In the past year alone, I’ve had not one but three good friends travel to Cuba. When I count in the last five years, before travel became easier thanks to President Obama, the number is at least a dozen. It seems that, whether legal and easy or not, Americans still have a fascination with the Caribbean island just 90 miles south of Key West, Florida.
Unfortunately, despite wanting to go for years, I have not been so lucky.
The last time I was in Cuba I was just five years old and my mother was pregnant with my younger brother. We spent a few months living with my grandmother but, alas, it wasn’t permanent. We went back to our home in Moscow (where my Russian mother and Cuban father had met) and immigrated to the U.S. just a few years later.
Before that, my parents and I lived on the island for a little over a year in a tale that I re-tell frequently to any friend who asks why I haven’t been back to Cuba yet: After a year of living in Cuba, my mother, who had always dreamed of marrying a foreigner and leaving the misery of then-Soviet Union, decided that Cuba was even worse.
“In Russia, when you stood in a rationing line, you would still eventually get what you came for,” my mother would tell me, “But in Cuba, 50 people would stand in line for two pieces of meat. That’s no way to live.”
Despite the picture of poverty that my parents painted in my head about Cuba, I have always wanted to go as an adult. Growing up in Florida, I was very aware that the land most of my family called home was just a small stretch of ocean away. I dreamed of visiting the places in my father’s memory and in the few photos I had of myself as a child on the white sand beaches, swimming in the clear blue ocean water and dancing among the palm trees. I didn’t remember the misery of the Cuban people, the suffering under the Castro regime or even the lack of toilet paper that my abuela, now a U.S. citizen herself, often complains about. Instead, my memories were that of a child — happy and carefree. I wanted to recreate them so badly.
That’s why, when I first started to notice my American friends visiting Cuba, I felt jealous. They would fly there, usually via Toronto or the Dominican Republic, and spend a weekend or a week swimming in those oceans I longed for, getting tan on the beautiful Cuban beaches, eating the food that only my abuela made correctly stateside, smoking the cigars that I wanted to try and talking to the Cuban people I had never met. They came back with wonderful stories of grand adventures, always more in love with the island than before.
Friends told me tales of culinary exploits, trips to the beach, buying WiFi cards in a park (yes, really) and so much more. I heard how popular and accommodating AirBnB is on the island and how beautiful Havana is. Oh, and the people. Everyone constantly raves about the friendly, resilient Cuban people.
Whenever I hear another tale of an American friend who had a fantastic time visiting the island I once called home, my heart sinks. I feel that pang of jealousy once more and, usually, go running straight to a member of my Cuban family (most of whom are in the U.S.) to ask whether we can go, too. However, “no!” is the only response I hear from any of them.
Some think it’s too dangerous for us to go still while others think that it would be too emotionally taxing on us. My abuela just tells me that the country is too poor and too miserable for me to see it just yet.
“We’ll go when things are better,” she promises me. But when will that be?
As a Cuban-American, it would be really easy for me to visit Cuba. One of the 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba, according to the U.S. Embassy in Cuba website, is “family visits.” I could get in touch with long-lost relatives I’ve never met and simply go there.
But, heeding my family’s warnings, I hold back and instead watch friend after friend go. I sit at home, simultaneously afraid to go back to my home country because I simply don’t know what I will find and afraid that I am missing out on some part of myself by not traveling to Cuba while so many I know go there as casually as a weekend in Vegas.
For me, though, going to Cuba isn’t as simple as picking which airport to fly through and packing a couple of extra bathing suits. It’s an emotional decision that, once I make it, will likely change my life in some way. Maybe the truth is that I am not yet ready to face what changes traveling to Cuba will bring me. Will it make me understand something new about my heritage? Will it make me hate the Castro regime as much as most other Cuban-Americans I know? Will it make me cry, laugh or simply shock me?
I don’t know the answers, and I am just now starting to ask the questions — the right questions — about what it means to travel to Cuba as a Cuban-American. And while I am not ready to seek those answers just yet, in the meantime I have plenty of friend’s photos to make me yearn for those answers someday. Maybe that jealousy isn’t so bad after all.