If I had to describe Cuba and my experiences there, many words immediately come to mind including, but not limited to, intimate, impressive, frustrating, faithful, fun, and artistic.
Maybe it’s just the United States’ awful way of dealing with sexuality, but sex is often a taboo subject here. Not so much in Cuba. Not that we really had conversations about sex with people on the street but it also wasn’t like we really needed to when we could learn just as much walking along the Malecon as we could from getting into those conversations with them in the first place. Cuba is not about hiding sex or attraction. But Cuba is also about close friendships, which I think fit right into the intimacy category as well. Even the students we met on the final day (students that we honestly didn’t even know) greeted each of the girls in our group with a kiss to the cheek and each of the guys with a handshake. They didn’t leave anyone out or just say hi to the group as a whole, they addressed each person individually, which really stood out to me as very different from the way we are at home, but a difference that I very much appreciated.
From the architecture to the overall attitude of the people, I was continuously impressed with Cuba and the Cuban culture as a whole. The architecture was fantastically beautiful, even under all of the crumbling walls and peeling paint. The feeling of the 50’s was ever powerful and I honestly felt like we were being thrown back in time whenever an old Chevy drove by or we were walking through the lobby of the hotel. The fact that that style in general has lasted through the years was incredibly impressive to me. The attitudes of the people were impressive to me, too. For living in a third-world country, growing up in squalor or only just above, having nearly nothing, including very limited opportunity, the overall outlook the Cubans had on life in general was beyond amazing in my eyes.
While Cuba was fascinating on many levels, I’d say it was also frustrating on many more, the most distinctive of which was in the language. I’ve heard plenty of times from people attempting to learn English that we speak too quickly for them to keep up and translate and it becomes very difficult for ESL learners. I’ve never actually understood that idea until we were in Cuba. Even in my other travels and other experiences with Spanish, I’ve been able to keep up for the most part. I’ve been able to pick up most of what the people were saying and could follow along with conversations. I definitely could not say that in Cuba. Especially when we were in the classroom with all of the students speaking in rapid, quick-fire Spanish, I stopped even trying to understand what the students were saying because by the time I managed to translate even a little bit of their words, they’d be on a completely different topic and a completely different person would be speaking. I don’t usually have trouble with Spanish or understanding, but the Cuban way of speaking was not something I was prepared for and I’m sure the Cubans were getting just as frustrated with having to slow down and super enunciate as I was at my inability to decipher their typical speech.
Cuba is definitely a faithful place on all levels. From religion to politics to relationships, the people of Havana were steadfast in their devotion. Religion obviously was a very big part of their culture. From Hamel Alley to Regla, we encountered religion over and over again. And in relationships, too. Our tour guide threw in quite a few remarks about Cuban women not waiting around for men that don’t show devotion to them. The students we met on the final day also told us how you don’t really even go out at night in Havana without your boyfriend or girlfriend by your side. Perhaps the inability to maintain control and stability in their own lives because of the governmental regime has added to this too but the Cuban people are a very devoted group as far as relationships go. I think the most interesting part of the Cubans’ faith though, to me, was their devotion to the revolution. There’s a Revolution Square in each province, there are statues of war heroes everywhere you go, and I don’t think it’s really possible to walk more than a few blocks in Havana and not see the iconic symbol of Che Guevara at least once or twice or three times.
For me, Cuba was jam-packed with excitement. Everywhere we went there was something exciting for me to look at or listen to or just generally enjoy. Beneath all of the crumbling facades you can still see a place that is full of fun and enthusiasm and an eagerness to interact with everyone else. And the people there are always smiling and happy (save the badass, tough-guy guards on the street corners). I can’t recall ever being in another place with so many people singing and dancing in the streets and seemingly enjoying their lives despite their own struggles. And how many times did we hear mention of just how much the Cubans love their rum?
Finally, Cuba may have been one of the most artist places I’ve ever traveled to in my life and I loved every second of it. We visited the art museum in Havana, we visited José Fuster’s art studio, we visited the Taller Experimental D’Graphica art studio, we sat in the home of famous photographer Roberto Salas and heard firsthand about his picture taking. Each of those in itself was amazing but there were other aspects of Cuban life that stood out to me as well. Pretty much everywhere we went had some sort of live band or street performers. I’ve never been asked to buy so many CD’s in the span of a week. There was graffiti art on the walls all over the city. Even the hand-rolling process of the Cuban cigars was an art form in my eyes. With such an oppressive-type government in Cuba, I didn’t expect art to be as big a part of their lives as it clearly proves to be, which in itself impresses me the most about the Cuban people.
While there were many parts of Cuban life I thoroughly enjoyed, there were others that I seemingly could not wrap my head around. There was no short supply of these but I honestly think that the most difficult part of Cuba for me to understand was the people’s general attitude toward money. This is probably confusing in part because of the Americanism in me and our attitudes toward bigger and better and more, but many of the people in Cuba have virtually nothing and yet they didn’t seem as angry about that as I would’ve expected (or as angry about that as Americans would be if our government was the source of our plight). Nearly every person we talked to about the economy in Cuba would tell us right away that many people have nothing, but they do have free health care and free education and that they aren’t necessarily angry about having pennies in their pockets but if you took those two things away, then there would be an uproar. That, to me, was both confusing and interesting because it’s completely backwards compared to the American economy. We don’t have completely free education or healthcare here in the United States and the fact that Obama is even trying to level out the healthcare playing field with ObamaCare is uproarious for most. Americans, on average, do not like being taxed, regardless of the benefits they receive from those taxes. And I think that’s more so an issue of Americans not taking the time to study and understand where their tax money is going so we can shape the government in the way we’d like, but even right now, the economy is the main issue people keep debating and seemingly the biggest issue that the general population is talking about in regards to choosing a new leader in the next election.
That being said, I obviously haven’t experienced enough of Cuba to understand it, but I personally don’t know if I truly experienced enough of Cuba to really compare it to my previous travels either. The only other trip abroad I’ve taken was to Nicaragua and that trip was set up for us to be immersed in their culture and provided us with numerous opportunities to really dive in and live as the locals live. Each student had a separate host family while we were there so we all stayed in the homes of Nicaraguan families rather than staying in hotels. We also had a volunteer site where we would work with different people of the city we stayed in (half of us went to work at schools with children and the other half went to work at a nursing home), which gave us more interaction with the people. We did get to meet many new people in Cuba and did interact with the people there, but most of the people we interacted with were focused on the tourism aspect of our trip so there really wasn’t much opportunity for us to get to know their way of life. And maybe that’s just my own mistaken expectations because we did discuss just how reliant the Cuban people are on tourism and our money, but I went into this trip wanting to learn about them and their culture and after focusing our class so much on being travelers rather than tourists, it was difficult for me to feel like I was able to successfully say that I chipped away at their outer tourist shell and really got to see Cuba. But that’s okay, just gives me more of an excuse to go back!
I think that Cuba and Nicaragua did have some similarities though that you don’t really see here in the states. Again, maybe this is just my naivety, but you’d be hard-pressed here in America to find anywhere where you couldn’t drink the water. I’ve never been nervous that I’d get sick by brushing my teeth here but in third-world countries, it’s difficult to say that that’s not a concern. I also didn’t notice it during my Nicaragua trip because I don’t really like milk anyway, but after we discussed how very little access the Cuban have to things like that, I definitely noticed in Cuba that we didn’t see a whole lot of it and after thinking back, I don’t remember being offered milk in Nicaragua either.
Two things that I did notice as being distinctly Cuban were definitely the cars and cigars. I don’t know anywhere else that you could travel and see that many old-fashioned cars at once that still run (no matter how jerry-rigged) or such a high proportion of the people smoking cigars as an everyday thing. Sure, people here in the states have old-fashioned cars and smoke cigars, but to me it seems like those are sorts of trophies and the cars stay in the garage and the cigars stay in the box and they only get brought out on special occasions here, but, in Cuba, those are just two more aspects of every day life.
Needless to say, I feel like I need more of Cuba. I think the United States needs more of Cuba. Traveling to a place that our government doesn’t look highly on and doesn’t make it easy to travel to and personally seeing that Cuba doesn’t live up to our government’s definition was eye-opening for me. I want to learn more about the Cuban people and the Cuban way of life and US-Cuban relations. This may have only been my first glimpse into that but it will definitely not be my last.