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Eating up the world, one bite at a time

A few things I learned during my month in Cuba.


“Los jóvenes tienen una tendencia a querer comerse el mundo.”

I sit in the back of a restaurant with Nestor Martí, part-time photographer, full-time inquisitive soul who talks for hours, stopping only to catch some air and gulp down his Cristal. We sip on our beers and discuss Cuba’s underground art scene. When I ask Nestor what he thought of the wave of young photographers quickly gaining momentum in Cuba, he laughed.

Young people want to eat up the world,” he said.

He criticized millennials for claiming to be photographers simply because they own a nice camera. Their enthusiasm is worth noting, he explains, but they lack the skills necessary to produce great art.

I nod my head in agreement. There I was, using my iPhone as a tape recorder, asking questions I had formulated five minutes before sitting down with him. A makeshift journalist, attempting to take on the world by storm and lacking many of the qualifications (not to mention the appropriate Visa) to do so.

It is true that millennials are thirsty for success. We live in a perpetual state of immediacy and only find the world to be in our favor when it is resting at our fingertips. We indulge in self-fulfilling prophecies of expertise when we lack experience. But underneath the arrogance is a raw desire to see the world and explore beyond the familiar.

Everyone has a very distinct idea of what it means to “eat up the world”. During my time in Cuba, comerme el mundo meant constantly putting myself in uncomfortable situations. It meant asking big questions and demanding bigger answers. But in my attempt to understand Cuba through others and their stories, I stumbled upon situations that became stories of my own.

With that in mind, here are a few anecdotes that show how the unexpected truly arises when you try to comerte el mundo (both literally and figuratively).

Chicken for a conversation?

Before traveling to Cuba, I hadn’t eaten meat in almost four years, but was aware that my time there would trigger an inevitable relapse. Practically every staple dish there has meat in it and I wasn’t about to spend a month being picky.

I was prepared for the first encounter and patiently waited the blow to my stomach. I was visiting Ileana, a woman who runs a casa particular in Havana alongside Isel (shameless plug: if you ever come to Cuba, stay at their casa. Every corner of their apartment is thoughtfully decorated to create the idyllic home away from home).

“Do you have any dietary restrictions?”, she asked in one of our E-mails.

Ideally, I would have told her I didn’t eat meat, and that fish was fine. But I’d been told fish was expensive and difficult to find. A friend shared that on rare occasions that he manages to snag some, the provider brings it to his home in a secret nighttime exchange akin to a drug deal. Cash is swiftly swapped for fish and the mystery man quickly vanishes into the night’s black abyss. I wasn’t about to ask Ileana to engage in such illicit behavior, and certainly didn’t want her thinking I was a complicada with weird, Western dietary needs.

“No, I eat everything!”

Me and my newfound friend.

I got to her house and was served, as expected, a massive piece of chicken. For the first few bites, I stared it down, convincing myself it was fish. But after a few minutes, I was so absorbed in our conversation that the odd, unfamiliar taste became distant.

A few weeks later I found myself in Cerro (one of Havana’s peripheral districts) visiting Diana and Luilver, a couple I was introduced to through a family friend. They invited me into their home and fed both my curiosity (with an overflow of stories), and my stomach (with an endless supply of chicken and pork that seemed to proliferate with each bite). I ate away with little remorse for my tree-hugging self. It was during those hours at the table that I learned about Luilver’s tech startup (that he began from the second floor of his house, stealing Wifi from the park a few blocks away) and Diana’s journey from a village in La Isla de la Juventud (an island just south of Cuban mainland) to Havana.

My trip turned me into a “circumstantial omnivorethat grew to appreciate how generosity reveals itself through gestures like home-cooked meals. In Cuba, people get rations of food staples (eggs, milk, sugar, etc.) from the government, but everything else is sold at local markets for ridiculously high prices. That being said, when it comes to serving guests, skimpiness is not an option for any cubano. They make sure you eat and drink to your heart’s content, sending you home with nothing less than an abundantly full stomach. These people owed me nothing (and barely knew me), yet they smothered me with food and a warmness that left me nostalgic on my flight home. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m eternally grateful for the meat-filled meals.

When they make the gringa read during mass

I had the pleasure of interviewing Father Gilbert Walker, an American priest who has lived in Cuba for the past twenty years. He speaks Spanish like a true cubano and shared with me the story of how he discovered his secret Cuban family in the small town of Chaparra.

After our conversation, el Padre Gilberto told me they offered mass in English every Sunday.

“You should come check it out,” he said.

A few days later I found myself sitting alone in a pew in the back of el Convento de la Merced. As I waited for the mass to start, a young woman came up to me and asked if I spoke English. Clearly the blondish hair and Lonely Planet guidebook were a giveaway. As soon as I said si she swept me off my feet and demanded I follow her. I looked around, confused. Did I know this woman?

I shuffled behind her towards the back of the church, but as I grew more and more skeptical, she quickly mollified my worries:

“No one speaks English here and we need someone to read the first passage when the mass starts,” she said.

She then placed a bible in front of me and pointed to the section she assumed was rightfully mine.

Eagerly awaiting my debut.

I glanced around, looking for someone else to do the job, but after realizing the chances were slim, I swallowed my stage fright and began scanning the text. A few minutes later I was up on the podium, reading from the bible to a group of unfamiliar faces (some expats, mostly locals trying to improve their English). I obviously butchered some of the pronunciation and forgot to close the reading by proclaiming “the word of the lord” . But even though my execution was flawed, I hopped off the stage with a firm sense of accomplishment. For the first time in a long time, I spent the rest of mass actually listening to the priest’s sermon and paying closer attention to the different segments of the ceremony.

Before that trip to Cuba, I hadn’t been to mass in months. What began as gesture towards a priest I interviewed became an opportunity to reconnect with my faith and participate in something that felt bigger than myself. I don’t consider myself to be particularly religious, but there was something about that mass that felt oddly personal. The fact that I had shared a meaningful conversation with Father Gilbert a few days earlier, and that I then got to be a part of his service, left me more appreciative of Sunday masses that always seemed mundane and repetitive growing up.

Mastering the transportation system

Ask Cubans about the transportation system and they’ll frown unanimously in dismay. Buses and taxis flood streets at unpredictable hours. Routes are never fixed. Delays are the norm.

One of the most common ways to get around Havana is using taxis colectivos. These are communal taxis that circulate “set” routes (I say “set” because they vary depending on where the taxi driver feels he/she will pick up the most passengers) around the city. You stand on the corner and point in the direction you are heading. The car will stop, ask you where you want to go, and if your destination happens to fall somewhere along their route, they’ll take you for a little less than fifty cents. They stop several times along these “fixed” routes to pick more people up (some can squeeze up to nine people in one car). Cuba’s UberPOOL, if you will, with cars dating back to the 50’s and engines that roar every few minutes. Seems simple, right?

Not for the foreigner who can’t tell one street from another. On one of the first days, I hopped in a colectivo and requested to be dropped off on Paseo (a long, central street that cuts straight through Vedado, one of Havana’s main districts).

“Paseo con 23, o Paseo con Linea?”, he asked abruptly as I scooted into the back seat.

I hadn’t thought that far ahead, but for some odd reason the intersection of “Paseo con Linea” sounded closer.

“Linea, por favor!”

It was ten blocks further.

I was an newbie but deemed myself too geographically gifted to use a map. I could get around easily without it, I thought.

I was wrong. I spent everyday during the next three weeks using a physical map to get around (no Google Maps, unfortunately). After much observation and several failed rides, I identified the four or five main roads colectivos drove down and could get around relatively easy.

The diabolical dog with a nag for spitting.

Every colectivo was an experience. On one ride, the man sitting in the front had a hairless dog on his lap that would sneeze every few minutes (the saliva would get caught in the wind and sprinkle us lucky back-seaters). On another, a lady shared a bag of cookies with me, while the boys in the front bobbed to “Mi Palón Divino(Cuban reggaetón grows on you). On my last day, the driver blasted “40 life lessons” on the radio:

“Watch the sunrise at least once a year.”

“Call your mom right now and tell her you love her.”

“The person you choose to spend the rest of your life with will determine 90% of your lifelong happiness. Choose wisely.”

I didn’t know if I should burst out laughing or start writing some of the lessons down. I did both.

The silver lining in this chaotic system is that you become exponentially more patient. If it takes you twenty minutes to find a ride somewhere, it’s okay. You get used to the wait and rejoice when you finally snag a spot in a car, squished between several others. On my last day, I still got slightly disoriented and was dropped off fifteen blocks away from my final destination (at this point I can blame no one but myself, my sense of direction is terrible), but I didn’t mind. I was able to walk the rest of the way (without a map, finally).

Y si seguimos con hambre?

On my ride back from the airport, I shared many of these unexpected experiences with my parents.

“You really left no stone unturned, Loli,” said my mom, laughing, as we pulled into our house.

I wanted to agree. I wanted to feel like I’d eaten the world and was finally full. But I honestly feel like I’m just getting started. I am content (for now) to be home, surrounded by familiar faces and furniture. But I dabbled with a three-week adventure and am hungry for more. I still have the second half of summer to see where this eagerness takes me.

As the chapter of my Cuban adventure ends, I wanted to say thank you to a place that taught me to be more appreciative of things like playing dominos in the street and sharing coffee with strangers. Thank you for teaching me to be my own best friend (no matter how pathetic that sounds) and celebrate small successes like hauling a taxi without getting ripped off and backpacking around Cuba without getting too lost. But, above all, thank you for teaching me that time only dominates our experiences if we let it. I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing, but have more than enough time to connect the dots and figure it out.

Uno realmente empieza a vivir cuando se olvida del reloj.

Originally published at medium.com

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