5th-Wheeling Through Guantanamo

5th wheeling through guantanamo
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The rain falls lightly now having been dumping in sporadic spurts the majority of the day. The weather in the south (locals refer to it as the Orient) is sticky with humidity. Thunder booms over the rainforest-covered hills while lightning strikes the distant sea, brightening the grey sky with quick flashes of white light. I’m perched comfortably in a sofa chair by the cracked window taking in the breeze and petrichor. 

It’s twilight and the decaying streets are alive with local activity; children carefully laying out neon-colored plastic toys setting the typical tea party scene for raggedy baby dolls, a group of older men is gathered at a corner around a makeshift game of chess anxious for their chance to participate. Front doors are left open, toddlers spilling over the thresholds desperate for a breeze. Colonial buildings, some renovated while others are barely standing, are silhouetted against undulating hues of soft pink and bright blue. 

Life moves at a slower and somewhat backward pace here making the disconnect from the rest of the world simpler to ease into than I’d care to admit. Despite taking my time in a hot shower and organizing my belongings in preparation for tomorrow’s excursions I have hours to myself left; dinner with the tour group isn’t until 19:30; it’s only 17:30. The moon, already high in the sky, hangs just above Table Mountain as the setting sun drops further beneath the sea’s horizon. I mix myself another Cuba Libre (rum and coke with lime) and visually sop up the wet jungle backdrop of Baracoa at dusk.

Quiet moments have to be made when touring a country with a group
Rain, rain go away… The beautiful backdrop featuring Table Mountain. The mountain that Columbus himself spotted before stopping on the island to rest and regroup.

The Internet on the whole island is scarce and insanely unreliable, even more so here in Guantanamo. It’s no matter, I’m feeling right at home in this viscid jungle. Musicians and artisans share the street with overactive youth wrestling or playing football (soccer) in an empty alleyway. Others throw a makeshift ball against a wall with what must be an imaginary hoop or use abandoned hubcaps pushed by a stick as a toy to pass the time.

The tour group I’ve joined is smaller than I’ve experienced; five, including me. Two couples, the norm, then me—ever the solo adventurer. The two couples are night and day to each other. One a young American set of special education teachers (together for 13 years) the other an older, Iranian couple who speak a handful of English words between them (together over 45 years).

The Iranian couple is like kin having traveled the world in excess and greeting everyone with an inviting smile. The husband dotes on his wife buying her small gifts at every turn and proudly showing off photographs of their four grown sons, their mansion-sized home and two dogs.

The younger couple is less experienced with international travel. The boyfriend, the more annoying of the two, complains seemingly nonstop. He vehemently vocalizes how badly he wishes to be back State-side and surrounded by his privileges and trinkets versus experiencing another culture or dealing with third-world living. The latter being extremely difficult for my travel addicted ears to process. The impending length of time we have to spend together forces me to choke on my tongue versus serving the retorts my mouth attempts to shape ice cold on a platter for one.

Local musicians are on every other corner of the main roads. It’s as if the rhythms of Latin culture never sleeps.
No iPods or Playstations here. Just good old imagination partnered with resourcefulness.
The small group of travelers on this 15-day tour.
Much of these mountains are protected, dense rainforest.

Despite my frustrations with my immediate company, I’ve come to find a happy medium in balancing my solo travels with group tours. More often than not I tack on a handful of nights before or after the start of an organized tour. It’s the best of both worlds in many ways; I can make new friends (often from around the globe) and gain insights on the history of the country as told by a local all without having to organize a thing.

During my daily meditation practices I inhale my temper and disdain for his vocal hatred of international travel (my soliloquy: Why are you even here then? There are a dozen people I can think of that would gladly swap places with you, shall I name them for you?) and exhale calm and acceptance that we all are merely a product of our environment and individual choices shaped by our desire to either remain the same or grow. I blink my way out of each practice filled with profound gratitude to be present in this space—even without my luggage going on 10 days now—and recognize that my behavior is the only behavior I can control.

When opportunities present themselves I push my kindness forward, waving at locals as they pass, photobombing strangers with a fearsome grin, and stopping to play with/squeeze the pudgy cheeks of babies. When the group is in close proximity, I elect to sit with the Iranian couple whenever possible. We share stories of adventure in countries we have in common. I make the most of every cross-cultural exchange, they’re the lifeblood of my travel journey and stay attuned to my surroundings, taking in this experience one historical town at a time.

Busy-bodies out and about on the streets of Santiago de Cuba

Nationalism is thick in this country, it’s no wonder considering its tumultuous past. “Yo soy Fidel”, “26 de Julio” and “Cuba Libre” graffiti is prominent in every pueblo as are paintings of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Fidel or Maceo brothers, and Jose Martí to name a few. This triples as our tour bus rolls into Santiago de Cuba, which served as a pivotal location for each of the Cuban revolutions.

Studying and now witnessing the realities of this socialist economy there are significant differences between what I’ve learned and what is staring me hard in the face. Though there’s no outward display of poverty, i.e. homelessness, it’s evident that hardship is everywhere. Buildings that barely stand on their own are inhabited and clothing is worn despite being far beyond repair. Stories of scarce work opportunities and even lower pay.

Santa Ifigenia Cemetary in Santiago de Cuba, the final resting place of Fidel Castro. No date is visible. This is to insinuate that he will live on the hearts of the people forever.

Ration cards are a staple in every household. Our guide makes a quick stop for the group to visit a ration store. There he explains the products provided and that before the fall of the Soviet Union cards included more luxury food items: cheese, juice, etc. I am fully engaged in the information being provided and unaware of the small crowd of locals that have begun to group around us. Cubanos, despite being the subjects of countless (unwanted) photographs, are quite curious. Foreigners like us stick out like a soar thumb.

My skin senses the presence of body heat to my left and breaks my focus. I glance in the direction where the sensation of energy took root and find the younger couple huddled closer to me than I’m positive they wish to be. I glance further behind them to see the local crowd and deduce this as the catalyst for their close proximity. When my eyes find their faces they’re both staring wide-eyed at me and I cannot tell if it’s fear or anger I see contorted there. Both, in my opinion, are unwarranted reactions to the situation, but not surprising considering the sources.

A ration store: families of this Socialist nation line up for necessity items such as eggs, sugar, rice, and flour just to name a few.
A family ration card showing the amount for each item and the number of family members the ration is to feed.

I tip my chin to a man watching for my response to the situation, greeting him with a grin versus a full smile. He returns the gesture with a monstrous grin of his own, his spread lips revealing a mouth of sporadic teeth, and frantic wave followed by “Bienvenidos a Cuba!

“Muchas gracias hombre”, I say, vindicated once more that kindness has graciously diffused the tension while saying a silent prayer that this is a positive take away from this moment for this naive couple. For everyone.

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As a global citizen with more than 57 passport stamps, my adventure mandatory, serial-expat existence offers intuitive insight into globetrotting as a solo Black, female.

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Bag Lady Meredith San Diego is always on the move! Completing her 57th country in 2022, where can you spot Meredith San Diego adventuring in 2023? Stay tuned to find out just where in the world is Meredith San Diego!