This is what a year's worth of lugage wrapped in lime green saran wrap looks like...
Well it has officially been two weeks and I think I can now safely say that I am more-or-less settled in and can start getting back into “Blog Mode.” For my first few posts I am simply going to give you all a little overview of my personal experiences during my initial weeks in Cuba.
This 5-part post 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
For those of you who have traveled abroad alone before, I am sure much of this will sound familiar. For those of you who have not, here is some insight as to what you can expect if you choose to live abroad at some point (or, for my undergrad readers, as you prepare for your “Study Abroad” experiences).
To be perfectly honest, part of the reason I started this blog before my departure was to try to psych myself up for leaving. When it got to be two weeks from my departure date and I was still not really feeling excited I started to worry.
When I was younger and my family and I went on vacations for Spring Break, I started countdowns from 2 months out, getting more and more anxious as the days went on. So I could not understand why I was not experiencing the same emotions in anticipation for this, undoubtedly the greatest adventure of my life thus far to a place I have fantasized (and dare I say obsessed) about for the past six years. I became convinced that something was going to happen at the last minute to cancel my departure…customs was going to stop me in Miami and say “No no, just kidding, you actually aren’t allowed to go.” A hurricane was going to rip through Florida and destroy the airport. Someone was going to get sick. I was going to fall and break my leg and not be able to leave (not too much of a stretch since I did break my toe days before my departure to Cuba in June). No, I was certain the reason I was not getting excited was because deep down I knew that this was not going to happen.
I talked to my sister a few days before leaving, and she suggested that I was just unable to comprehend what was before me, and that it would likely not really hit me until I sat on the plane in Miami awaiting my departure to Havana. Yet days later, flying over the ocean on my way to Cuba with my own country growing smaller and smaller in the distance behind me, realizing it could be a long, long, long time before I set foot on US soil again, it still did not sink in that me and my three obnoxiously large bags wrapped in green cellophane sitting in the belly of the plane were heading to live in a foreign country.
It has been two weeks to the day, and it has still not “sunk in” the way I expected. But maybe I was expecting too much? If this is where I am meant to be at this point in my life then perhaps the grand rush of emotion signifying a departure from my past and a giant leap into my future may never really happen. I was Katie in the US and I am Katie in Cuba (unintentional, gratuitous plug for my blog title here, but appropriate either way). In the past 10 years I have moved to Texas, North Carolina, New Jersey, Maryland and Minnesota, so why should this be any different?
Of course, it is possible that one day, weeks or months from now, I will wake up one morning, look out my window at the capitolio, gasp, and say, “Wow, I’m in Cuba!” If that happens, I will be sure to let you all know.
While there is no way to predict how your brain will process the reality of relocating or traveling to a different country, there are things you can prepare for in an effort to lessen the cultural shock. Using my personal example of Cuba, here is a list of some things to consider, both before leaving and during your trip:
You can clearly disregard this section if traveling to places like Europe or Canada. However, in places like Cuba, simply communicating with family and friends back home can be extremely difficult. (Here again, I will avoid political commentary on reasons for why this may be.) However, you need to be aware of the expense for contacting home, potential difficulties with internet or telephone access, technological issues, and problems of access in general. At least for the time being, I will be lucky to have one email exchange with my family each week. For someone from a very close family, or with a significant other waiting for you back home, this can be very difficult and is something to consider or prepare for as you plan your trip.
The value of a travel journal is often underrated. Certainly, years down the road, it will be nice to be able to take a trip down memory lane and look back at what you wrote during your memorable trip to wherever, but journaling can also be a helpful way to try to manage your thoughts leading up to and during the trip itself. As I mentioned earlier in this post, I started writing about my trip before I left to try to force my brain to realize I was leaving and anticipate any potential issues before I left. Now, I find myself journaling every day in an effort to try to make sense of things, since my thoughts look a whole lot clearer on paper than they are in the jumbled scrambled mess that is my brain at the moment.
While I went through thousands of documents in the archives and libraries in the US trying to put together a Masters thesis, I realized that documents on seemingly unrelated topics can share common threads that help to paint a clearer picture of a given event of place or individual. Similarly, I am finding that seemingly-random daily events that occur during my days in Cuba, when viewed together, reveal a very interesting perspective on my new place of residence. I hope to use these observations to write some spectacularly insightful katieincuba posts 😉
3) Being a “Foreigner”:
As I attempted to prepare myself for Cuba in the months leading up to my departure, I did a lot of reading to learn from the experiences of past travelers. Having already read practically every travel narrative available on Cuba (See previous post: “The Travel Narrative as Source”), I chose instead to search the internet, reading travel forums on Lonely Planet and everything I could find by Conner Gorry, another American woman/writer from a big city (she is a New Yorker) living in Cuba (see her blog at http://hereishavana.wordpress.com).
In many of Conner’s posts and interviews she mentioned the loss of anonymity that comes with living in Cuba. I did not fully grasp this concept until my arrival. In my personal experience here thus far, what I assume she was referring to is this: In Chicago, I am just another blonde walking down the street or sitting on the bus or waiting in line at the store…I have always been, as the saying goes, “just another face in the crowd.” I recognized before my departure that is unlikely that I will ever “blend in” in Cuba as a tall, fair-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, American-accented woman. But I expected I would appreciate the attention, so I brushed it off as a non-issue. Yet if I have a single complaint to this point about life in Cuba it is specifically this loss of anonymity. Here, I am not “just another” blonde on the street, on the guagua or in line at the store, I am, in many cases, the only (natural) blonde everywhere I go. Because of this, I experience a range of looks and comments ranging from interest to flirtation to annoyance at my very presence. It is an incredibly uneasy feeling, but I am sure I will eventually adjust.
4) Breaking Old Routines:
Though I cannot speak for every one of my fellow US Americans, it is safe to say that most of us have a daily or weekly “routine” of some sort, that we follow with varying degrees of diligence. These routines may include a morning run to Starbucks, a quick workout at Lifetime Fitness over your lunch break, a standing Saturday morning appointment at the nail salon, a Single Malt Scotch after a long day at the office, a nice warm bubble bath when you are not feeling well, a bagel and cream cheese for breakfast and apple pie for dessert. Guess what? NONE of that exists here.
For me personally, this has been fantastic. When I went to Starbucks I always ordered strong black coffee for 25x the cost of a cup of Cuban coffee that tasted better and wakes me up quicker. I am just as happy to get in an a.m. run along the Malecon and work out my glutes walking up the stairs of the University of Havana (and occasionally up the 16 floors of my apartment building when the elevator decides it is time for a break). I am getting to be quite good at doing my own nails…though I wish I had thought to bring nail polish remover with me to Cuba, as I have yet to find it anywhere. While I do LOVE a nice petey dose of Laphroig at the end of a long day, I love coffee even more, and in Cuba you can drink coffee all day long. Who needs a bathtub when you have the ocean? I may not have bagels but Cuban bread and tortilla is delicious, and in time I think guayaba may replace apples on my list of favorite fruits. It is all a matter of perspective and keeping an open mind…which brings me to my final point:
5) Mental Outlook:
Wherever you are traveling, for whatever purpose, regardless of the duration, try to keep an open mind and be positive.
Consider yourself fortunate to have the opportunity to travel when so many in the world never leave their hometowns.
Take advantage of the opportunity to learn a new language.
Study a new culture.
Learn about other societal values and beliefs.
Make new friends.
Realize that every experience has the potential to teach you something new about the world and about yourself.
Have a thick skin and a strong sense of curiosity.
View of the Malecon from the balcony of my apartment in el Vedado