A beautiful dark-skinned boy detaches himself from the throng of taxi drivers clamouring for my business at the airport exit and walks towards me. He looks a good deal friendlier than the lady sitting behind the desk at passport control. Both she and her desk remind me of the old Eastern Bloc, a feeling that’s reinforced by the armed soldiers staring at me from all sides.
‘Welcome to Cuba! I’m Antonio.’
‘Thank you very much!’ I’m Happy.
Unabashed, he takes a step back and looks me up and down, from my fringe to my red-painted toenails.
‘Juan couldn’t pick you up,’ he explains as he holds open the door of a fluorescent green Lada.
Welcome to Latin America. If Juan can’t make it, Antonio will come, or José, Pedro or Ricardo.
Fidel’s heroes Che Guevara and José Martí stare down at me expressionlessly from grey buildings as we pass the Plaza de la Revolución. I haven’t yet seen any pictures of Castro himself, although I suspect he may be spying on me from one of the many elderly American cars that wheeze past us. Fidel is always watching you. I gaze in admiration at the impressive wall-paintings with the slogan ‘Hasta la victoria siempre’ (which means something like ‘until victory always’) that draw my attention to the revolution. Atop the Capitol, the Cuban flag flaps in the breeze, proud and invincible, albeit full of holes. I tap Antonio on the shoulder – I’m sitting in the back seat, as I should – and ask him to turn up the pounding salsa. What a city! In my excitement, I stick my head out of the window and lose myself in the vibrant life around us: old buses crammed with passengers, ancient cars in all sorts of colours, rickety bicycles, and men playing cards with a glass of rum in one hand and a cigar in the other, surrounded by frisky women in mini-skirts. Yet while women and cars flaunt their colours, dilapidated buildings have lost theirs in many places. But without losing their charm. Havana is a gorgeous city full of contradictions: American gas-guzzlers, Russian Ladas, Chinese bicycles and Dutch buses. But, most of all, Cuban passion.
Antonio parks the Lada in a narrow street between two rusty Chryslers. On the corner, a group of old men in white suits are playing the Cuban son. I can feel the butterflies in my stomach.
‘Come! We’re going to eat congris!’, says Antonio cheerfully.
The butterflies vanish.
Congris is the Cubans dish: brown rice and beans with a piece of pork or chicken draped over it. It’s something that I’ve been eating in various versions for four months already during my trip through Latin America. Why do the Cubans think it’s such a treat? Or is it that they have so little choice? Apart from the products in the communist ration-books, there’s little available for a Cuban.
Suddenly we’re in front of a tiny stall where Antonio places his order.
‘I’m never going to get my daily 200 grams of vegetables,’ I remark, carelessly.
‘Your daily 200 grams of vegetables?’ he repeats. I can practically see the question-mark over his head.
When I explain the Dutch government’s dietary recommendations, I end up laughing as loud as he does.
The Dutch are weird! Imagine a government that worries about what the people eat.
The Cuban regime keeps an eye on its people in other ways.
Later, when the car refuses to start, we decide to swap a squeaky Lada for an equally squeaky bus. There’s number 49 to Appingedam. Or shall we take the 22 to Amsterdam?
‘There are also special tourist buses with seats and air-conditioning,’ says Antonio, a bit uncomfortably.
In his efforts to create a socialist society, Fidel has completely lost his way. I don’t know the way either, but I do know what I want: the real Cuban experience.
Appingedam turns out to be Vibora, the neighbourhood where I’m going to stay. As I get off the bus, I see the mother of the house waiting for us in her frayed, flowery-patterned apron.
‘Hello Carolina, welcome! You must be hungry. I have made some congris!’
My stomach contracts. Not at the thought of more rice and beans but from instant love for this radiant woman in this fantastic city. This energetic, fascinating city that I have come to love in half a day even more than in my dreams.
Cuba: Hasta siempre.
The Spanish dream
Poof! In exactly 1 hour and 48 minutes’ flying time, I’ve been transported back six years. My fringe is now a bit longer, my stomach not quite as flat and my experience of life is a bit wider. And this time I won’t be staying in Barcelona for four months but four days.
For many people, four days in Barcelona means Ramblas, tapas & compras and a visit to Gaudi’s eccentric buildings. As dessert, perhaps a bullfight, which this month will be seen for the last time in Catalonia. But I’m going off road – sauntering down narrow streets surrounded by high, grey-brown buildings, where clothes hang that have come from around the entire world. Socks from a Brazilian, trousers from a Chinaman and a dress from a Dutch girl, you’re never quite sure in this melting-pot of cultures. Enjoying the Spanish sun, I pass little art galleries, wave to little old ladies in their typical flower-print ‘nighties’, buy the sweetest churros and chat to an old man hidden behind his homemade fruit stall.
Why did I stop living here?
‘Vamos!’ says one policemen to another, giving him a nudge. And as if it’s the most normal thing in the world, they escort me across the zebra crossing while the red light glares at us disapprovingly. What rules? That’s why I like the Spanish so much: they’re cheeky, stubborn and narcissistic. Ask them for a Lucky Strike without pronouncing it in the Spanish way and they act as if they have no idea what you mean (‘Ah, lookie strik!’). They are the only people in the world to put question marks and exclamation marks at the beginning of a sentence as well as at the end. They translate every word into their own language* and, crisis or no crisis, the shops are open until 10 p.m. because we all have to look hip. The streets are full of men and women with dark, shoulder-length hair with a short fringe, dressed in casual alternative clothes, and decorated with piercings and tattoos.
Why don’t I move to this crazy city for good? It’s much more fun here than in the Netherlands. A rush of excitement goes through me.
¿Por qúe no?
Suddenly I feel the need for something familiar, something from the good old days – a safe haven. I decide to track down Pedro, an old flame. We were together for more than two months when I studied here. He always fantasized about a future in the Netherlands but when I finally left, we more or less lost contact.
With butterflies in my stomach, I take the metro to ‘Port Vell’ – which means old port – and ring the bell next to a red door plastered with stickers that brings back all sorts of memories. ‘Sí?’ crackles a voice through the intercom.
‘Hola, I’m looking for Pedro. Does he still live here?’
I hear a noise from overhead and look up. A dark-skinned boy is leaning nonchalantly over the balcony.
‘Yes!’ I answer excitedly.
He knows him! Will Pedro have changed? Will he still recognize me? Will we still feel the same way about each other? I always knew we were right for each other and would start a sagrada familia together.
The boy pulls a long face. ‘Pedro doesn’t live here anymore. He lives in the Netherlands.’
* New York is translated as Nueva York and a Hot Dog is called a Perro Caliente.
To flutter or to ground
So, once you enter your thirties you end up in a crisis. The so-called-quarter life crisis. If you don’t join this club, you’re out. You’re boring. Untrendy. Uninteresting. You don’t live.
The last thing I asked for is a crisis, stagnation. I’ve had enough crises already: relationship crisis, career crisis, health crisis, flathunting crisis. Well, I have to admit, I’ve always wanted to be part of the in-crowd, so, I guess a crisis is part of the deal. Besides, what else am I supposed to do, jump around like a little, being happy?
It’s not that I didn’t hear them or something, the alarm bells. I just ignored them, over and over again. I just turned up the volume of my iPod. The whole orchestra rang the bell, I just didn’t open the door. All together they jumped on the back of my bicycle, without any shame they trumpeted into my dreams at night and they chased after me in the city. When they also started serenading on my couch when I was watching a movie before finally sitting down pompously in front of my computer at work, I couldn’t avoid them anymore. I knew I had to do something. But I was stuck. For such a long time I had been trying to ignore all the screaming signals of my body, I was burnt out. Over and over again I refused to open the door, but now the results were being presented, nice and clear, on a plate. Not a silver one, but a tarnished one. Without any nice decoration.
Finally I’ve decided to get on the rollercoaster. I’ve been reading until I went crazy, meditated with Buddha sitting right next to me, talked with gurus until I thought I was going to drop dead and getting in touch with my feelings, I did that a lot. When I say a lot I mean A LOT. I still do by the way. Because that’s what it’s all about, right?, to feeeel. We fly so much in our heads, that we’re just left floating. We have to go down, down to the base, into our body. Out of our thoughts, out of our head. Down to the area of our hip joint, and further down: to earth. Ground ourselves.
I was scared as hell that I would change from a butterfly into a tree.
After deep deep downs, a lot of thinking, learning and resting I’m on my way back again. Home, where I’m always welcome. My own little house, that I always take with me. And when the bell rings, I don’t ignore it anymore. What I’ll do do is take a look through the little hole in my front door to check out who it is, and then I’ll decide if I want to open the door or not. And if I do, I’ll say there’re welcome, very welcome.
Soon, I will flutter out again, through this exact same door.
Wanna read this story in Dutch? Read it here.
Niños with a future
Everything makes noise; the tires, the exhaust, the seats, the horn, even the driver – while loud Reggaeton plays through the creaky speakers. Cages full of clucking chickens, baskets of freshly baked tortillas, mothers with a child on the belly and at the back – everything is coming with us. Where am I? In aChickenbus. This typical Guatemalan bus brings me to the town Ciudad Vieja, where I help children with their homework at the school ‘Nuestro Futuro’ (Our Future).
Is it the tasty chewies that I have in my bag or do they really feel like going to school? As soon as the kids see me on the street, they run towards me. Dust of the sandy roads is blazing in the air and blowing in their sun tanned faces. They fight about who’s allowed to hold my hand until we get to the schoolyard, where – with a row of children on both sides – I’m welcomed enthusiastically.
A greeting that still resounds in my mind.
It’s not the children that are the problem, they love to go to school. It’s the support from the parents that’s missing. They don’t realize how important education is. “Why would I send my children to school when they can earn some money?” Often daddy left home, mummy is working her ass off and the kids have to help with the housework. So after school there’s not much time for homework, and íf there’s time, there’s not much attention. So I challenge them to draw what’s happening inside themselves, teach them their first words and show them some social skills in the meantime. And yes of course, they are Latinos, so we hug a lot. No problem, I never run out of hugs nor patience.
While playing with her braids Erika is trying to guess a letter. Suddenly with a big smile she throws a sound out of her little mouth, but it’s not the ‘a’. How do I get through to her? Luckily I’ve got some afternoons left to teach her, and yes, after a few weeks I notice she’s making progress.
And Lesby – a cute curly with big brown eyes, needs a lot of attention. Not because she isn’t able to see the difference between the letters, but because there’s no one at home who gives her a compliment once in a while.
And little Juan Carlos, who is doing this year for the second time, shows with mixed feelings that he can already read. Because, is it really cool that you are already able do that, because you were here last year as well?
I use all my senses; I observe, listen, watch, feel and taste and do whatever I think is good. Actually everything is all right, as long as I’m here.
On my last day I get a massive poster, a piece of art they produced together. All their names are on it, so I can never forget them. As if that’s necessary. Acting super cool, but with tears falling down my cheeks I get on the Chickenbus to go home.
¡Hasta pronto niños, les quiero mucho!
Want to know more about the school ‘Nuestro Futuro’?
Go to the website of Niños de Guatemala
Read the Dutch version of this story here.