|The Capitol building in Havana.|
We were sitting in an old LADA from the sixties, a car make I had never even heard of until then, with no air conditioning and no seat belts while listening to the Beatles. This was truly unreal. The driver was a doctor and the person sitting in the passenger seat is the one who makes all the deals with the tourists. They were our personal guides and chauffeurs for the day, in fact, for our last two days in Havana. They offered to take us to our destinations for a good price, and considering we were running low on our cash and did not have access to more in that country, we agreed to skip the excursions or hiring a government cab driver.
“If this LADA breaks down it'll just be a part of the true experience of being in Cuba.” A country full of contradictions.
A country known for its rum is where we found drinks at the bar were watered down. A country with access to free education for all, but where most do not take advantage of it. A country that thrives on tourism, but where the service is mediocre. A country free of American big business and advertising, but is full of political propaganda. A country whose infrastructure seemed to stop developing in the sixties, but whose citizens have not.
Cuba is a country where a doctor needs to drive two "broke" college students around to their destinations to help make ends meet. Cuba is a country where we meet retirees who are afraid to get a personal phone installed in their house for fear of wire tapping, and who try to sell us politically influenced boot-leg DVDs about the “real history of Cuba.” Cuba is a country where we saw a lot of roadwork being done to improve the streets, but were then informed it was only because the Pope was coming.
My travels to Cuba were filled with so many mixed emotions. On one hand it was amazing to get to experience such a rich culture filled with so much history. On the other hand, we were just tourists, and life in Cuba is a much different reality for its citizens. We got to leave after a few days, while many of the people that live in Cuba have been repeatedly denied visas to exit the country. We got to buy meals at restaurants, something our drivers only do when tourists take them out to eat as a “thank you.”
Our last day there, I had a woman who was with her two young children ask me for the rest of my soap, deodorant, and feminine products. It really made me think about the things I take for granted here in the United States that many people in Cuba may consider a luxury. Things like air-conditioning, refrigeration, Wi-Fi, tampons, toilet paper, and hand soap are just a few of the things I grew to miss during my short time there. Now, I sit in my room and I see all of the items I possess, and I think back to that woman who wanted the sliver of my bar of soap and I almost feel disgusted with myself.
Traveling really makes you reflect on life. On what you have, what you don’t have, and what you want and what you want to see. I met some wonderful people in Cuba, people who made our experience there unforgettable. I realized how although I grew up in a low-income household, I have so many riches in my life. I saw how although I am in so much student debt, my education will lead me somewhere great.
Our time there was just a snap shot we were able to take of what Cuba is like for visitors. No doubt, reality is much different for the people who live there, and much different for the people we were not able to talk to. One thing is for sure: Cuba is an experience worth experiencing, and one I am fortunate enough to have experienced at my age.