Jean, a Go Learn Cuba participant, shares her first impressions of Cuba:
We arrived in Havana the morning of Saturday Jan 30, and we stayed in Havana until Wednesday morning with one day dedicated to a 2 hour drive west. Havana is the NYC of Cuba. Easily the most populated and congested. It is a beautiful city despite the great poverty and the crumbling and old buildings. In some ways it could be San Francisco but with no restoration of the old homes, flats and mansions. Three buildings/day collapse in Havana. The first day we headed straight to Old Havana to tour with an architect. That first day it was difficult to comprehend my surroundings, the poverty was so overwhelming. By Monday, however, it became easier to see past the poverty and see some of the beauty and the occasional restored buildings. It also reminded me of Dubrovnik in Croatia, almost as though it was bombed or war torn, yet beautiful. We felt very safe in Havana as we knew crime rate was low. There are no guns allowed in Cuba, not even the police carry them. It was nice to experience that. We walked around in the dark, in neighborhoods, and stood out like “sore thumbs” yet never felt unsafe. That could not be said about most of our larger cities.
Because we were there with the University of Utah we had many educational experiences with presentations by architects, historians and economists. Our local guide was a 33 year old mother of twins who was most informative and open about living there. We found the people to be pleasant and could not discern any animosity toward us as Americans.
The last four days of our trip we headed east and south. One night we spent at the Bay of Pigs and I laid in bed attempting to comprehend that i was at the BAY of PIGS! An area that I have heard about for much of my life. It was beautiful, a large swath of the Caribbean with sandy beaches, palms trees and virtually no development.
We also went to the stunning colonial town of Trinidad and the “pearl of the sea”, Cienfuegos, which was the city we flew out of on super bowl Sunday.
It was truly an amazing experience yet with one contradiction after another! They are very proud of their free education through college and their free health care. Yet, so many basics are unobtainable. One night driving in Havana, I looked out our bus window and saw two scooters and two bikes next to us, and we were on a very busy street in the dark. None of the four of them had any lights on their scooters/bikes. And all I could think of was how precarious a position they were in from a health and safety viewpoint. Our tour guide has 18 month old twins and the vitamins she wants for them are brought to her from friends visiting the USA, as they are not available in Cuba. And, she lives in the upper echelon of their society in that she is in a business that provides great tips. As to education, even though it is free only about 30% of Cubans go to college and there are contradictions with that. They are worried because they are not getting enough young people to study teaching as a profession. The pay is not good and people are opting for working around tourism as the tips provide so much more than most professional incomes. The average Cuban makes around $25/month.
We were told our first day to be flexible and it truly became our word of the week!
As to government we heard the word “Revolution” and references to it daily. With each passing day and the more we learned the more confusing it all became, attempting to understand the long history of such, in so many ways, an abused island. It would be interesting to have been to Cuba in the eighties, before Russia and communism, Cuba’s financial support, fell apart. Fidel called the collapse of Russia/communism the “special period’ and Cubans lost one third of their body weight, due to increased poverty caused by the absence of Russian support. Also of interest (and confusion) is how differently, vastly differently, Raul governs compares to his brother, Fidel. Raul has lifted many restrictions and now a small free enterprise system is growing as people are allowed to start their own businesses. Due to this, the food was phenomenal! We went to only one government run restaurant, but all other meals were at paladars, restaurants started by Cubans and not run by the government. We also, by the way, found the Cuban beer and the rum to be quite superb (and we had to do much taste testing on that subject!).
It was a amazing eight days and we are so very happy we went as it was truly life altering. Yet, we were so very happy to get home and be living with our modern amenities!
A few more thoughts, if you know anyone going, make sure they bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer AND they know cars do not stop for pedestrians. As our guide said early in the week (and it was some of the best safety advice she gave us), even if a car looks like it may stop assume it will not! And, she was right, they do not stop! Neither do the bikes, horses and taxis.
As to the old cars, there are many and they are pretty nice to see. Some are beautifully restored and some are not. There are also other modes of transportation, taxis (always negotiate your fare first), buses (which we were told to avoid), a train system (which we were told to avoid as the trains are old and break down and the schedule is not really a schedule as we know one to be), much walking, bikes, scooters and many horse drawn carts. On their “highway”, which runs east to west on the island, we were driving about 60 mph and there were horses and carts and bicyclists also on the highway with us.
A final thought, there were many stray and un-neutered dogs. Everywhere we went we saw this and it was sad. The dogs were so cute and so lacking for affection, invariably they would run with their tail wagging to any dog friendly voice. Had we been able to, we would have brought a few dogs home!
Adios for now!