Photo by Ruth Stone/Contributor
Fresh off the plane in Havana, Cuba
Wow, what can I say? Cuba has blown my expectations and I only have been here for three days. Day to day life in Havana is vastly different from the United States which we’ve experienced due to the humidity, 1950s cars, and architecture. My fellow classmates and I are definitely not in the United States anymore.
Moving forward, the first stop on everybody’s travel list was going to the hotel and checking in. From the airport to the hotel, our trip took about 25 to 30 minutes. At first glance, I realized our hotel is impressive. It stood out like a sore thumb because of its bright colors: red and white. Walking into the hotel I realized that there was no air conditioning, which made me nervous to think that I was going to stay in this grand hotel for 17 days in the blistering heat.
Taking our luggage into our room in the elevator was unbearable. I didn’t think that the elevator was going to be as claustrophobic as it is. I thought it was just me, turns out it was everybody, sweating up a storm. Walking into our room it was slightly humid, but it was interesting to experience such a difference between this hotel and California hotels. Its Victorian style is aesthetically appealing but it could also use some updates. The crown molding is nice but falling apart, and there’s also some water damage. What makes this room unique is the fact that they have furniture that seems antique. I have to say the best part about our room is not that it has air conditioning, but the fact that we have an amazing view of Havana. We have the opportunity to take pictures of all the architecture and people roaming the streets.
Three days into this trip and we have explored so much. I’m excited to see how the rest of my trip goes, but after a long day of being in the sun, it’s wonderful to come back to the room and relax.
What to expect when you’re not expecting
When you go to a foreign country, what is it that you expect upon arrival? Do you expect people from other countries to be friendly, rude or pushy? Being in Cuba, I am pleasantly surprised to find out that people are so nice. Granted most of them can’t speak English here, but the ones that can, wow, they sure love to talk. Not to mention they’re super friendly.
Obviously studying abroad that means you are working on something; I decided to focus on casa particulars, which in English means Bed & Breakfast, or rented room (or Air BnBs). I decided to focus on this because different people from around the world can’t always afford hotels, or they may even want to experience a new type of environment. In Havana, Cuba there are more than 1,000 casas here, and I was able to explore two rental options today.
The first one was a brightly colored yellow house that looked very inviting. The owner of the casa didn’t speak any English, but her son did and was able to answer all my questions. It seems like when learning another language, especially Spanish, you can make out some of the phases they are saying, especially when you ask them a direct question. The casa was very beautiful on the outside and had plenty of rooms for rent. One downstairs, and two on the second and third floor. When taking pictures, he told me that he recently renovated to make sure his clientele would come back in the future and continue to stay with him.
The second stop was 26 minutes away. It was a casa that was on the inside of a modern building. You had to walk up three flights of winding stairs. Yes, it was a workout, but it was big on the inside with such a welcoming environment. They offered Daisy, my tour guide, and me Cuban coffee, cigars and friendliness. He was interested in my project and gave me great intel about the casa business. As well as answering all my questions honestly, he gave me input on President Donald Trump, his views on Cuba and the revolution which changed Cuba forever. This gentleman’s name was Ray Jr.
I’m so fortunate that he greeted us with welcoming arms and sat down and talked with us more about other things than just my project. He rejected the five pesos I tried to give him and said my smile was enough for him, which was sweet. The Cubans here really are amazing. Cuba truly has a cool vibe.
The little things you take for granted
I love my country so much because we have so many conveniences such as the Internet, electricity, and air conditioning. I am truly a neat freak and love to have everything clean and organized, especially when it comes to my clothes. Being in Cuba for about a week now, I figured it’s time to do some laundry. When I’m back home I do laundry when my basket of dirty clothes gets full. I do full loads that consist of darks, lights, and towels. Being in a country like this, laundry is not as easy as it is in the States. It’s actually quite a culture shock.
My roommate and I decided that our room was getting a little funky and we thought it would be a good idea to pay to get our laundry done. Little did we know, you have to pay for every article of clothing here. They expect you to pay for everything such as socks, shirts, jackets, dresses, etc. Looking at the paper with the list of price ranges, it seems like they make you pay for clothes based on age and sex; male, female, and children. For example, a women’s dress is 4.50 pesos; male’s shirt 1.75, and for a child’s blouse is 1.75. Not only are you paying for that, you are paying for quantity. So, if you had four dresses to wash you are paying 18 pesos. It’s a little mind-boggling and it makes you wonder why you are paying so much. Is it because of the high electricity bill, or because it’s a hotel and they can overprice because people will actually pay for it? If you compare this back to the States, when you need something washed, you are paying for the loads. Not only in hotels but apartments and air BnB’s.
I have lived by myself multiple times in apartments and shockingly enough, the laundry wasn’t free. For washing it was about $3.00, and drying was $2.00; but again, paying for the load and not the quantity. The cultural differences between America and Cuba are really started to be present. Because we didn’t want to spend over 100 pesos on laundry at the hotel, my roommate and I filled up our bathtub with laundry detergent and washed our clothes by hand like they used to do in the early 1900s. It was an experience because we had to constantly scrub, rotate, and soak. We also hung up our clothes to air dry and are clothes are still soaking wet 48 hours later. Little things such as laundry make me want to go back home and appreciate everything I have.
Food in Cuba is either hit or miss
Going to another country, one thing I typically get excited for is the food. Before going on this trip, my dad went to Cuba before I did and told me the food is literally hit or miss. My dad said the best food to get on the island is the seafood, especially the lobster. I haven’t had the lobster yet, but food in Cuba is definitely a hit or miss. We have had amazing fresh food from HM Restaurante near the Malécon. We had the best ceviche which was super fresh fish along with gluten free chicken dumplings which were delicious. Then two days later, we stumbled upon a restaurant that was around the corner from our hotel, called él Cameron.
We were so hungry and we both wanted to get our food cravings out the way. I wanted spaghetti and Christine wanted chicken wings. As we sat down ordering, the waitress asked me if I wanted something else on the side oddly enough I said chicken. She came back about ten minutes later with a full plate of spaghetti and a whole plate of chicken, beans and rice, and cucumbers.
The spaghetti she put on the table was bizarre. It was covered in white cheese that looked ridiculously hard, and the middle was supposed to be red sauce but it was pink. I literally thought my eyes were playing tricks on me, but when I was mixing it around, I realized my eyes were not deceiving me. I took half a bite and almost gagged, that was the worst pasta I’ve ever had in my life. I moved onto the chicken next, which was decent, but it was very salty. Everything about that restaurant left a bad taste in my mouth and that night, I was having the worst stomach problems. I could feel my stomach turning upside down every hour I was trying to sleep.
The next morning, I threw up and couldn’t stop going to the bathroom. Going to class was also bad because I could feel and hear my stomach continuing to turn. Moving forward three days later, my stomach still wasn’t having it, even though I was trying to push through the pain.
Eating in Cuba now has ruined everything, and I’m scared to eat anything at this point because I don’t want an upset stomach anymore. I have literally been eating once a day and drinking as much water as possible, and it’s not getting any easier. Eating here, like I said, has been hit or miss, but being here for nearly a week now, I’m scared to try any type of food at this point. Situations like this really make me miss modern conveniences like CVS, so I can pick up medicine, as well as drinking tea. Also, Yelp would have saved me if I looked up the reviews for this place.
Experiencing the unexpected
Traveling to another country, I would never imagine finding myself in a hospital. Turns out I was wrong. After four days of being in excruciating pain, it was time to tell my professor that I have been feeling like shit and my stomach wasn’t feeling any better. I woke up with my stomach looking like I was pregnant, and pain that made me feel like I had to constantly puke. After sitting in class dying from constant movement in my tummy, my professor said it was time to go to the hospital. We ended up going to Farmacia Internacional, about 15 minutes from the Hotel Presidente.
Going to a hospital in a foreign country, I had no idea what to expect. Walking in, it had this aura of sadness and pain. Nobody was smiling except for me and Casey. I smiled through the pain, but I felt like I was disrespectful to everyone else in pain. Casey helped me get checked in which was super helpful because prior to getting here, I overheard someone say that people speak English here, but that was almost false information.
After waiting for little over 30 minutes, the nurse came to get us to take us to the doctor. The doctor was talking to Casey about what my problem was, such as how many times had I gone to the bathroom and how long had my stomach been hurting. He then asked me to lay down on the table to figure out what areas were hurting. My stomach didn’t hurt as bad until he was applying pressure that made me queasy again. He then concluded by saying I needed shots in my butt as well as getting my blood drawn to see if I was dehydrated. The two shots were for nausea and stomach pain. The one for stomach pain hurt more than the other because it felt like she stuck it deeper. The shots made my butt super numb, but it was worth it if I could get back to my old self.
After a nurse came to draw my blood, she said it would take about 15 minutes to get results back which ended up taking three hours! When we finally got in line to pay, she said that we had to go to the pharmacy, which we weren’t thrilled about because someone should have said that first. The pharmacy was very different from what I was used to. It was displayed in a glass box with prices and health cures, but we got the medicine. Furthermore, after waiting a while, we went back to billing and paid, while Casey was guarding our spot vigorously because people kept cutting in line. Four hours after being in the hospital we were ready to go and get some food, but of course, they ran out of food, and then we really ran out of patience.
Going to a foreign hospital was definitely an experience and I wouldn’t want to repeat.
The little things can make people the happiest
There’s nothing better than doing something that could change the lives of people less fortunate. Going into the last couple days of this trip, I knew I wanted to put a smile on my maid’s face. My maid Tina cleans up our room daily. I noticed she wasn’t smiling like she did every day, and I asked her if she was okay. She said, “I’m depressed.” I didn’t want to get into her business because it wasn’t my place, but I gave her a hug and told her to keep her head up because everything always works out. She hugged back and said, “Thank you.”
In my head, I was remembering that we are in a country that has people living in a constant struggle to provide for their families. The next day I made sure that I caught her when she was cleaning our room to ask if she was feeling better. She said yes and gave me another hug. She ended up talking to me about her family, saying she wants her family to be okay and she wants her daughter to lose weight, and her youngest daughter to be successful in school. I didn’t catch their names but the youngest was an eight-year-old.
Instinctively, I knew Christine brought nothing but knick knacks to give to people in need. So, while Tina was cleaning, I played her favorite R&B artist, Beyoncé, and gave her several different things like ibuprofen, notebooks, markers, Kleenex, body wash, etc. She had a lot of tears in her eyes and was incredibly thankful. Two days later we had to leave to go back to the States, and after telling Christine and me how appreciative she was when I gave her some healthy necessities, we left her a little present when we checked out. We both wish we could see her reaction, but we knew it really was the little things in life that could change everything, especially living in Cuba. She was telling me the first day after she hugged me that her daughter asks every day if she got anything for the family and now she can. That really is the last thing that keeps replaying in my head. While we in America are always worried about having the most updated electronics, people in Cuba are wanting small things like lotion and tampons.
Being in Cuba really makes me grateful for the life I have because being in Cuba, you can really understand what it’s like to live in a Third World country.