Studying in Havana: Things I’ve Had to Get Used To About Life in Cuba
Three trips to Cuba just weren’t enough. I still yearned to spend more time in the country connecting to the Cuban life. So in early 2017, I enrolled to the University of Havana and moved in with family friends in the beautiful Vedado neighborhood, as immersed as a yuma could be.
Being a cultural hybrid from a U.S. inner city, I am skilled in adapting to various cultures and environments. But that didn’t mean there weren’t things that I had to get used to. Things that shook me, threw me off and opened my eyes. Below are ten moments, ideas, experiences, and insights that I had to get use to while studying in Cuba.
Trumpocalypse is Inescapable
A part of me knew I couldn’t escape the Trumptatorship anywhere I went. I’ve known this since I spent the Bush years studying abroad in Europe. Bush’s words echoed throughout the world. His actions affected the globe and swung the world’s pendulum drastically.
So not even in Cuba—especially not in Cuba—could I escape the Trumpocalypse. He’s on the news nearly every night. At school—especially at school—on the streets, among my classmates, at the doctor’s office, while sipping my morning cafecito, I’m persecuted by his shadow. And Cubans love to talk to me about him when I admit (yes it feels like a guilty admission nowadays) that I’m also American. I can’t escape Trump or U.S. politics. None of us can.
Realizing That Cubans Aren’t All That Isolated from the World
In a way, yes, Cubans are isolated. Cuba officially has only one newspaper that is controlled by their government. The government also owns and censors all mainstream media outlets. So many news events and information do not make it into their media. Many books have been banned. You can get in trouble for saying or expressing certain things deemed anti-revolutionary. Punishments range from getting arrested, to not getting a good job and losing bureaucratic privileges.
Most Cubans also don’t have free access to the internet, a major impediment to staying informed. Calling or communicating with people outside of the island is exorbitantly overpriced. So in these regards, Cubans can be isolated from the world.
But simultaneously, they actually aren’t as isolated as we may think. Many Cubans (especially the Habaneros) seem to be more up to date with American news and media than I am! This is thanks to the offline/underground Cuban Netflix (el Paquete Semanal). Cubans that can afford $1 a week or have friends who can share the Paquete with them, receive a weekly terabyte of the latest YouTube videos, PDF books, podcasts, audiobooks, news shows (even the Daily Show), songs, magazines, soap operas, random documentaries and much more from around the world.
Viejo Verdes on the Streets
Eradicating machismo wasn’t really on the revolution’s agenda. There’s even a well-known but mathematically outrageous rumor that Fidel slept with 35,000 women. He was known for being a “mujeriego“. Flipping through women as if they were ephemeral objects. He was also deeply homophobic and later admitted guilt and regret for the persecution of LGBT folks in Cuba. That mindset coupled with the typical Latino machismo did not fail to trickle down into the everyday mentality of Cubans. To be clear, Cuba is definitely not the most sexist country in the world but it’s also far from the beacon of hope for feminism.
Walking down the street in Cuba as a woman can be intimidating, to put it kindly. I am constantly regarded as a sexual opportunity. That’s about the limit of my value to men as a woman. As a foreign woman, I was regarded as a sexual opportunity with a gold mine at the end of my proverbial tunnel. In taxis, at the doctor’s office, walking to school, shopping for food, men (especially in groups and especially the older men) howled and hissed at me. They grabbed my arm and often stopped me in my tracks as I was walking, demanding my attention and a conversation.
“Viejo Verde!” I finally snapped at an insistent older man one day. He froze, almost looking embarrassed. And an older woman crossing the street nodded in disgust “Yup, that’s what he is. A Viejo Verde.” Try it next time. It’s some random Dominican spell I was taught to chant at 11 years old to ward off the street harassment from old men in the Bronx. Luckily it works in Cuba too.
Being a Terrible Communicator
Since the internet is timed, scarce, and slow, when I do connect, I quickly skim everything and only respond to the utmost important emails and messages. If someone isn’t online when I’m connected, I can’t have a conversation with them. Calling is outrageously expensive (Cuba’s fault). Skype is illegal (US’ fault). Watsapp and Facetime drop every few seconds. And IMO is painfully slow. So I became a terrible communicator with family and friends outside the island.
All my emails, Instagram and Facebook posts were written and uploaded in offline mode. So that when I did connect under the hot scorching sun under timed internet access, I often forgot who I responded to and who I didn’t.
Texting on the island is also pretty expensive. So my texts are limited to a few concise words and no emojis (the horror).
Becoming a Better Communicator
Because I was no longer glued to my cell phone, I was fully engaged in real-time conversations with friends and family. I didn’t have the compulsive habit of checking my phone for alerts. I was fully present in their presence. The quality of my conversations and connections to friends and family, professors and classmates became stronger and deeper. I listened. Their spoken words were my real-life news feed. I couldn’t make preconceived notions about who they were based on their social media profiles, because I was connected to them intuitively and real life. And because Cubans are highly educated thanks to their free education, conversations and debates often left me enlightened and intellectually stimulated.
From meaningful insights to intuitively fixing problems rather than incompetently Googling everything, I felt more liberated and connected. I became more present and mindful than when my iPhone was a permanent extension of my hand.
Getting Lots of Uninterrupted Beauty Sleep
My first night being back in Havana, was the first time in years that I fell asleep before 10 PM. Every night in Cuba I got over 8 hours of sleep. Without the internet, I no longer spent an hour online before going to bed with my eyes glued to a bright screen. I also didn’t wake up and reach for my phone right away to catch up on various notifications. That’s about two hours that went back into my deep sleep.
Taking My Minimalism to a Whole New Level
Yes, I knew there was scarcity in Cuba. Especially when compared to my abundantly, over-endowed, and wasteful U.S.A. I was prepared for scarcity. In fact, I even dedicated an entire suitcase to various foods. And I made sure to pack other everyday items that I personally needed during my Cuban tenure.
But I couldn’t pack my own fruits and veggies, eggs, an oven, internet, or transportation. Some of the many things in low supply in Cuba. In February, I only found a single lime/lemon in any of the few fruit stands. In March, the only greens I could locally find were tomatoes and onions. Garlic is rare and very expensive. Eggs are only sold in a few places. And when I would finally find eggs, they were pre-packaged in an open carton to save on resources. So I had to walk down the streets praying to the heavens that no one grazed by me so that I wouldn’t drop the eggs.
Carrying Eggs or Toilet Paper Makes You a Celebrity
“¡Niña!” random passersby and neighbors would call out to me. Whenever I bought eggs or toilet paper, dozens of strangers would stop me on the streets to find out where I bought them. Cuba’s pre-existing scarcity problem coupled with the increased pressure from tourism have further exacerbated the already limited availability of “basic” items like eggs and toilet paper.
Feeling the Effects of the U.S Embargo Against Cuba
I could not check my bank accounts, my bills, or access a variety of necessary websites or applications because they were all blocked. Many international applications, services and websites are banned in Cuba by U.S. law due to the still-standing U.S. embargo against Cuba. The hurdles I had to overcome due to the embargo cost me time, energy, and money. It was exhausting and infuriating. But most of all, it made me feel unjustifiably helpless. And I’m privileged, my little “problems” pale in comparison to a Cuban who has lived under the embargo their entire life!
Letting Go of What I Can’t Control
After getting a small taste of what it’s like to be caught between an authoritarian government and the oppressive laws of a world superpower, I finally began to understand why many Cubans just give up and let go. Inertia isn’t their flaw or weakness, it’s a strength and survival tactic. A Cuban with little resources or privilege who tries to swim against the current will likely drown of exhaustion.
Contrariwise, growing up in the Bronx, I learned to fight. Fight injustice. Fight for what I wanted. Fight to make money. Fight to survive. Capitalism taught me to fight with everything I had and rarely ever accept “no” for an answer. It plagued me with anxiety, but it taught me to hustle and it turned me into a beast.
Under communism, I realized the opposite works. Cubans get at least the bare minimum of what they absolutely need: free school, free healthcare, and subsidized food rations. The rest is heavily controlled. Wages are so low, that fighting for a job is like fighting to get in on a cookie crumb. Whether you work hard or not, almost everyone is getting paid the same low wage (with these exceptions).
My newly acquired skill set in Cuba was to stop fighting so much all the time. For instance, I learned to sit back and enjoy the day as it passed because there wasn’t much to do during a power outage. I read books more, connected deeper with humans, and for the first time in a long time, I felt far less anxiety. In Cuba, I learned if I can’t “resolver” something then the only other option is to let it go.