“Wow, I’m in Cuba” Part II: Differences Between Traveling Abroad Alone And Traveling With a Group

Welcome to Part II of my “Wow, I’m in Cuba” series for travelers!  As I mentioned previously, this 5-part series will cover:

 

-Mental preparation for travel abroad

-Differences between traveling alone and traveling with a group

-Language and cultural differences

-Navigating your way through a new city

-Physically adapting to a new environment 

 

In this post, I will compare a trip I took to Cuba in June of this year with a Witness for Peace delegation to my current experiences as a single traveler, highlighting the primary differences and challenges for those considering traveling abroad solo.

 

 

If you are planning to travel abroad with a tour group, a student group, or simply as a large family vacation, you can expect less responsibility for daily activities and details.  With tour groups or delegations, needs including housing, food, events, transportation and translators will likely be pre-arranged and included in your package price.  Similarly, with a student group you will be among peers, housing and food will be included, and you will have access to host families and academic institutions to facilitate your language course studies.  While traveling with family you have the benefit and comfort of traveling with loved ones and can share the responsibilities for planning excursions, hotel choices and meal plans.  All of this changes dramatically when traveling alone.

 

1)    Access & Planning

     Traveling with a tour group eliminates the hassle of having to plan excursions, wasting precious hours of your travel days waiting in lines for tickets, and hoping you are not missing out on some other event or location that you did not know about.  However, these group excursions will likely be pre-arranged and mandatory, denying you opportunities to go off exploring on your own if that is your thing.  I remember resenting this in June, cursing the fact that I was stuck in group activity when I wanted to go and explore the city, see the old buildings, walk through the Plaza de Armas, see some of the beaches, talk to random strangers…anything but sitting around talking to a bunch of Americans…after all, if that was what I wanted, I would have stayed home!

     However, the people and locations we had access to as a part of a group affiliated with a well-known and respected Cuban institution proved to be invaluable!  We were able to meet with the Minister of Education, attend private music and dance workshops, have tours of the Museum of the Literacy Campaign and the Latin American School of Medicine, visit a daycare in Pinar del Rio, and a school for children with special needs and an elementary school in Habana.  Also, since our delegation was through the Martin Luther King Center in Marianao (a neighborhood in Habana), and both our group leader and translator were Cubans, we had the benefit of learning about Cuba from Cubans.

     Being here now by myself I realize how difficult it is to arrange these things on your own.  I had few personal contacts in Habana before my arrival, and it has been an exhausting process making arrangements for different types of research visas, learning where different libraries and archives are, and finally finding the Jose Marti National Library only to discover that they are closed for renovations until October.  Yet as frustrating and exhausting as the process continues to be as I try to integrate myself into the history/research circuit here, it has also made the process more authentic and helped me to learn how things work and what the “pace” is in Habana. 

     On the positive side of having to plan for yourself, it allows for spontaneity and activities to fit your personal tastes.  I finally got to go to a beach (with minimal sunburn for a change), I can wander aimlessly through markets, I woke up one morning and decided to go for a walk on the Malecon and ended up in Habana Vieja, making the round trip from Vedado in about 4 hours… and I have explored the cultural life of the city, attending a concert, the theater, the National Ballet and an art exhibit.  If you like planning for yourself, it can be a very rewarding experience.

 

2)    Companionship

     Having lived alone for several years in Texas and North Carolina, I did not expect to have a problem being by myself in Cuba.  I fancy myself an independent woman and I have a good sense of my surroundings, so I rarely worry about my physical safety.  That being said, you cannot “be an island” while living on an island.  Being alone in a foreign country can be oppressively lonesome, and getting over initial social hesitations and making friends can be a challenge for some. 

     When traveling with a group or family, this issue is less urgent, as you have built-in companionship.  Yet I urge those traveling with a group to not limit themselves to communicating only with the group.  Remember, if you wanted to talk to Americans you could have stayed home, right?

     As I mentioned in Part I, it is important to take advantage of the opportunity to learn about a new culture, language and society.  The BEST way to learn about a country is through its people.  Talk to as many people as you can…cab drivers, street vendors, people at the bus stop, your waiter, anyone!!  The more people you talk to the more you will start to learn about the country.

   Also, you will start to feel like less of a “foreigner” as you start to make friends.  For example, as I head to school in the mornings I exit my building and wave at the man who handles the street parking outside our door.  Monday through Friday before classes, I walk to the same “cafeteria” for my coffee and chat with the nice old man about my classes and the weather (post on this upcoming, as these cafeterias are not like the southern cafeterias in the US), after class I either go to the Institute of History, where I am slowly getting to know all the employees, or head home, stopping on the way at another coffee stand where I chat with another nice old Cuban man.  Compare this to my first few days where I went straight to school, came straight home, worked on my research and homework and sat in my room and watched movies because I was uncomfortable wandering alone, and you can see the value of human interaction.

     So to all travelers, I urge you to talk to at least 5 strangers every day (totally arbitrary number selection), and remember that the best insight into a country is the people. 

 

3)    Daily Needs

     Back home, daily needs and activities such as groceries, eating out and housing needs are part of our routine…If you need groceries you go to Jewel (or HEB or Harris Teeter or Kroger depending on where my readers are logging on from).   If you do not feel like cooking you can go out to Panera or Ruths Chris, depending on your budget.  If you are thirsty and lucky enough to live in the Chicagoland area where our Lake Michigan water is mighty delicious, you just walk over to the faucet.  If you need a new apartment or home you talk to your friends or go on rent.com or call a realtor.  In the world you know and are comfortable in, all these things are relatively simple.  When traveling with a group, many of these things are taken care of by the organizer, or you can be sure someone can point you in the right direction. Yet these simple needs of daily life can be a struggle while transitioning in a new country by yourself.

     As with many places in the world, the idea of a massive one-stop-shop like Walmart does not exist in Cuba.  I go to one place for my eggs, another for produce, another for miscellaneous, and know that some things can be at one place one day and another (or nowhere) the next. (And if you are looking for tomatoes out of season people look at you like you are insane!)  I am just not starting to learn where each of these places are located, but there are no big signs for these stores in many instances so, like everything else, it has been a process. 

     As far as eating out, I just today had my first experience getting food at a cafeteria by myself!!!  (A very proud moment for me!)  As I am budgeting for a year, the restaurants are prohibitively expensive and I will likely go only on special occasions.  Luckily, the streets of Habana are loaded with delicious street food from sandwiches to croquetas to pizza for incredibly cheap prices!  However, you rarely see foreigners at these places by themselves, and it took me a while to get up the courage to stop at a cafeteria for lunch.  (**Notice this was not the case for coffee…I could sooner live without food than coffee, and since I have not yet learned to make Cuban coffee I started stopping in to coffee places during my very first week.)

     Luckily for me, housing was not an issue during my trip as I was referred to a wonderful woman with a casa particular in el Vedado by one of my professors.  However, several of my classmates ended up having to stay in hotels for the first week or so—a significant expense— while searching for housing.  In Cuba, licensed casa particulares are available for foreigners who prefer not to stay in a hotel.  My best description of most is that they can range anywhere from a hostel-type setting to a host family to a shared or individual apartment, depending on the area and your budget.  These are the best option for those on a budget or staying for an extended time, but can be difficult to research or contact from the US for reasons I will not get into.  (If you are interested in researching casas in Habana, look into Conner Gorry’s APP “Havana Good Time”, which includes a list of casa particulares along with their prices, locations and contact information.)

       Like everything else, you can adapt to these changes in daily life with time and patience!

 

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     Making the decision to travel alone or with a group ultimately depends entirely on your personality and comfort level.  Since my trip is very lengthy, the time I have lost to “figuring things out”, waiting in line and getting helplessly lost TWICE near the capitolio is not going to take away from my overall experience.  However, if you are traveling for only 1 or 2 weeks I recommend a group or some form of travel agency to help you with your planning so you can make the most of every day.

The Travel Narrative As Source

Arrival at Jose Marti International Airport

First and foremost, I intend for this blog to serve as a type of extended travel narrative on my time in Cuba.  In my case, this is a complicated mission.  Travel narratives are often written with the intended audience being potential or future travelers to the same location…yet, as my audience is primarily US Americans, * some restrictions apply * on our end.  But again, lets avoid politics and get on with the post:

The inspiration for this subject and my personal interest in the travel narrative comes from a course I took with Dr Louis A Perez at the University of North Carolina during my MA program. (For more on Dr Perez, see previous post “Things My Teachers Taught Me“)  The name of the course, it just so happens, was The Travel Narrative as Source.  Throughout the semester our class of 3, which included myself as well as fellow Cuba enthusiast the beautiful & brilliant Miss Bonnie Lucero, read through a selection of narratives dating from the colonial period to present.  The narratives offered a variety of perspectives on life and politics on the island as recalled by authors of diverse backgrounds.  The course readings certainly strengthened my depth of understanding pertaining to many aspects of the islands history, yet what I recall most from the class were our lengthy discussions and debates not on what the book was about, but why the book came to be.

In these discussions we considered some of the following issues:  Who are these travelers?  Why did they choose to write about their experiences?  Who were they writing for?  Who published the travel narrative?  Where on the island did they visit?  How long did they stay?  How did they gain access to the individuals and locations of which they wrote?  What do they choose to include from their experiences?  What do they leave out?  What is the author’s personal and political background?  What country are they from?  How does the time period contribute to their understanding of events?

My first experience with a travel narrative was my junior year at UT Austin.  Dr Frank Guridy assigned C. Peter Ripley’s “Conversations With Cuba” for his Re-Imagining Cuba course.  For the purpose of the course, the book was used as a first-hand account of the changes that took place on the island throughout the Special Period. (Please appreciate that I am not going off on a 4-page rant on the background and significance of the “Special” Period right now…..maybe later.)  I recall reading through the book with great interest and recommending it to several friends and relatives over the following years.  Several years later, I was glad to see it included on the syllabus for the course with Dr Perez.  Of course, for the graduate-level course we were not reading Mr Ripley to hear what he had to say about Cuba so much as to tear it to shreds, perform a thorough background check on the author, and “Question Everything.”

So, how does all this apply to me and this blog/running travel narrative?  That is what I need to ask myself EVERY TIME I post, or journal, or observe, or share a story or thought with family, friends and colleagues.  As a young woman from the US who has spent most of her life in academia, was born in Chicago but educated in the South, has divorced parents and a Christian background, Irish and Italian roots, comes from a family of Chicago cops, a White Sox fan who hates applesauce and loves running and cooking and old music….how does all of this shape the way I see the world in which I am now living?  Who am I interacting with on a daily basis and how did that come about?  What am I choosing to see and what am I leaving out (collectors bias!!)? How much of an all-encompassing understanding can I expect to get while only in one city?  Will my observations ever be truly credible, as I can never change the fact that I am a foreigner?

I must question everything but not be discouraged by my own inherent flaws as “the traveler.”  One can acknowledge the existence of so-called “biases” without being discouraged by them.  What I share here is one first-hand perspective, and though I am determined to include as much as possible, keeping always in mind the mistakes or omissions of past travelers, I recognize that I will only make my own mistakes, omissions and false interpretations.  I ask that all of my readers keep this in mind and consider my words as opinion and perspective rather than FACT.  As a historian, I am of the opinion that there is not one single undisputable “truth” concerning any story or event, but rather a combination of stories and perspectives that, when considered together, give the student the ability to critically determine the most complete story or picture for his or her self.  My stories, therefore, are simply part of a whole.  I encourage everyone to go read what other people have to say!!!

Forget mojitos, fresh Mango juice is OUT OF THIS WORLD!!!!!!!!!

Things my teachers taught me…..

visit to an elementary school in la habana


I am going to take advantage of these final days in the States to provide some more foundational information on myself, my academic background and my interest and experiences in Cuba.  I am compelled to start this process with a post on my most memorable teachers, as I anticipate I will refer to them often throughout this blog.  In no particular hierarchical order, here I go:

“Be passionate about what you do”
Linda Janus, William Fremd High School

I think it is a safe assumption that most adults in general, but certainly most academics, have one specific teacher from their childhood they remember fondly, who made a lasting impression in some way.  Linda Janus, my junior year US History teacher, was mine.  I was in her classroom when our principal came on the PA to announce the 9/11 attacks, and the only time I ever saw a room full of teenagers actually INTERESTED in history.  Mrs Janus certainly had a gift as a teacher, her spirit was contagious and she was widely liked, but none could doubt her true passion for the subject as she referred to President Lincoln as “Abey Baby” and prattled on and on with stories and facts about our nation’s history.  Back then, I was set on my life path to become a lawyer and take on the world, but I remember thinking how lucky she was to be doing something she so clearly loved! Four years later as I stayed up nights debating whether I should be filling out applications for Law School or graduate school for history, my mind drifted often to the days in her classroom.

”Never underestimate the power of storytelling”
Professor Jonathan Brown, University of Texas at Austin

I hope not to offend Professor Brown that this is the lesson I chose to include for him.  After all, he and Dr Frank Guridy are the men responsible for my Cuba obsession and the subsequent destruction of all my life plans involving law school.  I kid, of course, as I could not be happier with my career choice and LOVE what I do!!  But I digress…

Besides his fantastic wit and dynamic teaching style, my fondest memories of the courses I took with Dr Brown while at UT were the stories he told, particularly in his Cuban Revolution course.  Nearly 5 years later I still vividly remember most, and “borrow” them often in my own lectures.  I have noticed how quickly you can regain the attention of an audience by simply shifting from “lecture” to anecdote. It has been a highly effective tool for teaching, and I am personally grateful for the wealth of details I learned from these stories.

”Keep an open mind”
Dr Chris Bell, University of Texas at Austin

I would honestly be surprised if Chris even remembers me… but I also doubt any of his students could so easily forget him.  I took one Geology course with Dr Bell my junior year of undergrad.  While I had a difficult time masquerading as a scientist, I found Geology incredibly fascinating.  Yet many things I learned from Chris were not particularly science-based.  (As I side note, I find it difficult to this day to refer to professors by their first names, yet Dr Bell insisted on the first day of class that we call him Chris.)  As extra credit questions on our Geology exams, he would include US geography map quizzes, remarking on how limited the geographic knowledge of most US students is, a theory strengthened at mid-term when one UT student correctly identified the state in which he attended school but labeled it “Texis”.  It was clear, however, that Chris did not feel confined by his discipline, and allowed any variety of topics to be discussed and debated throughout the course.  I particularly remember a lecture in which he discussed “collectors bias”, a geological idea referring to the fact that samples analyzed are inherently biased as they are samples from one geographic location as opposed to another, depending on where the specific geologist took his or her sample that day.  In the spirit of cross-disciplinary cooperation, I frequently use the term in referring to gathering evidence or researching in my own field.

”Question everything”
Professor Louis A Pérez, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill

After finishing my graduate program, I think that the old adage “Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear,” should be abolished.  It is my philosophy, as I shared just yesterday with my godsister as she sat reading her AP Colonial US History textbook, that you must question EVERYTHING.

In addition to Professors Brown and Guridy at UT, Dr Pérez at UNC is responsible for my fascination with Cuban history and all things Cuban.  In all likelihood, there is not a Cuba scholar in the country who is not familiar with his work.  I consider myself very fortunate to have studied under him while in North Carolina.  These courses had the most intense/aggressive/intimidating syllabi I have seen to this day, and I lost many nights of sleep attempting to complete the reading assignments and papers, only to go to class and leave thinking I had done everything wrong!  I would develop clever approaches to the material and try to come up with critical theories and angles only to have him immediately pose a hypothetical question that knocked it right down.  This was even more true when reading sources that seemed clear and straightforward to me, as Dr Pérez insisted that if you are reading something and believe it is an unbiased author, that only means that you and the author share the same biases and therefore you need to question it more and force yourself to recognize your own personal biases.  While incredibly frustrating at first, I also find it refreshing as a historian to be able to say that no matter how many times you have examined a source, an idea, a time period, there is always something you have not considered.  There is always a way to look at what you thought was right and tear it to shreds.  (Quite possibly I am making this into a positive to avoid breaking down in tears every time I take on a new project and realize it is futile to try to cross every t, dot every i, because I will always miss something…and I pray Dr Pérez never reviews one of my books…..)

”Always strive to improve your writing”
Professor Nancy Mitchell, North Carolina State University

There were several times throughout my MA Thesis draft process that I wondered what I was thinking when I asked Dr Mitchell to be on my committee.  After 2 years and as many US Foreign Policy seminars with her at NCSU I knew her greatest academic passions- besides Vance and Brzezinski- were Cold War policy and PERFECT writing.  I will reluctantly share my experience from a Halloween party two years ago where I spent half the evening on the verge of tears or borderline hysteria over a paper re-write: I wrote what I believed was a good draft of an article on President Carter and the exile community in Miami and sent it to Dr Mitchell for review.  The track changes that came back in the Word document overwhelmed the body of the paper itself.  I felt so defeated I began to question whether I even belonged in academia, as I was clearly a poor excuse for a writer (an integral element in the life of a historian).  Yet, once I calmed down and really looked over her comments I was able to make the appropriate changes and submitted a great paper! (if I do say so myself…)  It later became my first published article and my writing sample for PhD applications.  This learning process did not exempt me from similar instances as I submitted draft after draft of thesis chapters the following year, but again, the end result was worth the sleepless nights.

There are times I feel the world would be better-suited if we had more high school English teachers… as the basic writing skills of the average undergrad are abysmal, to put it mildly.  One of the first lectures I ever prepared was a 1-hour workshop on proper historical writing and the benefits of being able to formulate a coherent sentence.  Thanks to Dr Mitchell, I will always be conscious of my writing and strive for perfection.

(As a side note, I am clearly not submitting polished works of academic mastery in this blog, I will save my energy for the book….)

”Teachers can be our friends!”
Professor Richard Slatta, North Carolina State University

As a student, the things I learned from Dr Slatta are innumerable.  However, for the sake of this post I will mention that this Professor not only chaired my thesis committee, served as my academic advisor and consistently offered constructive criticisms and advice pertaining to life as a graduate student as well as my later career as a professor, but also became a valued mentor and good friend.  I am afraid I will never be able to sufficiently express my gratitude to Rich for his help over the years.  However, as a professor I will strive to follow his example with my own students, always keeping an open door and an open ear.

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Of course, there are dozens more whose names I will never forget, who have made a lasting impression on my throughout my academic career, who have helped me learn to form opinions, challenge ideas, and never be afraid to think outside the box.  To all of you I am “eternally” grateful.

Message of the Day: Thank your teachers!!!

What are the chances of me finding a Longhorns fan in Centro Habana?