A Cuban Experience

As my reflection of my trip to Cuba, I have 6 words that describe my experience, an effort to try and understand the country, and a new adventure under my travel belt.

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A Cuban woman people watching in Old Havana. (Credit: Taylor Norton)

Hopeful– The people of Cuba have overcome great adversity- from changes in government to shifting international influences to a poor economy due to a lack of natural resources. However, I never met a pessimistic Cuban. They were always looking toward the future and coping with any troubles they had to the best of their abilities. The blind man on the street couldn’t find a job, so he used his beautiful singing voice to make tips off of tourists. Our tour guide, Geldrys, decided not to finish college, yet was able to find a good paying job as a tour guide. If you were to go down there today, you would no doubt here about the change that most Cubans thinking is coming, and what they plan to do with that change.

Strong– Cubans are strong in their ingenuity, their patriotism, and their faith. Cubans are constantly forced to think of an answer to a problem on the spot, whether it is how to get their beloved car that just broke down out of the street, or a way to make a few extra dollars off of tourists by drawing caricatures. Cubans are proud of their country, and you can feel their strong support in the way they express themselves, how they hang their Cuban flag next to their laundry on the balcony, and much effort they put into bettering themselves in order to be a better citizen. Cubans are strong in their faith in a religious sense, and their faith in each other. Religion is everywhere, whether it is a person walking down the street in all white clothes or it is in the numerous churches scattered throughout the city. Cubans clearly have faith in each other, and show this trust in each other.

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A Russian Orthodox church, just one example of the former Russian influence on Cuba. (Credit: Taylor Norton)

Expressive– One thing I noticed was street art- everywhere. But it wasn’t only art that Cubans used to express themselves. They used clothes, music, and expression in its most basic form- words. I was expecting Cubans to be more a little more subdued, if not at least censored, due to a more restrictive government, but every Cuban I met let me know what was on his or her mind. When I was taking pictures of what I considered to be a very pretty Russian Orthodox church, our temporary tour guide Alejandro said, “Isn’t that just so ugly?” When walking through Habana Vieja, part of our tour took us to a workshop of artists who did paintings, lithographs and screen-printing.  These artists found a way to make a living off of their creativeness, and didn’t let the lack of supplies get in their way of expression.

 

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A young girl playing in a tobacco barn. (Credit: Taylor Norton)

Affectionate– I saw affection among Cubans everywhere. Whether it was two couples sitting on the Malecón, a sweet gesture at the market between patron and vendor, the “Cuban hello” of kissing all the girls and shaking hands of all the guys no matter what the size of the group or between parents and children on their morning walk to school, affection was a shared feeling among all Cubans. I feel that because these people are so affectionate, they are able to welcome foreigners more easily because they simply have the tendency to be kind.

Overwhelming– This trip, for me, was so overwhelming, but in the most positive, eye-opening, life-changing way imaginable. The way that people live there is so different than my privileged life in the U.S., and I learned so much from them. Cuba was a sensory overload, and I think I felt a range of every possible emotion. That being said, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Because I was able to see the contradictions, the beauty, the sad parts, the exciting parts and the confusing parts, I got to learn so much about Cuba and its people. Every single day, and I mean every single day, I had a new idea for a documentary, a photo essay, or a great feature article. I couldn’t stop the inspiration from smacking me in the face saying “helloooooo, why are you wasting your time? Start a story and don’t stop until your fingers bleed from writing so much and taking so many pictures!”

Irresistible– The more and more I learned about Cuba, the more and more I wanted to stay there and learn more. I loved it. Everything the country and the people had to offer, I could grow from, as could anyone with an open mind. It is truly a seductive country, but not in a way that will take advantage of your intrigue, rather in a way that will make you fall in love over and over again.

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The view from a paladar of Havana at night. (Credit: Taylor Norton)

 

When I was told to learn about Cuba but not to “try and understand our country,” it seemed almost like a fair warning, coming from a guy who was smoking a cigar and speaking to our group through a microphone despite close quarters because he has “throat issues.” However, I like to try to rise to the occasion and see if I can prove people wrong. One thing I could not understand, despite my best efforts, was the contradictions. They were everywhere. There were buildings looking like they were ready to crumble, yet at the same time coming alive with the energy of its inhabitants. There were so many buildings in desperate need of repair and renovations. It’s not like the ingenuity of the people isn’t there, they just are not able to get what they need to apply their skills to better their own country. Cubans constantly reminded us of how great it was that they had free health care and schooling, yet there was a lack of medical supplies and Cubans are limited in what they can choose to study in college. The poverty was another thing. Cuba is a country based on a government that promoted equality, yet there were major gaps in how people lived- especially when looking at country living to city living. Yes, every country has poverty, but this poverty struck a nerve with me. The Cubans so badly want to improve their country, and they have such faith in their country, but they are suffering all the same, even if they try to hide it by vamping up tourist destinations.

 

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Cuban boys entertaining themselves in the streets of Havana. (Credit: Taylor Norton)

Cuba is like no other place I have been. To say it is unique is an understatement, because its individuality is seen everywhere. As a silly American tourist, I have never been so welcomed in a country as I was in Cuba. I think the most unique thing on this trip was the way that we were able to see and discover Cuba. I’ve never gone to so many touristy places, and especially not with my own tour guide. It is easy to say that Cubans were trying to hide the real Cuba from us tourists. However, I don’t necessarily think it is a bad thing because tourism is what Cubans know how to do extremely well, and they were just trying to show us the best parts of their country that they were the most proud of. However, I think the most important lessons I learned while traveling was when I ventured off of the tour and explored the Chinatown in Havana. It was the little slices of life that I came across here- the mom taking her daughter dressed up in traditional salsa clothes to her dance class, the old men playing dominoes with their front door opened wide, men and women practicing their aim with BB guns and soda cans as targets at a local gun range, and the Cuban kids playing soccer with a tennis ball while wearing flip-flops and karate uniforms- that showed me how Cubans were able to truly appreciate life.

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