by Whitney Arostegui
Time is a tricky thing in Cuba. It reveals itself to be untrustworthy, able to speed up or slow down on its own whims. Without working cell phones or easily accessible Internet, it’s easy to feel vulnerable or overwhelmed. But then the country’s charisma takes hold, and the senses can’t help but succumb to the smiling, conversational faces walking the streets and the seductive music emanating from every crevice of every dilapidated building. It feels simultaneously confusing, exhilarating and utterly charming.
I was in the colonial town of Trinidad when I realized how notably my awareness of time had been altered to suit the island’s schedule. Earlier that morning, on a bus from Havana, I’d decided upon my day’s plans: to wander about, take in the notable architecture, walk by a well-known Santeria temple and hike up to an area high above the town’s center. By midafternoon, I’d settled into my casa particular (a common Cuban alternative to a hotel that functions similarly to a bed-and-breakfast), and, perhaps because I was nearly delirious from heat and hunger, I could hear the balcony outside my room whispering my name. Instead of venturing out, I poured myself a chilled beer and watched people go about their day from my mezzanine viewpoint. Soon, another traveler also staying in the casa introduced himself. After he sat down, friends I’d met in Havana shouted up from below and joined us, as well. Before we knew it, the sun was setting and our outdoor patio table was covered with empty beer cans, bottles of rum, the occasional escaped mint leaf, sticky splatters of sugary sodas and the crumbs of devoured plantain chips. Our party had grown to encompass a number of friends and strangers, including the casa owner, Natalia.
Discussions in multiple languages about politics and art crisscrossed over the table like tennis balls. Voices were raised but no one was upset, and fits of laughter frequently distracted from any disagreements at hand. When the live band at the restaurant next door started up, we had no choice but to move our attention to the thunderous melody bellowing from the singer. And then, somehow, I was suddenly being spun around a balcony floor to the cadence of drums while waves crashed onto a not-so-distant shore.
Before I went to Cuba, I knew about the cigars, the old cars, the fraught political history. I knew that my father had been born there, left when he was five, and never had a chance to go back before he died. What I learned from Cuba is how to slow everything down, how to leave behind schedules and unnecessary obligations, how to talk to anyone in the street and dismiss small fears. I still had to be aware of my surroundings and my belongings, but I could let go of almost everything else and replace it with the vibrant energy swarming that island.
Growing up, my father always told me that eating and drinking with family and friends should be of the highest priority. And yet, it's an easy thing to forget. In Cuba, it was our only priority. And though excursions to Santeria temples and other guidebook sights were often lost to lazy afternoon mojitos, my days there were filled with spontaneous adventures, unexpected companions, passionate conversations and a sense that my father was proud.