Celebrity Course DEVS 305: Destination Havana, Cuba

Ever since news of the lifting of the American-Cuban Embargo broke almost a year ago, you’ve probably heard everyone and their mother (or just the media) urging you to go to Cuba, and quickly, before it’s too late. If you’ve never been to Cuba, you’re probably wondering just what is so great about that island located somewhere off the coast of Florida, and what is so urgent about seeing it now?

To make a long, complicated story short, the American-Cuban embargo was put in place in October 1960 and has resulted in an almost complete ban of all American imports to Cuba since then. It has also made travel and investment difficult for Americans. If you know anything about international relations, or even if you don’t, I think you can imagine that having the United States as an enemy is not a pleasant experience. All this has resulted in the creation of a Cuba that is one big contradiction, a land that appears frozen in the 50’s with crumbling architecture, big old American cars and cutting-edge inventions that were born out of desperation and spare parts.

But what does the lifting of the embargo mean for you and why do you need to go to Cuba right now? This Cuba of contradictions, crumbling buildings, and almost totally untouched by American capitalism is unlike any other country you will ever visit, guaranteed.  It’s charming, quirky, and full of interesting characters and history. Sadly, this will probably change in the next few years. Though friends in Cuba have assured me that nothing much has changed for ordinary Cubans as of yet, they estimate it will take another year or two to see real change. The influx of tourism and American investment that will result from the lifting of the embargo leave many thinking that Cuba could once again become the offshore Vegas it was before the embargo or at the least become just another touristy island in the Caribbean (though there is little danger of that as Cuba will always remain distinct, if you ask me).

I got the chance to visit Cuba two years ago, with Queen’s as part of the Cuban Culture and Society course offered by the DEVS department (I highly recommend the course if you have the chance to take it), and by visit Cuba I don’t mean hanging out on a beach in Varadero (it was a course after all). I’m talking about full immersion into Cuban culture and society in the capital city, Havana; in fact, I never even made it to the beaches of Varadero. I learned a lot, met great people, made lifelong friendships and learned a lot about my place in the world as a Canadian. I’m here to jump on the same bandwagon as everyone else and give you five more reasons (on top of every other reason you’ve heard already) to make your next trip to Havana, Cuba. After all, winter is coming and we all need a sunny Caribbean getaway, right?

1. The People: As Canadians we love our personal space, and we aren’t used to being approached on the street by random people, in fact, we tend to get a little freaked out when people do that. I’ll tell you right now that in Cuba, personal space is not a thing. You can be walking down the Malecon (a massive sea-wall) minding your own business when a fisherman will stop you to chat and show off his catch of the day. Or you might get a life story from the guy scooping your ice cream in Old Havana. They’re friendly, welcoming and always willing to tell their stories to whoever wants to listen (and they have interesting stories). If you do take my advice and go to Havana, throw away all your notions about personal space and venture down to the Malecon, aka Havana’s living room. On the Malecon, you’ll not only be solicited by fisherman wanting to chat but in the evenings you’ll meet Cubans of all ages playing good music, dancing, and enjoying life, and they will gladly let you join in at no cost.

2. It’s Delightfully Quirky: Nothing is predictable in Cuba, things happen on island time and then some. Sometimes you’ll find that the hotel didn’t get their weekly shipment of beer, but the hospital across the street got theirs (yes, apparently hospitals get beer shipments in Cuba). Or the water might inexplicably stop working for ten minutes at the precise moment you were planning on showering; it always comes back on eventually. The ice cream vendor might have a philosophy degree from the University of Havana, but he’s just as happy serving your ice cream. The quirks keep you guessing and ensure it’s never a dull moment as long as you can take them in your stride.

3.  The History: I always say that Cuba is the little (not actually that little) island that could. They’ve faced all kinds of adversity, and when faced with the prospect of frosty U.S. relations, they held strong to their morals and accepted their fate. Cuban history isn’t something we learn in school, unless you take upper year Latin American history or culture courses, and we certainly don’t learn it from the Cuban perspective. Not to mention, many Cuban’s are proud of their history, check out the Che Guevara graffiti on every corner. Everywhere you look in Cuba is steeped in history, from the buildings frozen in their decrepit beauty, to the cars and bikes, everyone and everything has a story to tell.

4. For a new perspective: We have a word in DEVS; hegemony, simply put, it means subliminal and not so subliminal influence. And our world reeks of hegemony, American hegemony to be specific. But Cuba is one of the few places that you can go that is virtually untouched by American hegemony and capitalism (for now anyways). Cuba is technically socialist, though if you ask any Cuban they’d have a hard time describing exactly what they are, and not because they don’t know but because no one really knows. Point being, they are one of a few socialist countries left in the world today, and contrary to popular belief socialism is not contagious and you can’t catch it from drinking the water in Cuba (I have heard that exact line before). So go to see what a world untouched by American hegemony, topped off with some socialism really looks like.

5. The Culture: We’ve all heard of the stereotype that Latin American’s can dance, and that is absolutely true of Cubans. You’ve never truly partied until you’ve gone dancing in Cuba. Cubans know how to have a good time whether it’s in the open air of the Malecon with a guitar, a hip old factory come art gallery or a sweaty salsa club you will never be deprived of a good time. Not to mention, in a country that pays musicians as well as they pay doctors, there are a lot of musicians around to keep you tapping your toes all day long.

So there you have it, my own contribution to Cuba fever and hopefully you’ll remember my reasons when you’re looking for a new, interesting destination for your next holiday.