Sand in My Shoes
Growing up in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I did not experience the deprivation my parents endured. Because I was curious, I dreamt about going to Cuba, one of the few accessible places with a communist regime. Finally, I visited that famous tourists’ paradise. I attempted to find Ukraine’s past there. I met people who longed to escape the poverty of their homeland. I am reminded of these proud, dignified Cubans through a simple souvenir of my trip: the grains of sand in my shoes.
From my school years, I was intrigued by the word “Cuba” by its pronunciation. I was also curious about its communist society. Having grown up in Ukraine just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I did not experience life under a communist regime. According to my parents, the only main benefit of it was the free education. I wanted to see for myself what communism meant, so visiting Cuba became my dream. Finally, I got my chance.
As soon as I was given my first vacation from work in Canada, I chose my departure date. I circled Monday, July 2, on the calendar. I had the money saved, and my dream was almost in my pocket, but I had no one to go with me. Then, out of the blue, an old acquaintance texted me to let me know that she was going to Cuba.
“When is your flight?” I asked.
“July 2 at 18:35,” she replied.
The coincidence made me feel incredibly lucky. I packed only a few clothes, but I made space for my new summer wedgies: open toes, black leather with numerous decorative holes and elegant zippers on the heels. They seemed to be the best choice for a Caribbean paradise. I was in such a rush before my departure that I forgot my toothbrush! My mom was my hero, saving me from missing my flight!
We decided to explore Varadero. We had one week of absolute calm in the arms of the ocean and warm sand. Lying in the water, feeling free from worries, I realized how much of an effort it had been for me to achieve this level of peace and comfort. I wondered why I had to travel so far to set my mind free.
As a serene day changed into a wild night, I walked in my black leather wedgies on the Cuban sand. I wanted time to stand still. I loved the endless Cuban rum, the offshore breeze, the crabs on the beach, the music, the people dancing and talking until dawn—and the sad and proud Cubans.
One day, we discovered Havana. It appeared to be the same city like the one in my dreams, in pictures that I had seen. It had a special spirit, glow and grace. I felt accepted into heaven, but I didn’t find that its citizens felt the same. Observing their faces and lifestyle and watching them accept money and clothes from tourists, I finally understood what a communist system is and what it might feel like to be its victim.
In a museum in Havana, I saw a picture in which a young woman was sitting near an open window and looking longingly at a plane flying away. It was called “What Every Cuban Dreams About.” I was struck by the irony of how different dreams can be and where mine had led me.
Passing through Havana’s charming streets, I noticed two Cuban boys sitting on the street curb. My heart melted as I thought about the kind of future awaiting them.
“Uno foto por favor,” I asked them.
Innocently, they came closer and smiled for my camera. I gave each of them a peso. Then they followed me with their eyes until I disappeared into the crowd.
My Cuban journey opened my eyes, forcing me to reflect on emigration from a communist or post-communist country. I began to appreciate my mother’s need to leave Ukraine years ago. She left to escape poverty, but she left me behind. Then poverty became the main push for me to leave. Like Cuba, Ukraine still suffers from government control and corruption. If I had remained there, I could never afford the lifestyle I have today. That is why I understand those Cubans who dream of a life abroad. Ordinary Cubans are ready to work for even one peso a day. I spoke with people about their daily struggles. Some Cubans were open about the injustices in their country, and others claimed to be happy with what they have.
Although they are deprived of many things, the people have not lost their dignity and heart.
When I returned home and unpacked my wedgies, I found Cuban sand in them. At first, I didn’t have the heart to clean my shoes. I wanted this “souvenir” to stay there forever, but even when I tried, I found it almost impossible to remove every grain of sand, almost as impossible as it is to escape from where you have come from.
TANYA ANDRENYUK is from Ukraine. She’s a dreamer who gets lost in her fantasy world. The key to her happiness is feeling that she grows in experience and living for the moment. She tries to give more, not to get more. In the future, she would like to have a job connected with people, communication and travelling.