I woke up today thinking things were better. A fairly smooth day yesterday boosted my ego and gave me an inflated sense of confidence that maybe, after five days of being in Cuba, I actually knew what I was doing.
The day started off great. I woke up to the rising sun with an idea in my mind of how I wanted the day to go, where I wanted to eat, what I wanted to see and how I wanted to pass my time. Downstairs, I chatted with my host dad after an incredible breakfast and a café con leche. Up until this day, we hadn’t had a conversation. His accent was the strongest and fastest out of everyone that I had met here. I felt uncomfortable being in the same room as him for the sole purpose of feeling like an idiot every time he said something that I didn’t understand (which was always). Our conversation started off badly. “Como blablablablablabla,” he asked me. I looked at him and he said it again and again and again. Finally, I just busted out a string of words along the lines of “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Normally, I understand a lot of Spanish but speaking is hard. Here, the Spanish is different. It’s so fast, the accent is hard. I don’t understand and I can’t speak.” After that, he slowed it down a bit, but not much. We talked sports, college, work, life in Cuba, life in the U.S., my trip down to Colombia. Everything. For an hour. Suddenly, I understood. It was as if my nearly incomprehensible Spanish venting of all of my fears cleared my mind. After that, I could just be present. We watched TV as we spoke and out of nowhere a rerun of the 2016 Team USA Olympic Wrestling Trials came on the TV. He laughed as my face completely lit up and I pointed excitedly at the TV, saying “I know him! I know him!” as the faces of the athletes that I had lived next to for the past 10 months appeared on the screen. We watched the matches and I thought to myself that maybe, I’m not really that far away.
It got better and then it got worse. About a half hour into wrestling trials, right before I was going to leave for my first stop of the day in Habana Vieja, there was a knock on the door. Somewhere in the conversation my house dad mentioned that his wife’s nephew didn’t have work this week and could show me around Havana. GREAT! I thought. Little did I know that he had meant today. The boy showed up and asked if I was ready to go. “Sure,” I said as I had been planning to leave soon anyways. As we crossed the street he told me that his aunt said I didn’t have a boyfriend. I swore silently in my head as I instantly started to monitor my behavior out of caution and told myself to never tell anyone that I was single again. We wandered the streets of Havana without much of a purpose. It turned out that his accent was the most difficult one that I had encountered. That, coupled with a quiet voice, which was swallowed by lines of 1940s cars passing in the streets, led to little success for communication. Hours passed and each failed attempt at understanding his words beat down on me like the increasingly hot sun. Soon, I started to swear under my breath after each attempt to speak Spanish. It just kept getting worse. The language, the heat, the complete of misunderstanding of the city’s geography, and a growing feeling I couldn’t shake that something didn’t feel right with this guy – it all added up. Miles outside of my comfort zone, I wanted a one-way ticket back.
The view of the city from the Malecón
Finally, enough was enough. I was tired of him asking me to buy him lunch, beers and bus tickets. I was tired of the heat. I was tired of spending hours with someone who I was unable to communicate with and who, altogether, wasn’t that friendly. My introversion was at its limit. I started to slowly hint that it was time for our afternoon together to end. “I need to call my parents in that hotel over there.” “I’m tired and just going to sit down and read for a bit.” “So, what are you doing for the rest of the afternoon? Going back home?” He followed me to the hotel, watched me as I read and wasn’t planning on going home anytime soon. “Are you going to eat something soon?” He asked in Spanish “I’m hungry”. That was it, I couldn’t skirt around the issue anymore and needed to just be direct, I NEEDED to be alone. “Necessito hacer las cosas en la calle sola,” I said. I need to do things in the street alone. He gave me a weird look, probably wondering what the hell I needed to do in the street by myself, asked for bus money and left. Finally.
I returned to the house with questions of concern regarding my street errands (apparently the nephew had called to inform them of my exit strategy) and to find that my room had been cleaned. Something didn’t feel right about that, but when I brought up my concern and assured my hosts that I wanted to clean my own room, it was shaken off. Unsure whether it was my Spanish that wasn’t clear or if they just didn’t care, I gave up. I had had my money and valuables with me all day anyways.
The night ended with my first successful Máquina (shared taxi in an old American car) trip back to the house, a power outage, spending an hour playing with kids (for those who know me well, this will probably be the most shocking event that will occur over the next several months), and then retiring to my room early to watch A Walk to Remember because I needed some English and I needed to cry.
Tomorrow will be better. And the next day. Some days will be like today, but most won’t. Today, Havana kicked my ass. I lost. Badly. Havana won’t win everyday, though. Some days I will get points on my scorecard too.
Spending the day in Habana Vieja on a day where I actually won
I told a friend before I left that Costa Rica was too easy. I needed Cuba to be more challenging, to push me, to make me speak Spanish and experience a new culture. So far, it has done all that and more. In quick WIFI message to the same friend, I stated that Havana had been everything that I told him I wanted but 100 times harder. And that was an understatement.