Introduction to Living in Cuba

Downtown Habana during the day is alive with energy,

History

In 1492, Christopher Columbus called Cuba, “the most beautiful land that human eyes have seen.” [1] Indeed, the island-nation located just 90-miles from US shores offers some of the most breathtaking landscapes, incredible architecture and unique sites in the world.  As the tourism billboards state as you exit the airport in Havana “Welcome to Cuba, where past meets present.”  This slogan accurately summarizes the experience of life in Cuba, where you enjoy natural beauty and experience daily life with 21st century world issues simultaneously while riding in 1950’s automobiles and walking past buildings dating to the 18th century.

A little information on the island itself: the 16 provinces of Cuba cover an area of 42,827 square miles and is 776 miles long. (As a point of reference, Cuba could fit into the state of Minnesota 2.5 times).  The island has 3 mountain groups and the highest point, Pico Real de Turquino, reaches 1974 meters (almost 40 laps of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.)  The country has an average annual rainfall of 54 inches and an average temperature of 77 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, the island is home to a number of unique indigenous plant and animal species, has topography ranging from farmland to mountains, and, as an island, has an abundance of breathtaking beaches.[2]

Each province in Cuba, while maintaining a strong sense of national pride and dedication to the patria, also enjoys strong and unique regional traditions and popular culture based on their individual role in the islands history and basic demographic and geographic differences.   Cuba and its history involves much more than the small area surrounding the capital in Habana. It is therefore important to understand the cultural and social differences of the other provinces in order to fully understand Cuba and Cubans today.

Blog Topics

In “Living in Cuba” I will discuss some of the pros and cons of daily life in Cuba today from my perspective as a young North American, unique aspects of daily survival that I find unique and think we should study and learn from, and the historic significance of some of the the different provinces, cities, geography and landscapes as they pertain to the formation of Cuban culture.

Author’s Objectives

If this category seems to be a bit more “miscellaneous” in focus, that was my intention.  While many other categories have very specific foci, I wanted a forum to explore basic aspects of daily life here that I observe that are not easily defined yet still serve an important function in Cuban life and popular culture.  If I am able to better-define this category and these observations as time goes on I will gladly do so.

A 2-hour drive and a world away from the nation's capital, Viñales in Pinar del Rio offers tranquil beauty and a different pace in daily life.

Suggestions

To my readers:  Having read the introduction for this blog category, if you have a relevant topic or event that you would like to learn more about, please mention it in the ‘COMMENTS’ section of this page.  (Even if it is not in Habana, I am happy to travel to the other provinces for a good story!) I will do my best to research and write on all suggested topics.

Notes:

[1] Puig Pernas, Yareira, Me gusta hablar Español, (la habana, CENDA, 2008),

28.

[2] ibid.

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“Wow, I’m in Cuba” Part V: Physically Adapting to Your New Environment

“Stay Hydrated! (I suggest water…)”

 

Welcome to the final installment of my 5-part travel series for katieincuba.  In previous posts I discussed the following:

 

-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

 

Here, I will cover the process of physically adapting to your new environment.  While I am NOT a doctor and have no intimate knowledge of the medical profession, in this post I will discuss some of the physical manifestations of moving or traveling abroad based on my personal experiences. 

 

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This topic is important because both during my visit in June and at several points throughout the last few weeks I became convinced that I was gravely ill because I had problems ranging from headaches to muscle aches to zero hunger to digestive problems to burning eyes and a variety of other physical issues.  The majority of these issues, however, were the result of my body adjusting to a foreign environment, new food and a new routine.  Dramatic changes in the following areas can quickly and dramatically affect your health or physical condition as your body adapts to your new environment.

 

1)    Climate & Environment

     This will obviously be less of an issue for someone moving from Maine to London, where the climate change would be less of a shock to the system.  But if someone were, for example, moving from Chicago to Cuba, the climate variances are at times shocking.  The environmental differences between countries are not restricted to differences in weather, but can extend to differences in air quality, including pollution level and altitude.

     We have hot days in Chicago, but the really hot ones are few-and-far-between and often sandwiched by days with more moderate temperatures.  I certainly survived weeks of oppressive heat and humidity during my time in Texas and North Carolina, but a nice quiet room or car with air conditioning and ice cold lemonade were always just a skip away.  This is not the case in Cuba, where the sun and humidity from 9 am until sundown are brutal, and an open window or abanico are often all that stands between you and heat stroke.  Physical issues resulting from this can range from sunburn to heat exhaustion to heat stroke to headaches.  Try your best to ALWAYS wear sunscreen, bring a handkerchief or small towel to ‘politely dab’ the buckets of sweat that will be constantly dripping down your face, and walk in the shade whenever possible.

     A change in air quality can be very difficult to adapt to as well, especially if you are very active or a non-smoker or have respiratory problems.  If you are moving from an area with non-smoking laws and low pollution levels to somewhere like Habana or Seoul, your lungs and eyes and skin will need to adapt.  As a distance runner, this transition has been particularly difficult for me.  As a result of the combination of car exhaust (the cars in Cuba are the antique US models running on any variety of fashioned engines, gas, oil, what-have-you) and the crowding and traffic and smoking and industry in Habana streets, the pollution level is higher than I am accustomed to.  It has been difficult transitioning and trying to run with the different air quality as my lungs are used to running in a cleaner environment.  In addition, if you have sensitive eyes or skin, high pollution levels can result in stinging and irritation for the first several days until your body adjusts. 

     Unfortunately, there is little you can do to change the air quality of your new environment.  If you are near an ocean, you can take a walk on the beach to relieve your lungs with fresh sea air.  Also, drink tons of water all throughout the day to replace the fluids lost through sweat and to flush the toxins out of your body and skin.

 

2)    Diet

     If you are one of those people who plans to reach your destination and immediately look for the nearest McDonalds or pizza place because you do not want to try the local food, please skip on to the next section…this part is not for you!

     For those of you who are like me, and will try anything at least once, this is my warning to you to take it easy as your body adjusts to its new environment, and try things in moderation.  My personal struggles with Cuban cuisine have involved high salt and oil content, and I have to always be aware of how much of each I am consuming on a given day.  While new foods can be delicious and exciting, the last thing you want to do on your trip is get sick! 

     Besides monitoring intake of things like salt and oil that you usually do not eat much of at home, also follow basic rules of making sure produce is washed well and using your best judgment when buying street food.  (I have had no problems with this so far in Cuba, but know of a few examples in Mexico of several miserable days in the bathroom following a midnight run to the taco stand.)  Also be aware of main aspects of your normal diet that may be absent in your vacation food, such as protein, dairy and fiber, and try to replace them in any way possible with supplements or food.  (Suggestion: Emergen-C packets and Fiber-One bars are portable and a good way to get your nutrients while traveling.)

 

3)    Activity

     Similar to the food issue, be sure you are not dramatically changing your daily pattern with exercise.  If you normally work all day in an office and then go home and relax with your family in front of the television and use your weekends to relax and catch up on sleep, do not expect to go on vacation and be able to “go, go, go” from sun-up to sun-down every day.  If you are planning a trip that will involve a lot of walking and activity, start adjusting your daily routine at home before you leave to integrate more activity so you are physically able to participate in the activities during your vacation without getting ill or injured. 

     On the other hand, if you are someone who runs or goes to the gym six days a week and walks to work every day, be careful not to plan a two week vacation of just sitting around on a beach or taking tour busses everywhere.  While the prospect of a break from your workout routing and enjoying your vacation may sound appealing, the sudden sedentary lifestyle will have physical and mental implications that will negatively impact your experiences on the trip.

     That being said, I recommend to all travelers everywhere that you try to see as much as you can, not only the hotel bar and the beach.  Go exploring, practice the language, try local food, go on excursions, and ask a local what they do for fun.  EXPERIENCE the culture of a new country, do not just go out and do the same things you would do back home.

 

4)    Nightlife

     Here is a special message to all spring-breakers…but basically for everyone who plans to go out dancing or drinking or to shows and parties every night during your vacation.  In the US we are very good at “burning the candle at both ends.”  I cannot begin to count the all-nighters I pulled trying to finish my thesis, only to do it all over the next day, all while trying to maintain some semblance of a social life.  During our normal, daily lives, this is something we have adapted to.

     However, during your first few days in a new country, I urge you to take it easy and ensure your body gets the rest it needs as it attempts to heal and adapt to the new environment.  If you are only going for 5 days or a week, suck it up and have a blast, you can pay for it when you get home!  But for an extended trip or study abroad try to take it easy at first.  When your body feels back to normal then you can get back to your “all-nighters”, but give yourself time to rest and adjust first.

 

5)    Drink Water!

     There is no need to get into detail on this one.  In my opinion, most of the world’s problems could be solved if everyone drank more water.  It is good for the skin and hydration and general health and well-being, and can help your body as you adapt to every one of these changes while you travel.  There is no excuse for not getting at least 8 glasses a day.  If the country or city you are in does not treat their water you can boil it or buy bottled.  Hook your Nalgene to your purse of backpack, wear a Camelback, and buy a bottle at the corner store, Just Drink Water!

 

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I will share a story from my trip to Cuba in June to point out what can happen when all of the aforementioned factors combine in a short time period.

            I arrived in Cuba with one of the worst sunburns of my life thanks to an irresponsible day in the Miami sun the day before my departure.  Unwilling to let a little sunburn slow me down on the most exciting trip of my life, I went about my daily life in Cuba, eating the Cuban food (that is not without a generous portion of salt), loading myself to the point of explosion on Cuban coffee, spending most of our day sitting on the bus or in rooms where we had meetings and events with various representatives of the education system, and going out until all hours with my new friends enjoying a mojito or two.  On day 3 as we arrived at a center in Habana for children without families I felt a strange sensation in my legs and looked down to see that both of my ankles and feet were swollen to at least double their normal size.  A member of our delegation was a doctor and she informed me that I had edema, a common occurrence among pregnant women that can occur from a sudden change in diet, excessive salt, caffeine or alcohol intake, or a change in physical activity.  Check, Check and Check!  Luckily, a very nice old man at the King Center eventually suggested I try caicimón, a large green leaf with anti-inflammatory properties used by Cubans for ages to treat inflammation.  Within a day my ankles were back to normal size, but it was a scary and frustrating and AVOIDABLE experience.

While none of the physical issues resulting from the change in environment and lifestyle are particularly enjoyable (I know I did not love my week with ‘cankles’), you do not need to rush immediately to the hospital, convinced that you are gravely ill.  Instead, control the rate at which your body is exposed to these different elements where you can.  Limit sun exposure, stay active, monitor your diet, and drink TONS of water.

“The perils of too much sun, sitting, salt, coffee and mojitos and not enough water…”

“Wow I’m in Cuba!” Part IV: Navigating Your Way Through a New City

BUS

 

Well dear readers, we are nearing the end of my 5-part travel series with topics including:

-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 future posts, you can expect to learn all about the ups and downs of the transportation system here in Cuba.  (This week for me it has been mostly “downs”, but I digress…)  Here, however, I am writing a general list of suggestions and warnings for travelers to foreign countries concerning navigation and essentially trying not to get lost.

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Those who know me well know that navigation has never been one of my strengths.  I go by landmarks and memory, and if you are trying to give me directions I need to hear “go left at the Citgo”, because if you say “go east on Elm” I am lost.  But in Cuba, I quickly discovered I get lost either way! For the first several days everything looked exactly the same to me, eliminating any change for success with my “navigation by landmark” approach.  In addition to this, it took a while for me to reach a comfort level where I was willing to ask random strangers where I was or where to go.  When I tried asking for help I faced a series of obstacles ranging from not being able to understand them to having the nice Cuban stranger inform me that I don’t need to go home, I need to go into this shop or restaurant and relax…. VERY frustrating, to say the least. 

So, I have prepared these 5 basic suggestions based on my experiences as an aid to future navigationally-challenged travelers:

1)    Getting your bearings

     I will start with an anecdote about my least favorite part in all of Habana, the capitolio area.  I call this my least favorite because practically every time I have ventured to the area surrounding the Capital building I have managed to get myself hopelessly lost.  Without fail, the next day one of my Cuban friends has accompanied me to the scene of my navigational nightmare to show me where I went wrong, and upon my return to the capital it happened all over again, leaving me convinced that the streets outside of the Institute of History magically shift every time I exit the building. (Maybe I get this theory from reading too much Harry Potter, but I am sticking with it!)

     Even if I was lucky enough to come across one of the cheap taxis while wandering aimlessly, I never knew which one was heading towards my apartment because I had no relative idea where my apartment was located in relation to the capital.  Finally one day it sunk in, and I discovered that if I am facing the capital and the Institute is on one side of me and the Paseo de Prado on the other then my apartment is “That Way!” 

     Granted, at any time I could have hailed an official taxi and been driven right to my door, but for 10 times (or more) the cost of taking a bus or Cuban cab.  For this reason, it is important to quickly learn your bearings in a new area.  Using obvious, constant markers such as the largest building, the ocean, mountains or a monument (or the street grid system if you prefer!) you must study the layout of your new city before venturing out on your own.

2)    Public Transit

     Besides being the obvious economical choice for getting around, public transport can also provide a unique view of the people and culture in a new country.  This is particularly true in Cuba, where you can get closer to massive amounts of Cubans in one 5-minute bus ride than in several weeks of average interactions in stores and restaurants. 

     Several volumes need to be written on the guagua (bus) in Cuba, but do not expect that from this author, as I have a decidedly love-hate relationship with these dangerous contraptions.  I love them because I love Cubans and, as I just mentioned, you will not find this many Cubans in this small of a space anywhere else.  I hate them because they have no set schedule that I can make out, they are packed to the point that it is often hard to breathe, the drivers seem to feel they are carting livestock rather than people, and drive accordingly, and I have yet to determine if they actually have set, reliable routes.

     For my personal sanity and to avoid being as much as an hour late to classes and meetings as a result of waiting for a guagua, I made the decision when traveling alone to either walk or take a Cuban taxi.  These taxis are fantastic and, to my knowledge, do not exist in the US.  Cuban taxis, or almendrons, (the word for the still-running antique US cars prevalent on the streets in Cuba) are basically carpools that run throughout the city and surrounding areas at all hours of the day for a little more than the price of the guagua.  Thanks to Cuban ingenuity and the massive size of older automobiles, these cabs can hold between 6 and 16 passengers, depending on the size of the car and the size of the passengers. 

     There are two methods for travel using a Cuban cab, the first being the well-known practice in the US of hailing a taxi as it drives down the road.  In Cuba, however, this process is slightly different.  Since these cabs hold numerous passengers all wanting to get to different places along one route in a somewhat timely fashion, a driver will not stop every time someone signals for a cab.  When the driver passes a parada (bus or cab stop) with several people waiting, he will hold his arm out the window and point with his finger to indicate in which direction his cab is heading.  If you are going that way, you signal him to stop.  Here again, this form of travel requires exact knowledge of your location in the city in relation to your destination.

     The other method for taking a Cuban cab is by finding a street with a line of cabs parked on the side.  Here, there will likely be a man shouting street names or neighborhoods like a scalper outside Wrigley Field on game day.   Upon finding the cab heading in your desired direction, you enter and wait until the cab is full to capacity, ensuring the driver makes maximum profit per route, minus the generous tip he gives the “scalper” for filling his cab.  However, if it is a slow time on the streets and you are the first passenger, you may find yourself waiting for as long as 45 minutes before the driver puts the car in gear, in which case you should maybe consider walking.

3)    Walking

     I love the idea of living in a city where you can walk anywhere you need to go, or just go for a walk one day if you are bored.  As I mentioned in my previous post, one Sunday morning after my arrival in Cuba I walked out my front door and started walking and did not make it back for 4 hours.  Besides being good exercise, walking can be a great way to really see your new surroundings and get to know the area.  But walking also has its obstacles.

     Besides the obvious initial potential of getting lost, you must also consider outside factors such as the weather.  Here in Cuba, if I know I will be walking a lot I always bring an umbrella.  Serving a dual-purpose as a parasol, my bright pink umbrella can protect me during my walks from the oppressive Caribbean sun and random sprinkles or tropical downpours that can occur without a moments notice this time of year. 

     In addition, though you may have a fantastic pair of heels or sandals that go perfectly with your outfit, you need to wear tennis shoes while walking here due to uneven pavement, random rusty metal obstacles in the sidewalk, and the probability that you will have to run across an intersection at some point to avoid being hit by a renegade guagua.

     That being said, walking is my preferred way to get around in Cuba.

4)    Memorize your address

     This point is particularly vital for travelers staying in casa particulares or hostels as opposed to large, well-known hotels.  If you are staying at the Hotel Nacional, for example, any driver in Habana will know exactly where to take you.  However, anywhere less “famous” and you may not have the same luck. 

     To highlight the importance of this I will share a personal story:

     During one of our first nights in Cuba this past June, a group of us with the delegation went out for the evening.  We had an official cab come and pick us up right in front of the center and planned to take a cab back at the end of the evening.  My roommate and I decided to cut our evening short and walked outside the discoteca to find a cab.  We found a driver and told them we were heading to the Martin Luther King Center.  He stared at us blankly.  We repeated that we were staying at the Martin Luther King Center in Marianao.  He stared at us blankly.  Neither of us knew the address so we just started blurting out the names of nearby stores and landmarks, but since most actual stores in Cuba are the same and cafeterias are labeled cafeteria, there was no way to give him exact information except that it was by a library.  He offered to just drive us around Marianao until we saw something that looked familiar, but as two young women alone at night that seemed like a precarious plan, so we sat outside and waited nearly an hour for one of our friends who knew the address to come out and get us safely home. 

     My point in sharing this story is that you cannot assume that every cab driver will know where you are staying, even if it is a hotel.  Since you do not need to be lost alone at night in a foreign country, your best bet is to memorize your address and cross streets immediately upon arrival.

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As far as my personal navigation saga with Habana is concerned, I am nearly a month into my life here and I am fairly certain I have it mostly figured out.  I can walk, signal a cab or hop on a guagua in any part of the city I am familiar with.  Thanks to a clever street system of numbers and letters rather than names, I can even navigate by street names! (Thank you, thank you… No applause necessary.)  However, the process of learning my way around was challenging and, to be perfectly honest, at times really scary.  Hopefully these tips will help future travelers as they learn their way around a new city.

TAXI

“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.

“Wow, I’m in Cuba” Part I: Mental Preparation for Travel Abroad

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).

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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.

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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:

1)   Communication:

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.

2)   Journaling: 

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 observations.

Make new friends.

Explore.

Discover.

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.

Take pictures.

Wear sunscreen!

 

View of the Malecon from the balcony of my apartment in el Vedado