"Omg, Cuba? It's dangerous there! Why would you go there?"
#1 lesson I've learned in the past couple years: DON'T BELIEVE THE MEDIA. I haven't had cable for 3 years & it's been a fantastic' decision. I don’t need that negativity in my life. The U.S. can also be dangerous; especially for women. I explored Cuba with 5 amazing ladies who also love to travel and have already become friends.
It's true that there are “frosty relations” between the American & Cuban governments, but that doesn't filter down to the people of Cuba. I met some of the kindest people who, just like you and I, are trying to make ends meet, care for their family, and live a happy life the best way they can.
Americans Cannot be Tourists
As an American, you cannot visit Cuba as a tourist but under certain authorized categories. You have to apply for a specific “license” when booking your flight. The one I chose was “Support for the Cuban People”. Americans are not permitted to patronize any establishment owned by the Cuban government. This includes hotels, restaurants, stores, etc. We could only go to privately owned businesses which Cuba just permitted to their citizens to open in 2021.
Welcome to the 1960’s
Visiting this country is like stepping back in time, from the 1940's cars in Havana, to ox pulling plows in the tobacco fields, to the recent adoption of internet in 2018. Wi-fi was super spotty during my time there but I welcomed the digital break.
Power also went out often as there is a shortage of oil to keep the electric grid going and maintenance hasn’t been upkept. We lost power for an entire day on our first day there and as I sat in the Havana airport waiting to board my plane home, it went out three times.
I Had Never Bought Anything On The Black Market Until Now
Stores are very rare. You can’t just go to the store for anything. Cubans get “rations” every month of products like flour, cooking oil, sugar, and bread. These rations are heavily subsidized by the Cuban government.
In our Airbnb, there were 6 of us women, 3 bathrooms and only 3 rolls of toilet paper for our 8 day stay. I have never bought anything on the black market until this trip. Finding toilet paper was quite a victory! It brought back memories of the shortage during the pandemic & I shuddered to think this happens daily here.
Toilet seats were also rare. I found out they just can’t get them. If you know me well, you know I’m not a fan of camping, as I like my modern conveniences. I was never so happy to see my bathroom upon returning home and brush my teeth with the water out of the faucet instead of having to first filter it.
Some quotes that hit me hard from some of the Cubans I had the privilege of chatting with:
"You should be used to options as an American. We don't get them here.”
-While at a restaurant and overwhelmed by the menu options.
“We pay more attention to the U.S. elections than our own, because the U.S. has more influence than our own government."
-Explaining the adoption of internet and privately owned businesses during the Obama Administration
"We are a Country of Contrasts"
-Describing the contradictions of the joy and laughter of fun things like music and dancing versus the oppressive despair and frustration many feel under an authoritarian regime.
One of the most shocking things I learned, was that even though education is free to all, everyone makes $20/month (or 515 Cuban Pesos) no matter if you are a dentist or bus driver, a surgeon or teacher.
Among all of this, the beauty of Cuba streamed through in the regal palm trees spilling bright sunlight through their leaves, white sand beaches with their turquoise water, the breathtaking mountains, the joyful music and most of all, the people who welcomed us not only with open arms, but with dinner tables set with a homecooked meal, inviting us to be part of their family for a day, friends for life and tours of their cities and farms.
Agriculture in Cuba
We visited a vegetable farm, tobacco farm and a coffee plantation in Vinales, Cuba. Fields are plowed with oxen with rusted U.S. plows dating back to the 1920’s. I caught glimpses of a rare tractor or two, also showing their age. Irrigation pipes are laid out in the field, but I was shocked to learn that they have to disconnect them and bring them home every night, so they won’t be stolen. They take them back out to the fields and reassemble them every morning.
This particular farm grew onions, carrots and spices. We were then invited to his in-law’s house for an amazing and filling lunch of the traditional dish of Ropa Vieja- braised shredded beef with onions, peppers, tomato sauce and spices. Translated, it means, “old clothes” but I can assure you, that it tastes nothing like that! It was my favorite meal.
Cuban Tobacco = Those Famous Cuban Cigars
The outside of the tobacco drying barns make a face with open windows to dry the tobacco leaves. Stepping inside the thatched building, sweet tobacco filled my nostrils. It brought me back to my family farm and the familiar smells of harvest.
Inside, we met a small Cuban farmer, nicknamed “The Frenchman”; his face weathered by the sun but his eyes happy to have so many people come to learn about his farm. Speaking only in Spanish, he explained the laborious process of growing and harvesting tobacco; each step done by hand. He then showed us how to roll and smoke those famous Cuban Cigars. I’ve never smoked a cigarette, so I needed instruction and my cigar relit a couple times. It helped that they dip the end that you put in your mouth in either honey or rum.
They are illegal to bring back to the states as the Cuban government buys 90% of each farmer’s crop, and again, Americans are prohibited from buying anything from the Cuban government.
Riding horseback, our final stop in Vinales was a coffee plantation, where we were welcomed into the house of farming couple, Rene & Papita for a traditional lunch and shared the dinner table with other Americans we found out were from New York. After a filling lunch of chicken, yucca, plantains, beans and rice, and pureed mango, we were treated to a tour of a cave in their backyard where archeologists just discovered the fossils of what might just be one of the largest aquatic animals that inhabited the oceans 13 million years ago.
On our way back through the plantation, Rene explained to us not only the most heart-warming love story of how he wooed Papita to be his wife, but how they grew their coffee farm and the process from seed to harvest. Everything is done by hand and the Cuban government also buys 90% of their harvested crop. I’m not a coffee drinker (I prefer a spot of tea) but wanted to experience their labor of love. I added a lot of sugar, so it tasted OK.
I offered to come back in the fall to help with harvest as they mentioned they are aways short-handed. Upon hearing this, Papita wrapped me in a hug and told me she would pay me with a room to sleep in and meals every day. You know where I’ll be come November 2024…
Havana (ooo na na)
I’m not a city girl, but Havana was quite an experience. With antique cars dating back to the 40’s and 50’s you would have thought there was a sock hop nearby. Cuba’s capital is full of night life with beautiful architecture and history. We did a walking tour with a local guide and learned a lot about the revolution in the 1950’s led by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and many others.
We took a Salsa Dancing Class which was a blast! Our instructor had been dancing since she was 12. Her father taught her when she was little and she turned her skills and Cuba’s popular dance into a private business. It was much different than the salsa I learned while in Puerto Rico.
My travel group and I stayed in a Casa Particular (Cuba’s Airbnb) on the outskirts of the city. It was a very nice place, complete with a balcony that I enjoyed my tea on every morning. Thank goodness I brought my travel teapot! I did not enjoy the constant exhaust fumes and the cigarette smoke I encountered daily. It made the tours in the country much more breathable.
I have a goal of visiting a Spanish speaking country every year. It helps me strengthen and improve my own Spanish. I learn another dialect, another culture. Four out of the six of us women spoke fluent Spanish which caught a lot of Cubans by surprise. They enjoyed speaking to us and learning about the U.S. and our reasons for visiting their country. When you hear, “Your Spanish is very good” from a native speaker, it’s quite the confidence boost.
The best souvenir I bring back are the memories and experiences I in turn, get to share with my students. No two class sessions are the same, as I not only keep growing as a person, but keep growing my courses to include important cultural information and new Spanish terminology that’s applicable to what we may encounter here in the U.S.
Keep learning, my friends. Keep growing.
Everyone has a story. We just have to stop and listen.
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