My first travel post! Like I mentioned in my last post, traveling to Cuba was a spontaneous decision (spontaneous for me anyway). My school takes students on a business research trip to Cuba over the new year, so when it opened up I jumped on it. Then had second and third thoughts after submitting my application. (This was more a lack of confidence in myself rather than any hesitation about Cuba as a country.)
A couple of times I thought of emailing the professor to cancel my application (other students did, for various reasons). But somehow I worked up the courage to go on the trip and didn’t end up making a fool of myself on the assignments. And if I did, people were kind enough not to say anything.
We were on one of the last daily flights from LA to Havana; shortly after we returned, Alaska Airlines stopped flying to Havana. Which was very well-timed for me, since I am a horrible flier and prefer non-stop flights whenever I can. The airport was tiny; I’ve never flown out of Santa Monica, but it might’ve been the size of the Santa Monica Airport. (Just kidding. Wikipedia says José Martí has roughly 13 times the amount of runway Santa Monica has.)
Funny story: on the way home, I was headed for the front of the plane when one of the attendants looked at my ticket and yelled “No!” For a split second, I thought I wouldn’t be allowed on the flight and would be stranded in Cuba forever. Turns out, my seat was at the tail of the plane so he wanted me to board at the other end.
I wasn’t prepared for a tropical Christmas. It was pretty nice leaving the cold LA winter for a tropical island, but having to wear business attire 8 hours a day in that weather was miserable. The weather did cool off a bit towards the end of our time, but the first couple of days were brutal.
Of course, they get hurricanes sometimes; there was some damage leftover from Maria. And it’s kind of fascinating to see the waves crashing on the Malecón. I’ve never visited a place where there wasn’t a beach or some sort of natural buffer against the ocean. The waves would bash up against the wall and splash across the sidewalk and three lanes of traffic. Seeing it at night, the power of nature slaps you in the face (sometimes literally, if you get caught in a wave).
I couldn’t (still can’t) wrap my mind around living on a small island where people can’t get off. There’s so much freedom of movement in the US that I can’t imagine living any other way. Even thinking about China, it’s still a massive country; it’ll take quite a bit of traveling before you hit a border you can’t cross. Mentally, everything seemed so scarce.
In reality, things were pretty scarce as well. Being an island, they have to import practically everything. Shortages were a regular thing. Before we left, the professors told us to bring toilet paper and toiletries and any clothing we might want to donate, as well as some candies. I wish they had been better at explaining the need for such things, and how many ways we needed to split what we brought; I pretty much gave everything away by the first half of the week.
A week in Cuba taught me I didn’t need the internet to live. Granted, our itinerary and transportation were planned and provided, so I didn’t need to be on my phone looking up places and Google Mapping my routes. But all the rest of it, the social media and the random posts and the YouTube rabbit holes – I don’t need any of that. The best part was not having any withdrawal symptoms; I was never dying to go online.
Besides, internet in Cuba was very spotty. You had to buy a wifi card, and find a public hotspot. The cards were cheap, roughly $1-2/hr. But every time you logged on, they take 10 minutes off your card. I hadn’t planned to purchase any time, but I gave in during New Year’s Eve to check in and post a pic or two. This was how I figured out the 10-minute thing (I confirmed with our tour guide later); I spent $2 for maybe 10 minutes of wifi. That was also how I learned I didn’t really have anything to do online (so why am I on my phone and computer so much???).
Restaurants were often out of something; at one restaurant, more than half the menu was unavailable. Fresh produce was most scarce. I’ve never eaten so few vegetables in my adult life. It really opened my eyes to how much I take for granted. I mean, I never thought I’d miss vegetables! By the time I landed in LA, all I wanted to eat was salad. For the next month.
The food was hit and miss; part of that is possibly attributed to the irregularity of ingredients. Some people were better at adapting than others, so they had tasty recipes as back-up. That meant some meals were the best thing I’ve ever eaten and some were worse than I could cook myself (I don’t cook very well). It’s not very vegetarian or vegan friendly; my vegan friend brought a lot of meal-replacement bars from home just in case (and she needed them).
My friends also fell in love with ropa vieja and we had that multiple times during the trip.
We had a quick stop in Trinidad, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was better maintained but also felt more touristy. Again, I feel like I didn’t have enough time to fully explore everything; I travel at a much slower pace than what our group was forced to do.
I didn’t take enough pictures to show Havana and Trinidad for what they are. I wasn’t thinking like a travel blogger, therefore I don’t have all the shots people want to see. But there’s so much you can’t capture on camera (or at least, for someone with my skillset wielding a smartphone). Besides, I wasn’t there to be a tourist; we spent the majority of the days doing company visits.
And of course, there were a lot more political, historical, and economic issues not addressed. We visited multiple businesses a day in a wide variety of industries; these people with varying levels of power definitely had strong opinions about the country. We had lunch with the former Minister of Energy, who worked directly with Che Guevara and Fidel Castro in the early days following the Revolution. Whatever your politics, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to talk to living history.
Being a huge ballet fan, I was disappointed at not getting the chance to see the National Ballet of Cuba (we were away from Havana the two days they performed). Then I was even more devastated to find that my backup plan (seeing Alicia Alonso’s private collection at the Museo de la Danza) was also a no-go; the museum was closed 🙁
Cruising down the Malecón at sunset, in a pink vintage convertible.
Given the chance, I would definitely go to Cuba again. Ojalá.
Have you been to Cuba? What was your favorite part?