates teased me as I repeated myself. The contrast between old and new, between broken down buildings and the vibrant people living inside them, the difference between the fancy European hotels on one side of the street and the tenant apartment falling apart on the opposite corner. That life can exist and thrive in such places of discord amazed me.
As an American, I’ve been taught a story of a complex and tense history with Cuba. Our narratives tell us we are the heroes and the country is the threat to our livelihood. Stepping out of the textbooks and into the streets where these kind people live challenged my notions of what history tells us to be true. I witnessed the very real consequences of the choices our political leaders continue to make. I realized how connected I can be, if I choose, to the stories of those living so closely to American soil. Of course, they want health, hope, and happiness for their families too.
On the plane ride home, I realized I had an extra wad of Cuban toilet paper tucked in my backpack. I had carried the one-ply sheets with me on our outings because public facilities were lacking what we’d consider to be the basics. Soap was rare too and I was thankful my coworker had a small bottle of hand sanitizer with her.
I didn’t realize the symbolic power those squares of bathroom paper and tiny squirts of alcohol would come to mean in the weeks after we came home. I’m thinking now of the Cuban people and their resilience. They seem to bend, not break, when times get tough. These people are no strangers to struggle and still connect and create beauty despite the odds.
I’m thankful for the chance to experience life in a new place, drink rum on rooftops, and witness artistic expression and enthusiasm for connection and extensions of hospitality in a place of such contrast. We’re more connected than we think.