Cuban flags

The Punishment and The Reward: How My Illegal Entry Into Cuba Changed Me


Cuba Building

Yes, I did.  I went to Cuba illegally.  I had the urge to see it before things changed too much, before it got too modernized.  And so it was, that my best friend, Ingrid, and I decided that we would make a little side trip from the Dominican Republic and go see this incredible place for ourselves.  We had a little trepidation, but entered the country without too much of a glitch.  I had read about how hard it was for Cubans to get basic necessities such as dental floss, so we came armed with an entire suitcase of floss, toys for the children, and medicine that I had gotten from a friend who was in the medical profession to give to some doctors that he knew there.

Cuban mother and son

We were supposed to stay with the doctors that we gave the medicine to.  However, once we arrived, we were told that we were going to be staying with a friend of theirs, Janet, down the street.  She turned out to be one dynamic woman.  The picture of her on her business card that she presented to us was very colorful with fireworks going off in the background, and that pretty much described her personality.

She only spoke Spanish, and I was glad that my friend, Ingrid, also spoke Spanish, so that we could all communicate.  She took an immediate liking to the fact that Ingrid not only spoke Spanish, but she spoke it so fluently and took to calling out “INGRRRIIIIIDDDD”, all over the entire house, in a shrill voice that always made us burst into laughter.

Cuban children

We thought we had gone to Cuba to help the people there, but little did we know, that we were the ones who would be blessed far more in return by the Cuban’s own generosity.  It just so happened, that a few nights after being there, I got violently ill from eating lobster.  It started at night, and I felt like I had never been sicker in my entire life.  Everything I had eaten was coming out of me every which way it could.  I couldn’t even keep water down.  I didn’t want to wake anyone, so I waited until morning.  When Ingrid woke up and looked at me, she got really scared. She saw that my face was drawn in and I had started to have muscle spasms and twitch. I was badly dehydrated.  She got Janet, and Janet took one look at me and hysterically said that she had to get me to the clinic.  I was so weak that I could barely walk, but the two of them held me up on either side and took me to the clinic.

When we arrived, the people at the front desk told Janet that they couldn’t treat me because I was a foreigner.  Now, this information did not stop Janet. She burst into the room where the doctor was treating a patient and said, “My dad’s a doctor here in Cuba, and you will see Val.  She is very, very sick.”  The doctor took one look at me, and said, that, yes, they needed to treat me right away.  Now, I must tell you, I wasn’t feeling very hopeful with the way that people were looking at me and taking immediate action, and I was really hoping that I really wasn’t going to die at this point.

 The staff hooked me up to an IV in a back room of the clinic where they explained that they had to hide me.  They told me that they could lose their jobs just for treating me.  I was grateful (and shivering) as two IV bags immediately poured into my body.  Many of the staff kept coming to the back to introduce themselves and see the two blonde girls that had hijacked their health care clinic!  I was in awe that people would actually risk their jobs to treat me, when all I had to offer them in return was dental floss. The care and concern of the people there reminded me that life sometimes means breaking the rules and going against what we are “supposed” to do, so that, instead,  we can do what the “right” thing is to do.

Cuban fortune teller

I was so touched by the generosity of the Cuban people who had nothing, but, literally, were the first ones to give  the shirts off their backs. The first night Ingrid and I had arrived, we decided to have an outdoor dinner at a restaurant on the water, wearing only our sundresses.  We didn’t know that the temperatures would drop, and that  it would be absolutely freezing.  Our waiters removed their own coats and gave them to us. Then, when we got in the cab shivering later, the cab driver did the same thing.

I feel like it was this care and concern for one another that gave the Cuban’s real joy.  Many of them had almost no material possessions, but they did have each other.  They treasured those moments of togetherness, and were always looking for a way to make someone else’s life better.  There were so many beautiful moments of joy that I witnessed.

Cuban car

But more than all of this, I also learned on that trip, that it was okay to be vulnerable, and to accept someone else’s help. Those who know me, know that I have set off on my own to many countries, and have been very independent.  I have often had a hard time letting myself accept help from other people. But, I really couldn’t have survived this trip without other people, especially Ingrid. I needed Ingrid to talk for me, as people rarely spoke English, and Cuba wasn’t an easy place to travel without speaking the language.

I learned it was OK to rely on someone, that I didn’t always have to be the one figuring things out, taking charge, holding it all together. It was okay to let someone see my at my worst, my sickest, my weakest, and to know that they wouldn’t think any less of me. I learned it was okay to let myself be taken care of.  And I learned that the people who you often think you are helping, are, actually, the ones helping you even more in return.  I learned that in weakness, there can be strength. I let down my walls, my boundaries, and in doing so on that trip to Cuba,  I discovered much more than a country. I learned that no matter where in the world I was, I had true friends. Thank you Cuba, and thank you Ingrid, for all that you gave to me.

Make sure to read this article on Journey Wonders for Cuba travel tips.

Ingrid and Val