by Kelly Westhoff
The man walking towards me looked familiar. No, wait. It wasn’t his face. It was his shirt that looked familiar. It was black with white letters that read: Dunn Bros. Coffee, Minneapolis-St. Paul.
I was from Minneapolis; I could count three Dunn Bros. coffee shops in my neighborhood alone. But I wasn’t in Minneapolis. I wasn’t in Minnesota. I wasn’t even in the United States. I was in Havana. Cuba. Across the street from the Museum of the Revolution. And yet here was this man walking towards me wearing a shirt from my hometown coffee chain where I willingly shelled out $3 a day for a latte.
Strange, I thought, as I stayed my course, half a block between us still. The man didn’t look like a tourist; he looked like a local, like a Cuban. He was tall and gangly, his skin a deep, cocoa hue. The t-shirt hung loose around his frame; his jeans were faded and ratty. He wore rubber flip-flops and carried a red duffel bag.
A few steps more and he would be right before me. Should I say something, make a connection? Or should I let him pass? I said something.
“Vivo allÃ¡,” I told him, pointing to his shirt. I live there.
Instead of a smile, the man froze. His eyes widened. He stared at me then glanced over his shoulder. A policeman stood watch from the corner, taking in our interaction. The policeman started to walk our way.
I live there, Minneapolis, like your t-shirt says, I explained in Spanish.
He looked down at his shirt, back at me, back at the policeman. He walked away without saying word. The policeman neared and stopped. “Â¿Problema?” he asked.
“No,” I answered, shaking my head. I passed by and in the next block, looked back, hoping to see the policeman at his corner post. I hoped he wasn’t following the Dunn Bros. shirt. He wasn’t, but his eyes were following me. He nodded when he saw me look back.
As I reached the MalecÃ³n, Havana’s famous walkway by the sea, I couldn’t shake that encounter. The man in the Dunn Bros. shirt had been spooked by me, which didn’t fit my experience with Cuban men. In the one week I’d been in Havana, I’d been whistled at, puckered at and sung to by more men on street corners than I cared to count. Usually, I was the one walking away. And I wondered about that policeman. Did the simple presence of a policeman, a reminder of the party, negate any interaction between a tourist and a local? I suspected so, yet I had no way to know for sure. Instead, what I really wanted to know was where did that man get that Dunn Bros. shirt?
It would be nice if I could say that in the course of my travels I have taken only pictures and left only footprints, but that would be a lie. I’ve done my share of shopping on the road. Since I’m a backpacker, I can only take home what I can carry. I must make room for whatever I buy in the one bag I have. Too often, this means leaving other things behind.
I’ve also left things behind simply because I didn’t want them anymore. I’ve abandoned t-shirts, underwear and socks on the road. They were too thin or too dirty to be much use anymore. At the end of one trip, I ditched a pair of hiking boots because they had given me blisters. I’ve left behind bottles of shampoo, bars of soap and packets of aspirin. I took these things out of my backpack and simply left them, laid out neatly on the foot of my hotel bed, a gift for the maid to do with as she
would–throw them out, or take them home and put them to use all over again. This must be, I think, how the Cuban man ended up in that Dunn Bros. shirt.
I’ve felt guilty about leaving my possessions behind. I claimed to be a budget traveler, but the truth was, my budget for travel was more money
than most people living in Cuba could ever hope to hold in one hand. The very fact that I can leave my unwanted possessions behind points me out immediately for what I am: a spoiled, first-world tourist.
Who am I to assume that a hotel maid in a far-off, developing land, will want my clothing cast-offs? How will that small pile of my do-not-wants affect her once I’m gone? Will she happily sweep up the stack and think it’s her lucky day? Will she grudgingly accept my thin, stained shirts, wondering why it is that she can’t ever afford to buy anything new? Perhaps she will dump my pile in the trash, disgusted by yet another pair of left-behind socks by yet another hotel guest, disgusted just as I would be, if some stranger tried to give me her dirty hand-me-downs.
Kelly Westhoff is a writer, teacher and traveler with over 20 stamps in her passport. She has survived a cockroach attack in Guatemala and the plucking of all her leg hairs in Vietnam. She is the creator and editor of Global Roam ink.â„¢, an educational, online travel magazine and a senior writer and featured blogger at Go Nomad. Learn more about her work by visiting her web site: Kelly Westhoff.
All photos: Author