And just like that I fell in love with my life in La Habana. I fell in love with the way the sun shines off of the catedral at sunset and the little old lady who sells coquitos on the corner and keeps trying to get me to buy raisins. I fell in love with the group of friends I have found at Casa Tacos on Neptuno and Basarrate; the cooks and bartenders who are learning English from my young Romanian friend Cosmina; the world travelers who wander through; my little 12 year old dance partner Kevin. We dance salsa and rumba in the middle of the restaurant when the days are slow and we always fill the room with laughter and smiles as we talk about life in our respective countries over mojitos. I’ve fallen in love with the humid honey thick air that makes my hair spring in all sorts of unwanted directions. I’ve even sort of fallen in love with walking down the street and being greeted by comments and open stares. I’ve learned to walk with my head held high and a spring in my step and every day I am learning more.
I decided to take the Afro-Cuban Folkloric Dance course at Instituto Superior de Arte which gives me the coveted student visa and Cuban ID I was hoping for. With this I will be able to stay longer than a tourist and pay Cuban prices for concerts. This semester we are studying the dances of the Congo: Palo, Makuta and others. By the end of each week so far I’ve been a sore, crippled mess who can hardly manage to walk home, but come Monday I somehow find the energy to do it all over again. I’ve found a marvelous piano teacher who gives me long afternoons filled with valuable musical information and conversation over coffee and rum.
But I’ve realized that the true lesson I’m learning here has nothing to do with practicing scales or learning new dance steps. Life here challenges me in a way that I’ve never experienced before. Simply getting from point A to point B requires so much strength and self-confidence that you cannot be shy. You cannot be Minnesota nice. You have to state your purpose and take what’s yours while of course remembering to be polite and respectful to those around you. You have to claim your place in line and ask questions boldly. And if you don’t, you will be squashed into a tourist pancake before you can even blink. They will see the floundering, confused look on your face and your blinding white legs and will flock to you with hunger in their eyes.
I grow tired of the calls from every street corner of “Hey Lady!!” and “Yuma!” and “Where are you from?” I’ve started just saying “yo vivo aquí (I live here)” to avoid the question entirely. It’s strange being here as a foreigner who is not a tourist. It’s like watching a movie backwards from behind the screen. I see the little dance that Cubans put on for tourists and I see the smiles on foreigners faces as they gladly hand over their money for some such experience or service. It’s an exchange that actually works out pretty well for everyone. Sometimes tourists are getting scammed without knowing it, but they are still happy. But when those Cubans turn to me, they are quickly disappointed. I am not here to take bus tours and expensive taxis. I am not here to be guided on a safe, tidy Cuban adventure. I’m here to learn about life and the world and myself and get my hands dirty. I’m not a tourist. I’m not a Cuban. No one knows what to do with me, but that’s ok. That’s how I like it.
Sorry this is so short, but I will try to write again sooner than last time. Besos!