one of the first things andrew and I did when obama lifted the cuban embargo was buy plane tickets. cuba has been a longtime dream for andrew and has obsessed about it ever since I met him in 2011. back in april when we bought the tickets, you had to electronically acknowledge that you fit in 1 of 12 travel categories and if you didn’t, you couldn’t buy them. being the andrew and caitlin pedersen that we are, we bought them anyways thinking that we would figure out a way to qualify.
we in fact did not qualify but I had done some research and found a loophole called people-to-people interactions. I called the cuban embassy in DC but nobody would return my calls so I didn’t know if you needed a visa or not and the internet wasn’t helpful. when the time came, we decided that we would wing it. if they wouldn’t let us in, we figured that they’d put us on a plane back home except that we wouldn’t go home but spend our time in our connecting city of mexico city.
every leg of the trip, we were incredibly nervous. nobody in our group of friends and family had ever been so we didn’t know what to expect. when we got to customs, I gave my american passport to the lady behind the booth where she looked at it, stared at me and then said, ‘bienvenidos a cuba. pase por favor.’ that was it! when andrew and I both passed through, out of relief and excitement we could not stop smiling at each other. we later met another american couple who said that they had many friends who had gone to cuba before so they knew that it was just as easy as going into any other country.
cuba was the first communist country that I had ever visited. a week prior to this trip, I had just finished a book about north korea and its communist ruling. it was particularly hard for me to understand because I had never experienced a dictatorship before so to read about different types of communist tactics was almost like reading different types of fairytales. when we got to havana, the fairytale became real life. there was communist propaganda in every corner of the city and the government was not shy in forcing it upon their people. the only billboards that had advertisements were of fidel castro. most read something along the lines of ‘fidel – nuestro mejor amigo (our best friend).’ there were bookstores on every street and because of my love for books I was excited but only found disappointment when I realized that they exclusively carried books on che, fidel, and the communist party. there were pictures of cuban revolutionary fighters on every wall while parks and buildings were named after famous communist leaders. before this trip, I had never heard of camilo cienfuegos, a cuban revolutionary but by the time I left, I became an expert in recognizing him.
che is an iconic figure all around the americas. I understand this to some extent – he was a revolutionary but the pedestal that many people put him on, I really don’t get. people that wear che shirts might as well wear fidel ones too. people that have che posters on their walls might as well have fidel ones too. they represent the same exact thing – a communist revolution. I’ve read a couple of books on che, one written by his father and the other being the famous motorcycle diaries. the latter doesn’t talk about his political views but more so his travels. you can see his political interest budding however and I honestly believe that che really did have the best intentions for latin america. you can feel his sincerity when reading his descriptions about caring for the poor and sick (or maybe that was just because he was previously a doctor) and I just think that somewhere along the way of his political career he got lost. I’m still reading in depth about che but I think that if he could see cuba now, the revolutionary fighter would probably be saddened at the turnout.
cuba was far more impoverished than I expected. I knew it was a third world country but not on the scale that it was. the deeper andrew and I explored the city, the more we were able to see just how oppressed they were. in motorcycle diaries, che writes this about the indigenous peruvians:
‘these people who watch us walk through the streets of the town are a defeated race. their stares are tame, almost fearful, and completely indifferent to the outside world. some give us the impression they go on living only because it’s a habit they cannot shake.’
I, however, felt the same exact way about the cubans. over the last few years, andrew has learned spanish almost fluently so we had no problem communicating and the more that we spoke to the people, the better we were able to understand their life. they’re shielded from the outside world and know nothing but what fidel’s government teaches them. no one actually told us that they were unhappy (I once read that the people are far too scared to convey their real feelings as well as anything negative about fidel (for obvious reasons)) but I feel like they must to a certain degree otherwise scores of them wouldn’t try and escape like they have done and continue to do.
cuba is a breathtaking country with some of the kindest people that I have ever met but this trip also showed me the reality that many people there face. if andrew and I hadn’t hitch hiked (in parts 2 & 3), we would have only seen cuba at surface level and truthfully, that would have been kind of boring.
part 1 is the city aspect of our trip. we only spent a couple of days in havana and cienfuegos as we really only cared about the national parks.
cuba has the biggest avocados I have ever seen in my life. they were bigger than my head!
horses and cars share the street