In 1972 my father, along with my two aunts and grandparents, left Cuba. On July 6th, 2015 I journeyed to Cuba for the first time. What I experienced was incredible.
As I was finishing up the 2014-2015 Baja season for ROW Sea Kayak Adventures I received an email from the owner Peter Grubb. Peter asked if I would be interested in going to Cuba that summer and doing a little bit of exploration for a new ROW trip. I asked Peter some more specifics and I got this response, "the idea is we develop our own thing, bring our own kayaks, etc. Become the best kayak operator in Cuba!" I remember jumping up and down with joy, and the first thing I did was call my father on Skype and tell him the good news. My Dad had mixed emotions about it; after all there was a reason that my family had left Cuba.
Leading up to the Cuba departure, there was a lot of planning, looking at maps and trying to wrap my head around this opportunity. Not to mention I was busy guiding on the Lochsa River all of May and June. Toward the end of the June I called my abuela (grandma), and asked her if she could reach out to the relatives we still had there. She was unable to reach them, but gave me their names, Gabi and Yoanna, and the name of the town where they live, Ranchuelo. With only that information to go on, I felt it was going to be impossible to find them.
After closing down the Lochsa operation for the season I packed my bags and transferred into a language that is well-known to me, yet to a land that is as unfamiliar as finding salmon above the Hell's Canyon Dam. Ready or not, I left the dry summer heat of Idaho and traveled into the wet, hot, paradise that is... Cuba.
I was filled with a lot of emotion even as the plane was approaching the runway in Havana. I landed, and in typical Latin fashion waited over an hour to get my bag from the plane. As I walked through the doors past customs and took my first step onto Cuban soil I was greeted with the sounds of cheering brothers and sisters, crying mothers, and overly dramatic grandmothers. These were all Cubans greeting their family members who had left for the United States at some point or another, and were now allowed to come back for regular visits. For me, however there was no family greeting; I was on a mission... a mission to create one of the Western Hemisphere's best kayak trips.
Two and a half weeks went by and I was ready for a break; a break from business, and a break from kayaking. During the time I spent in Cuba I gathered what it meant to be Cuban. One thing I learned is that no matter how much pride I have in my heritage, I will never truly be Cuban. The stories I heard, the friends I made, it all made one thing clear... to be Cuban is to be resilient, to be resourceful, to listen to music, and, above all, to always be happy. While I feel that I fit this profile fairly well, trying to do that in Cuba is harder than it sounds.
My friend Galo, who happens to be building ROW's Cuba kayak trailer, drove me from Cienfuegos to where my family lives in Ranchuelo. Now, just like any Cuban family, familia es familia, no matter how distant. My "tia" is the daughter of my abuela's cousin, who has two daughters of her own, Gabi and Yoanna, my "primas". Like I said, familia es familia, and however distant we had been didn't matter. After spending five days with them (yes, we found each other!) we all had a mutual feeling of familia.
One of the experiences that will stay with me for the rest of my life is when I took Gabi kayaking. Her boyfriend, Pablo, told me of a reservoir between Ranchuelo and San Juan de los Yeras (the town my father was born in). I told them that I would love to take them kayaking the next day. They looked at me somewhat perplexed as neither of them knew what a kayak was or how we would get this kayak to the water. The next morning Pablo showed up with his bike. The kayak I had was a folding one, and fit into a bag like a package, had wheels to roll it, and weighed about 70 lbs. We decided the best method to get to the lake was to walk the 5km stretch, but rolling the bag through the dusty streets seemed insurmountable. So we balanced the bag on Pablo's bike, him on the left and me on the right and slowly walked our way to the water.
After waiting for a large heard of cattle to pass we made our way down the last 500m section of dirt road. Gabi and Pablo looked amazed as I put the kayak together like pieces of a puzzle. You should know the first time I did this it took three hours; at this point I had it down to about 20 minutes or so. I gave the both of them a quick talk about paddling, and then sent Gabi on her way. Pablo went in the kayak next, and the both of them spent the next 5 hours paddling around. The only company we had were a few horses and their vaqueros who were bringing sugar cane home from the fields.
As I relaxed under a tree by the water, Gabi asked if I wanted an almendra. Almendras are kind of like pecans, and of course I had to have one. We then cracked upwards of 60 shells and brought even more home. Gabby decided she wanted to make me an almendra flan the night before I left. I loaded my kayak, and the rest of my luggage on top of the 1954 Chevy that was going to give me a ride to Santa Clara. I looked at everyone and smiled, said my goodbyes and said that I would be back soon. Gabi cried; she did not want me to leave. Each night she tried to get me to stay up later and later just so she could practice her English with me. I promised I would be back soon.
I rolled the window down and stared out into the sugar cane fields as we headed east on the autopista to Santa Clara. I was speechless. It took me awhile to comprehend what had just happened. I journied into a land, a house, and a family, that I had never known. I came bearing no gifts of any kind, other than the small headlamp I left behind for when the power goes out during hurricane season. Yet, my tia and mis primas gave me food, shelter, laughter, music, company, memories.. oh, and did I forget to mention the rum?!
The second part of my journey in Cuba was as incredible as the first, and as I write this I am already planning to head back in the middle of September before the Baja season kicks up. I will bring a lot of things with me this time; my abuela sent me a 17 lb box just to take to the family!
I have always been proud of my family, on both sides. On my mom's side; her father was from Yugoslavia, and mother from Germany. They too went through many hardships to come to America. But experiencing Cuba for the first time, and really seeing and understanding what it is all about was pretty emotional. Like I said earlier, there were reasons my family left Cuba. But Cuba is changing, slowly but surely. It is a fascinating country, with the most fascinating part being the people.
If you want to get the most out of your experience in Cuba, or the most out of any experience for that matter, you need to go into it with an open heart and an open mind. And always remember, familia es familia.