To Cuba by Way of Salt Spring Island
Every once in a while an idea captures your imagination; it winds itself through your mind, gathering momentum as it grows until finally it ends up a full-blown dream. That’s how the idea to travel to Cuba began to take form and unexpectedly led us to a cozy ocean side shack tucked in the woods of Salt Spring Island.
Our plan was to backpack through Cuba by bus, train, or by private car. It was to be an adventure; a first of many future trips we planned to take together. My husband and I are photographers, and Cuba, with its aged buildings, vibrant colours, and rich culture appealed to us. We live on the west coast of rainy British Columbia so the idea of a few weeks of sunshine and tropical breezes lured us. Two good friends planned to join us and for weeks the four of us lived and breathed Cuba. We read everything we could get our hands on, booked our flight, and sorted out business at home for our absence. Once a week we met and talked about our plans over drinks at a corner restaurant. We never imagined that only days before we were to leave for Cuba we would find ourselves face to face with death, and that it was to change the course of our lives.
This is really a story about love; about the frailty of life and the power of love to reshape our path. One morning shortly before our scheduled departure my husband suffered a massive heart attack. I stood at the foot of his hospital bed not knowing if I would have the opportunity to say goodbye, but he recovered and we were given more time together, every day now somehow more precious, more tangible, but fragile. Our plane left without us. One evening we sat outside by the fire and heard the plane go by overhead with a heavy feeling in our hearts and a lump in our throats. Our friends set off on their way to Havana and we took our already packed suitcases to spend a few days in Salt Spring Island, three hours and two ferry rides away.
The largest of British Columbia’s Gulf Islands, Salt Spring Island sits amid spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean. Salt Spring Island embraced us with its peaceful beauty. Its friendly people cheered us and its slow pace comforted us. At nights we listened to old records on the turntable and shared a meal of fresh local bread, goat’s cheese and wine brewed on the island. It was here in this beautiful place that Mark asked me to marry him one cool spring evening.
A few months later we were married surrounded by friends and family in our backyard. Once again we dared to dream and booked two more flights to Cuba. Seven months later our trip became a reality and after two cramped, sleepless flights, long waits in dingy airport lounges and countless lineups, we finally emerged from the Havana airport to feel the warm tropical air envelop us.
But that’s another story.
The Colour of Cuba
What a rush it is to be here. We breathe in our first breaths of smog filled air, and as we drive into the heart of the city we realize that we have begun a true adventure. Whole families share one motorcycle and the roads with us. Crowds of people stand at intersections and hail down rides. As we near old Havana we see camellos; semi-trucks hauling overcrowded buses, and faces stare at us as we stare back at them.
By the time we arrived in Old Havana, our throats and eyes were burning. We drove through a maze of narrow, washed-out gray streets and suddenly our taxi dropped us off. We arrived clutching on to a wrinkled sheet of paper marked “Julio and Elsa Roque, Casa Particular”, carrying overloaded backpacks filled with camera equipment, and a minimum number of clothes needed for our stay of almost a month. We stood in front of a narrow, worn out apartment building with a hostel sign out front. When we rang the bell a leather wallet suspended by a string dropped down from the second floor onto our heads. Inside the wallet we found a key to the building.
We learned the routine quickly, three dollar breakfast at eight in Julio and Elsa’s kitchen before heading out for the day, and a tug on the string every evening when we came home. A second tug on the string and we watched the wallet rise on its return to a second floor balcony. Every night we collapsed onto our bed for a hot, fitful sleep, exhausted and exhilarated after a long day of exploring the great city.
Grayness, dust and the destruction of time seemed to be everywhere when we first arrived in Havana, but each morning as we left the apartment we began to see pockets of colour until the colour of Cuba was in everything around us.
Havana Vieja [Old Havana} is a bustling city in disrepair after decades of economic hardship which has left the city in decay. This grand old city is always alive with sights and sounds as vehicles of all types compete for the roads with people of all ages and colours; a little girl with fair complexion and aqua coloured eyes, the rich brown skin and charcoal-black eyes of an old weathered man. Everywhere there is a symphony of noise, a wall of sound that permeates the hours of the day; babies crying and dogs barking, neighbours calling out to one another, and every so often, loud music from a boom box as it passes by, and always in the background the sound of cars, trucks, and bicycle bells.
Late into the night, as we lay sleepless on our lumpy bed with the windows open to give us reprieve from the heat, the sound continues. In the early morning hours all is finally quiet, the air is cool and for the first time since our arrival, there is a moment of quiet. In a few moments, the rooster crows, a baby wails and the city starts a new day.
written by Elizabeth Kowal
After Havana we took a bus to Trinidad and from there another long ride through the jungle to Baracoa where we spent a week in the little seaside town. I’ll do a blog post about that part of our trip sometime soon…