Danielle Thompson

Photo by Danielle Thompson/Contributor

Danielle Thompson,
Contributor

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La Gente

The people of Havana, Cuba are exceptionally bright and personable. Everyone I’ve encountered during these first three days has been helpful, friendly and funny. The people here also seem to love Americans!

Whenever someone finds out we’re Americans, they want to tell us great places to go or invite us to dance if we’re in a club. When I’m walking down the street with my camera, many Cubans tend to ask if I’m from America and get excited when I say yes.

The kids excitedly cheer “Yuma” when we walk by in a huge group; Yuma is what they call Americans here. I’ve never heard of a country being excited when groups of other nationalities visit. It’s usually quite the opposite in America.

I and a few of my classmates were casually walking with our cameras around our necks today when two guys that we passed said “Photo?” I asked if we could take their pictures and they happily posed and smiled for us even though we were complete strangers to them.

Their personality and the spirit of the Cuban people showed through their smiles and how happy they were to be interacting with new people.

Our group includes quite a few women so naturally, we get approached by men to dance, go out, have a drink, etc. They tend to be charismatic when approaching us and don’t get upset or nasty when we turn them down. This is the way that all men should act. Cubans flirt in a fun way rather than a way that is intimidating or harmful.

On our second night, a lot of us went to a dance club which was a lot of fun. Most of us conversed and danced with Cuban natives at some point. They taught us how to dance properly, danced in our circle with us, and got to know us a little. One even was looking out and told me when one of my classmates was in trouble outside. I love interacting with the people here. My Spanish is not the best so they are patient with us when we can’t have a clear conversation, they are eager to help us find what we need, and they love to show us a good time. The people of Havana are some of the best that I have ever met.

 

Santeria

Santeria is an alluring and mysterious religion that I now have the pleasure of getting to understand better. Many Americans have a dark view of it but it’s actually quite colorful and beautiful when one takes the time to appreciate it.

Santeria has a long history of being secretive. It began with the religion of the Africans who were brought as slaves. Cuba at one time held millions of African slaves who were not allowed to practice their own religion. Because of this, they syncretized all of their Orishas with Roman Catholic Saints. For example, the Orisha Chango is syncretized
with Santa Barbara.

Each Orisha has colors that represent them which can be shown by colorful necklaces worn by locals. Chango is red and white and represents justice, virility, thunder, lightning, and dance. I received a necklace for this Orisha and while I don’t practice the religion, it’s a physical reminder of this cultural experience I’m having. It also reminds me to continue to fight for justice and makes me feel more powerful.

In order to join the religion, one must go through a one year cleansing period. You have to shave all of your hair and wear all white for the whole year before you can begin. They do sacrificial offerings which some people may see as a negative thing but it’s used to share with the Orishas. They offer the blood to them and eat the meat unless
the sacrifice is for healing.

I’ve grown up mainly learning about Christianity, Islam, and a bit about Judaism, so it’s great to experience a religion that has different practices than I’m used to seeing.

I don’t follow one specific religion but I do think that they are all beautiful in their different ways. Santeria is one thing that makes Cuba special and this trip more spiritual than it already was.

 

Un adventura de Cuba

Today I went on a truly Cuban adventure full of great people, ridiculous weather, a beautiful church, and a man who wouldn’t stop flirting with me. I was feeling a little down in my hotel so I decided to walk down an unfamiliar street and take pictures of the locals. That is very quickly becoming one of my favorite activities to do here. I photographed a group of young men, a mechanic, a couple of men in their home, and a frisky gentleman who led me around the
neighborhood.

Let me tell you something about Cuban men; they are very persistent but in the nicest way. My surprise tour guide’s name was Johann. He spotted me as I walked by his house and got my attention by making kissing noises at me. He spoke bad English, and I speak bad Spanish, so it was a perfect opportunity to teach him and learn from him. We walked by the water teaching each other our languages, where he also flirted with me quite a bit.

I love learning about Santeria so he took me to the church that he works at and showed me around. Inside was beautiful with the main lights dimmed but the statues gently lit. The soft, natural light coming in from outside made the environment so relaxing.

After leaving the church, it began to rain. Hard. The gentle mist that felt incredibly refreshing after enduring days of 90-degree sun quickly turned into pouring rain and flooded streets. We ran down the street to his friends’ house where they graciously let us wait out the storm which seemed to only get stronger with time. When I decided I couldn’t take the flirting and failed attempts to kiss me, he walked me home. The puddles reached up to my ankles and I had to hold my camera inside my shirt. I was freaking out but my new friend took his shoes off and walked barefoot. I finally reached my hotel and gave him a wet hug goodbye.

Nothing like this has ever happened to me in my home of the Bay Area. I can’t imagine walking up to anyone in Oakland and having them excitedly allowing me into their home to photograph them. Even heavy rain is a rarity in sunny California. But Cuba is different, much more different than I could’ve ever imagined. Every day here is a culture shock, an experience, and an adventure in the best way possible.

 

Learning generosity

Whenever I mention visiting Cuba to anyone, one of the first things they mention is the old cars. Walking around Havana, it’s very common to run into men working on their old cars. The old Cuban cars are one of the many aspects of Cuba that makes it so special. Though the trade embargo had a negative effect on Cuba’s economy, the remaining sparkling, bright cars that let out dark clouds of smoke when they drive by are a reminder of the way Cubans seem to always make it by with what they have.

The maid that cleans my hotel room told me that Cubans don’t have a lot of money but are “happy happy happy.” As I was out walking the neighborhood, of course asking to take stranger’s portraits, a gentleman whose house was destroyed invited me in for a glass of mango juice. It did go against every bit of my better judgment to walk into a strange man’s house filled with other strange men while holding an expensive camera, but I’m a sucker for some good mango juice.

He was extremely hospitable, as most Cubans that I have met are. His entire house was in shambles from a storm so he led me around the side of his house, underneath construction scaffolding, to his backyard. Right away he let me sit and grabbed me a glass of fresh mango juice that his niece made for me.

Now here’s a man with a crumbling house and not much else, but he can still offer a small token to his guests. However, there are people with everything they can ever ask for and more and can’t even leave a tip when they eat out or acknowledge a homeless person. It really makes you think. I’ve never had a more delicious drink.

He didn’t speak English but he was very patient with me when I had him repeat everything slowly so I could try to understand him. He did do something very interesting though; at one point he started speaking really loudly as if that would help me understand better. I’ve seen Americans do that quite a bit, so it was strange being on the other side. As a black woman, I’m used to being seen as the odd one out but not up to that point.

If anything, that day helped me to remember to always be generous. The only reason why I’m on this trip is because of the generosity of a lot of people. I know what I’m going to do with some of the extra money I have at the end of this trip.