When we stepped off the bus into the humid Miami air, the sound of traditional Cuban music swirled around us. The classic park was full of Cuban culture, and I immediately walked over to a van advertising churros and owned by a Cuban refugee by the name of Ana who had a strongly worded message for the Cuban government and a heartfelt sentiment for her beloved family back home
Many in this “Little Havana” park were like Ana, Cuban expatriates who had completed the infamous ocean trek from Cuba to the coast of Florida. As the rest of the group snapped pictures of the domino-] players, I listened to Ana as she told me her story.
She told me that she had escaped Cuba when she was 14 and had not seen some of her family for 40 years. She gave me the address of her family and the name of a neighbor, and my teacher and mentor Jeff MacIntyre hustled over with his huge video camera.
We recorded Ana giving a tear-studded message to her long lost family, including her cousin, a dentist, and we carried the tape with us to Cuba, eager to show it to her family so I could have my “Barbara Walters Moment,” as my other teacher Cheri Gaulke put it.
“I love you very much…and I hope that you can come over to the United States and see my country here, because now this is my country even though I still love Cuba,” she cried. “And I hope for the many Cubans that they will get up and see reality and say no to Castro. Open up their eyes, demand their rights, demand their democracies.“
Early this year, Cheri contacted me and asked me to go to Cuba with her along with a group of students from my old school. I participated in the same program last year and went to Rwanda, and was eager to travel with the program, Friendship World Tours, again. After a few emails and a small deposit of over $5,000, I was on board.
Cuba has always had a turbulent relationship with the United States, as America placed an embargo on the communist island in 1960 after Cuba used American resources without compensation.
Cuban leader Fidel Castro had always blamed the United States for economic problems, as exports from the island and imports from America were banned as a result of the embargo. Internet was also restricted by the embargo, as well as travel from the US. When the travel arrangements were made, we were able to get passes to go to Cuba because we were an educational group. The government, however, made sure to check our itinerary, review it, and restrict us so that we would only see one very small side of the intensely conflicted island.
The week before we were supposed to leave for the “Cuban adventure,” my phone suddenly began to vibrate incessantly during class. After casually ducking my head down under my desk and reading through my texts, my day suddenly got a lot more interesting. President Obama had just announced he was planning to lift the embargo, normalizing relations with Cuba after so long- right before I was going there.
The flight to Cuba felt like nothing- by the time I closed my eyes, I was already opening them as our descent was announced. When I stepped off the plane, the humidity registered quickly on my skin, the smell of the air somewhat like Hawaii. When we walked out of the airport, the number of people asking if we needed a taxi surprised me. It did not feel that different from New York, and it certainly did not feel like the communist country I had learned about. We drove through the streets, lined with crumbling buildings, reflective of the revolution. We passed an ice cream store with a line of anxious Cubans stretching down the street. We later learned that tourists, however, could surpass this line and walk right in.
The first hotel we stayed at was surprisingly nice- a fish pond with a small bridge marked the entrance, and the lobby was open and light. The rooms were about the size of a dorm room, and had TVs with a few shows entirely in Spanish. The shower ran bronze-colored water at first, but after a bit of coaxing the water became nice and clear. Our first stop in Havana was a square called “Los Osos,” or the bears. Statues of bears brightly painted with designs lined the square, which was full of tourists and tourist police. We walked around for a bit, then visited a workshop where Cuban students assembled different home materials, creating shelves with wooden slabs and nails. We then spent more time around the square, most of which was sitting around looking at people go by.
This was what we did for most of the trip – sit and watch the tourists. Cuba is an immensely diverse and beautiful country, but is also a very secretive country. It has separate stores for tourists with an array of items never seen by Cuban locals. Because of these restrictions, placed on the locals but also on our itinerary, we found ourselves in a world that was not the true face of Cuba.
After spending two days of nameless sight seeing in Havana, we travelled to a town in the countryside called Viñales. We stayed in homestays, and as we approached, I was hoping we would now maybe get a glimpse into the real Cuba, as we were far from the government and were staying in real Cuban homes. However, as we entered our room, I knew that would not be the case. The room was adjacent to the house, and had a pretty porch with two rocking chairs. Inside, there were two beds and a small bathroom, as well as a small refrigerator. There was a menu laying on a bedside table offering cocktails and laundry services. The possibilities of being submerged in the real Cuba drifted away as I plopped my suitcase down on the floor.
Over the next two days, we visited a tobacco field, where I rode a very wild horse, went dancing at a Cuban club, and shopped local craft markets. We illegally stopped at a beach on the way back to Havana, explicitly defying the government’s strict itinerary. The white sands, light blue waters, and rich non-alcoholic piña coladas contained in large coconuts flaked with neon-colored straws definitely made it worth the risk.
When we got back to Havana, riding on a defy-the-government-high, we decided to ditch our lunch the next day and go about the city by ourselves. As other students planned to pick up souvenirs, I ran to Jeff and we pulled out a map. It was time to find Ana’s family.
The next morning, Jeff and I, armed with a translator and three additional camera operators, were ready to go. We couldn’t find the street name on the map- it didn’t exist anymore. However, we were able to reference a nearby church and triangulated where the street might be. We walked to the church and followed a small path into a tiny neighborhood, with colorful houses lining small streets, reminding me of Madrid. Slightly lost, we decided to ask around, hoping that Ana’s cousin was well known in the community for his dentistry. Luck was on our side – the first man we asked knew exactly who he was, and told us to follow him.
The man led us to the family’s house, which we excitedly took videos of. We knocked and got no answer, and eventually a neighbor came out of her house, then went in, then came back out again. We looked up, and saw an old lady peering down at us from the balcony high above. After a few minutes in the humidity of this back and forth, she emerged the woman, Anna’s other cousin, whom she had warned us was mentally unstable. She beckoned to us to follow, and we did with excitement. The woman, talking to herself quietly, led us on a 20 minute walk through bustling Havana, cars coming too close for comfort. We finally reached a dentist’s office, and she led us straight to Ana’s cousin.
What followed was not exactly what I expected.
The cousin was happy to talk to us, but did not seem very interested in his sister. When we showed him the message, the tears I had hoped to see flow down his plump face did not even make the slightest appearance. He returned her message with a simple “love and kisses.” We left the small building with a sense of disappointment – the man did not miss his cousin as much as we would have hoped.
This adventure was the most exciting of the trip.
We said goodbye to our trusty bus driver, Frank, and sassy tour guide Evette. We gradually made our way back into America, flying past customs with ease. When we ran into our parent’s arms and showed them all the beautiful artwork we had purchased, there was a sense of dissatisfaction.
The time for being tourists was over, and we were back home. Cuba did not leave me with any life changing feeling; but after a lot of reflection, I realized something.
Cuba tries hard, too hard, to cover up its poverty. The government struggles to put up a brilliant façade, and the question comes down to how sensitive you need to be to see it. With extra thought, you can look beneath the surface of the tourist filled Cuba, and you can see the struggles of the people in the stray animals, the skinny children, and the crippled elders. Although there wasn’t an immediate display of suffering, it was there, and it’s hard to say how we can help.