The single conga drum sounded a rhythmic Cuban tune. It was late on a weeknight and the city around us was silent. The water on the other side of the wall on the Malecon was still and dark. So dark that it was as if this wall on the edge of Havana was itself the edge of the world. As I leaned over the wall to try to catch any reflections of light on the water, I thought, “I can’t believe this is my last night here.”
It was the end of an amazing and eye-opening week in Havana with United Planet. For our goodbye party we drove to the Malecon to hang out with many of our Cuban hosts, who had spent the last week with us. We played the chekeré, the claves, the conga. We showed each other pictures and told stories. We sang. We salsaed. We drank rum. And we said goodbye as friends.
When I landed in Havana a week before, I didn’t know what to expect. Cuba had always been a bit of a black box to me. So almost every moment of the week was a learning experience, something new or different or unexpected.
The programming started just hours after arrival. A team of dancers arrived at our apartment after dinner and demonstrated the history of Cuban dance. We cleared the furniture out of the way, turned up the tunes, and the dancing began. Danzon, son, rhumba, salsa. The dancers moved with grace and practiced movements, without inhibition. And, oh yeah, it was an interactive show—after each dance, the dancers invited us onto the makeshift dance floor and taught us the moves.
We really hit the ground dancing—the following night we went to a nightclub. The room was dark, the music was loud, and the dance floor crowded. My dancing skills were a little rusty and I needed a refresher on the footwork. All the dancers we’d brought with us were patient, and counted the steps for me when I messed up. In general, though, I was happy to realize I was picking up the footwork pretty quickly.
Then Karol started doing some advanced spins. Little did he know how much I love the spins. I got a little carried away, though, misread one of his leads, and elbowed him in the temple. Pretty hard. I was horrified, but luckily he was ok. So I asked, “What did I do wrong?” We spent the next few minutes practicing, slowly, step by step, the move I’d missed.
Karol was one of the locals hosts that we saw almost every day. Later in the week, the fact that I can’t control my elbows came up again. More than once—him teasing me about hitting him in the head or me reminding him to be careful, since we knew how much I could accidentally hurt him.
Throughout the week, we met with a variety of Cuban people from different professions and backgrounds—dancers, teachers, priests, lawyers, graphic designers, and more. Many of the people we met were connected to each other and were part of this United Planet program because of their association with MetaMovements, a Boston based Latin dance company with strong ties to Cuba. All of them were eager to share their stories and eager to learn.
One warm and rainy afternoon a few days into the trip, we met with a group of young entrepreneurs in a private room off to the side of a small, charming restaurant in Habana Vieja. More than a dozen of us crowded onto thickly padded seats around the long, heavy table, which was scattered with drinks and appetizers. After we each introduced ourselves, our Cuban guests explained more about themselves. They were not a random group of young professionals. They were a group of entrepreneurs who banded together to form a business, in addition to their regular jobs.
They came together with the goal of helping businesses in Havana succeed. To assist them in activities such as analyzing business opportunities and creating a strong brand presence. They did this because of how much they believe in the business opportunities for Cubans these days.
We asked them questions about their work and shared with them information about life and business in the U.S. Since I have worked with starts-up businesses before, I had many questions for them. I especially wanted to know about marketing and branding of businesses in Cuba, as well as how they help organizations understand the business environment. It was thought-provoking and inspiring to see these entrepreneurs ready to face head on the changes happening in their country right now.
On that last night on the Malecon, I had one of those personal connections that made the trip so special and the fact that it was our last night so bittersweet. Joandry and I were speaking in English, about our families and siblings. He generally had a good grasp on the language, but we were struggling a bit. I asked if he was the oldest child in his family. But he didn’t understand the question, what the word oldest meant. I asked again a couple different ways, but it wasn’t working and I was flummoxed. Then it occurred to me how to change my approach.
“How old is your brother,” I asked. “Seventeen”. “How old are you?” “Twenty-three.” I said, “So…that means you are the oldest.”
“Yes,” he said with a big smile on his face and a sparkle in his eyes. “I am the oldest.” He stood a little taller as he said it. I will never forget that feeling—of seeing him succeed in a small task, that was in many ways really a big task. As we said goodbye a few minutes later, I hugged him tightly, so grateful to have shared that moment.
This trip was such an amazing opportunity to experience real life in Havana, and to meet passionate, fun, curious, and hard working individuals. We learned about Cuban culture and society, about the country’s history, and about the business environment. Each time we sat down at a table, or in someone’s living room, or shared a meal, or walked down the street with our Cuban hosts, we were both learning and teaching. We answered as many questions as we asked.
Before leaving for Cuba, the team at United Planet advised me to bring with me one thing in particular: flexibility. That turned out to be the most important item I packed—there are indeed parts of the culture and society that work differently than here in the U.S. and it just makes it easier if you’re ready for that.
What I didn’t plan on was what I would pack for my return trip home. In addition to the souvenirs and gifts, I brought back a soft spot for Cuba, for its people and their passion, for the burgeoning entrepreneurial spirit I sensed in so many people and places, and for the kind and thoughtful friends I made there.
Copyright © 2016 Manya Chylinski