Alexandra posed with a furry friend in Havana, Cuba.
Last year, I spent my fall term as an exchange student at the University of Havana, around the same time that you may have been listening to Camila Cabello’s hit song, “Havana.” Cabello’s lyrics do not lie — I am also left longing to return. Havana could not be any more different from Hanover. I don’t presume to know the ins and outs of Cuban culture, but I do have anecdotes aplenty to illustrate some of the differences between life there and life here.
Havana is a rich, sensual city. While there my mind was saturated and, with no digital distractions, I felt a new surge of creativity. Instead of using my phone to mindlessly scroll through Instagram, I read and listened to music. That isn’t to say that I was without Internet for four months. As of June 2013, Cubans have been able to access the Internet through a state owned company called ETECSA. But it isn’t free. Prices change often — when I was there, it was the equivalent of $1 an hour. Like most things on the island, ETECSA and its spotty service is a source of humor. ETECSA has been made into the following acronym: Estamos Tratando de Establecer Comunicaciones Sin Apuro (we are trying to establish communication without rush). This exemplifies the good-natured Cuban humor. They find amusement in the absurdity of life there. “No es facil” (it’s not easy) seemed to be the unofficial national motto. My hostess would jovially declare “a la batalla” (off to battle!) before leaving home.
I remember my first impression of the city was that it looked like it had been recently bombed. And that was before the devastating Hurricane Irma struck land. (We were lucky to be evacuated to North Carolina at the last minute.) I was in one of the finest neighborhoods in the capital city and every other building seemed to be in ruins. The architecture is inconsistent and reflects the many different phases Cuba has undergone. Brutalist, towering communist blocks are juxtaposed with characterful homes from the colonial past. Cuba’s history and politics is written in the buildings — the practicality of socialist housing next to quaint, neoclassical structures that valued aestheticism.
On our first night out, my friend and I were approached by two young Cubans. While they were more interested in offering cheesy pick up lines, we were trying to invoke political opinions. Their answers were scarily textbook, as if they had been recited many times before. “Fidel is a good man who has done much for the Cuban people.” It was uncanny. On paper, this is true. Castro has ensured material provision, an impressive 99.8 percent of the population is literate and there is egalitarian access to healthcare. The United States cannot say the same. However, what is so disquieting is the obvious self-censorship. These same boys ended up calling us incessantly, upwards of 20 times a day. We decided that they must be what’s known locally as “jineteros” — hustlers.
A taxi driver I made friends with would speak freely with me, but only within the confines of his vehicle where the risk was low. To speak critically of the regime while walking down the street would be unthinkable. Alvaro, the taxi driver, advised me to not make any controversial comments at the university. He explained it is simply best to be agreeable and that outward complicity is just a part of life in Cuba. Even when in private, hushed tones descended on the room when any controversial political statements were made. Our hostess was a bold and spirited woman. It was strange to see her lowering her tone when talking about politics. But Cubans accommodate themselves to fit the regime, certainly not vice versa, the culture of surveillance infringing on their personality.
We quickly learned the nuance and implications of language. For example: bloqueo vs. embargo, Fidel vs. Castro. Saying Fidel denotes affection and Castro is seen as a colder, more detached form of address. Saying “bloqueo,” the harsher of the two terms, suggests disapproval of the United States and “embargo” suggests that you are an American sympathizer.
One day, a gallery guard, advanced in years, pulled my friend and I aside and seemed desperate to inform us of the tyranny and the false pretext of civilian liberty. He explained that once Cubans make it to Miami they drink “la Coca Cola del olvido,” the Coca Cola of indifference. I couldn’t understand why he took such risk as to tell us, strangers, his dissenting opinions. Perhaps, because he was in his final years, he had become more unguarded. It was rare to come by nonconforming political opinion. Looking back at photos, I was startled by the severity of the slogans. “Socialismo o muerte” (socialism or death) was a particularly common sight on walls and buildings. Only now that I am in America do I feel alarmed at this. I passed this kind of propaganda on a daily basis and did not think twice about it showing just how quickly I adjusted my idea of normal.
Life on the island is collective and defined by communal living. As a result, there really are no secrets. Gossip lends itself to absolute state control. I never felt unsafe in Cuba, and that was in part thanks to the state vigilance.
There is a nationwide network of stations called CDR: Committee of the Defense of the Republic. There was one every few blocks; a less benign version of neighborhood watch. This kind of infrastructure makes for incredibly tight-knit communities. Individualism is so highly valued in the United States that we were surprised to learn that “auto-suficiente,” self-sufficient, has negative connotations. To the American mind, this would certainly be a complimentary descriptor. But to the Cuban, it suggests that someone thinks they are above others, too arrogant to ask for help. By being self-sufficient, someone is slighting the community, and in doing so violating a key socialist principle. Sharing is an integral part of Cuban culture. For example, if you are eating in front of others, whether in class or in a taxi, it is rude to not offer everyone a bite. If people take up your offer, they know to only take a small amount so that each person has some. Similarly, if someone invites friends to the cinema, it is assumed that they will pay. It is the duty of the person inviting to cover the cost for everyone. And, next week, someone else will invite you and cover your entrance fee. Money being an uncertain factor, this social model makes sense.
I observed that there is also a greater sense of trust among people there. Cubans don’t queue. Rather, upon arrival, you ask who is last in line. Then you keep on eye on when they go and you know that you’ll be after them. And it works. We Americans feel so outraged when people cut in line; it is a reflection of our ugly competitiveness.
Even Cuban transportation is collective; privately owned cars are rare. In fact, the old American cars Cuba is famed for are called “colectivos,” along with other names such as “máquina” (machine) and “almendrón” (almond). People fondly describe these taxis as Frankensteins because the engine will be German, the body will be American and the stereo Korean. These cars demand respect and gentle care. Prepare to be shouted out by the driver if you shut the door too forcefully. Like many things there, they work — but precariously. Bumping along with reggaeton blaring while picking up passengers on the side of the road made for a lively university commute. And at under 50 cents, we got our money’s worth. I did not have it in me to brave the “guagua” more than a handful of times. The guagua is the very cramped public bus and is how most Cubans travel. It costs four cents and you certainly get your four cents of luxury, no doubt nestled into a stranger’s armpit for the majority of the ride while also trying not to fly into the woman opposite’s bosom at every red light. I tended to splurge the extra 46 cents for the taxi colectivo with a guaranteed seat and often entertaining company.
A tough skin was often necessary to be amused, rather than offended at Cubans’ bluntness. It is opposite of the current political correct culture in the United States. The three most common descriptors were “gordo,” “flaco” and “chino”: fat, thin and Chinese. They are meant as neutral observations, or even terms of affection.
There are very few independently standing stores or businesses. Instead, people run enterprises from their homes. The domestic merged with the commercial and made for friendships between owners and customers. I made friends with three women who ran a beauty salon, “Corpus Habana,” in my neighborhood. One day I arrived to a beauty salon in my neighborhood with a breakout, which did not go unnoticed. I was greeted with gasps and one exclaiming “tienes cara feita hoy” — the literal translation is “you have an ugly face today.” This was a tad offensive at the time, but hilarious in retrospect. I remain in regular contact with these women (thanks ETECSA!). Their kindness toward me was very moving; I got sick once and they immediately called their doctor friend to come help.
On the whole, the Cuban people I met were extraordinarily giving and especially generous with their time. They are not reticent. We were all touched by their extensions of friendship and general warmth. However, we all knew truly blending in was never going to happen. Cat calls were so frequent for the women that many of us resorted to walking around with headphones. The American men, on the other hand, were often accosted by prostitutes while walking in typically “touristy” parts of our neighborhood. As a woman, I never encountered this. However, I was at the jazz café opposite a well known hotel in the area and to my left were two young Cuban women who were clearly the paid company of two corpulent old men, tourists no doubt.
In my first few weeks in Havana, I tried running along the Malecón, the seafront road. However, this effort was not sustained due to the slickness of the pavement and the catcalling men. On my runs, I was surprised to see that there were condoms strewn about the sidewalk. Naturally, I assumed this was the site of salacious meetings. I was wrong. Fishermen use condoms as makeshift bait. Apparently, when underwater, they resemble worms. This is a typical example of Cuban ingenuity which characterizes life on the island. Eventually, I abandoned running in favor of a gym which, rather unconventionally, was nestled in the basement of a synagogue. In this gym there were many water bottles filled with an unknown substance. I thought perhaps it was protein powder. As it turns out, it was sand. They had made free weights out of water bottles. Cuban innovation is very impressive. They do not let material deficiencies become insurmountable obstacles. If America were a personality, it would be Type A. Cuba, Type B. There, one has no choice but to relinquish control. Frequently we would return from the gym to find there was no running water.
The unreliable electricity is best exemplified by the elevator in our apartment block. We were living on the 14th floor, so we made frequent use of the elevator. I consider myself lucky to have never been stuck in the elevator. My poor roommate could not say the same. One day, the elevator stopped in between two floors. Much to our horror, and later amusement, a man on the floor below grabbed her legs and pulled her down into his apartment.
Writing this piece has transported me back to Cuba, a time-machine of a country oft used by others as a form of escapism. I felt delightfully disconnected while living on the island. The North American pace of life felt far off, even though there are a mere 103 miles separating the two nations. For many Cubans, it seems that the island is not a form of escapism, but entrapment. Yet Cubans have strong community, low crime, grit and an innovative spirit. They do not rely on smart phones. So often we use capitalist structures to measure our wellbeing. Cubans do not quantify their lives like we do. I have come to the conclusion that what we lack, they have in abundance.