by Caroline Del Giudice
Through mishaps, tons of paperwork and temporary unenrollment from Kenyon, I am studying abroad in Havana, Cuba this semester. This is a rare opportunity for an American, and I’m not taking my time here for granted. That being said, Cuba is an overwhelming place.
I came to Cuba for a week two years ago. Being a tourist is very different from living here, but the main thing I came away with then was a huge sense of contradiction. That is proving to still be true.
An entertaining example is that my study-abroad program took us to visit the infamous Bay of Pigs. It was an educational trip, complete with participation of our United States-Cuban Relations professor.
I expected we would go to a museum or a monument, maybe hear a lecture; instead, we pulled up in a private minibus to a resort hotel built right on the beach where the Americans tried to invade. We were treated to a buffet lunch and an all-inclusive day at the beach and pool — plus unlimited mixed rum drinks and paddle boating on the Bay of Pigs. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but in Cuba, not a lot makes sense.
There are a lot of misconceptions about Cuba by Americans, probably due to the lack of interaction between our countries and certainly because we are not taught about it. People think of a country stuck in time, of cigars and old cars, but that’s not a reality.
It is true that parts of the country do look untouched from the 1950s; I’ve been to suburban neighborhoods and friends’ houses, and from the outside it feels like I’m walking through the neighborhood in The Brady Bunch, and the streets are filled with Chevrolets and Fords from the 1950s.
But once inside their houses and cars, you can feel the strain of this socialist revolution on the daily lives of the people. The houses are practically empty of furniture and food, but full of people. The cars are all stripped on the inside and serve as collective taxis.
The majority of my Cuban friends are young men who don’t work and spend their days skateboarding in the Vedado neighborhood. They make money from sporadic jobs or remittances from family abroad, then spend it on rum or drugs.
They seek out foreigners to talk about American culture, get our music, use our Internet, ask for our belongings and, in most cases, try to date our women. It’s hard to have legitimate relationships here; the entire time you ask yourself if this person wants to be your friend because you’re American or because he genuinely likes you.
Then there are the men who propose to me on the street — the incredibly appealing toothless, dirty, old men who offer me their hand so they can come to America. But at the same time the foreigners — myself included — take novelty in having Cuban friends and novios. We’re exploiting them as well — for their company and direction.
School is a different story. In general, the university students don’t show much interest in us, but they don’t show much interest in the classes either. In one of the classrooms, there are posters advertising trips to Turkey through a travel agency. On the adjacent wall, there is a poster of Fidel Castro and a quote referring to the University of Havana: “Aquí me hice revolucionario.”
I have a hard time believing that the revolutionary and youthful Fidel would be pleased to see the ads for Turkey or the students clad in American clothes, typing away on their cell phones. I imagine that it must be difficult to be motivated for school. Degrees and trades aren’t valued here; doctors, teachers, construction workers, government jobs, all earn the same wage, about $15 to $20 per month, which ends up being significantly less than that of a taxi driver or a tour guide.
It’s a culture of accepting, of passively living in the moment. A friend of mine told me that Cubans are like dolphins. They’re up to their necks in water. They keep on laughing to keep from crying. People feel incredibly trapped. Many want to leave and move to the U.S., but at the same time, many have an incredibly powerful sense of nationalism and pride. Despite the suffering, they have no desire to leave.
Living here is an incredibly powerful experience. When I finally think I have an understanding of something, it’s contradicted. Despite all the problems and confusions, this country is incredibly special and fascinating.
One of the first things that I was told upon arriving is that, in Cuba, nothing works. But somehow in the end, everything is resolved. While I’m not sure whether that is hopeful or just indifferent, it’s incredibly true.