What am I doing at an all-inclusive in Cuba, all by myself?
I find the most inconspicuous table, set for two, at the edge of the dining hall. The idea of asking to sit with one of the many groups has crossed my mind, but my “introverted self” keeps me from approaching them. Or so I tell myself because it’s easier to project all of my insecurities on some inconvenient personality trait. I hasten to the buffet with straight posture; head held high. I’m OK with being on my own.
It seems as though time slows and space collapses, emphasizing the loneliness that lingered beneath the performance act. Do people stare and wonder? Straight to the buffet and back. Focus.
I’ve seen people alone at movies and restaurants, and I do wonder – not about whether they don’t have any friends to share the experience with, but where they got the courage from to do things, even if no one else wants to.
I relax a little at the thought of that and walk back to my table.
I look out in front of me. There is no companion. I glance at my iPhone. The temptation to pick it up is overwhelming. I must appear busy. I press the Home button. The screen shines brightly into my hopeful eyes. Comfort at last: I’m not alone.
But wait! No new messages to read, no breaking news to catch up on, no social networks to visit. My empty attempt to connect with someone is being prevented by the small airplane in the upper left corner of the screen. It stares me right in the face. No virtual reality to escape into.
How on Earth do people live without the Internet here?!
Earlier I had inquired about the Internet rates at the front desk. $4 for half an hour, $8 for an hour. That’s how people live without the web here! Doctors make the equivalent of $30 a month in Cuba, so an hour of browsing would cost them over a quarter of their monthly salary.
I watch a group of servers across the hall. There is something different about the way they interact.
I pierce a few leaves of lettuce and blue cheese with my fork. Please don’t let me get sick, I plea. I had been warned about the food and water quality in Cuba. “Don’t eat salads or pasta! They wash those with contaminated water,” I was told. Contaminated water. No Internet. I hear loud laughter. The servers are cracking up about something, slapping each other on the shoulder. How are these people so happy?
“Ugh, these shrimps are really starting to annoy me,” I hush underneath my breath. I have barely made a dent in the pile that I had generously scooped onto my plate earlier. I figure seafood is as safe as it gets around here. “I wish they came pre-peeled.” I rip the shrimp’s head off. There must be some kind of secret to removing the skin more efficiently. I squeeze the tale and pull on it. My hands are filthy. I’ve gone through four napkins already.
“Can I get you anything else, young lady?,” asks my server, a short older gentlemen whose warm skin has clearly been bathed by the sun all of his life. He is skinny and I wonder whether it’s just the kind of fragility that comes with old age, or whether it’s due to nutritional depletion. He wears a big smile while waiting for my response.
“Yes, actually you can,” I start. “I was wondering if you could let me in on the secret of how to peel a shrimp quickly without making a big mess.”
I giggle pointing at the pile of dirty napkins. He looks at my pile of horribly dissected sea creatures. “Looks like you’re doing everything right,” he reassures me.
“Peel by peel…,” he responds deliberately, and puts his hands out in front of him, slowly illustrating the motion with great pleasure, paying the utmost respect to the process. “It’s very good for the stomach,” he informs me while rubbing his inconceivable belly. “It’s also great for the brain!,” the old man proclaims happily as he draws an invisible line through the centre of his skull.
Peel by peel – I pause in wonder, after our interaction ends.
Is this why these people are so happy? Because they live life as if they are peeling a shrimp? Peel by peel, moment by moment?
When they talk with someone, they talk with someone. No smartphone that interrupts the conversation. When they experience loneliness, they experience loneliness. No autonomous robotic companions to help them run away from themselves.
No fake time to kill, no desire to “look busy,” no desire to press buttons on a screen that lead to nowhere; just more emptiness. I tuck my phone into my purse.
Peeling the next shrimp with attentive focus, I plea:
Live your life as if you’re peeling a shrimp. Peel by peel. It’s good for the stomach and for the brain.