The most interesting people you’d never meet….unless you walked across Cuba

Spread love wherever you go.  Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier  ~Mother Teresa

I am asked everyday why I am walking across Cuba. In fact, I have one dear friend who keeps asking me over and over. This friend is a Cuban man who has been my rock throughout this epic journey as I attempt to walk solo 850 miles east to west across the largest island in the Caribbean. He has been my sounding board for everything from routes to on island contacts. He is the one who calls and texts me each and every day from his home base to check that I am fed and watered, have found a safe place to stay each night and offer any moral support I need. If I got into trouble, I am certain he would drop everything to come to my aid. I am forever grateful for how he cares for the safety and well being a foreigner in his country.

Interestingly, however, even after almost a year of sharing this odyssey, he still asks me, “Anita, why are you doing this? Why do you walk so much in Cuba? Anita, you walk more than an Transtur bus! ( Transtur is the tourist bus company on the island)

My standard answer is that I love the country and I love the people and I want to understand it better. Yet that reason, while true, has just never reflected the depth of emotion that goes along with my words. And I know it is not enough of an explanation for my friend, otherwise, he would stop asking.

Today I was looking through my pictures. I looked at every picture I had taken with someone I have met along my path. Within each meeting is a complete relationship cycle of meeting, building a relationship and leave taking, truncated only by time, often as short as mere minutes. Each person has helped to shape my story of my time in Cuba. The nature of the Cuban people I have encountered is to be generous of their time, their emotions, their possessions and often their spirited opinions! They smile, they kiss, they touch and they truly give of themselves in these brief, chance encounters. And what I came to really understand revisiting my photos is that each person leaves a piece of themselves inside my heart which makes me smile. And so each day I am eager to get up, put on Mochi (mochila is the Spanish word for backpack) and head out in search of whoever I will be lucky enough to meet. I accept no rides for fear of missing someone along the way.

Today, I was reading quotes from Mother Teresa and her words hit me right in the heart. Through her words I realized the exact reason I was doing this.

My purpose in walking across Cuba is to give and receive love, to connect with people who have been so isolated from the world for so long.

We will never know all the good that a simple smile can do  ~Mother Teresa

One morning I left the city of Santiago de Cuba headed to the town of St. Luis. The route took me up and over a beautiful mountain with a winding, twisting asphalt road. It was early morning just after sunrise and I was marveling at the views as I climbed higher. The heat and humidity were both topping out in the 90’s even at this early hour. The sweat dripped freely from all my limbs and I often inclined my head towards the mouthpiece strapped into my shoulder to replace the fluids quickly draining from my body. I felt happy and was anticipating the unknown thrill of what would unfold on this day.

I came around the corner in the dense overgrown forest and happened on a man sweeping the side of the road. I was curious. He was not sweeping in front of his home nor was it even in an area of any houses. In fact, I could guess he had walked quite a ways to get to the spot he was sweeping. Now knowing what I do about Cuba, there is a job for anyone who wants one and I surmised that his job was to sweep this stretch of the road. It was probably a job that did not need doing ever and if the man had not shown up to work, no one would have been the wiser. But here was, a tall, elderly black man, happily sweeping away the leaves and twigs that had gathered in the night.

As I came up to him, I smiled and told him that the street looked very, very clean today. He returned a proud smile and asked me where I was going? I explained my walk across his country and he asked me why? I commented that he lived in a beautiful country and I wanted to see it all slowly and enjoy meeting the people along the way. He smiled even wider, and confirmed my observation that he lived in a beautiful country. He said that he also liked my country and would I be opposed to taking him with me when I went back to the US? We both laughed knowingly and sadly about the politics of our two countries. His name was Ramon. We shared this wonderful, brief encounter on a mountain road on a Thursday morning. I left him a few moments later with a smile and a kiss on the cheek, as is the Cuban way, lighter in step for having met another person to add to my story.

Less than 10 minutes later, a car drove by. Two men in an open vehicle were headed up the road. As they passed and saw me on the uphill climb with a backpack, they pulled over and asked if I wanted a lift. As usual, I smiled, said thank you and told them I enjoyed walking. As they drove away, it struck me that this is exactly why I walk. If I had driven up the mountain this morning in a car, I would have missed my chance meeting with Ramon, the elderly sweeper of the mountain road and that would have been a shame.

Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echos are truly endless ~Mother Teresa

In the following paragraphs are photos and brief descriptions of some of the amazing Cuban people I have had the privilege to meet. I am now realizing the tragedy in not photographing every single person I have met and will correct this in my next leg.

Raul. 73 years old still riding his bike 6kms each way to work. In 1982, he fought in the Congo. He was simply riding by on his bike and stopped to talk.

 

Carlos (middle) and son John. I stayed one night at their home. I simply asked three ladies sitting in front of the museum if they knew someone I could stay with. Carlos refused to take any money, they simply wanted to “help” me on my journey. John insisted on walking me to the main road the next day, more than 45 minutes! Along the way he taught me the Spanish names for many of the birds and explained that the white blossoms of Cuban flowers are the country’s snow. They called me every night for the next 3 nights to be sure I was safe.

Christian. 11 years old? Lives in Trinidad. He ran all over town with me to find this bottle of water in the rain. It was he who came up to me and offered to help when he heard me asking. This kid knows everyone in town!

Estrella and her husband. I stayed a few nights at their home in Sancti Spiritus. I joined her to watch the Brazilian soap operas in the evenings and she insisted I go out to a party with her one night. She went, I did not since I was up early to walk. She later explained she was out till 2:00am. You can see she is not a spring chicken! When I came back to to Sancti Spiritus a few months later, she was so thrilled to see me she almost hugged the life out of me when I ran into her on the street!

Marcello and his beautiful daughter I met at the bus station. Even though I met them for a very short time, they invited me to stay at their home as I walked through their village if I needed a place. He is a photographer.

This one didn’t have too much to say except to request that I take the triangle of shame off his neck!

This is an interesting yet long story. The short of it is that the man in the photo is a friend of a girl I know (not pictured) and his grandmother owns the house she lives in. He walked 20 minutes to town in Ciego de Avila to meet me to come and stay at the house. Later I took the young man for dinner and on the way back, I blew out a flip flop. We stopped at this young woman’s house nearby who, without question, went to her closet and took out a pair of shoes that would fit me so I would have something to walk back in! (I should write an entire blog about this day!)

A friend of mine, Raciel, who is a Cuban guide was passing by this area outside of Florida, Cuba. He knows I love and miss diet soda which is difficult to find in rural Cuba. He also knew I was passing by this little restaurant. So he stopped and left two diet sodas with these ladies then texted me and told me to stop at the restaurant at km marker 515.

And here is my friend, Raciel, who left me the diet soda, Thank you friend!

The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved ~Mother Teresa

And so my Cuban rock who has supported me all along will be there to help on my next leg. I will continue to uncover the pull I have to this special place and to explain it to he and the others I meet along the way. However, after our last talk, I feel that he understands it a little more. He told me he was proud that I had chosen Cuba as a place to walk.

He reminded me it was a safe country and that is one of the reasons I decided it was okay for a woman to walk solo, unsupported across the country. His parting words to me on my last leg were:

“Anita, trust in God….but don’t forget to tie up the cow!

I laughed about the funny saying as I walked out that day…… Cuba, What a place!

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other ~Mother Teresa

Do not wait for leaders;  do it alone, person to person ~Mother Teresa

 

 

 

 

 

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