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The places that make your heart crack

Tatjana Soli’s debut novel, The Lotus Eaters, chronicles the lives of photojournalists covering the Vietnam War. It is — inevitably — a tale of conflict, photography, love and the paradoxes the interweaving of the above brings to one’s life. At a certain point, the narrator characterizes the lead character, Helen Adams, as such: “The pain of being in the war with Linh and the pain of being away from him were equal, were driving her mad. She had broken, become something else. She didn’t know what yet.” The way Helen felt about Linh, another main character, is how I feel as my plane lifts off into the sky above Cuba. Cuba broke me open. At various times in my life, I have declared my relentless need to be “shaken by the shoulders”, to be moved by the world. When the fire of feeling alive is not burning brightly in my life, I wither. Cuba brought me back to life and shook me, stirred me and – yes – broke me in ways I have not fully processed in seat 31A of yet another airplane.

I cannot know anything after Cuba. I do not know who is earnestly happy there, who is only happy because sunniness is the best coping mechanism in the face of adversity, or who says they are living in “the best country in the world” only because s/he is not allowed to leave it and find out otherwise. I do not remember what I look like without a glowing face of sweat and pink, without a pool of perspiration in my bra, without dust marks on all my pants to remind me of the places I sat to catch my breath.I do not understand.

I fluctuate between hope and despair, endearment and anger, guilty oversatiation and constant hunger. I see a Cuba of affection, of love, of calling women “beauties” and “princesas” and “amorcitas“. Amorcitas are my favorite. Next to it, I see a world of completely avoidable decay and resignation. I see and hear the Havana of reggaeton and salsa and bright yellow pants. I also see the ghost town of Havana, with the ever-present police officers interrupting the shadows of the night.

I woke up every morning and applied blush to my cheeks. This took place in the full knowledge that upon stepping out the door, I would surrender to the Cuban heat and humidity and my cheeks would take care of the blushing all on their own. There was enough heat for me to look bronzed in my sleep. And yet, there was something comforting about the affection of a brush on a cheek, about the notion of “putting on my face” to face the world out there. I felt that Havana required of me that I put on my face.

I am still processing Cuba. I feel the need for a verdict, even if I am underqualified to offer one. One cannot pass through Cuba without digging for a conclusion, without needing the closure and the cozy feeling of having decided something about it. This is where my not knowing comes in: Cuba will not let you decide easily. She, like me, will put on her face every morning. But while my face will remain glowingly pink throughout the day, Cuba’s face will change in the afternoon, and at night, and the next morning, until you are so confused that you are ready to give up. Cuba will keep spinning like this until you subscribe to viewing her as magical or enchanting or scarred or scarring or a point in the sliding spectrum of it all.


  1. Kim, that hat was to die for. He used it to dance tango in the middle of a square later on. A few days after my return, I am still trying to make sense of everything. As Richard also said in the comments, the uncertainty is a guide in itself.

    Noel, your restaurant analogy is spot on. Juanita Leon, the founder of online publication La Silla Vacia in Colombia, once said that you stay in Colombia for a week and you think you have it figured out. You stay for a month and you think you do not know anything. It is an apt characterization of my time in Cuba as well.

    Richard, like Noel, I really loved your comment and the phrasing “get pulled apart”. Your comment on uncertainty is beautiful and spot-on. In the sidebar of my home page, I have linked to a speech by Drew Faust quoting Joan Didion. Those two women inspire me tremendously and Faust’s wording on embracing the uncertainty very much echoes the sentiment in your comment. You can read that whole speech by clicking on the hyperlink.

    John, thank you for the suggestions. I have been following both of those portals and the developments in Cuba with great interest. Thank you for visiting; hope to see you around here again!

  2. Powerful and heartfelt descriptions. The pictures are beautiful.

    On the human rights front in the island let me recommend two sources Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International:

    Cuba: Stop Imprisoning Peaceful Dissidents (June 2011)

    New Castro, Same Cuba (2009)

    Amnesty International:

    Amnesty International is seriously concerned over the death of Juan Wilfredo Soto García, who died in hospital on 8 May 2011 in the Cuban city of Santa Clara, three days after he was reportedly beaten during his arrest by police officers in a public park.


    Amnesty International 2011 Annual Report: Cuba

    Thanks again for a wonderful and powerful blog entry.

  3. I love the domino and cigar photos in particular. They are stunning.

    As for cracking… It’s perhaps a healthy pursuit to get pulled apart, left undecided once in a while. It’s an opportunity (however uncomfortable) to reassemble, to redecide, and to re-commit. Sometimes you reassemble differently, and the version of you that comes out of those moments is usually always stronger.

  4. Oh my goodness, what a heartbreakingly gorgeous post (and photos too). I feel like I just ate one those amazing restaurants and the meal was so complex, so full of flavors and subtleties, that I want to go back over and over again and dissect each piece that added up to the whole.

  5. This is so incisive and heartbreaking. I was looking forward to hearing what you had to say about your time in Cuba. Growing up in the US, I never knew quite what to think of it, and there’s something rueful about hearing that you’re in the same boat after your time there.

    The pictures are excellent, and your instinct to go with sepia for this post was right on. I’m personally crazy about the hat being worn by the gentleman in the first pic.

  6. Iwanna mou, your photos and stories from Cuba were truly moving, so I am thrilled that you had the chance to revisit them.

    Your question about what set Cuba apart is excellent. Indeed, I have lived in many places where people try to compensate for trauma with joy and celebration. However, Cuba has more limited access to the internet, free press, the news, or even to lasting, meaningful relationships with tourists or aid workers than most places I have lived and worked. As such, people “live” on the island more than people in – for instance – Colombia do because the latter are able to read more about the circumstances under which they are living. I asked myself this last time as well: If your happiness is not as informed, and if the information that is withheld from you is critical for your well-being, is it still reliably happiness? I have not reached a conclusion.

    Christine, I cried when the plane took off as well. Your comment is lovely and I am grateful for it. If you are interested in this topic, I recommend “If A Place Can Make You Cry” by Daniel Gordis. It is on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, essentially, on how sometimes the places that deeply affect us and scar us are also the places we are most reluctant to leave.

  7. I have traveled all over the world, and only cried once upon a departure…out of Havana. I was with a small group, and had to sit in the back of the bus that took us to the airport because I was so distraught. Cuba still calls to me, and pulls at me, and will never, ever leave me. Your post captures so much of what I felt there better than I have ever been able to express it. Thank you.

  8. 1. Thrilled to have you (and your unique writing) back, seriously.

    2. I feel the exact same way as far as the decoding goes. Two months ago I came back from Cuba after having spent a mere 2 weeks, feeling love for the country but nothing precise beyond that has yet been deciphered (but the fact that this love is there is enough of a strong indication for me). Maybe that quality is the conclusion we need to reach?

    3. After having experienced so many troubled and intricate places around the world, I am genuinely curious as to what was the factor that led you to say: “I cannot know anything after Cuba”. Didn’t people elsewhere try to balance out hardships by being overly joyful? I am really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Cuba as they unfold.

    4. One way or another, you really made me go through all my own pictures again and feel a sting of nostalgia stronger than I thought would be. Σε φιλώ xx

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