When I stepped outside the airport, I felt the sultry heat and inhaled cigarette smoke in every breath I took. The leather seats in the car were burning hot, even though the car was only let in the sun for a couple of minutes. The taxi driver was dripping with sweat, and he didn’t hesitate to help us with all of our six bags.
It was a long ride until our house. The taxi driver talked to us about life in Havana and asked us questions. He had a genuine smile stamped on his face. The only problem was, I couldn’t understand his Spanish at all. I never thought one language could sound so different across countries. Cubans have a very distinct and unique accent which was very difficult to understand after not having practiced my Spanish for four years.
Furthermore, my first impression of Havana wasn’t the best. We drove past old houses and buildings falling to pieces. The roads were bumpy and dirty, sidewalks were clearly not safe to walk on. Stray dogs wandered everywhere. Men sat on rocking chairs outside their houses, drinking some Bucanero (Cuban beer) and playing cards. Others drove old-school colorful cars (what Cuba is mostly known for) listening to loud Reggaeton. Women held umbrellas whilst walking on the street attempting to hide from the blazing sun.
Suddenly, I found myself in a perfectly paved road, contoured by beautiful bushes, flowers, and trees. The sidewalks were fairly white. People were jogging, roller skating, walking their dogs, or just sitting down for a smoke. The taxi driver told us that was Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue), one of the most famous avenues in Havana. He said at night, Quinta (as Cubans would call it), was where youngsters hung around. For my friends and I, Quinta was a meeting point before our nights out.
After leaving our luggage in the house, we went out for lunch at La Carboncita – one of my favorite restaurants in Havana. It didn’t take me long to realize that Cubans were so amiable and cheerful. Every person I met since I arrived smiled from cheek to cheek. They always seem so interested in getting to know you and will most of the times get out of their way to help you. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know each other, Cubans will always greet you with a kiss on the cheek and an excited “Asere, qué bolá?” – the most local way of saying “whats up?”. This made me feel closer to home. The warm welcoming Latin culture played a big part in easing me into a completely new experience.
However, it still took me a while to adapt to my new life on the island. My brother and I studied in the International School of Havana, and despite all my friendly peers, I refused to leave my life in Brazil behind. I was a spoiled 13 year old, at peak of adolescence, and everything was an excuse for rebellion. It took me one year to realize I had no other option but to grow up. I will never forget my father coming in my room, looking into my eyes and saying “You have two options: you can either live here and be happy, or you can live here and be mad. But you’re living here either way.” That opened my eyes, and made me perceive all the good things Cuba had to offer me.
To be continued…