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La Isla Grande

Monday night I got back to Mérida after 11 busy days in Cuba with the lovely Olivia and Alicia in which we traveled to Trinidad, Viñales, and La Habana.  The country has such an overwhelmingly rich culture and complex history that I will most likely need far more time to really process my viaje and be able to speak eloquently about my experience there.

So, unprocessed and without eloquence here are some things that stood out to me:

Cuba has an incredible energy.  Music and art are respected and nurtured and at all times and points throughout the country you will find music playing from the windows and paintings covering the walls.  Our first Sunday we wandered to Callejon de Hamel where there is a weekly Afro-Cuban music celebration.  The street itself is covered with beautiful sculptures, drawings, and poetry.  Filling the street were all sorts of people.  A camera crew was filming a music video for an Española artist.  A band of eight or so men were playing song after drum-heavy song.  Three costumed dancers were parading through the crowd ringing cowbells.  A group of rappers quickly befriended us by freestyle rapping (sorry to sound like such a white girl) for about fifteen minutes as soon as we arrived, and after helped lead us away from the drunker of the men there.

While the overwhelming impression of Cuba’s culture is one of drinking, dancing, and general merrymaking (sorry to sound like such a white 70-year-old man), there is also an underlying ambience of poverty and a lack of many of the rights we consider basic in the United States.  Under the socialist ruling of the Castros, political dissent is repressed and any citizen caught speaking out against Fidel or Raúl can count on imprisonment (though after serving their time, ex-felons of Cuba benefit from a great reintegration program that puts the vast majority directly into employment out of prison).  Because of this, all of the people we stayed with refused to say a word against the Fidels or their government even in the safety of their living rooms and it was hard to get an accurate impression of how Cuban citizens actually feel.

Olivia, Alicia, and I were eager to learn as much as we could about Cuba while we were there, and took turns reading aloud from the history and politics section of our guidebook.  It was crazy to find how little we’d been taught in school about Cuba, besides the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and how much is kept really hushed in the United States.  Some fun facts:  Cuba’s literacy rate is 99.8%, higher than the US and the tenth highest in the world.  Cuba has a state-controlled economy and dual currency system (1 CUP = approximately 20 CUC) where the CUP or Cuban peso is the currency in which most citizens are paid as the vast majority of the labor force is employed by the state and the CUC or Convertible peso is set to equal the value of the US dollar and is used in the tourist economy.  Because of this, many doctors, dentists, teachers, etc. leave their jobs after finishing years of school because they are only paid what amounts to about 15 CUC a month and there is far, far more money in the tourism industry.  In every casa particular we stayed in and every tour we went on the house-owners we met had gotten degrees in various fields and then left to make a much better salary in tourism.  Those who don’t leave, according to the people we talked to, find other ways to make a few extra bucks.  If someone works in construction, he might sell some extra cement and supplies on the side.  If someone works for a tobacco factory, he might set up his own under the table business to sell cigaros to tourists.  In a recent survey cited in our guidebook, every single student in a 4th grade class said they either wanted to go into tourism or a “private sector” of employment when asked about their dream jobs.

As you can probably imagine, this affects tourists immensely.  One of our main activities was walking around the cities in order to get a feel for everything and save money and we couldn’t go anywhere without being offered thirty casas to stay in, restaurants to eat in, bars to dance at, taxis to take, jewelry, cigars, books, posters, t-shirts to buy.  Even more vicious and overwhelming than the constant harassment from vendors, was the constant harassment from men.  My madre warned me before I left: “no te cases” (don’t get yourself married).  I should have taken this more seriously.

Every man I passed either whistled, hissed, blew kisses, called out, or grabbed at me.  It was hard to remain upbeat and excited about exploring when I constantly felt attacked walking outside.  It was hard to act friendly and eager to meet new people when the vast majority of the people who wanted to talk to us were men, and 95% of those conversations consisted of the following phrases in varying orders and a combination of broken English and Spanish: “where are you from?”, “you’re so linda/bella/bonita/guapa/sexy/beautiful”, “you want boyfriend?”, “where are you going?”.  I actually preferred when they spoke English because I absolutely hate that any of them might think I was ignoring them because I didn’t understand their Spanish and not because what they were saying was often disgusting/degrading/stupid/offensive.

While we were able to laugh about some of the things we heard when we were safely back at our hostels (for example, “novios gratis” or “free boyfriends” was one of the most common things that was shouted at us… and to think – here I’ve been paying my boyfriend all this time!) while we were outside, it quickly got us down and one of my prevailing impressions of my time in Cuba is a feeling of discomfort and resentfulness.

But we had a lot of fun too!  Here are three of my highlights:

  1. Celebrating Alicia’s 21st birthday.  We ended up extending Alicia’s birthday so that we could celebrate once in every place we stayed.  Most of the celebrations involved incredibly fun Cuban salsa and disappointingly bad mojitos.  Cuban salsa is really different from Mexican salsa in that there’s way more hip action, you dance closer to your partner and don’t move as far for vueltas, the woman has more freedom to improvise and move independently from her partner, and the music is so freaking good.  Suffice it to say I enjoyed myself while the other girls were finding their novios gratis.
  2. In La Habana, we managed to find a partido de beisbol where we got in for what amounted to about ten cents each and bought loads of cheap snack foods (personal favorite is this bar that tastes like a combination of peanut butter and cookie dough) while we watched the game.  We came late but still got great seats and it was one of the least-touristy things we got to do which was nice until we ended up having to leave because too many boys started surrounding us and asking for kisses and we couldn’t see the game.  Still though, fun for a while.
  3. The family we stayed with in Trinidad was genial.  The family consisted of a married couple and the wife’s mother who is the best cook in the world and made us huge (really, huge) feasts every night.  They were super welcoming and friendly and talked to us really honestly about their experiences and culture, even if they didn’t say anything specifically negative about the government.

The last great thing about our trip to Cuba was that it made me miss and appreciate México a lot.  It made me realize how happy and comfortable I’ve become and how much I love Mérida and my life here.  During our last night in Cuba, I considered for a rato staying in Mérida for the spring semester but about two hours of mental pros and cons lists and nail biting later, I realized that would be crazy.  So instead I’m just trying to get excited for Christmas and going back to Wesleyan (not a difficult task) and really enjoy every second of my last month here.  Woo!

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