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The Moment in Cuba That Opened Its Secret to Me

One of Cuba's iconic old-fashioned cars.

What should we know about Cuba beyond its old-fashioned cars?

This is the last of my four-part series on traveling through Cuba, and in it I will share the shocking moment that revealed the dark side of the country. It all started in the town of Cienfuegos, on the very evening I looked out at the stunning sunset pictured below.

Cienfuegos, Cuba at sunset: Gorgeous.

Cienfuegos, Cuba at sunset: Gorgeous.

My travel partner, Oliver, and I were staying in a “Casa Particular,” a local Cuban’s home that is permitted by the government to take in travelers. As you can see from the photo above, the house had one of the most beautiful views imaginable.

A giant man on a tiny horse buggy in Trinidad, Cuba.

A giant man on a tiny horse buggy in Trinidad, Cuba.

I had been chatting in Spanish with the woman whose house it was, but seeing that astounding sunset and feeling the warm Cuban breeze, I became filled with emotion — and curiosity.

“Cuba seems like such a wonderful place to live,” I declared, stretching my arms towards the ocean.

Me, happy on the Trinidad beach, and a Cuban local who was also featured in National Geographic!

Me, happy on the Trinidad beach, and a Cuban local who was also featured in National Geographic!

The woman looked at me silently. I continued. “You have this gorgeous view of the ocean, deliciously warm weather, and lush nature all around,” I sighed. The woman remained silent.

Trinidad, Cuba was beyond beautiful.

Trinidad, Cuba was beyond beautiful.

“Cuba has so much else besides the natural beauty,” I went on. “Your country is known for having an excellent healthcare system and highly trained doctors. Your education system is renowned, too, and your streets are far safer than most places in the world.”

This buggy in front of a "That absurd First World" billboard sums up Cuba's current situation to me.

This buggy in front of a “That absurd First World” billboard sums up Cuba’s current situation to me.

The woman’s expression should have warned me, but I just went right on talking. “I mean, you told us that you regularly let your pre-teen daughter go hang out alone on the waterfront after dark,” I exclaimed, “and that most parents in Cienfuegos do the same because it’s so safe. What a great place for kids and families!”

Me, loving the waterfront of Cienfuegos, Cuba.

Me, loving the waterfront of Cienfuegos, Cuba.

“Looking at these facts,” I declared, “One could argue that it’s paradise to live in Cuba.”

The woman’s eyes flashed, and suddenly she leaned in close, drawing in a ragged breath.

A famous ice cream store in Cienfuegos: Coppelia.

A famous ice cream store in Cienfuegos: Coppelia.

“Listen,” she whispered urgently to me in Spanish. “You think Cuba is paradise? I would throw this all away in a second for the chance to be free.”

Riding a horse taxi through Cienfuegos.

Riding a horse taxi through Cienfuegos.

I nodded, listening intently.

“I want to be able to travel,” the woman cried, “and to visit my family in America! I want to earn money, surf the Internet… to have choices and opportunities! This is NOT paradise.”

A classic car in Trinidad, Cuba.

A classic car in Trinidad, Cuba.

I will never forget that moment in Cienfuegos, and I hope you will remember it too, when the debates flare up on “whether it’s a good or bad thing” for Cuba to open to the U.S., and for the island’s internal regulations to change.

Lush, green Viñales, Cuba.

Lush, green Viñales, Cuba.

When that woman shared her secret with me — a secret that many other Cubans I spoke with echoed — thoughts flashed in my mind of an alternate universe in which the woman struggled to survive in a harsh capitalist economy, wishing for the chance to be secure in home, health, education, and safety. Do humans always want what they don’t have, or do people above all prize choice and freedom? I’m so curious to hear your thoughts after hearing this story. Do share!

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