You know there’s that one trip that totally changes your outlook on life? Have you ever heard that seeing the world can really broaden your perspective on your life and the world and what you think is important? It sounds all deep and stuff but this past trip to Cuba did just that. By the end of my trip I experienced life in a way that I never had before.
I was in Havana, Cuba for 6 days total and felt like this trip allowed me to experience the true culture of the locals the absolute most. The thing that made the trip so special were the people and the genuine friendliness that I encountered every single day I was there. The people there are very warm and have a close knit community. They have a strong community that I felt apart of because of how nice they were to me as well.
Most importantly, I was in a society where my identity of being black and a woman didn’t dictate how I navigated through the country or at all. I pretty much was under the impression that no matter where you go in the world, the black people or darker skinned people of that nation experience some sort of discrimination. I thought that the afro-Cubans and the white-Cubans would be differentiated somehow, just from coming from America, this just seemed like it would be a thing. But day 2, I noticed…there didn’t seem to be any racism. Granted, this is just my experience being there for 6 days and I can’t possibly know the ins and outs of every afro-Cuban’s experience but to ME I noticed a striking difference from the racism I encounter with every day in the States whether it be from the 24/7 news cycle of violence or microaggressions experienced. Walking through Old Havana and the central parts of town, I saw the lighter skinned and white Cubans and the afro-Cubans ALL hanging out together. The kids were all playing in mixed groups. The schoolgirls weren’t in close knit groups based on skin tone or anything. Everyone seemed comfortable with each other and referred to one another as CUBAN. Not Afro-Cuban or White-Cuban or anything. The culture wasn’t really based on the separation by what people looked like on the outside. It wasn’t an “erasure” or ignoring of the fact that some people derived from Africa or that slavery existed, but I didn’t feel or witness the same lingering effects of institutional and structural racism that exists in America and in so many places in the world. I had never seen any of this in my life before. Of course I was so curious as to HOW this was. I learned so much more about Cuba and race in the Afro Cuban Culture tour that I’ll touch on later in this post. But it was nice to just walk around with people looking like they’ve never seen a black person before. I often got mistaken for being Cuban and many people spoke Spanish to me. I looked like the people there and felt like it too.
Being a Woman
I have never felt so safe in my life. I felt more safe in Cuba than I do living in America. I have never seen a society where there was so much respect and kindness towards women. In the United States it’s “normal” to look straight ahead when you see men on the sidewalks and walk swiftly to your next destination. It’s “normal” to not even look in the direction of men trying greeting you even in broad daylight but ESPECIALLY at night. It’s “normal” to bring an extra jacket to cover anything that may be revealing. It’s “normal” to miss out on anything that happens after sunset when solo traveling because you don’t know who’s gonna be acting crazy. So much of my life and travel is dictated to doing certain things in hopes of being safe, because of being woman. When I first stepped off the plane and was at the airport, I noticed that a lot of the female workers had really cute short and tight skirts. I was like okay werk, maybe it’s just an airport thing. But when I got into the city, I saw that the short and really tight skirts was a whole style and lots of young women and girls were wearing it. I immediately thought ” how do the men treat them?” Where I’m from, wearing anything that’s deemed sexy could warrant a lot of harassment and just men being so creepy. But throughout my whole time, I never saw or heard any men harassing women wearing the short skirts or wearing whatever. No one thought they had the right to talk to them any kind of way because of how they’re dressed. Simple, but shocking to me because this is how it should be and it actually exists in Cuba. I actually had pleasant conversations with men who greeted me in the city. They asked simple questions like “Is it your first time in Cuba?”, “How many days are you in Havana?”, “Do you like it here?”, or “Are you looking for something?”. It was never that uncomfortable invasive talk you can sometimes run into when you give a guy just a few seconds of your time. Never tried to ask for my number of if I was single. Never tried to touch me inappropriately. Never followed me. Never tried to prolong the conversation to get something from me. Just brief small talk if I chose to have it. Ending with a handshake in most cases. There was a level of respect here that didn’t seem to matter that I was a woman. I was just a person. I was a person exploring Cuba and even the compliments were sincere and simple and not as a way to be weird. It was such a relief. And I was really happy for the women there that they could be free and safe.
I love traveling and have been to many countries but this was the first time I felt free of carrying the intersections of being black and a woman with me. I didn’t have to wonder if someone had preconceived notions about me because of my skin color, and I didn’t have to speed past any man in sight. The thing that separated me from others was my personality. When people talked to me it was to get to know me. Even being American wasn’t an issue there, which is surprising considering all the things America did during the Revolution. People asked where in America I was from and thought it was cool. That was it. No judgement or stereotypes needed to be fought based on my interactions with others. I was just me. It was groundbreaking because now I know it’s possible. I know it’s possible for a group of people to live in harmony and not have violence and systematic laws that disadvantage black people. I know it’s possible for men to respect the choices of women and to not feel they have the right to take from women.
Being Off the Grid
I was solo traveling for majority of my 6 days in Cuba and so I came prepared with a FULL itinerary printed and everything with addresses of what to do and where to go. I am a GPS girl and was like omg this will be interesting trying to get from place to place with 0 wifi. But I actually didn’t even use my itinerary as much as I thought. I had already booked the Afro-Cuban tour with Airbnb before arriving and knew I wanted to go to the beach and do a dance class. But other than that, I literary took it day by day. I could walk out to the Old Havana and the day would just go from there. I didn’t need to follow a plan, I followed a vibe.
I looked up more. I greeted people. I listened to recommendations. I journaled. I was really REALLY present in the moment. I didn’t get bored without the internet and had the chance to see what it felt like before being “always on” was normal to me. When back at my Airbnb, I would watch whatever was on tv for a little bit. There was a station with American movies and I even saw one episode of Game of Thrones. In the tour, I learned that there’s often one person in the neighborhood with a USB drive that downloads all the newest things happening on the internet. Then for like 1CUC an hour you can rent the USB to download all the seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, Game of Thrones, or whatever shows you like and have your piece of the internet. They make it work!
Living in a Socialist Society
From what I saw and learned, everyone has everything they need. I knew the basics of socialism and the word communism always seemed to come with a negative connotation in school but actually being in a country where it’s the way things are seemed like a whole new world. Throughout my whole 6 days in Cuba I didn’t see a single homeless person. In basically every major city I’ve been to and even where I live, I could walk past dozens of destitute homeless people with no where to go. In Cuba everyone has a home and there are shelters available for anyone that needs them. They have such an advanced healthcare system and can go to the doctor or hospital without having to worry about how to pay for it. You can go to school and study for free. There isn’t this inequality of the rich and poor. Everyone has everything they need. And because of this, I felt like people didn’t feel the need to take or steal from each other. There’s no need to. People seemed to share with each other more. Without having to stress about material things and striving to have more and more things, people showed their love and enjoyment of being with each other.
Cuba does have limited resources but it was more of the things that seem common in other places that are used way more than necessary. Like we waste A LOT of things and take more than we need because it’s available. It’s a lot of overconsumption now that I’ve seen a different way of living. Also the way homes are set up, there are lots of homes with multigenerational families. So there’s always someone to talk to, so really it’s easy to not have social media because you can be entertained with those in front of you. Although having my own apartment is a major staple in adulthood in the U.S., I actually thought it would be a fun experience to live close to my family if I lived in Cuba.
Things I Did
The first day I arrived in Cuba, I took it easy and enjoyed a nice refreshing nap before going out to a bar with my cousin. I stayed in the casa particular right above the La California restaurant. Here I got to know a lot of the waitresses and waiters, and got great recommendations on places to go in Havana. The bar was called La Esencia in the Vedado neighborhood. We got there around 11pm and it started to get more active around midnight. It seemed like a place where mostly locals went and it was still popping even on a Tuesday.
My first full day in Cuba, I went to the Old Havana area and marked the Museo de Revolucion as my main landmark. Surprisingly, this was the last place I visited even as I passed it over and over. With a 1 hour bike tour for 10CUC’s, I was able to see the major places to see that I had on my list. My 2 years of Spanish have served me well in Spanish speaking countries. My tour guide was explaining what we were passing a little bit about the history and I could pretty much comprehend. It was also helpful to know Spanish just for general interactions with people and to get to know people. The landmarks I remember seeing were:
- El Capitolio
- La Plaza Vieja
- La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana (had to look this one up)
- Some wall mural everyone was taking pictures of
- A cruise ship
- An important garden
I don’t remember all of the specific names to the translations but I knew what I was looking at lol. But after the tour I ran into a traditional dancing performance near El Capitolio. I loved being able to see what traditional dancing looked like and the performers dressed in 60s clothing.
For food, I was walking back from the Capitol towards the Museo de la Revolucion area and a restaurant hosts led me to the restaurant and explained what was on the menu. For 8CUC I got the largest serving ever and it was my favorite meal of the trip. Too bad I didn’t take a picture of the outside of the restaurant so I could actually refer people to it. Anyways, the food in Cuba was better than I expected. I came across tons of blogs saying the food was bland and suggesting to bring your own spices. HOWEVER, it was some of my favorite food cuisines and the seasoning was just fine. I don’t like spicy food at all so that lack thereof was no problem. Food in Cuba ranged from a low low price of 1.40 CUC for a filling meal to 23CUC. Also the exchange rate is basically 1 USD = 1CUC, so Cuba isn’t a place where you can expect to buy things for cheap overall. For the lower priced meals try to find restaurants inside of neighborhoods. And when you get to the city center and more populated areas, you’ll find the 20-23CUC priced meals. Also try to eat as much as you can because there aren’t supplies for takeaway boxes. I get full so fast, so I had to leave so much food behind that I would normally take to go.
Near the Malecon I got a great view of the city line and it was perfect for a photo opp. There were some statues and things to read as it related to the castle that was nearby but not where we could walk directly to. Going back to research exactly what it was, I found that it’s called the Morro Castle.
The rest of the time from here I was solo traveling. I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering in Old Habana and ran into a local guy who took me on the ferry to visit the Christ of Havana statue in Casablanca. The ferry was about 7 minutes and 1CUC each way. The Christ statue mimicked the Christ the Reedemer statue in Sao Paolo, Brazil. This was something I didn’t even find when looking up top things to do in Havana but it was so cool to see and to take a ferry. I actually think it was my first ferry ride too! It was a little trek up the hill, so I definitely got a good leg work out.
I knew I wanted to take a Rumba class prior to coming to Cuba. I had looked up a couple schools before arriving and had one written down that I was certain I would take a class from. But I ended up walking past another school in the Old Havana area and a friend I made said La Casa del Son was the best one. I ended up making a reservation a day before, since they were pretty busy. For 18CUC I learned the basics of Rumba with a personal dance teacher. I thought it would be pretty easy but there were some specific form details that my instructor was coaching me to do. So it ended up being quite a workout just from trying hard to have the right form. I had a lot of fun learning and dancing. The form of Rumba I was learning came from the Guanabacoa region which is where I visited in the Afro-Cuban tour the following day.
I got a chance to visit the beach, and got help finding the tour bus that goes to la playa. The Malecon in Havana isn’t one where you can swim, so the nearest beach was about 25 minutes away. I got on the tourbus that left from Central Park and bought a 5CUC roundtrip ticket. This beach was called San Marisol and was a lot closer than other beaches people had mentioned to me. The water was a perfect temperature and I had fun swimming and relaxing.
Day 5: Afro-Cuban Tour
I found out about the Afro Cuban Culture tour from a travel group on Facebook. The tour is organized by Beyond Roots Cuba and the experience can be booked on Airbnb. I had never read such profound and amazing reviews of anything ever and booked right away since the slots were sold out for so many days in advance. And it really was everything I hoped for. There were 14 people, all American. Ten of us were Black American and the rest were white. It was great to ask the questions I had in my head to someone who lived in Cuba and could give background to the things I had noticed. It was also great to be around other Black Americans and have that shared experience together. In the intro, the creator of the Afro Cuban culture tour explained that she wanted to create this to give tourists an opportunity to learn about the African roots that influence Cuban culture and especially to dispel any myths that the Afro-Cuban religions were scary. We spent a lot of time focusing on the three major Afro Cuban religions because they played and continue to play a critical role in the culture and especially during slavery. Adrianna, our guide, said that when she first started this tour she always got questions about her black experience as a professor and she did not understand what this meant or why it was being asked. Coming from the United States, this would be a question I’d ask as well, and she was able to learn more about why that was asked and how different race relations were in the U.S. She said she hadn’t really felt racism her whole life in Cuba. Even being female, she said the rule at the university was to have faculty made up of 50% male and 50% female and that it was apart of the law.
It was interesting to hear that Adrianna thought all Americans were white and didn’t know there were black people in the States until Obama opened up travel to Cuba in 2016. Since then African Americans have been seen as a reference point for Cubans in accepting their natural hair and African features. She said they saw that most Americans coming were black and they were coming natural. They then saw that they can wear their hair natural and still be pretty and beautiful. It’s harder to maintain natural hair there because there aren’t a lot of products or resources for the upkeep of black hair. Adrianna said she uses products for white people. So many people straighten their hair because it’s easier but it’s starting to change now since tourism and contact with black Americans. I love seeing our positive influence on other cultures. While the natural hair is something that’s still recent, it’s great that it has positively impacted other parts of the diaspora.
I did find out that while there didn’t appear to be strong racism in Cuba colorism does exist. It is common for people to want to identify is mestizo or mulatto or have long straight hair. But with the younger generation, this is starting to change and more people feel comfortable with their natural features.
I also learned that the people there appreciate and are grateful for the Revolution. It allowed black and poor people to get an education, have good health, and own their homes. Things like water and all utilities are very very cheap. The rich people are the ones who hated it and many fled to Miami.
I loved learning about the religions. We visited an Afro Cuban museum in Guanabacoa and learned all about the Orishas and the origins of the Santeria religion. Santeria is basically a mix between Catholicism and the Yoruba religion deriving from Nigeria. The Orishas were once people and so they have human flaws, emotions and characteristics. According to Beyond Roots, Santeria is based on the belief and worship of a group of Orishas or saints who become beings who represent and symbolize not only the forces of nature but also rituals, activities, passions, and feelings of human beings.
I haven’t heard anything about persecution or discrimination because of religion there either. The way the Santeria religion is set up, there are multiple Orishas anyway, so having a different God to pray to isn’t a negative connotation. You can practice any religion and pray to multiple Orishas or gods in different ways. The religions are personalized to you. Like if you decide to get initiated, your reading and suggested actions are customized to you. Most people get a bracelet, but one man was told he shouldn’t wear it cuz it was a blockage of things he needs to receive. This is just one example of how it’s not super ritualistic and by customs.
I also participated in a cleansing ceremony and received a reading from the babalawo priest. For me, it wasn’t like a shockingly accurate experience. More like common sense things you should follow in life such as having goals for yourself and learning about who you are. I appreciate being apart of the experience though.
Later in the day I ended up going to Casa de la Musica and there was an event going on with a band from Mexico performing. The nightlife is from around 11pm-3am, and around the 2 am I felt myself getting a little sleepy. But the party didn’t end! There was salsa dancing everywhere, people danced with each other and made friends with those around them. The band performing was pretty cool, I have no idea who it was but I guess they were a big deal.
I ended up meeting a Cuban family close to my casa particular and spent the whole afternoon with them learning more Rumba dancing, watching tv, and playing with the baby. Days like that are a prime example of being in Cuba. Meeting nice and friendly people and going off and just having a good time. I was going to go to the museum but it was not an important thing to have a schedule there.
Before heading to the airport, I rushed to finally see the Museum of the Revolution and it was so worthwhile. It summarized everything I had experienced, with historical documents and visuals of Cuba’s history. I have so much I want to learn more about. Like why was the U.S. supporting the regime when the regime was all about not having equality for the rich and poor? I learned about the U.S. playing a major role in cutting Cuba off from exports around the world and Russia stepping in to buy their sugar exports instead. I saw actual visual photos of how people lived before the Revolution. Many people were struggling to survive and in terrible living conditions. I saw how after the Revolution, Fidel Castro made immediate efforts to eliminate illiteracy, allow renters to own their homes, and have adequate and free healthcare for all. I learned a lot and took many pictures of the displays to read later since I had to hurry back and leave to the airport. But there’s a lot I’m interested in learning more about. It’s so beautiful that even after having a severed relationship with the U.S. for decades, Cubans treated Americans with warmth and friendliness. The past didn’t dictate how they treated those coming to Cuba now.
Havana oh nah nah
Cuba is a country I would definitely visit again in the near future. I can say it was my favorite trip so far. The experience of just feeling like I could be myself and be safe and feel like I belonged is what made it so special. I lived my daily intentions and self care out loud. I have everything I need and more. I don’t have to always be working and always producing. Ir’s okay to rest and be content. There doesn’t need to be this pressure to produce more, to have more, to do this and that to have more money and things, a bigger house or anything. It is okay. None of that matters and I knew that but being in Cuba…I felt that. I had no Internet and had to bring my own toilet paper to most places but I felt safe and secure. And I think being safe and having what you need and deserve as being a human on this earth is worth more than any material thing you can by. Having love from your family and friends and caring about your community is what matters. I loved seeing this and will always take this with me. I’m so full with love from this experience.
Literally and as always,