Shedding my American Skin: My First Steps in Cuba
My iPhone pinged with a notification from my service provider, T-Mobile, informing me that they would no longer be providing service to my device due to my new location: Havana, Cuba.
My Spanish class had only been in the Havana airport for a few minutes before each of us began receiving similar or identical messages of service withdraw from our American service providers. Back in Mérida, we’d been told on several occasions that our phones would be inoperable during our stay in Cuba. Señora Paloma, our Spanish instructor, had to remind us again, as several of my classmates became hysterical once their phone signals fizzled out. Since I was a newly minted traveler, I was just beginning to learn the value in letting a destination reveal itself. That said, the first thing I learned about Cuba was that it required complete surrender in the form of total severance from the rest of the world.
Once Señora Paloma finished gathering the rest of the students, she led us through the airport. Aside from the travelers that came in on our flight, there weren’t many other visitors in Havana, but there were plenty of Cuban workers making rounds through their workplace. Like America, Cuba had a diverse mixture of workers; Afro-Cubans, Mestizo-Cubans, Caucasian-Cubans, mixed, the list went on. They didn’t stare at us Americans or point out our difference. I liked that. In Mexico, I had grown accustomed to being looked at every time I stepped outside. In Cuba, the first Cuban I met was the woman working at the immigration desk; she had dark skin and thick black hair, like myself. It was nice to experience some familiarity for the first time in a long time.
The Havana airport was lined by non-stop taxi services. Señora Paloma pressed that we stay close to each other to avoid taxi scams and pick-pocketers. As we waited for our driver to arrive, I took in Cuba’s tropical climate. The sky was patchy that day with the sun peeking through every couple of minutes and coupled by a cool breeze. Cuba’s weather was a relief from Mérida’s, where each day was akin to living in sauna. Just like this, I would soon learn that it was the little, minor details that would make Cuba worth the trip.
Our taxi driver arrived in a mustard yellow van with black stripes – similar to the ones you’d see racing through Manhattan. Inside, the age of the vehicle became clear, as the dashboard still had a radio with a cassette player installed and the windows could only be rolled down with a handlebar attached to the door. They were no automatic buttons or functions in sight.
Going from the airport, Cuba’s highways were sparsely populated. Every couple of miles we’d see a boldly painted car, van, or bus, but never a line of dense traffic. Fields of farmland stretched around the highways as our lonely yellow taxi made its way along wide, occasionally bumpy road. People scattered here and there, but never enough to fill a small soccer field.
In the United States, billboards are used to advertise anything from litigation law firms to Tik-Tok stars to middle school plays. As we drove along Cuba’s highways, we noticed the billboards were completely void of any material that would suggest consumerism. Instead, Cuba’s billboards plastered paintings and photographs of Cuba’s revolutionary leaders such as Che Guevara, slogans embracing socialism, and constant reminders of the importance of the revolution. There seemed to be an objective to control the mass’s perception of the country. And as an American, Cuba’s constant, daily emphasis on its government leaders and history felt slightly strange at first but would eventually become borderline claustrophobic.
We arrived at our living accommodation in the well-known city of Havana. Our group was split in two and I was sent to stay in a rather large, three-story home that had been renovated into an Airbnb style business operated by Greta, an eighty-year-old woman, and her two middle aged daughters, Ramona and Flora – all native Cubans.
While my classmates decided to rest after the long travels, I couldn’t take another step without my stomach grumbling. As soon as I put my luggage down, I went to the kitchen where I found one of the sisters, Ramona, sitting at the table.
We introduced ourselves then both laughed at how different our Spanish sounded. Her Spanish had a rusty accent. My Spanish sounded American. I then asked if they had any snacks. Ramona shuffled through her cabinets trying to find ‘galletas’ (cookies) for me. She even called her sister, Flora, to the kitchen, and they both searched. Little did I know that having snacks or small meals weren’t a common occurrence in Cuba. In the end, the two sisters managed to serve me saltine crackers with mint tea and honey: a surprisingly tasty combination.
We proceeded to get to know each other quickly. As I told them about Philadelphia, they told me how much they enjoyed living in Cuba and how much the government takes care of them, especially Greta, who, despite being eighty, attributed her lively appearance to Cuba’s healthcare system. They liked Obama, but not Trump, who had re-imposed sanctions on Cuba once taking office, and thus drastically reducing the amount of food that reached the island. Ramona had spent some time in Idaho, but Cuba would always be her home.
At the time, I did not know this, but all Cuban businesses are owned by the government. Cubans are also forbidden from living in the capital without a special government permit. In hindsight, it’s impossible to know if the opinions of the Airbnb owners were completely original, rehearsed, or a mixture of both. With minimal knowledge of Cuban politics, my guard was down.
Our conversation came to a head when I told them that I wanted to be a writer. Flora’s eyes lit up and had me follow her to a café a couple doors down where I was introduced to the owner, Jane, an American woman who’d married a Cuban and had been living in the country for the last decade. Jane’s café doubled as a place for locals to perform poetry, read, write, play games, and schmooze. That same day, I would return to my room to find a small notebook sitting on my bed, a gift from Flora.
As I said before, much of Cuba’s charm came from the minor details, its people. Despite being constrained and monopolized by politics, Cubans still had hearts for their neighbors. Over the course of my stay, it would become clear that where there are limited resources, the presence of love and unity is even more vital, and that borders do not keep people from being people.
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