It’s been quite a while since I’ve written here so you’ll have to forgive me if I ramble. The past year has been a dynamic time filled with almost sublime experiences. I’m finding myself changing in both microcosmic and macrocosmic aspects so it’s quite difficult to contain the essence of my continually expanding worldview.
As I mentioned in my last blog, I spent spring semester in the beautiful and complex island of Cuba. The experience was so novel to me that almost every minute was a learning experience. However, I cannot inundate you all with all the tiny details of my trip, as that would be neither helpful or entertaining. Just as importantly, I will try to avoid overarching generalizations. It’s important for me to do both so that I can best encapsulate the enigma that is Cuba.
the state newspaper
Sitting here in the comforts of my Fairfax home, I find it hard to place myself back in Cuba. If I think very intensely, I can imagine myself walking the orderly, Cartesian streets of Nuevo Vedado; the Soviet-style city plan presents an immediate contradiction to the unconfined and lush greenery endemic to the island. I trace the itinerary I would take to the university, the path changing subtly depending on which route provides the best shade against the encroaching spring heat. Every once in a while I come across a café, each one vending fundamentally the same menu items as the last. Variety is a luxury in Cuba.
On the charter plane ride out of Havana back to Miami, I wondered to myself the “reverse culture shock” I would face upon returning to the hyper-consumerist culture of the U.S. with its surfeit of choices and varieties. I faced no such experience. Immediately upon getting through security, I perused through several cafeterias at the Miami-Dade International Airport in search of dinner; and the expansive amount of consumption possibilities did not strike me the least bit as odd or different. This excess was my idea of normal. It was what I was used to. It’s what makes sense to me.
in Santiago de Cuba, the keystone province for Fidel’s Revolution
I took this picture during an art installation that took place on a rooftop. My history professor was also an artist.
In the campos of Central Cuba. We are headed to a waterfall in this picture.
It’s important to recognize this realization because it is one of the many things that adds nuance to the Cuban experience. Most foreigners who visit Cuba and say life is difficult on the island are inevitably using their disparate, privileged lives as a point of comparison. When we, in the developed world, can have a strawberry-banana smoothie in the middle of December—using bananas imported from Guatemala, strawberries from California, apple juice from Washington state, and sorbet developed by German ice-cream makers—while Cubans can only choose from two national beer types—life may seem difficult, or at least monotonous for the Cubans. On the other hand, the travelers that say life is pretty easy in Cuba are probably not fully conscious of the disparity in the commodities and services that their middle-class incomes can purchase in Cuba, with that of the extremely limited markets that the average Cuban can access.
Cubans who say life is rather comfortable in Cuba may have a deeper understanding of the social inequalities before the 1959 Revolution; they may be taking into consideration the violent-free state of the nation, and its universal health care and impressive educational achievements. Those who resent the country and its leaders are typically disillusioned with the state’s lethargic bureaucracy, the lack of access to the Internet and its vast array of knowledge, human rights violations, and many other daily frustrations. This former group feels it is entitled to the state’s existing services and resents the fact that there is an immense amount of goods, services, and knowledge that it cannot access simply because of absurd politics.
In other words, Cuba is enigmatic to a large extent because of the divergent viewpoints with which the country can be seen and experienced. The toxic relationship between the U.S. and Cuban governments and their mutually exclusive treatments of one another have undoubtedly added to this opacity. Both governments would need to undergo major introspection and change in order to clarify the convoluted nature of each respective nation and its relation to one another. In this regard, the experience I’ve gained in Cuba is invaluable. The normalization in relations cannot thrive without a firm, rich understanding of what living on the other side of the “iron straits” is like.
There is truly no way to better your language skills than to immerse yourself deeply into the culture. Within the four months that I was in Cuba, reading Spanish literature, taking courses in the native language, and discussing with locals, my Spanish improved more significantly than it had in an entire year. Yes, it can be nerve-wrecking, often embarrassing, and even frustrating to throw yourself into another culture and language. The most annoying occurrence for me was having a multifaceted, complex idea in my mind that I could not convey clearly in Spanish because of my limited speech. Having this experience, therefore, was enriching not just because I improved upon my Spanish but gained an invaluable experience walking in the shoes of the countless people for whom English is a second language. It truly is a privilege to be a fluent English speaker in today’s world and for this skill I will always be thankful and henceforth humbled.
I will never forget Cuba because of the improvement that occurred in my confidence during my time there. The strange environment, the other groups of students, and even the uncomfortable experiences have contributed to a surge in my understanding of my abilities, my weaknesses, and strengths. Traveling certainly strengthens character because it exposes people to novel challenges. The lessons gained from each experience may not always be applied to following circumstances. However, the mere act of having overcome such challenges reduce one’s vulnerability to future detriments. I’m looking forward to continuing to explore outside of my comfort zone, an idea with which I was not always comfortable. I’ve experienced in Cuba, though, that this area is where my growth will be its most salient.
Hahaha, here I am in the Sierra Maestra, right next to the base that housed Fidel and his compañeros during the Revolution.