Lessons I Learned From Cuba
As I prepare to head to the Philippines next week, I'm feeling nostalgic about my first international trip, to the island of Cuba. I had the opportunity to visit Cuba in 2004. At the time, it seemed like a once in a life experience, but with relaxing relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Americans traveling to Cuba has become more popular in recent years. I thought I would revisit my time there and share what I’ve learned. Fortunately, I always keep a journal. I’ve kept hold of it for 12 years now, but perhaps after publishing this post, I will let it go.
Change is constant.
U.S. media has painted a portrait of Cuba as a place stuck in time, cut off from the outside world. Sure, there are many old, crumbling buildings and cars to be found in Cuba, but it is NOT stuck in the past. This wasn’t true even a decade ago. Not everyone in the world acknowledges the U.S. Embargo and many countries (Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Venezuela, China) trade with Cuba in all industries. It seems the only people who are stuck in the past about Cuba are Americans.
Nothing or no one is exempt from change. You either embrace it or be dragged by it into the next phase of your journey. For Cuba, that means normal-er relations with the U.S. that may open up avenues for partnership and also, exploitation.
I think one of the main critiques of these new relations is that Cuba will become America’s playground again like it was prior to the revolution. I don't think the Cuban government would allow that to happen again and it's unlikely major changes will occur while Fidel and Raul are still alive.
You will survive with less than expected.
The food at our hotel (Saint John in the Vedado neighborhood) and the restaurants in the surrounding neighborhoods was not that great. There were exceptions like the media noche sandwich we had at a small cafe up the street, the churros we ate for breakfast on our way to class sold by the fine churros man a few blocks over, and Coppelia, the largest ice cream parlor I’ve ever seen. I’ve heard the food selection is better now that paladares (restaurants in people’s private homes) are more prevalent, but we weren’t aware of them at the time of our visit.
I washed my clothes in our bathroom sink, which was fine because I only brought a rolling duffel bag with me in the first place. As I stated above, this was my first international trip and I was nervous about having my luggage lost or packing items that might be stolen, I didn’t want to pack a lot. I wasn’t even a minimalist then, but common sense told me to pack light.
I wore the same clothes over and over again, ate the same food over and over again, but it didn’t take away from the experience. It probably enhanced it because I was just open to whatever came. Leading me to my next lesson:
Cuba does minimalism well. It has too.
While Cuba is not stuck in the past it still has very limited resources. Cubans are industrious because it’s required for their survival. You don’t keep 50 year old cars running without recycling. Many things are saved for reuse later. I was able to give my leftover medicine, hygiene products, and other stuff I didn’t need to take back with me, away to someone in need I befriended while there. So while they don't necessarily get rid of lot of things, they efficiently use what they have and that's still minimalist.
There is no such thing as a post-racial society.
Not even Cuba could accomplish this, although Castro claimed the revolution eliminated racism (and classism) in Cuba. The racial and socio-economic stratification is apparent. The maids in our hotel, the attendant at Casas de las Americas, the prostitutes and homeless on our block, were black. When me and the other black girls went out to a dance hall, we were assumed to be prostitutes. We were followed and questioned by a police officer when we visited Cojimar Beach and asked to show our identification. Time and time again, Cuba reminded me being a black person, and specifically a black women, is not a privilege in this world.
Traveling with a group is not always the best option.
This was a study abroad trip sanctioned by a special license from the State Department, so traveling solo wasn’t an option. I had a few friends and classmates on the trip with me. Two things annoyed me the most: 1) People’s attitudes of entitlement and prejudice and 2) My friends not wanting to explore more during our free time.
I wish I could back in time and tell my 20 year old self to just go for it solo, but you live and learn. I didn’t feel confident or completely safe exploring the city alone at that time and was not interested in hanging out with some of other folks on the trip because of 1) above.
I haven't written off group experiences completely, but I don't plan on taking this type of guided trip again. I'll be traveling with a small group of friends to the Philippines who are Filipino and I'm hoping to have a more personal, immersive experience. I also plan to return to Cuba in the next year or two, and you better believe I'll be doing things my way.
Walking is the best way to learn a place.
I didn’t get my license until I was 28 so I have a lot of experience with this. Even though my friends weren’t up for exploring as much as I wanted to, we still ventured out. You get to know the city intimately and discover hidden ways that can be overlooked when riding in a vehicle. It also forces you to develop a sense of direction. This trip was prior to cell phones with GPS and wifi capabilities. This lesson isn't really specific to Cuba, but it's important if you want a richer experience of any place you go to beyond the surface.
Cubans are everything.
Everyone says this and it doesn’t make it any less true. Geographically, Cuba is beautiful, but the scenery has nothing on the people. They are very attractive, intelligent, wise, hilarious, kind, and I could go on. In other words, they’re human.
There is a habit of exoticizing the people we encounter in other countries. Even culturally aware people do this from time to time. Re-reading my Cuban diary, I know I’m guilty of this. The truth is Cubans aren’t the first or last people to live under extreme austere conditions (see Iran, North Korea, and history in general). They have done what people do when faced with adversity, adapted and innovated. It doesn’t make them any less or more beautiful, intelligent, resourceful, or spirited than any other group of people.
I fell in love with Cuba because it was my first international travel experience. I have hyped the experience in my head and to others for a while now, but in recent years, I've been able to reflect on my visit to Cuba more critically.
On one hand, every place has its unique qualities, but on the other hand, it is what it is, and humans are humans everywhere. My goal with each travel experience is to continue to have an open mind, learn about the culture i'm embracing, live in the moment and then let the moment stand.