If I had to choose six words to describe my experiences in Cuba, I’d pick: welcoming, new, exciting, changing, busy, and information-packed. When we first arrived in Cuba, the weather was warm and so were the people. Even through our tired jet-lagged eyes, we could see the kindness and excitement that Geldrys, our tour guide, exuded. She was quick, efficient and had our best interest in mind. Knowing that dinner would end soon at the hotel, she whisked us off so we could make it in time. On the way she gave us a brief over-view of safety tips as well as general information about Havana, Cuba. She could tell that we were tired and knew when to just let us rest. At the end of the trip, we jokingly and lovingly called her our mother. She is a perfect example of how warm and open the Cuba people are.
Once we all ate dinner and rested up, we were ready to explore the next day. Everything was so different and new to us—the people, the atmosphere, everything. Their history was tied to ours, but their outcome was very unique. They’re a communist nation and have a very different type of government and leader. Though they still struggle to put enough food on the table, they never complain. They are a country of happy people, whose bright never faltering spirits keep them going. There is virtually no violence in Cuba, and walking around at night is perfectly safe. Literally, on UC’s campus there is much more violence than in Cuba in its entirety. Little things like this, little surprises and variations from the US, kept us on our feet and engaged the whole time.
We were constantly excited to learn about Cuban live and history. We were happy to walk along the Malecón, a wide sidewalk that overlooked the sea. We were ready to explore the streets of old Havana, even if we were dead tired. We listened intently to Geldrys as she explained to use each buildings story, while simultaneously snapping photos every other second. All of our senses were on high alert; we wanted to soak in everything that Cuba had to offer, even the salty smell of the sea mixed with the fumes of gas. We took everything in with excitement.
Everything around us was different from back home, but even in Cuba, things were still changing. With Raúl, rather than Fidel Castro in command, many small yet significant changes were taking place. Now Cubans could leave and travel, though only the upper elite could afford it. Now, the everyday Cuban could actually own their own small business. This allowed people to fill in the gap that the limited government salary had left. They no longer needed to beg or steal to make enough to feed themselves; they could make a profit on their own to fill their once half empty stomachs. This one improvement affected everyone’s spirits and kept the streets clear of beggars, which all too recently flooded the streets. Cuba is still changing, bit by bit. We were able to witness Cuba as it is now, and look forward to watching it continue changing. We were lucky to see Cuba as no one had ever seen before and most likely will never see again.
Because we were so engaged in what was around us, it was common for us to return to the hotel late into the night, worn out and ready for bed. We would wake up with excitement overpowering our fatigue. Our days were always busy and always full. We walked and explored for hours on end and then explored some more. This wasn’t a bad thing though, and I would do it all over again if I had the chance. There was so much that we had to do and in so little time, but everyday counted and every day I grew more globally aware. It was my job to study everything I could while I had the chance. Even when given the option to go back to the hotel or just walk around and explore for a few hours, we chose to explore every single time. We could sleep when we were back to our everyday lives, but now was the time to learn and grow.
Not only did we go to as many places as we could in Cuba, but every building and person had their own story. Or trip was packed with information to learn. If any of us thought we knew what Cuba would be like going into it, we were wrong. Every reality had a little twist to it compared to what our expectations had been. This kept things new and exciting, but also meant we had a lot more to learn. There were monuments, historical figures, old buildings, etc. everywhere—all had their own history and unique meaning to the people. We learned in much more detail about the things we had only touched on before. All in all, we learned a lot, but we still have a lot more to understand.
On one of the tours, we had been told by a man to explore his country, but to not “try and understand it,” which was comforting because I was far from comprehending how everything worked. The most confusing thing for me was how people could be so happy while not being fully content. I just didn’t and don’t understand. People’s houses were no their own. Their cars weren’t their own. Their businesses were not their own, until recently. They had so little, yet were the most upbeat and happy people I knew. Though they were surrounded by poverty and denied many things, they never complained. Even people who had very little still were always generous to others. When we visited Ernest Hemmingway’s house, there were a few local Cubans taking a rest while at work. I assume they were employed to keep up the house or run the juice bar and “gift shop.” Either way, they were taking a well-deserved rest and one woman had a single sandwich to eat. We too were resting and looking around the grounds. After making eye-contact, she smiled and offered me some of her sandwich. I graciously declined, and was overwhelmed by her small but huge act of kindness. This was an everyday attitude for most Cubans. It wasn’t about how much they had, as long as they could share it with someone. They loved to share—share conversation, share food, share homes, share love, share drinks, share companionship. This was one of the biggest contradictions I had ever witnessed. The people with the least were the people who shared the most. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? In their hearts, they carried the true meaning behind communism. They wanted equality, and they wanted it for everyone.
I’ve been to Spain and Costa Rica, but Cuba was different though in some ways similar. Both Spaniards and Cubans focused on how they dressed, and a lot of time and money went into their appearance, but in different ways. In Spain, they are all about European fashion. They want to show off their wealth with designer brands and pristine quality. In Cuba, they have a high emphasis on dressing well, but they can’t always afford the designer brands and put effort into looking good in whatever they have. Cubans are lovely people inside and out. The younger male generations focus on having crazy hair styles, I literally saw a guy with gold painted into his hair. The women love to look good and wear tight fitting clothes. Talking to Geldrys, I learned that rather than electronics or other goods, the youth saves up to buy nice clothes. Some spend so much on clothes that, even though their education is free, they are forced to drop out of college. Their money is going towards looking good, that they struggle to pay for other basic necessities like rent, electricity, and food. I got the feeling that Cubans were embarrassed by any trash on the street and any sign of filth. They didn’t want to be seen as poor, and therefore liked to keep everything clean and looking nice, including their clothes.
While driving through Cuba, we noticed many shacks and run down houses. I was often reminded of the poverty I had also seen in Costa Rica, who also shared a kind and warm-hearted attitude. Though they had different types of governments and different levels of poverty, poverty still existed in both places—it exists everywhere. In both countries, there was not always enough to go around. People had to put food on the table rather than build strong and durable houses, keep the electricity on, or have running water installed. Times are hard for people around the world. Cubans and Costarriqueños alike still are courageous and happy people. Always willing to help and share what they have.