Before visiting Cuba, I read three books on the rich history and almost the complete Lonely Planet guide to the island. Even with the prep and extensive experience in Latin American countries, Cuba surprised me. Cuba is like no other country and certainly a world away from Cleveland. Much of Cuba feels like walking onto a movie set of a different era. The history alone is fascinating but then; add to that, a sense walking into the past. Imagine living on a beautiful but decaying island that has only known isolation for a generation. The effects compacted over decades of stagnation is almost surreal to the average western visitor.
Visiting Cuba is much easier than most imagine. The trip is affordable and only a short flight and far more authentic (even the resorts) than Cancun-like destinations. The beaches in Varadero are breathtakingly clear for as far as the eye can see. Even the sand is perfect and free of any waste or impurities. The costs are also much more affordable than the caribbean locals making it an even more attractive destination.
The city of Havana stands apart with the diverse mixture of architecture; everything from 15th century colonial structures to harsh uninviting Stalinist buildings scattered around the same geography. The neighborhood of Habana Vieja, is an UNESCO world Heritage site and has some of the most preserved Spanish Colonial architecture in Latin America. Yet, blocks away you can find El Capitolio, named and designed after the United States Capitol building in neoclassical style. Just one of the many structures remaining from a time when US and Cuban relations were normal.
The many dualities of Cuba are perhaps the most well-kept secrets on an island lead by one of the most private leaders in modern time. For example, there are two currencies in Cuba; the moneda nacional (MN24 = $1USD) is how Cubans are paid and is the government controlled economy. Then there is the convertible peso (CUC) which was introduced in 1994 and pegged to the USD as a currency for tourist and non-essential goods. There are modern resorts touting all the comforts of the first world but then around the corner there are kids playing barefoot in the street asking for food. Beautiful promenades and boulevards lavished in greenery a stone’s throw away from streets with trash piled high, rotting in the unrelenting heat.
Adding to the dichotomy, there are the connected and the disconnected with technology and the outside world. Cubans first got cell phones in 2009 after the ban was lifted in late 2008. The internet is still under a tight lock & key. Technically, the administration is correct, when they say that the internet is available to all. However, the real translation is that you will have to wait for an hour outside an internet café (since residences are not allowed to have internet), fill out a registration with identification; pay $3-5.00 per hour just to access the slowest broadband speed. Only a small few of locations in all of Havana had Wi-Fi (which was introduced in January 2016, as in, only six months ago).
We think that the presidential election and politics have consumed the media and the airwaves here but in Cuba, politics are just as pervasive in everyday life. From the communist propaganda literally peering down, watching you, from tall buildings to the quotes scribbled all over the bathroom stalls. Everywhere you look you can see the infiltration of government and politics.
Whether we were hitchhiking, riding in cramped overcrowded buses, or hailing one of the countless taxis (including those classic brightly colored Chevys from the 50’s) we talked to the locals while traveling the many landscapes of Cuba. Many had left their intended professions to join the tourism industry. In their experiences this is the only foreseeable way to get ahead economically. We had former teachers struggle up a hill with you in their rackety bike taxis, telling you of the harsh realities of Cuban life.
We debated and talked politics with the informed populous and had the “your version and my version of history differ” moments with abuelas drinking tea late into the night. Listening to their stories of why they will eternally admire Fidel Castro. These long philosophical conversations of comparing lifestyles, reforms and government structures took place with other tourists as well; all of us seeing the effects isolation of a country for the first time.
Life is improving, though at a painfully slow pace, since 2008 when Raúl Castro became the head of the government. There are no gangs, guns or drugs in Cuba. As two young females walking back alone to our casa particular we felt safe late at night. There was no question that the people respected the police posted at every other corner. As an American, at first to see the omnipresent heavily armed police made me uncomfortable, but the Cubans seemed to not even glance twice.
While safety might not be an issue the economy still very much is. The median government salary is below $20 per month. This seemed surreal that the majority of Cubans are living on that wage while in Cleveland; a group is campaigning for a $15 per hour wage.
With all the ways Cuba surprised this Clevelander, it revealed something so familiar. Every country and culture is fascinating and worth exploring. Travelling teaches you something new about your world, however far away and different it might be. Travel to Cuba for the beautiful beaches, diverse architecture, and history lessons or maybe just for a fine Cohiba.
Samantha Peddicord has a certificate to teach Latin American Studies and a MA. in Humanities, International Studies. Also, she is now keenly aware that she no longer remembers how to read a map. #VIVAGPS