At the risk of sounding like a stereotype, I love musicals. In fact, my “Favorite Broadway” playlist on Spotify has over 100 songs on it, despite the fact that I’ve only seen 4 or 5 musicals in my life. And two of those were actually the movie versions…
Theatre is expensive, ok?
Anyways, one of my favorite Broadway songs is a song called “America” from West Side Story. In it, two of the Puerto Rican women (Rosalia and Anita) are fighting over whether or not America is better than their homeland. For every pro Rosalia has for going back to Puerto Rico, Anita has a reason to love being in America better. “I’ll drive a Buick through San Juan/If there’s a road you can drive on!” etc, etc. It’s a struggle between the memories that were and the amenities that could be, punctuated with women in bright skirts kicking up a lively Latin jig.
I was reminded strongly of this song when I went to Cuba last week. I’ve had many answers to the question “How was Cuba?”, but one of my most honest answers was that Cuba is a land of contradictions.
The fruits and vegetables are the freshest you’ve ever tasted, untouched by pesticides and chemicals (just look at the size of those carrots!).
But, many people in Cuba are starving.
The buildings are brightly colored and beautiful, a burst of life around every corner.
But, graffiti on the dazzling walls reminds you what the Communist government expects of its people.
The vibrance of the buildings is reflected in the undying spirit of the people, with music and laughter and dancing in every street.
But, missing sidewalks and abandoned houses remind you that their joy comes in spite of great adversity that many face due to the frighteningly low standard of living.
Because of all this, I think that Cuba is a nation that stands at the heart of the human experience. In a way, to live is to suffer. We as humans suffer heartache, pain, economic instability, hunger, thirst, a desperate need to make our lives count for something. Nowhere is this more evident than in Cuba, where many people make less than $10 a month.
On the flip side of that, to live is also to thrive. For every heartache, we have love. For every pain, we have triumph. For every dollar we don’t have, we find a way to celebrate as if we had more than enough. And again, nowhere – nowhere – is this more evident than in Cuba. Everywhere you look, there is art, beauty, and love, despite all of the odds.
This was my first trip to both a Communist country and a country that isn’t first-world. Technically Cuba is defined as a second-world country (because of former Soviet influence), although as my fiancé’s uncle likes to say, “We’re not first, second, or third-world: we didn’t even get to the race.” I was beyond lucky to be able to stay with my fiancé’s family, and definitely feel like we got the most authentic Cuban experience that we could. Upon talking to another pair of Americans in the airport on our way out, we found out that all the official tours are state-run and heavily censored. In contrast, we got to wander Havana with family members as our guides. This resulted in a lot of interesting commentary (as evidenced above) that helped us gain insight into the average Cuban’s thoughts on their own country – something you definitely won’t find on a tour.
There are a lot of media portrayals of Cuba, and when I was there I found that some were true while others were not. Yes, the government still exercises a lot of control over the citizen’s lives. However, with the thawing of relations with the United States, a lot of things are changing. There’s more advertisements than there were just 10 years ago, the tourism industry is growing again (although most non-tour guides still only speak Spanish, so brush up if you plan on going), and privately owned businesses are allowed. I hold a lot of hope that some of these changes will be good for people and mean more economic opportunities for them. I also really hope that the growing popularity of Hyundai and Renault (pretty much the only modern-day carmakers that operate in Cuba) doesn’t mean the disappearance of the beautiful classic cars that the island nation is famous for. These were pretty sweet, even if some of the ones that ran as taxi services for locals were less than stellar.
As this is still a food blog, I would be remiss to leave out a description of the fare Cuba has to offer. The most famous staple of Cuban cuisine is rice with beans, and we had plenty of it while we were there. However, don’t pass up on tostones (fried and smashed plantains) if you’re offered them. Pork is the meat of choice, though if you’re staying away from it for religious, ethical, or no real reasons, you’re likely to be able to find chicken as well. If you’re a no-meat kind of person, never fear: the vegetables are some of the freshest that you will ever taste (as stated before). Pizza sounds like something you wouldn’t want to get if you were being “authentically” Cuban, but I promise that Cuban pizza is unlike any pizza you’ve had. The texture is different, and the main cheese is gouda rather than mozzarella (um, yes I am so here for that). I also recommend trying a variety of the breads available, as they’re mostly all baked fresh every day (no prepackaged brands in the stores) and are amazing dipped in any soups that you’re served. If you’re into Latin American desserts (I allow myself to be a stereotypical American from time to time and prefer my desserts to be much sweeter than what most of Latin America prefers), make sure to stop at a store or stand advertising pastelitos – they’re brightly colored, adorable, and cheap enough to get some for your whole family (or just you, I won’t judge).
This is all, however, hinging on the fact that all of these things are available on any given day. A lot of things happen for seemingly no reason in Cuba, including power outages and food shortages. By “for seemingly no reason,” I of course mean that the government does them and doesn’t tell anyone why. For us, this meant no bottled water on the first day, no soda on the third day, and on the fourth day we couldn’t find any store that sold bread until we happened upon a small stall tucked away behind a bar. It sounds weird, but as a tourist you just have to suck it up and deal with it the way the Cuban people do. It shouldn’t interfere with your trip if you don’t let it, but I do suggest you buy water by the gallon just in case tomorrow’s shipment “goes missing” for whatever reason.
All in all, this was one of the most exciting and memorable trips that I’ve ever been on. Cuba was truly beautiful, and it was an absolute honor to finally have my fiancé be able to share his culture with me. I 100% recommend that you plan a trip if you can. Flights through Allegiant (to get to Florida) and JetBlue (to get to Cuba) are super cheap in the off-season, and JetBlue can even help you get the visa that you need to enter the country. If you go, be mindful that the tourism industry is young and is not set up to cater to demanding tourists. You may not be able to afford the only 5-star hotel, and the customer service culture definitely isn’t the same as in America (I almost lost it when we asked a gate attendant at the airport if our plane had left and she said “Boy, I don’t know anything about a plane”), but I promise that it will be worth it. If you’re ready to take an adventure and dive into a culture that has been misconstrued and misunderstood for the majority of the fifty-five years of the embargo, then I suggest you start planning today. As you read this, both Cuban and American societies are changing at a rapid pace. Take this chance before it’s gone – the chance to see a society ready to reintroduce itself to the world.