Where did old-fashioned romance go?
My big camera slung over my sweaty blue halter top, I walked through the crowded club to the bar stand.
My Macedonian friend Ilena and I have just arrived to Cuba, on what I called the lame touristy vacation for Canadians. We were staying in the resort, drinking sugary Mojitos, Pina Coladas and cervezas (favorite foreigner word, usually accompanied by mispronounced dos); eating a variety of semi bland food and lounging by the beach with a book in our hands. All in all, it wasn’t so bad. All we needed was a mindless vacation and Cuba was the cheapest option.
Within fifteen minutes of arriving to the club, Ilena was already dancing close with a buff, dark Cuban. She seemed to have a thing for Pitbull lookalikes.
I told myself I would never get involved with a Cuban here. In fact, I brought my camera just so I could film an episode on the Cuban Lover and his pursuit of foreign, mainly Canadian women, as a way to get a green card. I thought these women were slightly pathetic and couldn’t fathom why they couldn’t see through all this romantic crap.
Now, walking through the club, I noticed quite a lot of attractive guys. Men from Argentina, Germany, Canada and yes, Cuba. But there was one guy that really got my attention. Tall, light eyed and dark haired, with broad shoulders and full lips. Yes, he was attractive, but there was also something quiet and serene about him. I literally craned my neck to look at him, but he barely noticed me among the crowd of people.
I looked for him, but realized it made no sense to search for someone I didn’t even know and focused on dancing. Just as soon as I did, BAM, I turned around and there he was! Seems that when you let things go, they somehow happen naturally.
What did he do? Well, instead of dancing like pretty much everyone else in the club, he just stood there – staring at the big TV screen, his arms crossed in front of him. Ilena and her dark man kept on grinding closer and closer to us. It soon turned out that the light eyed boy was friends with her Pitbull.
“Why aren’t you dancing?” I asked to him finally, yelling over the reggaeton.
“Oh, I do not like this music” He answered in bad English, then “You are Spanish?”
” Russian” I said, leaving out the Canadian part “And you?”
“I am Cuban”
Of course. He had to be.
“Christian.” He stuck his hand out instead of kissing me on the cheek. “Mia”, I answered.
There we were – a foreigner and a Cuban. I was now becoming a victim of my own documentary. However, that didn’t stop me from dancing with him. At first he didn’t even hold my hand and danced at a distance, but soon we were close together, moving to the sounds of Cuban salsa. Christian wasn’t very good at salsa. He would turn me around awkwardly which would lead me to either hit him by accident or awkwardly shuffle around, unsure about which way to move. Sure, Cuban Salsa was different from the one I was familiar with, but I was starting to feel sure this white-washed boy wasn’t the epitome of a Cuban Lover.
We literally danced the night away, and with the words “Be careful, I might kiss you”, he did. So we danced and kissed some more.
At the end of the night, Ilena and her Pitbull – Mario, as well as Christian and I decided to head to the beach. There, as I conversation consisted of (let’s be honest here) not much, I still enjoyed the feeling of his big hands furiously trying to keep me warm, his gentle light eyes and his presence overall. I have been boyfriend-less for too long.
“You know” he told us “It’s not that I hate Cuba. I only wish I could see other countries to compare it to. How can you love something when you don’t know anything else?”
He was an abstract artist, who lived in a city next to Varadero. He had a gallery opening in Havana the following week, but even so, he could only dream of leaving. We were told of a raffle where only a handful of people were allowed to leave the island. With the Miami lights so close, they could possibly feel them, Cubans were under the constant presence of America and the feeling of missing out on that something. Later, I learned they had barely any access to the Internet, let alone Facebook or Youtube. Most of the food was rationed by the government, meat was in very short supply, many places denied.. with the majority people earning as little as thirteen dollars a month.
Barely four hours apart on a plane, Christian’s world and mine were vastly different. My regular conversations about travelling seemed out of place here. When I told him I was going to New York the following week, he could only look at me in awe. He has never even left the island. I instantly regretted mentioning the trip, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew I had the ability to travel the world; that most people did.
The first night Ilena and I went to sleep at 5 am and so continued the rest of our sleepless nights with the Cubans. During the day, we would lounge on the beach, reading a book, drinking coconuts filled with rum and of course filming. However, the interviews with the Cubans turned out to be quite fruitless. Most would easily talk about their sex appeal, sabor and the love of life and women, but when it came time for something more controversial, they grew uncomfortable. A bunch of lifeguards told me off camera that while some of the Cuban men did indeed fall for the tourists, many used the opportunity to leave the country. If there was a choice between a Cuban woman and a foreigner, the foreigner always won.
At night, I wished we could have turned the camera towards ourselves. Here we were – two Canadians, out with Cubans. We were embarrassed to even mention this anyone else. Since there was no real conversation to be had, besides translation and simple dialogue, Ilena was only interested in Mario sexually. Christian seemed interested in me as a person – constantly asking questions. However, even though I spoke Spanish, our conversation was still painful. Most of the time, I felt like an ESL teacher, taking a vacation from my teaching job, only to be teaching again – this time for free.
The first night they took us to a rock bar where foreigners screamed along to Alanis Morisette and ACDC. Ilena and I exchanged ironic looks before reverting back to our Cubans for more kissing and ESL. We then took a stroll in a night park, as if were on a high school double-date. Next night, they met us at an outdoor bar with roses, and Christian didn’t even let me get up to get a water. He wanted to do everything for me.
Maybe I was just another tourist for him, but I felt like it meant more. The way he gently and carefully touched me, the way his eyes looked at me… In a short while I grew used to him and he started to feel more like a boyfriend. That’s vacation for you. One week and you are in a serious relationship. Was I crazy over him? No. I wish I could have felt something resembling the Franko (see Puerto Rican) attraction, but in a way I was glad. There would never be a future for this. Even if I desperately wanted it. I would not be the Canadian girl I talked about. Nor did he want anyone’s help in leaving, he mentioned.
After the fourth night together, I got into the taxi with a veil of tears covering my eyes. We were seeing each other every day now, going to different clubs to dance. I loved his attention, his touch, his affection. That night he came to see me after sleeping for three hours. He had no strength to dance, only to watch me dance and hug me to him. He called my hotel room five times before I picked up. He told me he didn’t have any money to go out, nor did he like it, that it was the only way for him to see me. He didn’t try to grope me or attempt to have sex with me for five days. They were simple things, really, but they felt romantic.
“Look at yourself” said Ilena and our new friend Anna “We should put your camera back on you. Mia, we are here for a week! He knows you are here for a limited time, you know it. How do you know he didn’t do this before?”
“But I feel that it means something more” I pleaded. I knew I would leave, but I didn’t want to feel like I was one of many.
“What do you want? To take him to Canada?”
“Of course not! I just want it to be meaningful.”
“Then it is”
On Friday, Christian was coming to pick us up to take us to his city. He came an hour early and was hanging out by the hotel in some hideously bright shirt. Apparently he had the taxi waiting for us for a whole hour, after which we switched to a communal truck full of Cubans eyeing us with interest (and the Puerto Rican towel I randomly brought with me).
His city was not actually a city. Roosters and horses took over the dirt road. Kids ran around shoeless. Crowds of people lounged around gossiping. We were in a full blown Cuban village. Christian’s mother worked in the airport (and was at work when we arrived), so he was from a fairly wealthy family. Even so, the house he brought us in really left an imprint on me. Mismatched furniture, Disney Princess pillows (even though they had no kids), rusty rocking chairs on the porch, random posters, a fridge filled with cans of all sizes… Granted, he had a flat screen TV and a laptop, so I suppose he definitely was from a higher class, but it couldn’t in any way compare to the Franko’s modern condo I last visited in San Juan. The two islands were so close but miles away in terms of development.
We ate mayo filled pasta and watched the home videos of shy teenage Christian, after which we headed for the beach were he took me snorkelling just off the shore. We swam past amazing underwater corals and caves, surrounded by big fish and I at that moment I genuinely felt happy.
Maybe many Cubans were unsatisfied with their life, but at least they lived closer to the nature and were more in touch with their bodies. Sun kissed, barely dressed, with fragrant tropical air filling their nostrils. It is no wonder romance and sexuality came so easy to them.
After making out all over the beach and water region, we finally decided to head back to his place. Ilena and I knew what it would entail. We have been thinking about it the whole week. During the day, she would proudly tell me she wasn’t planning on having sex with Mario; that she didn’t see the point. One or two drinks later, she was falling into her hands and talking about ravishing his body.
So yes, we knew what was happening.
They left almost immediately under the pretence of ‘sleep’ and I nervously hung around on the porch barefoot. Chickens clucked outside, kids ran around, the warm Caribbean sun warmed my darkened skin and I felt more carefree that I had in a long time. He came out of the shower, his hair wet and a towel around his hips. His gorgeous green eyes were brightened by the sun and he looked like he should be on the cover of a magazine, except he didn’t seem aware of it. I took the shower and began putting cream on while sitting on his bed. He sat near me. Soon enough we started kissing, with Sarah Mclachlan singing in the background.
Yes, my dear readers. He put Sarah Mclachlan on to seduce me. Ilena told me she got Celine Dion.
I wish I could describe to you just how incredibly sexy he looked at the edge of the bed, as he looked down at me. Then he was on top of me, pinning me down to bed. As kissed my body, I couldn’t help but stare at him and the tattooed underside of his muscles. He looked sensual and impish at the same time.
However, just as he was about to come, he stopped.
I turned to him “What’s wrong?”
His eyes were red. I continued asking, until I realized what he wanted to say.
“I really like you too” I told him and he hugged me tight to him. I don’t know how I figured he wanted to say this, except the incident reminded me of Luiz (see the Portuguese). Christian told me afterwards that the moment was really intense for him and he almost couldn’t continue. I know most of you will say “what a pussy”. Maybe he was. I guess an artist and a Latin create a hyper sensitive combination. But what about the men in North America who are too scared to look desperate, to feel needy, to look anything, so they put up a tough front? What is better?
Afterwards, he wanted to show me the sunset. We ran through the village, so we wouldn’t miss the sun going down and it seemed like the entire village stared at us. I felt like I was in a chick flick, but it seemed like the whole trip could have been filmed. I suppose the all inclusive package includes the romantic encounters tailored to fit your preferences. This for me, was probably one of the most favourite parts of the trip. The feeling of freedom and youth, the sun-kissed skin, the boy at my side.
He hugged me from behind as we watched the sunset and told me “I think no matter what, it is important to take time to watch the sunset”. However, not only do we not watch the sunset in North America, but we hardly look up from our phones on the way to work.
After our walk, we made more pasta.
“What do you think I need to put in pasta?” he asked me.
“What do you have? Mushrooms?”
“No tomatoes right now.’
“Ok, well do you have olive oil?”
“Mia, you are in Cuba. Don’t forget” he smiled.
“Just give me the cheese and ham then.” I offered.
Ilena and Mario came back from their ‘sleep’ and as I ran out to greet them with “Mi casa es su casa”, Ilena announced that I was probably drunk. When we moved the furniture to dance salsa, she said Christian was drunk also. I told her I was high on life, which she used to mock me consistently from that point onward.
I stayed at his house, but Mario whose crazy mother only let him host Cuban girls, denied Ilena to spend the night. He ended up taking her back. Christian’s bed was not comfortable, but I wanted to stay with him. As we lay side by side, he told me “You know, you put life back in me? I was not doing too good but you made me feel hopeful. I don’t know what will happen, but even if I don’t see you again, I don’t ever want you to change. You are really beautiful to me.”
“Will you come say bye to me at the airport?” I asked.
“Of course” he hugged me. “Thank you for asking me”
We fell asleep to the sound of the ocean. By the ‘sound of the ocean’, I mean a sound track he plays in order to fall asleep. The guy lives near the beach and plays ocean music.
The next morning we went back to the hotel, where he hung out on the beach since he was not allowed to go any further. At the end, I was tired of lying in the blistering sun and kissing him every two minutes, as he would stare at me soulfully. I missed laughing with the girls and speaking fast English with lots and lots of slang!
So when he finally went home I breathed out. I needed a bit of a break!
That night Mario bailed on Ilena(with work as his excuse), making her extremely mad and cursing “My Heart Will Go On” that played from a speaker on our way to the restaurant.
“He ruined Celine Dion for me!” she mock cried.
Christian had managed to ‘get’ the money to go to a club with me (most likely from his mom, since there are no drug dealers to be had) but I told him I would meet him on the hotel beach. The poor guy came for two hours. He was burning up with a fever, but he sat by me as I practically fell asleep on his chest. He offered I go home with him, but I declined. I didn’t want him spending money he didn’t have and I loved the feel of my hotel bed.
Ilena told me she was convinced he cared for me . While she was hesitant at first, she grew to like Christian and his open feelings for me. She called us the over-the-top romantic couple or Aventura (a famous Bachata band) and said we could be annoying as hell.
He was at the airport the next day. I wrote him a letter Ilena poked fun at in the bus (since it was written in a red pen and on the pages of my girly diary..) I knew he would appreciate it, especially because I was sure he would do something similar.
Mario worked at the airport so he was there, trying to make peace with Ilena, who was starting to behave like an angry Cuban woman.
“I don’t want to talk to him!” she told me and marched right past him. But as soon as he created a separate line for us and gave her a rose over the counter, her anger began to melt. My face with a huge smile plastered on it didn’t help either. I mean the guy made a separate line for us! Some Canadians followed us, only having to move to the next one right after.
Soon after, as her and Mario were kissing and discussing the difference between shorts and pants,there was an announcement that the flight was delayed by two hours. Excited, Christian offered to go to his house. The idea was crazy, yet kind of sane, since all my luggage was already on the way.
There we were again. Chickens, children, beautiful sunset, me with my huge bag and jeans. I met his mother, who hugged me and fed me with the most fattening food ever, consisting of mayo, deep fried fat (yes), fries and a milkshake.
“If you stayed here and ate that, you would become like the rest of the Cuban girls – fat” he told me. “And then I would stop liking you!” he added as a semi joke.
His mom had beautiful light green eyes and I felt like we were all a family. With the same dark hair, green/blue eyes and tanned skin, we definitely resembled each other in a slightly creepy way. We chatted on the porch, and I even got some time along with Christian to lock the door and have sex for one last time.
I know he spent his last money on the taxi to the airport, but he wouldn’t accept my money and when time to leave arrived – he put his sunglasses on. I burst out crying in front of a customs officer who seemed to understand. I am sure I am not the only foreigner to leave Cuba in tears. After all, Cubans and foreigners is an old story.
In the airport, I opened the envelope he put into my bag and saw he gave me his ring, a letter written in Spanish and his childhood photo. These were simple gifts that didn’t involve any money, but that were made by hand and that told me he genuinely cared about me. Apparently he wanted to make me a mix CD, but even after collecting all the songs, he had to go to another city just to get the actual disk.
In North America, we have everything but it seems most of us no longer make any real effort to romance each other. Emails are replacing hand-written letters. Facebook chats are replacing emails. Downloaded songs and Youtube links are replacing CDs. We can get flowers on every street corner, deliver them with a click of a mouse and create a custom card in a minute.
But we are too lazy to pick up the phone and call someone to wish them a Happy Birthday. We don’t even need to remember it. Facebook can do both for us.
I will not say I came back enlightened, because that’s a cheesy overstatement. But at least for a little bit, before settling into my routine, I feel like I have gone back in time, back when romance was simple and direct. Back when there was no such thing as “cheesy” or “corny”. Back when we didn’t have to pretend we didn’t care or were the least interested party. Back to when you could simply enjoy the sunset and not worry about Instagraming it later.
I think the women who go to Cuba and fall for the Cubans are not pathetic or desperate, they are just tired. Tired of being independent. Tired of playing games, Tired of the coldness with which they are treated. They want to be seduced, they want to be “the one”, they want to be romanticized. Sure, in men’s opinion, women worked hard to feel independent, but at the end of the day, we all want someone to write us a beautiful romantic letter.
Not a Facebook message.