Last spring, I was among a group of documentary filmmaking and photography students spending a semester studying in Cuba. We were warned that accessing the Internet in Havana requires some planning ahead, more effort than we’re used to, and a lot of patience, but it was a lifestyle that none of us could fully grasp until after we settled in for our three-month stay.
My companions and I prided ourselves for our willingness to experience Havana the way locals do. We accepted the challenge of not having constant connection to the “outside world” head-on, without the slightest flinch. Havana’s grid street plan made it easy to navigate without Google Maps, but we soon found out that information on public transportation was not clearly laid out anywhere. The only way to get to places was to ask locals for directions, which we gladly took as an opportunity to practice Spanish. We soon learned the basic routes of the maquinas, taxis that run on certain routes that allow people to hop on and off at any point on the way, and discovered the wonder of paquete, a terabyte of media including the latest American films, TV shows, music that comes out once a week and effectively acts as the Cuban Internet.
Still, as much as we immersed ourselves in the disconnected way of living, there came a time when we couldn’t ignore the emails that we imagined were piling in our inboxes anymore. Following our local friends’ instructions, we marched ten-odd blocks to the ETECSA, and waited in line baffled until it was finally our turn to pay two dollars for a tarjeta that would give us one precious hour of Internet access. Later that night, we ventured to a nearby hotel to actually use the service. I sat on a rocking chair on the porch, pleasantly surprised at the speed of the connection, but also quickly became overwhelmed by the information overload. I put away my laptop, suddenly aware of how many people were connecting to the Internet around me. Because there were only a handful of spots in the city where connection was available, getting online was a public, communal act that we all performed together. I was fascinated by the fact that we were not the only ones that came as a pack. Most people came as small groups, families or friends, to video-call loved ones overseas. They came not only to connect to the ones away, but also to one another.
One night, I struck up a conversation with an old man, whose name, I later learned, was Rodolfo. He was there with his son and a college student from the U.S. who was living at his house. While Rodolfito and Wilfred were chatting away with the person on the other end of the phone, Rodolfo started spilling out his life stories to me. He told me about his rocky relationship with his late father, and the complex sentiments Cubans have for the U.S., and how he decided to host U.S. students in his house as a way to help re-build the two countries’ relationship, and to heal his own wounds caused by his father. The guys were talking to the student who stay at Rodolfo’s the previous semester. He was just one of the many with whom Rodolfo stayed in regular contact. “Human connection is the thing I treasure the most in life,” he said with an amiable smile, but his voice firm with conviction.
Rodolfo became my Cuban dad. I would stop by his house from time to time, trying really hard to communicate with him with my limited Spanish. When my friend’s parents visited and couldn’t find a place to stay, Rodolfo found them a casa. He made me stay for dinner with his family, and while it was not the first time I was invited to dine in a Cuban household, it was the time I felt the most at home—he would even nag about how little I was eating and insist on serving me dessert.
As time goes by, my memories of those Havana days are more and more faded. But I can still remember clearly our final night there. Whenever I think back, it’s as if I was on the Malecón, the long stretch of seaside road where everything happens, and I could feel the wind, and hear the waves that were unusually calm that night. At one point, a mariachi came to serenade us. I lay down on top of the wall that marked the end of the land, and listened to my friends pouring their hearts out. I closed my eyes and tried to take it all in—I wanted to remember every little detail of Havana that I had the chance to encounter, I wanted to hold on to these people and memories that we created and shared. But more importantly, I wanted to always feel the sense of presence and connectedness, the connectedness that I got by disconnecting from the Internet.