The view from the back of Ivan’s cab.

Stories por doquier

A few months ago I was in an Uber on my way to the airport, talking to my dad on the phone. The driver, Imo, overheard me mumbling in Spanish and asked where I was from. From our awkward introduction came a thirty-minute conversation on Gabriel García Marquez (“he is a master of magical realism, don’t you think?”), the U.S. educational system (“schools in America teach no culture to their kids”), and his favorite books (“you have to read Crick Crack, Monkey”). I left the ride fresh with his words of wisdom (“the knowledge you carry in your head is more important than anything else”) and a list of stories to read.

I looked Imo up online later (as he had asked) and found his blog, where he spoke of his childhood in a Nigerian village held together by stories that had “stalked, instructed, shaped, and molded” his life. I briefly read through his writing and the notes I had scribbled into my phone as we spoke, but like most things that spark interest and eventually fall dormant, I forgot about it. It wasn’t until I was sitting in the back of a car in Cuba a few weeks later, listening to my parents’ conversation with Ivan, our taxi driver, that unexpected conversations reemerged.

In the several hours we spent in that car, Ivan flooded us with stories. He told us about how he’d managed to make ten times more than the average doctor by driving tourists around Cuba. He reminisced his reckless travels around Colombia and Panama. He boasted about the five kids he had with two different wives (“it’s complicated because the two of them live on the same street”). When we finally abandoned that taxi I felt like I was leaving a book’s worth of masked stories behind. But in Cuba, such stories are nestled in every corner. Entre cuentos habían más y más cuentos, and all I wanted to do was listen to them and write them down.

Stories are at the heart of the human experience, yet we don’t spend enough time thinking about them. The stories we tell represent the culmination of experiences that stand out to us most. But how do we expect to uncover them if we don’t take the time to ask, let alone listen? We close ourselves off to conversations because we are so engrossed in commitments and the next thing on our to-do list. But we forget that through serendipitous conversation we learn most about people and the way the world works. My exchanges with Imo and Ivan arose out of sheer nosiness (Imo eavesdropping on me, and me eavesdropping on my parents). But without them, I wouldn’t have learned what it’s like to be a Nigerian refugee straggling for a job as a professor in North Carolina, or how Castro’s contentious, communist government helped a taxi driver become financially independent.

In Cuba, much like in Imo’s childhood village, stories hold people together. I’ll be spending some of my summer back in Cuba unraveling these stories to understand a fragmented place frozen in time. The more people ask me what I’ll be doing there, the more aware I am of how little I’ve planned and how little I know. But the itinerary is elusive because you don’t plan stories. You don’t know where they’ll come from. You don’t know who will tell them. But authentic, accidental stories are everywhere, waiting to be told. We just need to become better listeners.