When I was writing about my trip, looking through my notes and memories, I kept coming back to the same thing, or rather, the same person. So how will I remember Cuba?
First, I will remember this important lesson. There is no better way to get to know someone than by travelling. There are no distractions but the sounds of a new city, smells of foreign foods and the breeze carrying the promise of the ocean. So here’s what I am taking from this trip:
I can’t remember the things discussed at dinner, in a remote village on the eve of climbing Cuba’s highest mountain. At 1972 metres above sea level, and a journey of 13 kilometres, the summit stretched out before us, patiently waiting for us to start. The stars would be clearer on the mountain, the impression of a black felt cloth that someone had clumsily dropped a jar of glitter on it. But that night, we walked below them and spent hours talking.
The food was fairly good, the music from a local group of musicians playing in the background while a group of Italian tourists danced and smoked cigars around us.
We were two.
We had been four. But when we read we could climb Pico Turquino, we split up with the plan of meeting at the beach.
I can’t remember the things we discussed as we waited in the Santiago de Cuba bus station. I can still feel the frigid air-conditioned air, and the horrible movie screaming at one end. I can recall the amusement of seeing Jack in a sleeping bag as he hopped towards the ticket booth and my faked embarrassent as we talked with a girl from Argentina and a boy from Mexico. (COME TO ARGENTINA, she said.)
I can remember our last night drinking Cuban wine and playing card games, exchanging contact information and trying to name all 196 countries in the world (turns out we did – I was the one who made the mistake). I couldn’t tell you the name of most of our casas but that didn’t seem the matter. I know the name of the card game, the number of times I lost, my newly-organized home page screen on my phone, the early-morning alarm to catch the bus to the airport, the hug we shared as he told me to take care, and my rush to turn towards the bus station so the tears wouldn’t fall standing in front of him.
I can taste the pizzas the four of us would get in Havana, in Santiago, in Baracoa, the pizzas the two of us got in Bayamo as we ran towards the bus, leaving our new Portuguese friends behind, the laughter we shared as we changed in the park, trying desperately to remove the dirt from the trail. I can still see the red mark on my foot where I twisted it and scraped the rock as we bounded down the stairs towards the train station – and my stubborn refusal to cry even though it hurt like hell.
While in Santa Domingo, we had the intention of walking towards the creek we had found while exploring and reading books, while swimming in the clear water that had pooled in a small gorge. We napped instead. I can remember that I killed two spiders and a cockroach, because as Jack said, I was the closest and it had nothing to do with him not liking bugs. (Ever the gentleman, he did allow me to use his flipflop.)
We jumped nine metres into a waterfall. I, terrified, spent a few minutes preparing myself before being counted down by our new Portuguese friend. I heard their voices, and concentrated on reaching them. I asked Jack after if he thought I would jump; he confirmed doubts but also that he had been scared too.
We re-read the guidebook, we debated maps, we agreed on prices, we walked away from taxi drivers, we shared, we encouraged. I remember reaching the top of the mountain, and being so overwhelmed, exhausted and proud and collapsing for a sweaty, disgusting, mountain-air hug. We washed our clothes in the sink, rinsed them in the shower and imagined our mother’s responses to us living this way.
When I think of Cuba, I will forever associate it with a particular person. I won’t be able to separate the two. Forever intertwined.
How to explain that to friends and family who ask about the trip? How the big moments were tremendously exciting, but it is the quiet events that would bring me happiness more so? How travel can be so much more than seeing cathedrals and swinging through trees, but could be summed up in a lazy afternoon, jumping off cliffs and swimming through waterfalls?
Cuba was exhilarating; it was mentally taxing; it was difficult; it was infuriating. But it was also; stunning; wonderful; enlightening and a fantasy. Trying to unearth every memory to quantify would be like trying to explain all the different blues that were found in the ocean. I could try; I could share photos. But in the end, only I can smell the salty air and feel the harsh Caribbean sun on my skin and try to wash the dirt off my shirts that came from climbing a cave on a side of a cliff with a boy from Oxford.