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A Time Capsule: Traveling in Cuba, Through The Eyes of an ARCC Alumni Student

Our students traveling in Cuba remember the human connections. They uncover sixty years of history through broken Spanish and by following their interests to white sand beaches and graffiti-covered alleyways. They immerse into Cuban life
Traveling in Cuba Through The Eyes of an ARCC Alumni Student

It’s rare students find the words to describe their international summer service program. We talk about re-entry shock; how difficult it is to feel that people understand the experience you’ve had in such a foreign place. Traveling in Cuba can be particularly eye-opening, in a way that makes returning home a bit difficult. Did you have fun? Yeah. Did you make friends? Yeah. Was the food good? Yeah.

But that’s not just it. We eat well, make friends, have fun, but it’s so much more. Teens on summer service programs in Cuba simultaneous create a new family with strangers, whilst catching up on sixty years of lost history in a Carribean Island Nation. Our student’s parents know Cuba as the place people desperately wanted to leave after the fall of the Soviet Union. And now we can’t wait to get in?

Our students traveling in Cuba remember the human connections. They uncover sixty years of history through broken Spanish and by following their interests to white sand beaches and graffiti-covered alleyways. They immerse into Cuban life and the interests they develop never leave them. They become.

Alumna Coral Worley expertly recreates her experience traveling on the 2018 summer service program in Cuba. She captures Cuba, “a place of old and new, a place that got stuck in a time warp and then was placed into a glass bottle, stopped with a cork.”

A Time Capsule: Cuba

They come at wicked tempos and with various velocities, sometimes all at once, and at other times, one by one. Spirals of thoughts, dripping with nostalgia, that plague the mind like a disease, waiting to eat away at the brain.

When I stepped off the plane in my hometown of Portland Oregon, I already knew that  I was a different person. I could feel it in my bones and in the way that I lifted my head to look at the familiar skyline.

I spotted my parents’ car and got in, lifting my duffle bag into the trunk. My mom turned around to look at me from behind the wheel.

“Did you have a good trip?”

“Yeah,” I said, looking out the window. The sulken feeling in my guts created nostalgic memories that flashed repeatedly in my mind. “The trip was great.”

Three Days Before

The sun was rising, and I raced the disappearing pink-and-orange colors as I went up and down the hotel’s outside zig-zagging staircase. Cuba smelled like a mixture of cigarettes and flowers full of nectar, but by now, after nearly two weeks, I hardly noticed it.

Cuba is a place of old and new, a place that got stuck in a time warp and then was placed into a glass bottle, stopped with a cork. The Cuban people were lively, always welcoming newcomers and smiling at people when they passed by. It was so interesting to close my eyes and hear another language mixed with my own, like the sound of water rushing in the middle of a forest, just as loud and clear as my own thoughts.

“Are you ready?” My roommate asked as I came down the stairs and entered the hallway. She had the key in her hand and shut the door when I nodded my head. We walked down to the lobby together, ready for the last three days of our adventure in Cuba. We had been to Matanzas and Varadero, and now we had made it to Havana, the most famous city in Cuba.

Marissa, who was our interpreter for the trip and was a local Cuban, gestured to the group of high schoolers that I had become friends with to gather around.

“Okay guys, today we are going to explore Old Havana and its history. There will be an opportunity to get gifts for your family members or souvenirs for yourself later in the day.” She clasped her hands together as we all paired up in groups to ride in taxis into the city.

While we waited for the taxis to arrive, I glanced at one of the many large canvas paintings on the wall in the lobby. It was blank except for the lower right-hand corner, where in sprawling black paint it read ‘E Pluribus Unum.’ –Out of many, one.

“Hey Marissa,” I said, leaning over to catch her attention, “are there any places where there are artists who showcase their art?”

“You mean like an art exhibit?”

“Yeah.”

“There’s an art exhibit near the place where everyone can buy touristy gifts. I can take you there if you want.”

“That’d be great, thanks.”

Later that day while everyone was shopping for souvenirs, Marissa took me to the art exhibit she had told me about. It was the artist’s studio/home, which he put on display for the public during the day. The moment I walked in, my breath caught in my chest.

There were little interactive pieces, abstract art, paintings on suitcases, an umbrella that resembled a tree with books hanging from its branches, walls covered in hundreds of photographs, political propaganda posters criticizing Trump, a foolstable made out of metal figurines, and in the dark, dusty corners, were more paintings stacked in cobwebs. It smelled like old books and paint, and the farther I walked into the studio, the more the paintings piled up.

Light bulbs dangled from the ceiling, flickering occasionally. I imagined wisps of ideas soaring through the dark on dim nights and landing among the millions of others’ ideas that were stacked all around me.

To meet the artist, I traveled up a rickety ladder to reach the attic. In the attic there were huge canvases, and the paintings seemed to be deeper emotionally. My eyes caught sight of a corkboard that was covered in articles -written in both English and Spanish- praising the artist.

Marissa and I tiptoed across the creaking floorboards and passed the artist himself, who seemed deeply lost in his work as he looked up to say “Hello” quickly, before returning back to the painting he was working on.

We crept into the back room, which was dark besides a single light that illuminated the room in a off-balance glow.

“This is where he sleeps,” Marissa whispered to me as we cautiously stepped around a bed. Dream catchers and trinkets dangled from the ceiling. There was a strange wooden game board, a cross between chess and the Ouija Board, sitting on a table. It was the craziest and most beautiful place I had ever been. The feeling was peaceful, as quiet music drifted through the walls from downstairs, as if from another world.

On the farthest wall were sketches of buildings and ideas, and as I walked over to them, something tightened in my chest. I thought: the world has gifted this man with the ability to really see the world. From looking at his drawings and paintings on the wall – murmurings of midnight ideas, drafts of something great, I could tell that they came from a place deep inside of him. In that moment, I felt an urge of something inside of me too, calling to me. The art was like out of a dream.

Walking out of that studio with an enormous grin on my face, I knew that I had caught the travel bug. I was suddenly having the desire, the wanderlust to travel to other countries, to see the world. But I also wished that I could stay in Havana a little while longer, just to see what it would be like to dissolve into the backdrop of the falling-apart buildings, or maybe I wouldn’t disappear at all. Maybe I’d become a part of the time capsule itself, falling in love with the romantic streets and warm yellow lamps that turned on at night, waking in the middle of the night in order to write down ideas that fled into my mind.

I had come on this trip to learn, to gather information, but I had also come in the hopes of finding who I was, to seek out the Great Perhaps. The art in that place began a tick inside of me, and perhaps it wasn’t the great change in my life that I was searching for, but it was something.

On the last night in Havana, after a final evening meal, we walked around in the dark, our laughter echoing across the empty streets. There were significantly fewer tourists at night, and it felt as if we were alone in the world, soaking up the beauty of life. I felt so alive, and something inside of me was thrumming; a pulse of desire.

As we walked to catch our taxis, everything I saw looked as if it were a scene from a movie: the glint of car headlights as the 1950’s cars rushed forward in the street traffic, a dog that we nicknamed Hero who ended up trailing behind us, the lightning that flashed above the crashing of waves. The city was electric.

Riding in the taxi, I felt such a strong connection for the city. Sappy pop-love songs played on a CD (the driver told us he loved American pop music), and my friends and I sang along. We drove on the outer strip of Havana, watching the people, and the waves take over, crashing more frequently. I felt that this was what summer was supposed to feel like. Hot, sticky sweat stuck to my skin, but it didn’t matter, because excitement was bursting through me.

Once we got back to the hotel, my friends and I walked to the concrete barrier that bordered the ocean and the hotel. We stood in silence as we watched the furious waves splash against the side, all dramatic in the underlight. The ocean looked black, or almost dark blue, splattering its message across the face of concrete.

I stared at the dark horizon, where the light of a ship suddenly disappeared. If I looked sideways, I could see the fog across the water underneath the light of a lighthouse. I steeled myself against the wall, a deep sense of calm came over me as an influx of thoughts plagued me. I told myself that these thoughts would not last forever.

I knew something then that I hadn’t known before I started the trip, although I couldn’t tell exactly what it was, or when it started. It was just a feeling, and as I watched the waves, I could feel it seeping in…

In the morning, we packed everything up and headed back home. The worst part was the fear of forgetting everything. Memories flashed before me as we stood in a group, waiting for our flights to separate us. Suddenly, two weeks felt like an infinity of memories that I didn’t want to forget. I wanted to remember the phrases and quirks of the friends that I had made, however temporary they were. I knew that in different circumstances, some of them could have been lifelong friends. I was scared of forgetting their faces.

When I said my goodbyes, I said them quickly, matched with brief hugs from everyone, as they all feigned distress at my departure. I walked away, looking back only once, to see them watching me. I wondered what they thought, watching me go. It seemed such a simplistic goodbye when we would never see each other again. As I went up the escalator, I hoped that I would perhaps see them again in the future; our adventure and friendships had to mean more than just a goodbye.

I really didn’t know how alone but satisfied I would feel, until I got on the final flight home. You truly do not understand the capacity of your love for something until you are out of sight, alone, and carrying your bags to a new destination.

I did not want to forget the rare moments. -The glimpse of the stars while sitting on the beach, watching the sky slosh into a blue-black night, or the feel of the white sand beneath my feet, or Matanzas’ pineapples and lightning storms. Those moments were for myself, and I came to the conclusion that I would be okay with forgetting them.

Those moments were made of those bubbling thoughts, those harsh and soft textures, the quirks of facial expressions and warmth of friends nearby as I sat alone, facing endings and beginnings. They were the real-life moments that mattered, like the glimpse of a beginning and an ending as I trudged up the hotel’s zig-zagging stairs in the light of the morning.

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Thinking about traveling in Cuba this summer? ARCC Programs has offered summer travel programs for teens for over 35 years. With travel programs for teens on six continents, there is something for everyone. Find a summer program on our website or request a catalog today.