As a traveler (not a tourist), I prefer to stay away from tourist attractions and be among the everyday people of the places I visit. This, in my opinion, is the best way to experience the real culture; particularly if you want to master the language. In my case, Spanish.
The University of Havana, Cuba
Years ago, I was astonished to learn from an article I read that there are more black Latinos in the Americas than there are black gringos. What surprises me to the point of frustration is that too many Latinos I meet, from New York to California, do not know about the blacks in their own communities who speak Spanish as their first language. What a shame as they, of all people, should know better.
In the summer of 1998, vacation time, I was looking for a place to immerse myself in the Spanish language. I thought of places like Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Mexico. Then it dawned on me---why not Cuba? I'm a salsa dancer and I wanted to get better at it. The word is out that Cuba is the place with the “culture;” a culture that attracts people from all over the world. Almost everyone I met who's been to Cuba had nothing but good things to say about the lovely island.
My date Denalys Fuentes of Havana
Even Vladimir, an Afro-Cuban immigrant who lived down the street from me, introduced me to his family and forewarned me that once in Cuba, I will not want to come back. I finally made the decision that Cuba would not only be a good place to improve my Spanish, but a great place to improve my salsa dancing skills with the best salsa dancers in the world, only rivaled by Puerto Rico.
Denalys and I dancing salsa at the Hotel Riviera
I found Global Exchange based in San Francisco and licensed by the U.S. State Department to send people to Cuba. Global Exchange had a partnership with the University of Havana where I took classes with non English-speaking instructors, hung out about town with non-English speaking tutors, and stayed with a non-English speaking family. Wow, talk about language immersion, this truly was it.
Upon arrival, I felt like I was in salsa music heaven. There was salsa music, timba music, and son-montuno music everywhere blaring from homes, business, and cars. At one point, I grabbed a woman in my group, as we were strolling through Central Havana, and we danced right there in public.
Meeting Denalys was only one of the high-points of my trip. Someone whom I would have loved to bring home to mommy and daddy, but that's another story. I had the opportunity to meet a lot of nice people as well as the Havana city slickers who seemed to have felt that all Americans had the same income as Donald Trump. From my growing up in Harlem, NY, I know a hustle when I see one and felt somewhat insulted when they tried to run a game on me.
On my last day, heading towards the José Martí International Airport to return to Oakland, I was fighting back tears because I felt so much at home in Cuba, yet there was so much of Havana I have not yet to see. I thought about how much I was going to miss so many down-to-earth, neighborly people I met. Havana, a city of two million people, where total strangers greet each other with “buenas” or “que bolá (what's up). ” I mourned for a long time after returning to Oakland. Vladimir was right. I did not want to come back from Cuba... at least not so soon.
Denayls and I continued to stay in touch by mail, depending on people traveling to and from Cuba through Mexico to get our letters to each other. This process took approximately 30 days at a time.