When I was a sophomore in college, I was given an opportunity to visit the island of Cuba. This was before George W. Bush placed further restrictions on the embargo that’s been in place since October, 1960. The trip was amazing, doubly so because I was only 20 at the time. On the last day, I gave away the Jason Williams jersey I was wearing.
When I visited the tiny island of Cuba it was like traveling back in time. I don’t want to bore people with rambling anecdotes about the 18 days I got to spend on the island, but it’s important to provide some context for why I was in the country, and what could have possibly provoked me to give up — what was then — my most prized possession: a Jason Williams No. 55 Kings jersey.
*** *** ***
A group of 20 of us traveled first to Jamaica — because you can’t fly direct — and then hopped over to Cuba as part of a cultural exchange program through my college. I wrote a paper about the experience (now since lost), and got some college credit. While I can still clearly remember the crumbling buildings, taciturn officials in uniform on every block and the verdure surrounding the endless sugarcane fields, a lot of the specifics of the trip have been lost — as has the paper I wrote.
Everything in Cuba at the time of my trip was pre-embargo; it probably still is, but I haven’t been back (it’s hard to get into and out of Cuba). This means the automobiles, the paint on most of the buildings, the bric-a-brac on the street stands, even the books were all Cold War era or earlier. Anything contemporary was sent from friends in other countries, and anything American was like a rare gem. Small markets on the boulevards in Havana sold mysterious goods that would only be recognizable to someone from the 1950s.
For a 20-year-old in 2003, the old-timey feel to the city was a shock. But we didn’t travel to Cuba to shop, or to swim in the luxury hotels, or relax on the innumerable beaches — available to tourists, but not to most Cubans — with vistas straight from a postcard. No, we stayed in churches and hostels, on farms and in dilapidated tin roof huts. Not only did I travel to Cuba, but I visited in a way that even those people lucky enough to gain entrance to the country, rarely get to see.
And even that view of Cuba was a lie. It’s too long and murky a backstory to rehash here, especially since this is ostensibly about point guard Jason Williams, but while most of the American public swallows the rhetoric of the pissed off Cuban population in Florida (they’re rightfully pissed off), our tiny college coterie got the Cuban government’s revolution-heavy iteration. This is a good thing, since you should hear both sides to any heated antagonism, but after talking to some real Cubans at an underground bar in Manzanillo, we realized it’s not as pretty or as harsh as either side makes it out to be.
Enough of that though. Aside from a few people on our trip, most of us didn’t speak the native language, so we had a translator. Since I was a year older than most of the other people in our group (having missed the previous year’s excursion after some on-campus trouble), I spent a lot of time with our chaperones and our translator — whose name I haven’t been able to track down just yet.