“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.

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“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