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My Winter Break in Cuba: Unexpected Adventure

I went to Cuba at a very convenient time, though it wasn't my family's snap decision to go there right when President Obama made his announcement at the end of the year.

The people I talked to before my trip assumed my family and I were jumping on a plane because of Obama's recent announcements of relaxing US restrictions on trading with and traveling to the Communist country. But a year before his announcement, my grandmother, Oma, asked my family how we felt about a once in a lifetime trip to Cuba through an American tourism company. We all voted to go to Cuba over the typical tropical destinations that we could go to over December break. The company Insight Cuba offers custom tours, so my Oma jumped on the tour exploring the Cuban jazz and arts community.

So we packed our bags and flew to Miami where we met up with the other adventurous people who made up the rest of our tour group. There were 11 people on our tour, seven of them my relatives. The four other people were two sets of couples. One was a couple from Delaware and one was a mother daughter pair from Texas. In Miami, we had time to share our concerns and predicitons of the trip before we flew to Cuba. The other couples also booked the tour because of their motivations to explore Cuba's music, arts and culture.

We were given an itinerary of the four-day trip and a booklet on what to expect while visiting Cuba. It ranged from what form of money to bring, crime rates (which are low), types of food, the plumbing, the water, and what you could bring back to the US. Certain red flags we read about: American credit cards do not work in Cuba (we had to bring lots of cash), tourists should not drink the tap water, and how there is very little shopping besides buying art. These were concerns that seasoned travelers should be able to deal with. They also warned that the toilet paper was inadequate, so my aunt packed some in case, but it was better than what Letts Hall had to offer my freshman year. But Canadians and Europeans have been traveling to Cuba as tourists for many years and if Beyoncé could thrive while in Cuba, so could we.

Since we were flying from the US, we had to take a charter plane from Miami to Havana. I thought the charter was going to be a like the dinky charter plane I took in the Galapagos Islands (that’s for another blog post), but this plane was a Boeing 737 full of Cuban-Americans going to see their families for the holidays. We were unmistakably the only tourists on the plane.

Once we landed in Cuba, everyone on the flight clapped. The crew attached a staircase from the plane to the runway and you bet my sister Nina and I emerged from that plane channeling Beyoncé imagining that’s how she descended from her jet on her trip to Cuba with Jay Z in 2013.

The airport officials questioned our group of eight immediately, asking us what electronics we brought in and what we did for a living. After we passed that series of questioning, I went into the airport customs room alone and a woman took my picture. The customs woman also called me Alejandra, who is my Cuban alter ego, so I was okay with it. The picture taking happened again when we departed from the Havana airport. For all I know, my face could be on Raul Castro’s refrigerator.

We met our Cuban and American guides at the Havana airport. The Cuban guide was from an independent Cuban tourism group and the American guide was from Insight Cuba. They were both nice and energetic, and were not afraid to answer any of our tough questions about the Cuban government. They were unbiased and in favor of allowing the US and Cuba to have a more beneficial relationship. Cuba could use the business of American companies to help its economy. And Cubans would benefit from more lenient rules on receiving money from family members in the US. Many Cubans rely on money sent by their relatives working in the US. Cubans make pretty much the same small amount of money, which it is not enough to build a successful life from. They have a civil service program where education and healthcare is free but citizens must either go into the army or commit a few years to working a job that the government places them in.

Since Cuba is a Comminist country, there is a food ration system and a huge black market for all types of goods. I saw some Apple computers and products while in Cuba, and the guide explained that Cuba gets American goods through a third country, most likely a European country, which acts like a gateway from America to Cuba. People will sell their food rations on the black market if they don't need the extra food and can afford to buy from other places besides the Bodega (food ration store). Rice, beans, bread (by the slice), chicken, eggs, sugar, cooking oil and rum are typical rationed food items. Rum is such a big part of the Cuban lifestyle that even the Castros understand the need for it to be included in rations.

I made sure to try the rum while in Cuba. Rum was 3 CUCs per bottle, that's roughly $3! Mojitos at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Okay maybe just lunch and dinner. But the breakfast buffet in the hotel was adequately stocked with rum and champagne, probably to appease the tourists. The drinking age is 16, so Cubans like to get right to it.

Speaking of getting right to it, the tour leaders didn’t let us relax for a minute between 9 A.M. and 5 P.M. We were scheduled with activities all day. In a typical day, we had breakfast, went right to the van and off to an artist’s studio, a jazz venue, or a place in Old Havana. Every night we went to restuarants called Paladars in private homes. These restaurants are privately owned and serve the most delicious food we had on the trip. Paladars were created for Cubans to have a place to eat out other than restaurants owned by the Cuban government. The food served in government-owned restaurants is considered subpar compared to homemade Cuban cuisine. We also visited a Cuban recording studio that cranks out most of the popular jazz music of the moment and had private performances from different styles of jazz groups. Jazz to me is hard to follow. But I loved how all the instruments went on their own tangents and then found each other at a similar point to come together and end the song.

Between going to the well known jazz clubs in Cuba, exploring Old Havana’s European influenced architecture, and seeing a sampling of Cuba’s art scene, we covered a lot of ground. Yes, being toted around in a tour van made me feel like an annoying, hungry, selfie-taking American tourist, but the places we went to were one of a kind.

One of the most uncomfortable but uninhibited experiences I had in Cuba was forcing myself to dance. We were taken to a small house in the city of Matanzas about two hours from Havana. The house owner, an infectiously lovely woman, hosts a group of older people who meet once a month to dance together. The 60 through 80-year-olds danced with each other and then pulled us onto the dance floor. Imagine a group of mostly rhythmless white people after a few shots of rum. Luckily, a cute younger guy a little older than me decided I would dance with him. What came next were a series of awkward foot and hip movements but I was doing the salsa nonetheless.

Overall, my trip to Cuba was an unforgettable experience. The country makes you feel like you're transported into the mid 1900s with the old Chevys and the charmingly un-powerwashed buildings. Though it is a poor country with a lot of unfulfilled needs by the government, there are a lot of things about Cuba that I hope won't change.

The city of Havana is beautiful and well preserved in its roots reaching all over the world. Parks and squares in the city had French influences and buildings were centuries old. I know that every other city in the world has old buildings and beautiful parks, but Cuba is a place that many Americans haven’t been to and won't be able to visit. I made sure to drink in the whole experience before the country could become infiltrated with all-inclusive hotels and millions of tourists. The Cuba I visited was ultimately untouched by Americans and that is something worth seeing. 

Photos by Ali Follman

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