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World Travel

Connecting in Cuba.

By Cindy Centeno.

… every moment is an adventure here, and every day is full of surprise. I never want to sleep in Cuba. And even after I have returned home—and the place has disappeared entirely from view—I find that it haunts me like a distant rumba.
–Pico Iyer

To think that at the age of 21 I was going to the island-nation of Cuba—a place that for so long seemed like a faraway place—was surreal. Yet, I found myself boarding a small charter flight from Miami International with a destination of Holguín, Cuba.

On the bus, soon after arriving at Holguín, Cuba on the first day.
Photo by Cindy Centeno.

My friends and I, as we walked across a river in San Pablo de Yao. Photo by Nathaniel Clemens.

Cuba, a country just 90 miles off the coast of Florida; a nation with rich history and culture, a place that I only dreamed of someday setting foot on. Stereotypical words to describe Cuba: Fidel Castro, communism, isolation, cigars, and vintage cars. Others more familiar with Latino culture may add: Celia Cruz and mojitos. For many years, the relationship between Cuba and the United States has been seemingly nonexistent. If it weren’t for the fact that I identify as a Latina and am familiar with Latin cultures and traditions, I would probably have a different view of the island-nation. It is because of this that we traveled to Cuba — to understand the country’s history and people better.

Completely off the grid (no cell phone service) for a week felt AMAZING. The only purpose my iPhone served was for taking pictures and as an alarm.

Almost every night a group of us would get together and talk about life for hours. Every night I looked forward to those moments of laughter and sharing stories. Today, I think back to those late-night memories and feel lucky to have had them considering we live in a world where technology sometimes leads to not be able to disconnect.

Up until the day I got off the plane onto the ground of Cuba, I had not been in a Latin American country in almost seven years. Since 2009, my family and I had not traveled to our native country of El Salvador. With relatives living in El Salvador, I sometimes longed to return and be surrounded by my culture, my Latin roots, and feel that part of my identity. So, traveling to Cuba was a little more meaningful.

Getting off the charter plane and taking in the natural scent of Cuba instantly made me feel welcomed. What I encountered was all too familiar—the heat, humidity, the acres of lands with cows, horses, and cornfields, and the smell of all the surroundings. From that very moment—although I have no roots in Cuba—I felt at home. Little did I know, that Cuba would welcome me with open arms and take me in, making me feel like I belonged.

Filming an interview with student filmmakers. Photo by Cindy Centeno.

Basilica del Cobre, Cuba.

On the first day, we were surprised with horse-drawn carriage rides to a small restaurant. There, we were welcomed by an incredible group of musicians who got us all out of our seats to dance to Cuba’s most popular music. It didn’t take long for a few of us, including myself, to be taken by the hand to the front of the performance area.

I am so grateful to everyone who made this trip possible – especially Ann Marie Stock and Troy Davis, two brilliant faculty members at my alma mater, The College of William and Mary – and the numerous generous supporters. It will forever be one of the most valuable experiences that I have ever had. I feel honored that I was a part of the first to visit Cuba during this time of transition and change in relations with the U.S.

I’m incredibly grateful for the generosity and friendship I encountered while in Cuba. I’ve made a family and home there (thanks to my adoptive uncles, Juan Karlos and José, our bus driver and one of the hotel’s baristas, respectively).

From time to time, I take out my “Cuba box” – a Cuban cigar box filled with memories from the trip: leftover currency, a cigar, my travel itinerary, a journal with written accounts, and a large Cuban flag that I bought at the airport minutes before we took off to return. My family will jokingly ask: So, what? You’re Cuban now? My connection to the country may not be in my family roots, but it is deep—a part of my soul is forever connected to Cuba.

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