My Travel Journal from Cuba
It seems like Cuba has been off the grid for the last half-century...and it pretty much has, so what's happening with our neighbors over there? I traveled with a group from Tennessee Tech over spring break to find out.
Our trip began with a 6 hour delay and 4 hour layover, but we quickly became familiar with airports and with each other. By the time we reached Havana, it was 10 p.m., but we were ready to start our adventure, first one being meeting Beatrice. Beatrice was our tour guide for the week, fluent in Spanish and English and well versed in all things Cuba. The second adventure of the night was our dinner at VIP Havana, a privately owned restaurant. As soon as I pushed open the swinging doors, an influx of cigar smoke totally took over my senses. We quickly learned Cubans survive on Havana Club rum and cigars. Here we were served lobster and rice with a side of piano serenades and a 1920s silent film.
The next 2 days in Havana were busy. A historical walking tour through the city showed us the newly restored buildings along with a history lesson about Catholicism, slavery, and revolution. We visited a Sociocultural Project related to the Afrocuban religions in Cuba, which inspires the vast amount of art in this area of Havana. We spoke with 2 economists about the economic conditions of Cuba and the potential for growth. After touring Ernest Hemingway's home, we visited a different project with more art. One evening, we found Fábrica de Arte Cubano, a "Cuban Art Factory" converted from an old oil factory. This eccentric nightlife site encourages every type of art and acts as a museum, display case, concert hall, and a place to be creative.
After a walking tour of the not-so-touristy Cienfuegos town square, we visited with some passionate supporters of the communist party. We learned that we had to be conscious of what exactly we were told by some Cubans. We had no way of knowing what is true and what is not. After that educational stop, we visited another art project with artist Santiago and his employees. All of his art intertwined Cuba's history of slavery and African cultural and religious influence. He painted all of our faces, treated the ladies to real sunflowers, and served the group traditional African coffee, poured-over style. This was easily a highlight of the entire trip.
After a quick dip in the hotel pool and dinner in a marvelous baroque-inspired restaurant, we met with a Committee of the Defenders of the Revolution. What an interesting evening. This is a tight-knit community held together by a single matriarch who has taught every one of them. She remembers the time before the revolution and reminisces often on the change that was brought because of it. The community had prepared snacks and homemade wine for us. Remember these folks have rations. They were willing to spare for their guests. This community was so welcoming and difficult to part with at the end of the night.
Looking back, I think Trinidad was my favorite day of the whole trip. We started the morning by visiting a 5th generation pottery artist. The pieces were beautiful and made start to finish in-house. I bought 5 pieces for 35 CUC -- a steal. After a historic tour of Trinidad, we climbed the stairs in the Municipal Museum to reach the rooftop. What a gorgeous view. Colors upon colors upon colors was the view in a nutshell. After parting the main area of Trinidad, we visited the Valley of the Sugar Mills and climbed yet another tower with views of rigged mountains and luscious greenery. Cuba's landscape is picture-perfect.
Later that evening, we got to experience a true, well, experience -- Casa Particulares. We all broke out with our usual roommates, and each pair or trio stayed in a different home. Ours, of course, was the pink one pictured! The place was spotless and the cutest place to stay while learning about Cuban culture. Our hosts stayed in the home across from ours and served us lobster for dinner and an extravagant breakfast the next morning on the roof. Bed and breakfasts are actually becoming a thing in Cuba as part of their "initiative" to introduce more private enterprise in the economy. The hosts make a decent living doing this and are so welcoming to new guests, so if you go to Trinidad, be sure to check out these types of venues.
On our last full day in Cuba, we traveled to Santa Clara for a full day of history about the revolution. We first started at Las Villas University and learned about Cuba's education system and how it differs, and in many ways is similar, to that of the U.S. We then visited the Che Guevara Mausoleum and Square. Endless artifacts and memorials were made to commemorate the efforts of Che in the revolution. After that, we stopped at the Armored Train Museum where the turning point of the revolution occurred in 1958. We headed back to Havana that evening to prepare for the flight the next day.
So this is not my usual "be sure to do this" kind of travel post. This experience was unique for me because I was able to do something I had never thought of doing. I traveled with a group of 17 people who I did not know, toured an entire country that no one has any recent information on, and had absolutely no clue what to expect. Here is what I've learned:
Cuba is different. Its economy honestly makes no sense to us U.S. capitalists, BUT the people of Cuba are truly wonderful. The whole country is wonderful. Americans are certainly the minority there, but Cubans see the entire western hemisphere as one people and are wanting unity among us. We were welcomed every place we went, so I don't think I could have asked for more for my first study abroad experience with Tennessee Tech or my first trip to Cuba. Hospitality counts for a lot in my book.
If you find a way to visit, I think this will be one of the first things you notice. Sometimes in America, we struggle to slow down and embrace the things that are truly important in life -- faith, family, and community. I have to give Cuba some credit. Maybe it has happened out of necessity or maybe out of want, but Cubans have this part of life down pat. They know their lives are not extravagant and probably never will be, but they've decided to focus on the important things and maintain those.
So, if you are thinking of traveling to Cuba, I do have a list of "be sure to do this" things and items to remember before visiting, so be sure to reach out. I'm always happy to share!