Sweat drips down my forehead, back and legs. We are walking as slowly as possible, but the full sun, 90-degree heat and 90-percent humidity make it feel like we are melting. While meandering around the narrow streets of Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s second largest city, my partner Nick and I stumble on a quaint, tree-lined park abuzz with activity.
Music floats through the thick warm air, people dance at an outdoor café, two lovers sit on a bench staring into each other’s eyes, a man walks by yelling “pan, pan (bread, bread)!” and periodic bursts of shouting emerge from a pack of men enthralled in a dominoes game. In an attempt to stop perspiring for a minute, we grab a shady bench at the corner of the park and settle in to absorb it all.
Three minutes later, a young woman with an older man in tow strolls up to us. She asks meekly in Spanish if they can share our bench. We happily squish over and return to people watching while the two take their seats. The four of us sit there in silence until this woman with curly brown hair, dark soulful eyes and an infectious smile turns and asks, in shockingly perfect English, “Where are you from?”
“The United States,” Nick says.
“Really? Wow. We don’t get many of those here,” she says. And, the conversation skyrockets from there.
She introduces herself as Jacqueline, a language student studying English, French, Russian, German, Italian and Chinese at the university. “I have a question for you,” she says. “Since it’s very difficult to leave the island and exchange programs aren’t an option, would you mind speaking English with me for a while so I can practice, as a sort of exchange program?”
Nick and I have no time schedule, so of course, we talk to this bright 19-year-old woman who wants to be an interpreter or work as a Cuba tour guide. Jacqueline is shy at first and apologizes repeatedly for the interruption. We try to convince her that it’s no bother, that it’s actually a pleasure, but she still repeatedly apologizes. Motioning to the man next to her, who sits there and silently smiles, she says, “My grandfather urged me to come up to you because it’s so rare that I find people who will practice English with me.”
It’s clear she truly loves language—the sound of different ones, the varied word order, the way diverse dialects have come about, and the power of it. “Communication—that’s what it’s all about—because that’s how we connect,” Jacqueline says. “Being able to make those connections with people from all over the world—that’s what I want to do.”
The conversation flows easily between the three of us. We talk politics, weather, school, sports and about her hopes for the future. She’s amazed at how cold it gets in Colorado, asks us what snow is like and says she really wants to see it someday. She inquires about Havana, Cuba, and what it’s like; she’s never been there, never been far from Santiago, but she hopes to explore the country someday.
We ask questions about Cuban culture and she responds with honesty and candor. She’s appalled we haven’t tried dancing yet. She tells us about Carnival in Santiago; this is the only time her grandfather chimes in, and he gets very passionate about how much joy flows through the streets during this festival and implores us come back for it.
Jacqueline changes the topic and asks us to describe living in the United States. “How does it feel to be able to travel anywhere you want?” My heart breaks at this question, because the ability to move freely throughout the world is a simple pleasure that many of us take for granted.
It’s day 20 of our month-long bike-packing adventure through Cuba, and like every other local we’ve gotten to know—casa owners, taxi drivers, guides, and random people we meet and chat with—these two Cubans win our hearts with their curiosity, politeness, openness and willingness to share. Without fail, the people we’ve met are warm, kind, proud and outwardly passionate about country, family, learning and finding out about the rest of the world.
We while away almost two hours talking about the weather, politics, food, traveling, the future, hopes, dreams and realities with Jacqueline and her grandfather. We are enamored with this duo and could sit there forever, but eventually they have to head home. The four of us exchange hugs and they express such immense gratitude for our time and our willingness to talk. We try our best to explain, but we walk away knowing they’ll never fully understand that they’ve just made our Cuba trip.
This guest post was written by Chris Kassar, an intrepid adventurer and a freelance writer for Nat Hab. All photos © Chris Kassar.