When I entered my Myths & Realities of Cuba class during my freshman year, I felt a bit of ignorance in myself. I didn’t know anything about Cuba except that the majority of Americans are unable to travel there. We started reading our book Cuba: What Everyone Needs To Know and I found myself not understanding the book and being unable to fully grasp what it was trying to teach me. This was only my second time out of the country at the time. Prior I had been to Ireland where I drank Guinness all week and prior to that I traveled to Jamaica with my family, which I don't really count. I think it's safe to say I learned more in one week in Cuba than I think I did in my entire semester in any of my classes that year.
I finally understood the teachings of our textbook after that week, which is really an interesting read overall if anyone is interested. I know it sounds kind of lame but I was only 19 with a small world view and didn't learn a lot about international relations in high school. Needless to say, this experience was incredibly eye-opening. What was interesting to me was how much we don’t know about Cuba and especially after our Cuba/US relations class at the University of Havana, how much Cuban’s don’t know about America. While this is all important information to take in and understand, my experience in Cuba went a little deeper than the history.
Going to Cuba I was very hesitant. I was excited, but a little nervous of what to expect. I expected there to be nothing at all in the grocery stores and that we wouldn’t be eating very well based on our class discussions about poverty and communism. I was incredibly wrong because we ate pretty well all week and the store near us had everything we could have needed! We all expected a lot less, but within that week we were able to realize our privilege. Cubans really have next to nothing to live on, and due to communism, an entire country has to live off subsidized food. I guess that was our professor was trying to inform us about. While we were complaining all semester about being "broke college students" we lived richly in a country where its people have nothing.
A life changing moment for us was the night we spent on the Malecón. We were sitting on the famous sea wall listening to people play music and dancing to the sound of bongo drums and a guitar, enjoying the starry night. A little while later we came across a fisherman who was hoping to catch dinner for his family. Keep in mind this was at around midnight. My colleague spoke to him in Spanish and asked him honestly how life is in Cuba. The fisherman told him how much he wishes he could come to America and if he ever had the opportunity he would never come back to Cuba. The fisherman makes only 15 pesos a month and works to support his wife and 2 year old daughter. He told us that sometimes he and his family only eat one meal per day.
I want to briefly explain the currency situation in Cuba. Cuba has two currencies. The peso and the cuc. The cuc is the tourist currency, which is worth a lot while the peso is worth nearly nothing. Many Cubans want the cuc, and this is why most taxi drivers make better money because their tips are in tourist currency, but if you were a shop worker or even a lawyer in Cuba, you would be earning significantly less.
Michael gave him 10 cucs after the conversation and we reflected on this moment for a while. The man was so grateful he started crying. It was our last night in Cuba and we were going to miss it. We discussed how hard of a life the Cubans have and how we’ve learned so much by just spending a week in Cuba. I explained this story to an interviewer at my university's global exposition. The shock and watery eyes of the interviewer told me that no one in America really understands the situation. Trying to explain my experience to my parents was impossible because most American’s see Cuba as communism and nothing else.
I told everyone I spoke to that I wanted to go back, and how I gave my maid at the hotel everything I didn't feel like I needed. I tipped her extra than necessary and people really thought I was crazy. I received questions like “Why would you want to go back,” and “is any of that really helping?” I was in shock. I could sit here and write about how beautiful the brightly colored and ancient buildings are, or how the old cars make you feel like you're transported into another time. I could talk about how cheap the food was, and the gorgeous beach of Varadero. But the reality of Cuba was an experience that made us realize how much we have and how ignorant we are to the world around us.
The most meaningful part of the experience was hearing the stories from its people. We listened to who hates Cuba and who loves it because despite the way of life, it's still considered home. We danced and enjoyed life with the locals on the Malecón. But the most incredible experience of all was seeing a child’s face light up after receiving a pack of gum or a baseball from us. It's incredible how one week in this country made me see the reality of Cuba and made me cherish everything I have.
After my trip to Cuba, I realized how much I want to help others, experience culture, and be able to understand the world around me. Upon my return I started the process of changing my major. I decided to study International Studies and I minored in Anthropology. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made. I don't think I would have had the same experience had I gone somewhere else, and it's funny that my first choice for the trip was a very economically stable country. I guess some things happen for a reason. My experience and what I learned during my week in Cuba are lessons I’d keep with me for a lifetime. I'd go back if I could, but that's seeming more and more unlikely with the current American political system.
I hope you get to go to Cuba and listen to its people, it certainly beats sitting on a beach.
*While relations between Cuba and The United States started to be resolved in 2016 with Barack Obama, it is still restricted for Americans to travel to Cuba purely for tourism.*