Please Don't Go To Cuba If...

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 one day going to Cuba. I knew that the odds were against me. The travel restrictions outlined in the bloqueo made it almost impossible to fly to Havana for any reason--except on a student visa. Luckily I had chosen to attend one of the few colleges that offered such an exchange. But in an unlucky turn of fate, I missed the deadline to apply. I was simultaneously enraged, yet, remained undeterred. 

So, I scoured the internet for any opportunity to make my dream come true. And thankfully, I got my wish. On June 3, 2014, I arrived in Havana and walked into my dream. It was a wonderful experience to say the least. In fact, I'd wager that I learned more in that month about life and politics that I had during the preceding years of my twenties. I loved it so much that I hoped to return within a year or two, although I was still unsure about how I'd be able to do so.

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 As it happened, the following year President Obama eased some of the restrictions that made traveling to Cuba so difficult. At first, I was relieved. I could finally return without jumping through 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. But as many in the ethical tourism sector are being to realize, that isn’t always true. Despite our best intentions, tourist dollars can hardly undo years of European colonialism or American corporate imperialism.

The thing about Cuba, the reality of Cuba, is that it is far from glamorous.

 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. But 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 let alone give you a play by play of the Bay of Pigs.

More to the point, in my experience, many of us take a bit of perverse pride in our ignorance. Too many of us enjoy the insular nature of our culture. And when we are confronted with information that contradicts our world view, we don't let facts or lack thereof get in the way of our opinions. Just ask your president.

It is this steadfast willful 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...

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 Who is this? If your answer is: a) Fidel Castro or b) I don't know.

Stay home.

To all those who answered b. No, he is not Fidel Castro and, no, I am not going to tell you who he is.

Why am I 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.

THE.GUY.ON.ALL.THE.T-SHIRTS.

Excuse for a minute while I have a retroactive chat with her.

“Miss Lady Ma'am. Can you hear me? I am speaking directly to you know through my internet time machine. Can you hear me? Yes? Okay. Can I ask you a question? Why are you here? Yes, in Cuba. A missionary? You do realize that the Catholicism had a stronghold on this island, until the revolution right? They know all about Christianity. Oh, you’re an evangelist you say? Oh, okay. Did you just say ‘what revolution?’ Ok, now I have to go there. Please tell me, what could you possibly teach these people? You don't even know basic history—basic Cuban history. And, yet, you have the audacity to show up and try to preach to people? I think not. Please have a mega-church stadium full of seats.”

Woo, I’m back! I just had to get that off my chest.

Lesson: Don't be this lady. Nobody wants to be this lady.

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 You Are Allured by the Promise of Forbidden Fruit

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 that 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'd wager it is 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 letdown.

 

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 You only Want to Go on Vacation

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.

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 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 isn'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. Others were indifferent.

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During one encounter in particular, Carlos, a lawyer who made more money working as a taxi driver, told me that he hated Cuba. 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 taxi driver, 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.

Keep in mind that Cubans 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.

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You are Just Doing It 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. A 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 of the one of the many murals and paintings of “the guy on all the t-shirts.”

I. Just. Can't.

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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, just to say they had, not because they had any particular interest in said place.

While this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it has led to a bit of a race to stand out. Now, it seems that everyone is fighting to post the most unique and exotic locale as possible. Nowadays, a trip to Cancun is beyond basic. That was so 2001. The new trend is taking a group picture in front of Buddhist temple in Cambodia--with the appropriate culturally appropriating posture.

People's Instagram pages are filled with pictures of them doing cool and amazing things in far away places, but few feature the actual locals themselves. Beyond a "highlight" reel, it has become an "imaginary" reel.

Yet, the thing about Cuba, the reality of Cuba, is that it is far from glamorous. Both toilet paper and toilet seats are rare. Máquinas, the 1950s cars that are used as communal taxis, are mostly falling apart. In fact, the members of my group got into a minor accident when the brakes in their maquina went out on their way back from the beach.

Hanging Laundry in  Havana Vieja

Hanging Laundry in Havana Vieja

 But that is not all. If you need something, you will have to wait in a seemingly eternal line. And once you reach the front, you'll likely be told that whatever you needed is not available. Or, as an extranjero, you will be put into a special fast-tracked line for tourists. And if you have any conscious at all, you will probably feel like a jerk for using it.

Most places, public or private, don't have air conditioning. Many of the creature comforts that you are probably used to 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.

 

Una Santera

Una Santera

 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 be seen and acknowledged in their own country, not erased from your "highlight reel."

So, please don't go to Cuba if you have not the 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...

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 Please read a book, or just stay home. 

 
 
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Candace Fykes