In 2014, I was fortunate enough to spend a month in Cuba studying dance, politics and economics. It was the summation of a nearly ten year dream that began when I was 18 and first took up Afro-Cuban dance. This hobby soon turned into a passion and then a healthy obsession with Afro-Latin, particularly, Afro-Cuban culture.
For years, I made many major decisions, including where I went to college, with the hopes of finally going to Cuba. And thankfully, I got my wish. It didn’t happen the way I expected, but I was still elated. It was a wonderful experience, that I hoped to repeat within a year or two.
Fast forward a year when President Obama lifted the travel ban on Cuba. At first, I was relieved. I could finally return without jumping thorough the same hoops I had before. But then worry set it. The lift meant that other Americans would soon start coming too.
Now, listen, before you get your flag printed panties in a twist, hear me out. As Americans, we tend to think that our presence always makes an improvement on the places we visit. Suffice to say, by now many of us realize that that isn’t true. Tourist dollars can hardly undo years of European Colonialism or American corporate imperialism.
But if you know the full well-rounded history of the relationship between Cuba and America, you would better understand the cause of the revolution–whether or not you agree with or believe in the Cuban government. The problem is, most people don’t know anything about the Cuban Revolution. In reality most Americans can’t name the first five US presidents.
In my experience, many of us take a bit of perverse pride in our ignorance. And we don’t let facts or lack there of get in the way of our opinions. Just ask your president.
This makes interacting with a place like Cuba more complicated. So, if you are looking to go to Cuba, please, heed my warning. And don’t go to Cuba if…
You Don’t Know Who This Is…
Who is this? If your answer is: a) Fidel Castro or b) I don’t know–stay home.
No, he is not Fidel Castro and no I am not going to tell you who he is.
Why am asking this? Well, while I was in the Cuban airport on my way back to Miami, I overheard a woman with an American accent seated with her mission group say this: “I keep seeing this face everywhere. Who is the guy on all the T-shirts.”
The guy on all the t-shirts.
The guy on all the t-shirts.
Ma’am, Ma’am. Can you hear me? I am speaking directly to you know through my internet time machine. Can you hear me? Yes? Okay. Well, answer me this one: Why are you here? No, seriously. What could you possibly teach these people? You don’t even know basic history; basic Cuban history and you are in Cuba trying to preach to people? Have a mega-church stadium full of seats.
Lesson: Don’t be this lady. Nobody wants to be this lady.
Now, assuming that you’ve made it past the first step. Congratulations. But take a step back and consider my next question. Why do you want to go to Cuba? No, really, why? Why Cuba?
If the main reason is simply because you can now and you couldn’t before, maybe you should just the Dominican Republic instead. Or Puerto Rico. You don’t even need a passport to head there.
I’m saying this because Cuba is a complicated place. I wager much more complicated than most. And if you don’t have a clear idea of what you wish to gain from your time there aside from a tan, you will miss most of the things that make Cuba special. You will also be devoid of the history and cultural context to understand why things are the way they are.
My suggestion? Do some research and set a goal before you choose to go. If not, you may be in for quite a shock and, quite possibly, a huge let down.
Canadians and Europeans have been vacationing in Cuba for decades, but for Americans this really hasn’t been possible. And honestly, I don’t think that this is such a bad thing for either side. There are far more interesting things about Cuba than the beaches. But if you just want to sit on the sand and sip mojitos, that’s valid. But you should probably just go to a Sandals resort.
A visit to Cuba should be treated more like a trip to Paris or Italy. You go these places to experience the people and the culture–not ignore them. The best thing about Cuba is her people. And if you have no interest in interacting with them, you’d best book a retreat in Montego Bay.
If you don’t speak Cubanish
This is an inside joke, but I’ll share it with you to make a point. There is Iberian/European Spanish, general Latin American Spanish, and then there is the type of Spanish spoken in Cuba. My host Osmay made the joke that it wasn’t even Spanish–it is Cubanish.
To be clear, I was not then, and am not now, the best Spanish speaker. But I understand it well, so I can listen to people. And listening is the most important aspect of a cultural exchange.
The bottom line is, if you cannot speak Spanish, then you cannot speak to them. But more importantly, they cannot speak to you.
While there, I had some of the most interesting conversations. People asked me what I thought of Obama and where I was during 9/11. Some told me that they loved their country. Some were indifferent.
In a particular encounter, Carlos, a lawyer, who made more money working as a taxi driver, told me that he hated it. He was planning to move to Miami to be with his sister. He made it clear that he was looking forward to leaving and once he made it Miami, he would never look back.
Another man, intent on being my temporary boyfriend, told me that he made a good living. And although he would love to visit other countries, and had the means to do so, he would never move away. Cuba was home.
None of these conversations were had in English. And nearly all occurred after I had broken away from my group of American travelers and ventured off on my own.
I’m planning on returning to Cuba soon, but one of the reasons, I haven’t done so already is because I still don’t speak Spanish well. And let me tell you, if you don’t speak Spanish, then you definitely won’t be able to speak Cubanish.
Again, keep in mind that people will be just as interested in you as you are in them. But if you cannot talk to them…well, I’ve already made that point.
For the ‘Gram
This last point brings me to what inspired this post in the first place. My Instagram page can easily be sorted into three categories: yogis, body positivity, and travel pictures. On the latter, I have noticed an increased number of posts from “Cuba.” They are all the same or at least have a similar aesthetic. Picture in front of a shiny máquina, the 1950s cars; sitting next to a viejita with flowers in her hair and a cigar in her mouth; and/or a picture next to the first one I showed.
I just. Can’t.
Listen, there is a lot of crap thrown on millennials, especially when it comes to social media. Normally, I don’t pay it much attention, let alone add to it. But I feel something weighing on my spirit. While I greatly admire the spirit of adventure among those in my generation, I feel like many people are traveling to places, just to say they had, not because they had any particular interest in that place.
While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does seem to me that people are fighting to post the most unique and exotic locals as possible. Now a trip to Cancun is beyond basic. That was so 2001. Now, we must take a group picture in front of Buddhist temple in Cambodia, with the appropriate culturally appropriating posture.
People’s pages are filled with pictures of them doing cool and amazing things, but few of the actual locals themselves. Beyond a “highlight” reel, it has become a “imaginary” reel.
The thing about Cuba, the reality of Cuba, is that it is far from glamourous. Both toilet paper and toilet seats are rare. Máquinas, the 1950s cars are used as communal taxis and are mostly falling apart. In fact, my group members were actually in a minor accident when the brakes on one when out on the way back from the beach.
You will wait in line forever, only to be told whatever you needed is not available. Or you will be put into a special fast tracked line for tourists and you will feel like a jerk for using it.
Most places public or private don’t have air conditioning. Many creature comforts don’t really exist. And the food, much like that is Spain, is highly under-seasoned and grossly lacking in flavor. And if you don’t like pork, forget it. You may as well starve.
And ladies, the catcalling is out of this world. It is like Italy plus New York to the factor of 12. Or something. Whatever. The point is, don’t expect to walk down the street unmolested, even if you are in the company of a man. It will not happen.
That all sounds pretty awful right? It is. But there is so much more to tip the scales to the floor in the opposite direction. There is music and art and creative energy everywhere. People are kind and curious and generous. And they have a wonderfully preserved African heritage and culture that, unlike many places in the Americas, they are proud to display.
In closing, before you book your trip, remember this. Máquinas are not for your shallow Instagram feed. Cubans are not there to serve you drinks and braid your hair on the beach. Cuba does not exist merely for your amusement. And Cubans deserve to been seen and acknowledged in their own country, not erased from your “highlight reel.”
So, please don’t go to Cuba if you have not intention of embracing all of it. The good, the bad, the ugly, the corrupt, the glorious. And if, after reading this article, you still don’t know who this is…
Please read a book, or just stay home.