A late-summer storm gathered in the distance. The brilliant hue of orange, purple and deep red clouds merged with nighttime blues as my flight, Miami to Havana, crossed the Florida Straits. Silence took hold, marking entry from known into that of an unknown. Only an hour prior I’d left the bright, digital billboards, city traffic lights and illuminating high-rises along Miami’s coast; a stark contrast to darkness now covering much of the island below.
I land in Havana, get some rest and early the next morning, begin the long drive to Santa Clara, a small city toward the center of the nearly 800-mile long island. I’m on a mission, taking up a challenge, an offer made by one the world’s most well-known revolutionaries.
The ride gives me plenty of time to reflect on Cuba’s rich history of imperial powers, coups, mob money and corrupt governments. Months prior I’d lay awake watching Stephen Soderberg’s biographical film of famed Cuban Revolutionary, Argentinian-born Che Guevara, Che: Part 1. The film tells the story of Guevara and his leadership within the famed Cuban Revolution of the 1950s, a small band of men numbering less than 300 and their ultimate defeat of the authoritarian ruler Fulgencio Batista. Far out-numbered and out-armed, the rebels, or the July 26th Movement, needed a significant victory to continue their years long fight. Using an American made, Caterpillar tractor, the rebels cut tracks known to transport arms for the national army. When an armored train derailed, carrying both arms and soldiers, the Rebels struck ambushing the military men and forcing them to surrender.
These derailed train cars now stood in front of me, a monument of perseverance, a reminder of the power of individuals when collectively formed to achieve a goal. The once American-back Batista had fallen and in Che’s words, the Revolution would advance to the capital of Havana “without let or hindrance” to size control of the government.
Crossing the Cuban countryside, Che makes a threat to an overly rambunctious subordinate. The solider should fall into place or walk the 200 miles to Havana on his own. This is where Soderberg’s film leaves off, but where my endeavor begins. In attempt to understand how the Revolution, sixty years later, still continues to impact its people, culture and land today, I accept Che on his offer and run from Santa Clara to Havana!
I start early to try and beat the heat and humidity. Over the next two mornings, I put in over 70 miles on foot. Running. Walking. Running and walking again. Kilometers and kilometers of sugarcane fields pass by, but beyond them there seems to be a different story. Many of the small towns look to be drying up in much the same way as those in the American Heartland. I would later learn from one of my host families about a shifting economy: trading partners have vanished as the number of countries producing sugar have multiplied. Like many nations, Cuba is facing the challenges of a new world economy, but unlike most, they are restricted from trading with their neighbor under a US embargo. On separate occasions, a farmer, a former economics professor, and a hotel manager would explain their hopes and desires for a more normalized relationship with the States. They are hard-working people, having gotten by these past generations focused on doing all they could to provide for their families with limited resources, but they are not without hope. They’d recently begun to see early manifestations of their dreams, only to have them dry up again under this current US administration.
The extreme Caribbean heat bakes my shoulders and beats at my back as I struggle to push through. Doubt enters my mind, but I continue. Step by step, the repetition is broken with an occasional vintage car zooming past leaving me in a trail of diesel exhaust. Between these small farming villages, the hoofbeats of horses and buggies become as familiar as any engine.
Deep in contemplation, a buggy nears with the shouts of a young farmer. As he nears I can tell he’s checking on my condition. He speaks no English, and I, little Spanish. His concern is evident. While not understanding his words, I realize he’s offering a ride in his cart. I smile and decline. Soon his horse’s hooves fade into the distance. Exhausted, a debate rages within: continue running along this road the next hundred miles or abandon my plans and explore what lies beyond these farming communities. Moments of anguish and failure fill my mind and body. What’s it going to be? Leaning on prior attempts at goals that didn’t turn out the way I’d originally intended, it dawns on me: everything led me here, to this road through the heart of Cuba. There is no failure after making a truthful, whole-hearted dive into the arena of risk if something is learned along the way. Regretting I hadn’t jumped into the farmer’s buggy, I decide to fully embrace adventure, diverting from my set path and stepping again into the unknown.
The next few days are spent working toward the capital, but not necessarily on foot. Colón, Matanzas, Varadero, Santa Cruz del Norte; curiosity and wonder lead me through many of the island’s smaller cities and through some unexpected and surprising moments. I cruise up the Río Canímar on a tiny speedboat, hike through a dense jungle to a magnificent waterfall, and lower my head while walking though the slippery caves hidden within the Viñales Valley. Each location comes with great insight into this island determined to live on it’s own terms, it’s own way.
And finally I arrive in Havana. Beautiful Instagram photos of influencers surrounded by the pastels of the city flood my mind. That Havana does exist, but the truth is much more nuanced. Havana is still recovering from Hurricane Maria. The storm that tore Puerto Rico apart did considerable damage here too, washing out homes, flooding large portions of the city and destroying buildings already suffering from deteriorating infrastructure. What wasn’t destroyed? A spirit, a resolve, a sense of community felt as I explore Havana’s streets the evening of September 27th, an annual night of celebration and festivities, best described as a giant block party. Kids play in the streets, large pots of stew cook on open flames and traditional Cuban music provides the soundtrack.
A boutique hotel, Animas 303, hosts my first couple nights in the city. Built and run by a group of under 30 year-old friends, the hotel has a rustic, almost bohemian, charm with basic amenities. With a comfortable bed, air-conditioning and breakfast; a quaint rooftop, fun design elements and a friendly staff, my time at Animas feels like authentic Cuban luxury. Having booked last minute, a room, unfortunately, wasn’t available for my last night in the city. Instead I check into the new, five-star, Iberostar Grand Packard. Open for less than a week to the public, the sheets were crisp, the tv broadcast satellite via Spain and the pool is a feat of modern architecture. Swimming in the sixth floor infinity pool, with hotel floors hanging above, could grab anyone’s attention. It proclaims new, fresh and future. Yet as I swam I could see the neighborhoods impacted by years of decay, by turmoil and isolation, and by Maria.
Down on the street below, hundreds of years of history played out. The chants and rhythmic clapping of Juego de Maní, or “game of war,” originally developed by African slaves brought to Cuba lives on through a celebration of the past, folklore and its current social activity. Two men at a time enter the chanting circle to spar with smooth movements of the hands, high leg kicks, quick ducking and strategic jumping. A ritual steeped in history with an ultra-modern hotel as its backdrop. My days spent in the countryside filled my mind. The spirit of the Revolution, still highly spoken of, among so many new friends rang within. Their desire to live free, sovereign and independent clashed, if only for a moment, up against the smooth white columns of the Spanish-owned hotel chain.
As I stroll through Havana later that night, I spot a young boy tucked into a niche on the side of a building. It’s a dim-light street corner. With spray paint, the wall behind him reads “Viva Cuba!” He pays no attention while playing on his smart phone. He is the future. He’ll grow up having no memories of the Revolution, of Che, and perhaps soon, no memories of the US embargo. He’ll browse the internet, ask questions, be curious and will find ways to rebel. He and his generation, might step off the road they’ve been traveling, wonder what else out there, and step into the unknown. And perhaps, just perhaps, they’ll find a neighbor with whom to take the adventure.