Visiting Cuba // The Island of Doors // Beyond the Tourists

Cuba Island of Doors, Visiting Cuba // The Island of Doors // Beyond the Tourists

Just the word almost gives me chills – an island, the one island where I could not go. I have flown over it, sailed past it, cruised near it but never set foot on it. I was never free to openly visit.

It seemed that door was closed, legally to me, until 2016. Actually, there were other doorways that could have led me to that door; flying through the Bahamas or Panama, but I chose to wait until it was legal. 

When I finally arrived, I sobbed.

As the plane landing gear extended, and the runway appeared, I cried. Tars rolled down my face. Finally, I was there – Cuba. I cried in response to the tremendous emotions of going somewhere people worked so hard to leave and to stay, and of going somewhere so historic, so mysterious, and so complex. 

Cuba Island of Doors, Visiting Cuba // The Island of Doors // Beyond the Tourists

Last Americans Through the Door

In the days leading up to our trip, it seemed doors were slamming shut as we approached. April brought a notice of increased intolerance from the US toward Cuba. Then, only two days before our departure, another blow to struggling democracy in Cuba. 

Cruise ships, private yachts, fishing vessels, and even private aircraft were forbidden to travel from the US to Cuba. For three years, cruise ships had been stopping in Havana, and now the pier would be empty.

We were relieved we had chosen to fly to Cuba, and knew that if a travel embargo on air travel was introduced, Jet Blue would refund our airfare. That was a close call, as we had considered cruising there by ship. 

A cruise with two days in port at Havana did not satisfy our desire to meet locals, make friends, experience a more realistic visit, so we chose to fly.

Cuba Island of Doors, Visiting Cuba // The Island of Doors // Beyond the Tourists

Arrival in Cuba

Upon arrival in Cuba, I was absolutely mesmerized by the doors. 

There were enormous doors of 15-20 feet in height on the former mansions. Smaller doors of a more standard size had been cut into the doors. Huge wealth and consumption scaled back to a manageable proportion.

Open doors everywhere, with glimpses of people living. A man sat on a chair, fanning himself while watching the evening news on one of three or four channels available. 

Another open door allowed a quick look at unbelievably beautiful marble floors, a single lightbulb, and a family eating dinner.

Cuba Island of Doors, Visiting Cuba // The Island of Doors // Beyond the Tourists

Doors to Lives

Abierto, we learned, open. Doors revealed front living rooms with only a few sticks of furniture; was the style minimalism, or was the choice minimalistic?

Heat dictated each door, puerto, widely inviting anyone walking by a glimpse into the innermost feel and heart of Havana, how people were busy living.

Cuba Island of Doors, Visiting Cuba // The Island of Doors // Beyond the Tourists

Glimpses of Life

Everywhere we turned, there were more open doors allowing small slices of life, glimpses into the souls of Cubans. 

The impact was overwhelming – coming to Cuba to see how people live, then seeing directly into the heart and soul of their lives, wide open to the streets.

Cuba Island of Doors, Visiting Cuba // The Island of Doors // Beyond the Tourists

Do You Look

Door after door, and do you look or not, do you take that bite of reality, of life, and absorb it. Or, do you look away since the moment is too private.

The sensation of all those thresholds, all those doorways, open for us to inspect and feel the life was life altering. To see the conditions, to be allowed to try to understand the Cuban situation by gazing directly into the heart of their lives was unsettling. 

Cuba Island of Doors, Visiting Cuba // The Island of Doors // Beyond the Tourists

Underwater Doors

Once we arrived at the Cuban reefs, on our first “double immersion,” once again, the doors beckoned to me. 

At every stroke of my fins, I was transported before another open door. Nooks and crannies, afforded glimpses into the private lives of the fishes.

Into deep caves I shined my light, ferreting out views of lobster waving their antenna back at me. I saw teeny fish coming forward to inspect me. Crabs blinked and flexed a single claw in my direction in an underwater “hello.”

The time underwater, with no buildings and cars and people gave me time to reflect. What was Cuba. How did it get here, to this point in time in this condition. 

Cuba Island of Doors, Visiting Cuba // The Island of Doors // Beyond the Tourists

Closed Doors, Open Doors

My dive partner Bill mentioned that by being trapped in time, Cuba was able to avoid some of the drawbacks of the commercialism and confusion of capitalism. 

Some doors are closed to Cubans. Others are wide open, allowing life to happen, to be lived moment by moment in real time, in real life.

We saw children playing with their siblings, families sharing meals, lovers taking in sunsets on the Malecon, only a small flask of rum in their hands; no electronic device drawing their attention from each other. 

The doors to homes and paladars were open to us to meet people, and ask questions directly. Except in the wifi parks, we saw nearly no one using their cell phones except to make a quick call. We asked locals for directions, we asked passersby about history, we asked taxi drivers about trees and plants. 

We connected with people. 

Cuba Island of Doors, Visiting Cuba // The Island of Doors // Beyond the Tourists

Don’t Try to Understand Cuba

Luckily, we were totally present with the people with whom we were traveling. I was thrilled with the disconnect from technology. It meant I could struggle with Spanish; a better way to learn than reciting pat phrases from a translator on a cell phone.  

After probably the thousandth question, one of our guides, Mitchell, told me, “Don’t try to understand Cuba. We’ve spent decades trying to understand, and we don’t even understand it.

I think it’s normal to want to look through all those doors; history, humanity, culture, and try to figure a place out – what makes it tick. 

For Cuba, it’s all those doors. 

Cuba Island of Doors, Visiting Cuba // The Island of Doors // Beyond the Tourists

Repetition and Mentality

One afternoon, after a dive trip, we wanted to get some water for the casa particulare and the next day’s dive. Michell went about four places before he found the large bottles. At each place, he would ask for water, then go on to the next place they suggested. 

All those doors – he just kept looking. We would have told him it was ok, we could do without, or find it somewhere in town, but he was determined to find bottles of water. 

At some other point, he did comment on the Cuban mentality, which we definitely saw in the maintenance of the 1950’s cars. Cobbled together with parts from a variety of vehicles of different decades, they make them work. 

Cuba Island of Doors, Visiting Cuba // The Island of Doors // Beyond the Tourists

Resilience

Mitchell said that when Cubans find one door closed, they keep looking. It does not make them angry or sad, they just are resilient and inventive, and keep working at it. 

I was reading “Treasure Hunters” last night by Robert Kurson, and he describes an incident in the Dominican Republic of having a flat tire, and no jack. The locals take a look, then brace the three good tires with rocks then dig a hole under the flat and change the tire. 

While one door might not be open, living on an island, ingenuity and innovation goes a long way toward being successful and happy. 

Cuba Island of Doors, Visiting Cuba // The Island of Doors // Beyond the Tourists

Living in Happiness

Arriving in Cuba, I knew I would be seeking the answer to the question of how people could be happy and satisfied with lower incomes, less product availability, and fewer opportunities, as well as all the limitations their political system places upon them. 

We met a man who lived by the sea, in a tiny house with very little. He was happily working on restoring a 1920’s car with his time. Every morning he played with the neighbors dog, greeted everyone, and appreciated his simple life. 

Cuba Island of Doors, Visiting Cuba // The Island of Doors // Beyond the Tourists

Lessons Learned

Leaving Cuba, I realized I had learned the same lesson I learned in Belize, the Bahamas, anywhere remote – people can be happy no matter their income, if they choose the life they want. 

Fewer products does not bother me – growing up on a sailboat, there was not room for tons of toys. My paper dolls lived flattened under my bunk. The ocean was my playground. However, when the unavailable products are food and personal hygiene and medicine, that is different. 

The availability of items increases with additional resources, and the Cubans who hustle manage for themselves and their families. 

Cuba Island of Doors, Visiting Cuba // The Island of Doors // Beyond the Tourists

Holding Doors Open

I think Mitchell hit upon something when he was trying to describe to us his idea about humankind. He told us a simple story about his wife. 

She was carrying something heavy into her house, and someone walked in front of her. The person not only delayed her, but also did not offer to help. He said he almost could understand not helping, that was a lazy person, but to actually slow her down – to him, that was nearly a criminal offense. 

Mitchell did not have much empathy for people who were able, but chose not to “hustle.” Even where there is seemingly very little opportunity, he said there always is a door open somewhere. 

Cuba Island of Doors, Visiting Cuba // The Island of Doors // Beyond the Tourists

Show Me Your Hustle

Over and over, he demonstrated that “open door philosophy” when dealing with people, situations, supplies, and life. The word “jintero” has a negative connotation, someone who is slightly tricky to get ahead, like our “hustler” of the 80’s. 

Now, people talk about their “side hustle” and admire someone with some “hustle.” Mitchel was fascinated with the newer connotation of the word, and liked being called a “hustler” by us, because he understood the action, the drive, the connections, the energy it takes to hustle, and the rewards it can bring. 

Cuba is not as much about one door closing and another opening. Cuba is more about some closed doors, and the many open doors, and having to keep seeking the next open one. Everywhere, doors are open. Cubans have to look for them and choose to walk through them, and often it’s not easy. 

Cuba Island of Doors, Visiting Cuba // The Island of Doors // Beyond the Tourists

Close the Door Gently

However, legally, a lot of doors are still closed to Cubans. To freely fly in and out of a country that people choose to leave by floating away on rafts constructed from trash bothered me. 

I felt privileged and guilty. I was hesitant to gush over the cars, knowing just how difficult it is to purchase and maintain them, how hard people had to work to afford them. 

So, yes, some doors are open to Cubans who choose to hustle. Other doors remain steadfastly closed.

One of our expedition vehicles was an old “woody”-type surf mobile. It was sea blue, and the owner showed us how to close the doors as gently as you would close the door to your Grandmother’s china cabinet. He didn’t want to wear out that precious door.

Cuba Island of Doors, Visiting Cuba // The Island of Doors // Beyond the Tourists

No Door Open

Our taxi driver had served his time in the Cuban military in Angola. When he was younger, either he or his older brother had a chance to emigrate to the U.S. Together, they decided the older brother should go, and he would remain to take care of their parents, and then have plenty of time to go himself.

After several years, his brother became ill and died. Twice, our taxi driver attempted to travel to the U.S. to attend the funeral of his brother. He was denied both times. I will never forget his words. “But my brother died free. He died free.” 

As the wheels on the plane left the pavement of the runway, and we rose, I could see a view of Cuba through the clouds. I cried. As I looked through this door, one made of clouds of nothing but moisture, I cried. 

With all the charm of Cuba, my love for the generous, friendly people, the eloquent Spanish language, the doors and doors into lives and opportunity, as the tears streamed down my face, I heard only one thing. “But my brother died free. He died free.” 

Cuba Island of Doors, Visiting Cuba // The Island of Doors // Beyond the Tourists

Some Good Articles

https://www.thedailybeast.com/cubas-12-most-absurd-prohibitions-that-tourists-may-never-notice?ref=scroll

https://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/travel/article/2126623/good-bad-and-ugly-sides-cuba-tourists

http://havanajournal.com/politics/entry/a-list-of-what-the-cuban-people-can-not-do-in-cuba/

Cuba Island of Doors, Visiting Cuba // The Island of Doors // Beyond the Tourists

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Cuba Island of Doors, Visiting Cuba // The Island of Doors // Beyond the Tourists

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Thank you Bill for always being ready for the next adventure and holding out your hand to lead me through the next door! Best Dive Partner EVER!

Cuba Island of Doors, Visiting Cuba // The Island of Doors // Beyond the Tourists

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