The Cool in Cuba

The brief minutes after a hard rain are about the only time it ever feels cool in Cuba in the summer. And it’s not that it feels cool, it’s that it feels almost cool. It doesn’t feel oppressively hot. The rains come and tear away the humidity, and for a few brief minutes you can walk down the street in shorts and a t-shirt and think, “It’s perfect outside right now.”

I had this feeling on our last afternoon in Viñales. I met a Danish girl on the bus and we shared lodging, hanging out in the rocking chairs in the mornings and talking about nothing. I had some unique experiences in Cuba. I witnessed a Santeria ritual, two guys standing on a rocky shoreline amidst scraps of trash, holding a dead chicken above a chalice to collect its blood while the other guy rang a bell. Then there was the crowded bus on the way to the Hemingway museum, bodies of all colors and sizes, sweaty, pressing in against me. There was the heat, always the oppressive heat, taking shelter from a rainstorm in Hotel Presidente, eating delicious meals for a dollar, etc etc. And yet, of all these experiences, the only one that truly meant anything was sitting in a rocking chair and having an unhurried conversation with a fellow traveler. Sitting there for two hours at a time, with no place to be. Neither of us on our phones. Neither of us feeling like we had to entertain each other. Neither of us feeling like we had to say anything.

On the way back to the Havana there was another massive thunderstorm. We drove right into the heart of it. Linda kept worrying about hydroplaning, visibly tensing up whenever we approached an area of standing water. But Rafael, our driver, was no amateur. Plus, a car is the safest place to be in Cuba. Cars are scarce. Cars are like gold. People take good care of them, and will do anything to protect them. They might not be worried about the safety of the people in the car, but they are extremely worried about the safety of the car itself.

That same night in Havana we walked down to the seawall to look out on the Straits of Florida and watch the lightning. But mostly we watched the waves. They were mesmerizing. They were like watching fire; we couldn’t look away. It’s hard not to feel isolated in Cuba, cut off from the rest of the world, but this, for a foreigner, is part of Cuba’s appeal. It might be Cuba’s main appeal. That isolation can be oppressive, but only if you have to face it alone. Few Cubans face it alone. Family time in Cuba is prized. And not just family time, but time in general. Cubans have realized something by necessity that many Americans miss completely: Doing more with your day, doing more with your life, doesn’t make you happier. The national slogan for Cuba should be “less is more”; it’s a country where people have so little but enjoy riches most Americans don’t know exist.

I didn’t realize this so much then, at the time, sitting on the seawall in Cuba with Linda. I only realized it afterward, when I was alone again. I sat in the desk chair of my hotel room in Mexico City, looking out at the trees, listening to the sounds of a different thunderstorm rolling in. I didn’t want to be in that chair, in the hotel, though; I wanted to be back in the rocking chair in Viñales, talking to Linda.  Talking about nothing. Waiting for the rain to come. Doing nothing. Feeling everything.

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