I had a great time on our trip to Havana. The people were all extremely inviting, the weather was great, and the food was surprisingly tasty. In reflection, I have six words that I feel sum up the excursion for me. Tasty was the first word that came to my mind. Food was my specialty on this trip, and I think that is why tasty came to mind first. Overall, I was not disappointed by the food on our trip. There was a few times when the food was not good, like at the restaurant in the Riviera, but for the most part, the Paladars and state-run establishments did not disappoint. The lunch at Organoponico Vivero Alamar was one of my favorites because they had tons of fresh produce right there for the taking. The guava smoothie they made that day was to die for. I would have stayed there just for that if I could have. The pizza we ate one night for dinner at a Paladar was also surprisingly tasty. It was a great price at $5 or less and was larger than my head. As a whole, I was really surprised by how good the food was after I had read so much about how bad it is. I was expecting under-seasoned, bland, terrible tasting food. That was not so, and I think everyone one our trip was pleasantly surprised. However, I did realize once we got back how much I missed a good salad. Their vegetables there were fresh, but they did not know how to make a simple salad anywhere. I thought this was very odd considering how simple it is to do.
The second word I thought of was eye-opening. For me, this was a completely new experience. The only other country I had ever been to was Canada. Granted it was a trip Montreal, but even so, that is not that much different from the U.S. This trip showed me a little bit about how the other half lives and that, even if life doesn’t hand you everything you want, you can still make the best of it. This is something that I think the Cuban people do a great job of. One Cuban I talked to told me that the only problem in Cuba is the salary. This seemed like an amazing attitude to me and sums up their toughness. The trip also introduced me to the inviting and often sexual Cuban culture. This was very different from here in the United States. Dominique was constantly getting compliments from men. It was a much more forward environment. Along with this, because it was my first trip to a third world country, the whole adventure was a new experience for me. This trip was even my first flight on an airplane so it opened my eyes to many new things.
The trip was also very authentic. Although some of the trip did feel very touristy to me, there were many parts that gave me a true feel for Cuba. These moments gave me an authentic feel for Havana and its people. One of these moments was the night we went out on the Malecon to smoke Cohiba cigars. We were hanging out on the Malecon like true Cubans do, smoking cigars, and speaking in Spanish with people who live in Havana. If those three things don’t sum up an authentic moment in Havana, then I do not know what does. The people were also very real with us and were always willing to answer our questions. Our tour guide answered endless questions and helped us to understand certain aspects of Cuba a little better. Overall, although some portions of the trip were obviously for tourists, I felt I got a good authentic feel for Havana and its people.
Unfamiliar is a word that I think can encompass the whole trip for me. Most aspects of Cuba were unfamiliar to me. A few great examples are: people were speaking Spanish, they don’t have public advertisements, and they drive around in many cars from the 50’s. These are just a few of the many things that really struck me and made me excited to be there. I think this word is perfect, because I think everyone experienced it. On the first night in Havana, we were walking around and decided to sit down next to an Adidas store. We essentially found the most familiar thing and clung to it right away. From there on, we were much more adventurous, but I just found that moment extremely ironic. The unfamiliar aspects were slightly overwhelming for me at first but soon they became exciting and I ended up searching them out. I took many pictures of things that I just thought were odd and very un-American. A great example is a picture of a propaganda billboard that I took. It says, “Unidad, Productividad, y Eficiencia”, with a Cuban flag on it. This means unity, productivity, and efficiency in English. It seemed like a very odd thing to put on a sign to me. How many billboards in the States would have this on it instead of an ad for a product? I would say none. Even though the changes were unfamiliar, it was really refreshing to experience something completely new.
Frustration is the fifth word on my list. I was often frustrated because of my poor Spanish as well as because of some Cubans’ plight. I wish my Spanish had been better before I went. I did have many have Spanish conversations with people but it was often difficult for me to find the right words. This was very frustrating for me. Later in the week, as I got used to speaking in Spanish, it was easier for me, but it seemed that I got used to it right when it was time for us to leave. Staying for longer than a week would have been helpful. I was also frustrated about what I saw on the outskirts of Havana. Many people are living in shacks and it seems to me that their lives are not going to get better any time soon. This is frustrating because I see the potential of the island and how great of a place it could be. If the government allowed more outside companies to come in and promoted more private businesses, Havana could become a great economic center and the people would benefit from it. I hope that this happens in the future.
Finally, artistic is the last word I would use to describe the trip. There was art everywhere in Havana. Much of the art was simply for tourists but a lot of it was really well done. Much of the artwork that was done for tourists had iconic things like La Bodeguita del Medio or old cars in them. I was surprised by how artistic the Cuban people are. We visited both an art museum in Havana and the Taller Experimental D’Graphica which were great locations for fine art. I actually bought two prints myself and really enjoyed getting to meet the artists that did the work. It was exciting to see so many fine pieces of artwork in one day. The city itself also seemed like a work of art to me. Many of the buildings were painted in bright colors and those that weren’t often had paint peeling off of them. However, these rundown buildings did not look bad they merely had their own character. I loved the culture of art in Havana.
These six words do sum up our trip for me, but they do not explain many of the confusing parts of Cuban life. There were many pieces of life in Havana that were difficult for me to understand. Santeria was something that confused me the most. I do not quite understand how or why they mixed Catholicism with African deities. However, it is a religion and religions that one does not believe in are often the hardest things in life to understand. I also do not understand how they separate politics and people. Many countries around the world, including the United States, do not separate the people of a country from their government. To me, this makes sense because it is the people of a country that make their government, but I guess in Cuba this would not be the case. Maybe this is why they can separate the two, but I really am not sure. One man I talked to along the Malecon told me that they hate the U.S. government but they love Americans. This seemed very backwards to me. Their political scene as a whole was confusing to me. Why do so many people feel so strongly about free education and health care? Both of these items contribute to the fact that highly educated individuals are not paid as much. Why would they continue this system when it somewhat hinders opportunity to have a better life? Even with this, the many Cubans I talked to seemed adamant about keeping both of these completely free. It is difficult to understand how people with jobs connected to tourism make more than almost anyone else. These people are also often well-educated and have degrees in things like engineering. Finally, their monetary system was a very confusing topic. Why do they have two different currencies and how is a Convertible Peso equal with a U.S. dollar? I do not understand how that is even economically possible or why they would make two currencies. The students from Havana University even agreed with me that the currency situation makes no sense. Obviously, there were many things in Havana that greatly confused me.
I am not a seasoned traveler so I do not have much to compare Cuba to except for the U.S. and Canada. Compared to these two countries, Cuba is an entirely different beast. You cannot drink the water and people do not have the opportunity to earn a large salary. I would definitely not consider it a posh vacation location. It is more of an adventurous, unique place. It has its own attractive, luring quality that I cannot quite describe. Right after we left I felt like I needed to go back. This is something that I have never experienced from any other place that I have been, and I think it is completely unique to Cuba. Another unique quality to the country is the 1950’s cars that they drive around like it is completely normal. I am a car buff and so, I am swayed toward this difference, but it really is incredible. Some of the cars they are driving, in the states, would be worth a ton of money to car collectors. It really is amazing, and I was constantly turning my head staring at cars. All the people I met were also so sociable and friendly. I have never been anywhere where the people are that friendly and curious about where you are from. I actually really enjoyed being the interesting foreigner.
In conclusion, the biggest thing that I want to express is that I loved Cuba. The ambiance, climate, and people of the country really won me over. I really enjoyed our trip and hope that my life will lead me back to Havana in some way or another.