When Malecón Cools

As I left my hotel, the city grit coated my flip flops in a thin film of dust, exfoliating my feet. Not the usual pre-beach pedicure, but this was Cuba. Nothing could be expected—the power outages, the breathless accent, the street art.

With my book in hand, I planned to sit on malecón, the seawall separating Havana’s bustling city streets from the glittering Caribbean Sea. I would observe passersby under the guise of reading. Maybe I would buy some peanuts from a street vendor.

With much confusion the previous day, I had learned that un maní was a peanut, not un cacahuete as I was taught in high school. I was determined to use Cuban vocabulary until it stuck like peanut butter to the roof of my mouth. For me, feeling different accents and languages on my tongue is part of getting a real taste of another culture.

At home, my mom and I often sat on the front step of my childhood home, eating peanuts with books propped on our knees to pass summer days. There was no reason I could not partake in our summer tradition from 1,412 miles away, right? And besides, I had heard that malecón is the place to be. If it were true, I knew that malecón would soon be alive with local and foreign folk laughing, gossiping, and dancing. Further, the salty breeze would be a pleasant respite from Havana’s diesel exhaust. Cuba, however, had other plans.

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Within minutes of perching on the seawall, the back of my thighs were medium rare. Was that the smell of burning flesh or just ropa vieja, a traditional Cuban dish, gone terribly wrong? The seawall, even in late afternoon, sizzled. The tropical latitude had foiled my plans. It was too hot to sit, read, and observe, much less wait for a peanut vendor to pass by.

How naïve…a foreigner thinking that a near-equatorial sun would be compatible with reading along malecón in the late afternoon. I knew it would be hot, but not intolerably hot. I thought I knew what hot weather was because my hometown of Milwaukee has intense summer days in August, with stifling humidity and mugginess. And reading is just reading. And peanuts are just peanuts. And yet I could not combine the simplest actions in the same way in Cuba.

Why did I expect reading on malecón to be the same as reading on my front stoop at home? Sometimes common understandings do not come from moments forged with others. They may come from letting go of your own world to find a common one in another place. Leaping from your proverbial malecón into the sea of reflexivity affords new perspectives to inform your journey into the depths of other ways of being, making the sunken treasure chest of culture all the richer. Beneath your surface, what glitters and ought to be reflected outward?

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As a dedicated student of the Spanish language, whimsical connections between English, my mother tongue, and Spanish never fail to intensify my desire to understand the world in new ways. In Spanish, sea is a demand that someone ‘be,’ a mandate as boundless as the body of water sea signifies in English. Though a command, the Spanish does not tell you what, how, or who to be. It leaves the thrill of what to the people who want to be and, more importantly, be understood.

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Sea, I thought to myself, as I walked to malecón to sit seaside and toss back peanuts, long after the cement had cooled.

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