Marianao was where I began my Cuba journey. This is where my host, Eileen, lives; a university graduate whom I found through a homestay website. You are the only foreigner here, she kept telling me as she showed me around the neighborhood where people asked me to capture their smiles. She told me about the challenges of making a living in Cuba as part of the young generation. To sustain a living with the basics, job-hopping and hosting travelers is what she does.

My first night ended in a wash with a bucket, lying on the mattress Eileen put down for me, restless. As much as I was grateful for her friendliness…. where were all the rainbow bubble cars and colonial bricks? Maybe I should move up the date of my flight home…

Cuba is more than what first meets the eye!

The Spanish I learnt in a course at the University of Havana was not as strong and sure as the reply given by the orientation staff when we asked about the lifting of the blockade. Disconnected, backwards, maybe that is how people from outside think of Cuba. But we are content. It would not be better if you walk down Havana seeing three tourists and one Cuban. We know this is not a perfect society or government but there’s no perfection. Blockade or not, we don’t care. They are living a life built of money and things, but we enjoy a life with values and people we care about.  The pride in being a Cuban made me want to applaud, yet another part of me thought about Eileen… the generation without revolution.

Havana is a city made for walking. Explore a new corner every day with the intense kiss of the sun. People chill in the doorways. Strings sliding from a balcony to a street vendor next to his fruit wheelbarrow for trades. He hugs his pal who has trays of two dozen eggs in his hands and is almost brushed by a bicitaxi. ‘Taxi? Taxi?” he asks you, as you finally withdraw yourself from the peeling facade of a colonial building on which stands a man with a cigar on the balcony, waving.

Cuba is more than what first meets the eye!

My penchant for truck (camion) rides meant I decided to take one from Havana to wherever it went. Camagüey it was. First-night-surprises are my specialty. The camion broke down halfway. Two hours later, with assistance from the police, we got onto another bus and another one later. I didn’t mind the delay of the ride, but instead found the night entertaining, with a mini-campfire we made on the highway and jokes in Spanish that I didn’t understand.

During the time I spent in Santiago De Cuba, I was referred by Best Programs as an intern for a local NGO, Asociación Hermanos Saíz, who was working on a documentary of a Cuban painter. I was blessed to be invited to his studio and home for a stay to meet his family who were so warm and caring. Alexei showed the importance of his family which is the core of his life. This was eye-opening for me as it is a tradition from my birthplace that has faded with time.

Cuba is more than what first meets the eye!

The feeling of familial love and care was a recurring aspect of my visit to the east of Cuba.

On the bus from Guantánamo to Baracoa, Dina, a girl from Baracoa, invited me over for a stay as it was getting too late to look for the farm that I planned to stay at. Nobody knew exactly where it was, so I took every offer as a blessing. She lived in a suburb of Baracoa, Elda, where most of her neighbors were her relatives – including dozens of cousins running around chasing each other. I found myself happily immersed in endless flows of palm trees, banana trees and fences of bamboo. This was exactly what I had imagined when hoping to get away from the hustle and bustle of cities and tourists.

Cuba is more than what first meets the eye!

The settlement sat next to Río Miel, where they washed the trucks and clothes while we took a bath. Dina walked me around the community, throwing hugs and kisses from shack to shack, cousin to cousin. Her mom fed me with a huge plate of delicious rice, beans and some veggies. Food and drink is a form of greeting here, and I do not mind at all. With a gang of cousins running around us taking pictures with my camera, I told Dina how much I loved this as it was so different from what a family gathering is in my hometown. Mine is a smaller family, and we get to meet a couple of times a year. Dina was making sure that I was telling the truth about enjoying this rustic stay while I was captivated by some luminescent beetles.

Dina’s parents offered me their only bed in the house while they slept on the ground in the living room. Once again, I was overwhelmed by their hospitality and felt bad. I don’t even know the names of my neighbors back in my hometown. I hoped they felt my deepest gratitude from my ¡Muchas Gracias! and the turrón de coco I got them.

Cuba is more than what first meets the eye!

We spent the weekend hiking to Sabanilla; wading across the Río Mina; crashing a family fiesta by the river with rum, music, a roast, and swimming. When nature smiles, you take it all in. About half a year ago, Hurricane Matthew destroyed Dina’s original home not far from here while crushing towns across the Caribbean. All they had left was a small bed. They built a home little by little. I thought of when Dina insisted to pay for my rides when commuting to the town; they didn’t have much money, but enough pride.

They were going to move to a new home in a month. I bet they are settling in now. I tried to locate my memories on Google Maps after coming back. It turns out neither Elda nor Dina exist on online. Dina does not have an e-mail address as internet is not exactly part of her routine. Like she and her village never existed; only in my memories.

Cuba is more than what first meets the eye!

With all the ever-changing influences from across the ocean, Cubans still hold onto their smile. We have to! was a tour guide’s response. It is a sentiment that I wish to see more in the world.

All you need is love, love is all you need… I sang with the driver steering next to me in a camion on my way back to Havana from Santiago, feeling grateful for my last ride of cheerfulness and hospitality. Big Cuban cities might appear to be just eye-candy, drawing you in as you stroll along the beach, but while you’re busy being charmed by the pastel colors and palm trees, breathe in the atmosphere – there is more to this place than meets the eye.

This is a guest post by Rachelle Leung.

Rachelle is a soul constantly roaming from culture to culture, powered by curiosity. From Nature, came to explore, to learn, before becoming one with Nature again. Currently in Dominican Republic as an intern to teach English and yoga, learning to give back to Mother Earth.