It’s been a few months since Cuba. I remember stepping off the plane into Miami International Airport and everything feeling too much. There were ads, there were restaurants, too much convenience, too much stuff. I also felt a sense of relief. I was going to finally see my family again I missed them so much. And I was going to get my hands on a Big Mac because if there is anything quintessentially American it’s McDonald’s. I told my uncle who drove us back to Sebring, Florida where he and his wife live about the vintage cars in Cuba and how at high velocities they couldn’t break until they got their speeds down. I told my mom about the restaurants and how much I disliked the food they served. I have never been a fan of pork and salads were a rare occurrence in Cuba. I told her about Layda, my host mom who treated me like her own daughter and cooked things she knew I would like. Staying at my aunt and uncle’s place with their giant televisions, pool, large backyard, and fully stocked kitchen felt strange. In New York City, my mom and I live very modestly our kitchen isn’t always fully loaded but, we have just enough food. That’s one thing I guess I didn’t realize I’d miss the convenience of being able to get your hands on whatever you want whenever you want. On the other hand, Cuba taught me that people are not only meant to be consumers, we forget that we can produce. Cubans are innovative in how they utilize, re-use, and re-purpose items and fashion new things out of those old things. If Cuba taught me anything it’s that I can live as less of a consumer and more of producer of things. Coming back to the States’ and being hit with a barrage of commercials and media feeding into my insecurities and telling me I need this or that to truly be fulfilled was frustrating. I relished the quietness of Havana in that sense (Havana is still a city so it gets rowdy), but there were no commercials, no ads constantly seeking my attention. Instead there were people practicing trumpets, and singing opera, and playing guitar during the day, during the night. Cuba is an imperfect place. It’s history is long and complicated and its relationship to the United States even more complicated, but its people are resilient and innovative. I met a lot of different kind of people in Cuba: teachers, architects, photographers, painters, clothing designers, lawyers, chemists, engineers, club promoters, restaurant workers, saxophone players, trumpet players, opera singers, ballet dancers… you name it. Young people in Cuba are like young people everywhere else: they like having fun. We bonded over our similar tastes in music, books, television and movies. I listened to them talk about the Special Period and the harsh reality of life then, and I listen to them talk about the ways Cuba is changing and their eagerness to participate in those changes and to grasp new opportunities. They are optimistic about their futures. That taught me a lot. I hold onto anxieties about my future directions, my career, how do I make money while feeling fulfilled? Am I making the right decisions? I have too many decisions to make! But I’m lucky I even have these choices, and now I’m not as afraid of uncertainty in regards to the future as I was. My preoccupation with going on the “right” path seemed silly after my time in Cuba. People everywhere have hopes, dreams, and plans, but circumstances aren’t always aligned with letting those plans come to fruition. As cliché as this whole “revelation” is, it is true. It’s what I got the most out of Cuba, and for that I’m grateful. I wrote this in my journal a few weeks after getting back to the States: What I learned in Cuba––plans are just plans, a job is just a job, humans are always capable of being free. Regardless of what Americans think about Cuba and the state of its citizens–––its people have always and will always remain free.
I have been giving a fairly practiced response to the ever questioned inquiry, “How was Cuba?”
It usually consists of a discussion of the pros and cons. The highs were high but there were certainly sacrifices. I’m not a screen geek, but having limited to no access to cellular data or internet for 6 weeks is a hump to overcome. I’m from the south, and used to heat, but humid upper 90s is tough day in day out.
But now that I’m back in the comfort of the states, I really do find myself missing the thrill of walking down Ave de los Presidentes, seeing the monuments, the almost comically large Cuban flag, jaywalking across the highway, and sitting on the Malécon with my new friends.It comes in bursts and in flashbulb memories. A sunset, a smile from a random pedestrian, a joke shared in class, a really good deal on a taxi, an especially cute stray, a perfect cone of gelato from Amore, hearing the same songs over and over until annoying becomes endearing, the green hills of Trinidad.
Cuba for nearly everyone is a country frozen in time. For them that time is the 60s; however, in years that come, when I recount my youth I will remember the Cuba in the summer of 2017. There was always tension. Not taking one side or the other, but the White House announced intentions to roll back Obama era policies toward Cuba, furthermore we learned how hard it can be to live in a country like Cuba and what those consequences can be. Yet the Cubans take it in stride, and usually with a sly smile and wry joke.
I’ve learned many things from my experience, and I think I can bring that mentality back home: take life one day at a time, because that’s how it will come at you.
After the sheer panic I experienced due to misplacing my visa, I immediately felt waves of sadness come over me as I climbed into our bus and watched Casa Lilly disappear. Along with exhaustion, I also felt as though part of me had been left in Havana as I waited in the Miami airport (cue that Camila Cabello song). Weeks later as I’ve caught up on the latest Game of Thrones episodes and posted all my amazing photos on Instagram, I still feel a desire to return to the island I called home. I keep in contact with my professor and all the friends I’ve made, adding each other on Facebook and messaging one another on WhatsApp. Hearing the news of Hurricane Irma, I immediately reached out to my friends to make sure they were okay. I know I will one day return to Cuba, but it has been challenging finding opportunities as a fourth-year student. Most opportunities abroad are geared towards undergraduates or students enrolling into graduate programs. I have briefly talked with one of my professors about interning abroad, but the outcome is unclear. With Trump’s latest travel ban being imposed on Cuba within the upcoming year, it is unlikely I will be able to visit the island without an education or work-related reason. Regardless of these challenges, I will always have the great memories made on my study abroad experience, along with my new friends. My experience in Cuba has forever changed my perspective on the world around me, bringing me unexpected experiences and a once in a lifetime journey.
My older brother studied and lived in La Habana for almost 10 years, and during this time, he met an elderly couple from Centro Habana who quickly became his Abuelos Cubanos. Their home became a second home for him, and they cared for him as if he truly was their grandson. During my time here, I made it a priority to find them and get to know them. The first time I called our Abuela it took maybe less than 20 seconds for her to invite me to her home, and that same afternoon I made it to their apartment. My Abuela and Abuelo, both retired lived in a small apartment in Centro Habana. They immediately welcomed me as if I were family, introducing me to their neighbors as their granddaughter, La Catrachita (“The Honduran”). Walking into their living room, felt like coming home. I was overwhelmed with joy sharing stories about my brother and hearing just how much they care for him. They did not have many material things as their income from the government was very low, however, their generosity and willingness to share anything they did have with me left me speechless. Throughout the weeks I lived in La Habana, I learned to take the gua-gua (bus) to their home just to spend a few hours chatting with them and listening to their stories, and every once in a while their entertaining old married couple arguments. I am grateful for many things from this trip, especially for my Abuelos Cubanos.
We just got back from Trinidad and I am on a mission. I need to get souvenirs, cigars, and rum before we celebrate our last night out. A friend and I set out at 9 AM as I have agreed to help him get supplies for his nephew’s birthday party tomorrow. We spent the whole morning walking throughout Vedado collecting bags of fruit before heading to his aunt’s house to bring her our harvest. Needless to say, I was thoroughly exhausted but our day had just started. We hailed a taxi and raced to Old Havana to start shopping. I do not recommend shopping at the last minute; it seemed as though everything I wanted wasn’t there or was overpriced. Rushing through the streets, I was able to buy a baseball, desk trinket, and some well-deserved ice cream, bumping into groups of my friends along the way doing their own last-minute shopping. My friends and I even went on an hour hunt for a very specific set of dominoes that we unfortunately never found. I will definitely not forget this exhaustively crazy day, nor the friends that stuck with me and helped make this trip so memorable.
At about 7 pm, I headed out of my apartment on 13 and G. Meeting up with friends on Linea, we caught a taxi and headed to El Morro to see the sunset. El Morro is a huge castle on the Malecón, marking the entrance into Havana Bay. Tourists flock to this enchanting landmark to see the picturesque sunset and the ceremonial cannon lighting that always begins at 9 pm. We arrived at el Morro and walked up a dirt path to pay 8 CUC, the price of being a tourist. After paying, I climbed up the stone stairway and looked out at Havana. The sun was slowly setting, casting a beautiful wash of pink and orange across the sky, hovering just above the water. As the sky grew darker, the lights from the city grew brighter, demonstrating a clear pattern: half of the lights on the Malecón were white and the other half were yellow. I turned to my friend to ask why there was a change in color, and he said the switch represents where Vedado ends and Old Havana begins. We quickly joined the rush of people heading toward the cannon ceremony, spotting actors dressed in colonial attire. Through a crowd of people, I saw the actors wave the torch overhead before lighting the cannon, producing a loud BOOM that seemed to shake the entire castle. The crowd burst into applause and laughter, while my friends and I headed off to Old Havana to enjoy the rest of our evening.
Classes are over! We had our final cinema class and watched a family comedy called Family Video which centered on a nuclear Cuban family. The themes focused on generational differences, sexuality, authority, and reconciliation. The funny thing for me was that the stereotypical nuclear Cuban family looked a lot like the stereotypical nuclear Caribbean family; I drew many parallels between the family in the movie with my own family. In our last public health class, we discussed the money-making doctor exchange program that Cuba has instituted, wherein Cuba forms contracts with foreign countries and sends their doctors on missions. Previously, Cuba used to export doctors to Venezuela in exchange for petroleum. I’ve really enjoyed my classes here in Cuba, but the trip planned to Trinidad was something I was truly looking forward to. My family is from the rural mountains of the Dominican Republic, so any excuse to get out of the city is good for me. Trinidad was three hours away from our place in Vedado. For the most part we slept the entire way there. We stopped at this campsite that had animals like goats, chickens, and oxen. I think the amount of propaganda in Cuba increases as you leave Havana and go eastward. I took a photo of my favorite billboard featuring Uncle Sam and Cuba’s fist punching him into a brick wall. In Trinidad, we stayed on top of a hill at a place called Las Cuevas. One of the best things about places like Trinidad is that the humidity is a lot more bearable than in Vedado; the air is a cleaner. Trinidad itself is a very touristy place; I’m sure the ratio of tourist to Cuban is very high. Every street in Trinidad had hostels lined up and down; nearly every business seemed to cater to the tourist population. Which again made me think of the way tourist interactions change Cuban way of life, especially in a town where it’s such a central part of daily life.
It’s been interesting coming to a country to observe and be observed. We’ve discussed at length the role of the tourist and the ethical dilemmas that may arise as a tourist; what are role here is. I’ve mulled over it in my own mind and I think that tourism is sadly a large sector of the economy for most Caribbean countries. Especially, in Cuba where natural resources are scarce and other industries are lacking, the area that brings in the most money is tourism. On the one hand, tourists like ourselves help the economy, but I wonder at what cost. This isn’t a problem that is exclusive to Cuba, the Dominican Republic also relies heavily on tourism to fuel their economy; I’ve seen the damage that can do. A lot of resources are allocated to rich tourists and whenever I sit down to a meal I recognize that the food I’m consuming has been set aside for my consumption. This makes me feel uneasy, but on the other hand, my being here is contributing to people’s income. In Cuba, the average person earns around 25 CUC (where 1CUC= 1USD). For my Cuban Cinema class I wrote a paper discussing the irony of the Cuban state and its role in commodifying it’s citizens for tourism. One film we watched that dealt with this theme was called La bella del Alhambra (1989). The film was focused on a mulata Cuban woman who slept with the theatre director to become a star. The film is itself an allegory for the Cuban state and its acceptance of foreign capital. On the one hand, you have a top-down approach by the government trying to control its populace and on the other, you have the population living their reality and reversing the states’ control in a way to gain some autonomy of their own. In practice this game between the state and its people shows up in different ways, especially with jineteros, which are people who serve as informal guides for tourists. Jineteros have become sort of synonymous with prostitutes, but they aren’t always sex workers.
As a Biology major, I have spent most of my time at Northwestern taking science classes and working in labs. When I had to select which elective to take, my first instinct was to go for the class I wouldn’t normally take back in Evanston. When I was younger, I was in a couple school plays, but I had never taken an actual theater class. I’m not going to lie, walking into Teatro Buendia the first day was intimidating. I couldn’t stop thinking that I was way out of my league. On the other hand though, it also excited me to be pursing something completely new. With an open mind, I set foot on that stage and followed along as our dance and movement instructor taught us a traditional Yoruba moves. The instructors, the theater staff, and the rest of my group members were all very encouraging. I was beginning to feel really good about everything until I heard the words “Okay, now we want to see one by one”. My heart sank, and my first instinct was immediately to negotiate: “¿En parejas?” (“Partners?”). My attempts did not work and so, one by one we each performed and improvised our dances in front of everyone. I can tell you I was so nervous I can’t remember what I did for those 45 seconds- which is probably a good thing as I can’t imagine it was any good. After I got off that stage, I realized I was still alive and then felt silly for being so nervous. Performing in front of a stage is not really my thing, but also its something I’m no longer terrified of. I feel proud of myself for stepping out of my comfort zone and trying something completely new to me.
The morning we arrived in Cuba it was raining. The airport was small and dimly lit. We exchanged American dollars for Cuban Convertible Pesos and hopped on a bus to meet our homestay host named Layda. In Vedado, Layda lives on calle 19 y G on the thirteenth floor of an apartment building. She greeted us warmly and helped us get our stuff to our rooms. The elevator we took up to the thirteenth floor was over sixty years old and it’s incredible that it’s still running. You get inside and press the floor you want and when the elevator door opens you’re in front of the door to your apartment which you need a key to get into. I’ve never seen any elevator like that before; it’s taken a while to get used to the scary fact that sometimes you’ll get stuck in the elevator and have to pry the door open with your hands–––if you’re really unlucky you’ll get stuck between two floors and have to pry the door open and try and climb up to your door. That happened to our host mom Layda who is in her mid to late 70’s. When we got home from class, she told us we were lucky that we didn’t get stuck in the elevator like she had earlier in the day. She was stuck between two floors and had to yell for help the neighbor on the floor below hers went up to the thirteenth floor, got a stool and lowered it into the elevator for her so that she could lift onto the thirteenth floor.