Cuba has eluded my husband and I for more than a decade. We’ve fantasized about going. For the travel junkies we are, it represented the unattainable and elusive destination … the forbidden fruit thanks to decades of foreign policy people of our generation find difficult to understand.
This summer, we chose to go for it. We deposited our girls at camp and ventured to a foreign world. While I could write pages about the vintage cars, fabulous street bands and random dancers in the streets, what sits on my mind is one concept: making the most of what you have.
My first walk down the a street after dropping our bags off at our AirBNB found me looking at people tucked in open air rooms fixing cigarette lighters that are discarded in our American world of “I’ll just buy a new one.” In our first meal there, my desire for warm Cuban bread and butter was greeted with, “ we’re out of that for the day.” On my first full day there, I ordered bacon for my breakfast from our host family, and was told there was no bacon left at the state stores.
Beyond availability of comfort foods and unmet cravings, there was the concept of wifi. Unlimited data plans don’t seem to exist for Cuban residents, and many, like us foreigners with international phone plans, are left searching for public wifi. This is easier said than done. There are no Starbucks with free wifi. There are pockets of public areas, largely parks, where you can purchase a card with a code, and log onto wifi. It’s $3 for a glorious hour of catching up on the real world.
This experience left me with several takeaways.
- In general, people Cuba, unless in an “internet park” are looking up and engaging with each other.
- Life goes on even when you can’t access Facebook and Gmail every minute of the day.
- There is value to compartmentalizing times to engage online that comes in the form of freedom and human interaction.
Then there was the availability of comforts and conveniences. It was three days before I saw a drug store. Grocery stores had a handful of items on the shelves. There was no massive storeroom with unlimited quantities. Toy stores were barren by our standards, clothing the same. I brought over some Disney stickers and plastic birthday party favors my kids had outgrown and kept them in my pocket to hand out to children when it seemed appropriate. When I did, I felt an immediate mix of happiness from the excitement on their faces, and sadness to know that my kids take these colorful bits of childhood for granted in our own home.
Beyond all of this, we visited the Revolution Museum that documented the Cuban version of the Bay of Pigs, and the American role in their revolution, the Red Scare and Communism. Our Austrian friends visited the day before and told us, “man, they really hate you” with a chuckle. That was all we needed to hear to bait us to go. I read their version of the events of the 1950’s and 60’s. While I would say that their version includes some factual errors, I also recognize, so does ours.
Overall, I feel blessed we were able to experience a world that is changing every single day that goes by. Capitalism is a blessing and a curse, and I must admit even our guarded American engagement in the form of tourism is impacting their culture, and not for the positive. I sheepishly say that, knowing were are one of the thousands that shaped their development in this year alone. With all that being said, I encourage anyone to consider a visit, but add that you should seek out the most authentic experience possible. Skip the cruise ship and the tour groups and just go for it. Engage with them. Ask questions. Speak their language as much as possible. Honor their traditions.
If you can’t or choose not to visit in the near future, consider their culture regarding making the most of life and skipping the superficial “information superhighway.”