Last summer, I sought out a different kind of trip, and booked a ticket to Cuba. Most Americans don’t realize it’s even closer to the US than Hawaii, and way more of a unique experience. The city drew me in with its rich color and promise of capturing something visually stunning around every corner.
From the timeless cars to the cultured people, I aimed to document not just the visuals, but also the heart of the country and, more specifically, the city of Havana. You hear so many stories of Cubans being downtrodden, but I’ve never seen so many happy people in my life. The way they embrace their lives and culture was refreshing.
One quality that stands out in Cuba to me are the narrow streets, where you can find cigar-smoking old guys dueling each other in chess, or children dribbling soccer balls on pavement. These streets glow in the afternoon light with every color of the rainbow.
The town of Havana is also defined by Great Ocean Road, which hugs the waterfront around the city’s edge. Next to this road is an area that becomes a popular swimming destination under the relentless sun. On Ocean Road there is a large sea wall that drops off about 15 feet into the ocean below. Families splashed around on the reef outcropping and the people had turned the beachside drive into a playground. Local kids drew a small crowd as they jumped off the sea wall into the water. Upon closer examination, these kids weren’t just jumping into the ocean, they were threading the needle between two reef sharp slats of old concrete wall. They plunged into the 5-foot wide gap with inches to spare, and laughed about it when they came up for air.
I was nervous just watching them as they ran from the road and jumped over cement barriers as high as a table to the sea below. The boys were diving and flipping and narrowly avoiding the jagged rocks, all for the pure joy and thrill. I knew I couldn’t walk away and miss out on a little adrenaline rush… even 12 year olds were doing it!
I stepped up to the wall and flung myself off with a small prayer that I only hit water. It was a bit of risk for the reward of a few laughs and recognition from the locals. When opportunities like this arise, though, you have to immerse yourself into the local scene. It was moments like this that showed the rawness and realism of Cuban life.
It was a refreshing deviation from my cold water explorations, with a reminder that, every once in a while, you have to scare yourself. If you’re not scared or nervous along your travels and while discovering these new places then you’re probably not pushing yourself. It’s during these moments when our nerves are on edge that some of our best stories are born.