Today we docked in Havana, Cuba, and it was alternately beautiful and terrible, marvelous and terrifying. Because the United States’ embargo against Cuba, the years of anger, mistrust, and threats back and forth have occurred during the course of Dan’s lifetime, he really wanted to go to Cuba to see what the country had been like during those years, before the lifting of restrictions and the influx of tourism changed it too much. For my ignorant part, my knowledge of Cuba is limited to the large reel movies our teachers showed us in elementary and high school about the Cuban Missile Crisis and cigars. That is to say that my knowledge of Cuba is more than limited, so my only expectations for the trip were to see a place that had been so profoundly impacted by politics and to get some cigars.
When we pulled into the port, it was exciting and ugly. The morning was new, and it was immediately clear that the country, or at the very least Havana, has some real poverty. With my only frame of reference being Nicaragua and the time I’ve spent there, I couldn’t miss the Third World comparisons right from the start. But we were up early and headed out together as a group of twelve. Once we passed through customs and were outside the terminal, it was like walking out a door and having nothing but a sidewalk between you and the world. Immediately, we fell into roles, and before long, we were separated into three classic convertible cars. Ours was a 1957 Chevy, red, white and Bondo. But the sun was shining, and we piled in together to take a tour of the city.
After a few stops and photo opportunities, our drivers pulled our three car caravan off on a side street about two blocks from the cigar factory and one of our crew got out and headed off down another alley and up a set of steep, dark stairs to buy some contraband cigars. Because we were in a group and traveling together, that meant the rest of us were kind of pulled into this too, but it was an adventure, and it gave us a pretty clear look at what real life is like in a post Fidel Castro Cuba. The story is long and often dull, and it involves far too much time spent in a filthy apartment with no toilet seat, used condoms laying around, and much depression, but a few of the group ended up with cigars.
Three of us waited and waited for the promised delivery of the specific brand we wanted, but it never arrived, and we were suddenly ushered out with a flip apology and a walk back to the cars, with Cuban police officers standing on every corner as we walked back up the alleyway. Fortunately, we were so close to the official government-run cigar shop that we were able to go there, pay a little more, and buy cigars legally. However, they didn’t have the kind I had promised to look for on behalf of a friend back home. I bought the closest thing I could, which were also great cigars, and then we all headed for the rest of the tour. The illicit stop had really kind of soured our driver’s mood, too, and he was polite, but happy to be rid of us when he dropped us back at Old Havana Square.
At that point, having scored the quantity of cigars they’d wanted, our lead car’s occupants were done with Cuba and headed back to the ship. The second car’s occupants stopped somewhere for lunch, but because we are on a cruise and only had a few hours in Cuba, there were three of us, Dan and I included, who wanted to just do some walking around town. We did, but soon enough we met up with another man who promised our friend, Matt, he would take him to the cigar store that was sure to have what we were looking for. He took us on a walk through town that was more educational than any tour could possibly have been, and it involved narrow brick streets, smells that would make your nose scrunch up in disdain, and poverty the likes of which I haven’t seen since Nicaragua. It was definitely not the postcard images of beautiful Cuba the cruise line and travel agents want you to see. When we got to the second ‘cigar shop’ that involved someone’s home and another friend who could score some expensive cigars at a discounted price if we’d only wait a few minutes, we decided it was better just to take a walk.
When we got back to the ship after our true heart of the city adventure, I was still pretty disappointed that I hadn’t been able to score the silly cigars my friend back home had requested, and when asked, I mentioned it to the ones who had gotten multiple boxes of their own of that same cigars. Before long, one of them offered to sell me a box of his (with only a small profit), and I jumped at the chance, realizing that my gift of the day was also a gift to myself. Sadly, it wasn’t the kind of gift I would have expected or wanted to learn, but I got the cigars I’d promised to find for my friend, and I got a real and valuable insight into people’s true motivation and character. I can’t imagine profiting off a friend under any circumstances, and I can’t imagine ever being so cavalier about my friends’ safety and well-being that I would put them in a situation that could hurt them just to get what I wanted, then walk away satisfied after I’d gotten my share and left them empty-handed. For me, it was a gift to learn that what others call friendship is often a moving target, and while I don’t and can’t feel that way, the gift is in giving me a chance to try to learn how to be accepting and tolerant of that in others, even if it feels foreign and inconsiderate to me.
So from Cuba and Day Seven, I would say the gift I gave in the form of paying more than I would have liked for a box of cigars was also a gift to me in finding out how deep – or rather how shallow – some relationships I invest so heavily in really are.