I have never been so sore from a game of Twister in my entire life. Every muscle in my body throbbed from holding various backbreaking positions while hovering over small, squirming children on the mat beneath me. You see, I was under the impression that Twister was this whole one-day deal, but apparently for kids in Cuba it’s a national pastime. I think we played that game more during this youth group mission trip than I ever did growing up. I’d forgotten how much fun it was.
There was only one room with air-conditioning in the Presbyterian church where we stayed, and it was the girls’ bedroom, yet we all managed to be outside in the heat laughing and romping around until midnight on most days. Without social media bombarding us, the entire mission group was able to enjoy a different set of values than the ones we have back at home. I found myself remembering the simple joys of a game of cards, or dominoes, or Twister, and the long conversations we would all have sitting around the front porch watching the thunderstorms.
Our youth group spent a lot of time together bonding and laughing with the children, and it felt like so much more than a mission trip. One night we even taught all the kids how to do the Macarena, which turned into a huge dance party in one of the side courtyards.
Part of what made us all so close and in tune with the wonderful people around us was that there was no Internet, no cell service, nothing that would’ve passed in today’s plugged-in world as a form of entertainment. It was a total culture shock, or a living nightmare for most teenagers, depending on how you look at it. I only saw that it brought an incredibly varied group of people together in spite of vast cultural and language barriers.
Our youth group had four boys and eight girls. We all stayed inside the church with the pastor, his wife, and their three sons. The entire family was musically gifted, so we took a few instruments for them, including an entire drum set. Getting that through customs was a story in itself.
It was worth it, though, because they decided to put on a rock concert open to all who wanted to attend, even those from churches in nearby towns. Pastor Abel was an accomplished guitarist, equally at ease with classic Spanish songs as well as a personal favorite of mine, “Stairway to Heaven.” He wanted to incorporate youth culture more into religion and show this new generation that we could enjoy church and that it doesn’t have to be lengthy sermons all the time. It was a very successful idea, because the large attendance proved it was one way of getting both the young and old involved.
There were many other people who came from their homes to the church every morning to look after us and make us our meals and keep the house in order while we worked with the kids. When I say looked after us I mean that they really were like mothers to us. Whenever I was outside on a blistering hot day helping distribute water, it was guaranteed that someone would look at me, notice my red hair and extremely fair skin, and immediately usher me into shade. No matter what I said about my already having applied four layers of sunscreen, it didn’t matter. I could have sat there and applied straight zinc to my entire body and the very second I set foot in sunlight a woman would run up to me and herd me back under the roof.
Those ladies were marvelous cooks; I have never tasted more mouthwatering Spanish cuisine in my life. The savory beans over rice with crispy homemade plantain chips and creamy yucca — even the sea turtle was phenomenal. And the fruit! I mean we’re talking fresh tree-ripened pineapple and mango the color of Cheetos. I couldn’t have asked for a more hospitable, welcoming, and generous group of people to live with.
It was all too easy to forget that we were in Cuba to work and not on a vacation. For instance, in Guines, the city we stayed in and the home of our sister church, there was no butter to be found in the entire city. The women who worked in the kitchen explained to us that you’d have to travel an hour north to Havana for that type of baking material. The most common means of transportation, other than bike or foot, is horse and carriage. Which isn’t all that convenient or romantic when the street is disintegrating right beneath your feet.
The biggest wake-up call for me was that the Presbyterian church was the only source of clean water in the village. Last year American Presbyterian Church members built a water-purifying system to alleviate the chronic health problems caused by foul water. Every few days our youth group would help distribute the clean water by filling various canteens, jugs, bottles, bags, jars, and buckets for the locals and putting labels on everything with instructions on how to keep the water from being contaminated. I was taken aback by the number of people who lined up, the number of women who waited patiently in the beating sun because they wanted their babies to be healthy even if it meant there wouldn’t be any for themselves.
If there is anything these people have shown it is true selflessness and compassion. Despite all of their hardships, the only thing they will ever ask in return from you is that you keep them in your prayers. That’s all.
Keeping up with those kids and their immense levels of energy proved to be quite the task, but I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. But that will have to wait until next summer.
Hannah Vogel is a junior at East Hampton High School. Her 10-day trip to Cuba in July and August was made through the East Hampton Presbyterian Church.