This April, my dear friend and roommate in Cuba, Evyn, and I traveled to Cuba for the third time to conduct a Keller Family Venture Grant. Alarmed by the negative effects of increased tourism in Cuba during our time there, we wanted to return to gain more knowledge about Cubans’ perspectives of tourists and the role they play in daily life in Cuba. From these perspectives, we hoped to learn how tourist practices can be problematic and ways in which we can be more ethical tourists ourselves.
Our original grant proposal:
When advertising trendy vacations to Cuba, every article describes old cars, bright but crumbling buildings, blissful island vibes, and music pouring onto the Malecón. Countless media outlets, including the New York Times, describe Cuba as being “a time capsule” and “on the cusp of change.” American tourists, previously unable to visit, lament wanting to visit before the country is “ruined” by capitalism. Visitors leave Havana with a distorted view of socialist society, viewing daily hardships through rose-colored glasses. As stated in one opinion article, “For these Americans, Cuba exists solely as an idealized socialist paradise, in almost complete stasis since the Cold War, which has yet to be befouled by the corrupting influence of other Americans. For them, the island nation is the land of the noble savage on the verge of contact with the advanced but impure outside world, sure to despoil its backward, but charming, ways. These people don’t want to see the real Cuba. They want to be able to say that they were there before it got Americanized.” But what is the reality of Cuban life, and how can we, as visitors, be aware of our positionality and participate in ethical tourism?
Naturally, no matter how much careful planning one does, things may turn out far differently than expected — this is especially the case in Cuba. In the end, Evyn and I conducted our research more flexibly, perhaps not tackling one theme in full per day, but rather broaching several but less in-depth. We also essentially only interviewed Cubans, finding the conversations to be much richer and revealing than those with tourists would have been. Tourists’ problematic behavior is very easily detected through simple observation and eavesdropping. The following is not exactly a presentation of our findings, so much as a daily travel log, including the conversations we had. It’s more personal, but I hope it is eye-opening in some sense, nevertheless. Que te disfrutes.
Returning to Cuba was a lot like returning home.
We touched down in La Habana at 9:30 p.m., the lights of the city less all-consuming than that of most cities. Our American pilot griped about the lack of gates — as if waiting for a gate were uncommon at any airport — and the Cubans around us remained stoic, accustomed to waiting. We de-planed and made our way through Jose Martí International Airport, the humid Havana air feeling welcome, the painstaking lines through immigration, baggage claim, customs, and currency exchange received with resignation. When at last we found ourselves seated in a taxi racing toward the city with our gregarious driver bumping and singing along to Ozuna, we felt at peace.
The next morning we got an earlier start, heading to the Malecón for a morning jog. Evyn and I felt so free and happy as waves crashed over the coast, drenching us all the way to Hotel Riviera. We returned to take incredible cold showers.
Then it was off to Habana Vieja, Old Havana, tourist central. As soon as we arrived, we approached a couple taxi drivers waiting at Parque Central. These drivers camp out in the area with their particularly colorful, shiny cars, offering tourists driving tours of the city. The first man we approached quickly got distracted, trying to catch some tourists, so we ended up speaking with his friend Alejandro. Alejandro was short, maybe 5’5”, wearing jeans, a clean white button down, and a classic Cuban hat. His light blue eyes, contrasted with his tanned skin, looked at us directly and sincerely as he spoke.
The next morning we did another glorious Malecón run, this time running east toward Vieja. About a mile and a half out, we reached a series of incredible statues for the Bienal. It made the run feel more like a game, the statues being checkmarks. We ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the graffiti art, sweating and smiling.
The morning turned sour, unfortunately, when we went to get brunch. We walked all the way out to 6 to go to Casanoba, as mentioned. Our eyes were definitely bigger than our stomachs, as we ordered two orders of eggs that each came with three sides, an omelette, tostones, a coffee, two juices, and two fruit cocktails. The place has great food and a nice ambiance (meaning actual seating and shade). And the portions were awesome. However, when we asked for the check, the waitress flatly wrote 15 CUC (dollars). Our meal could not have cost more than 7.
The following day was Thursday, meaning we’d lunch with Angelita and Silvino. We got off to a rough start when again we were aprovechar-ed. Our driver charged us double the amount to get to Vedado, never telling us his fare when we got in. Meanwhile, he told a man getting in at our stop the higher price. At least he wasn’t charging us more just because we’re not Cuban.
We went to our favorite juice place and bought three frappuccinos, a smoothie, two fruit cocktails, and two bags of juice, all for $5. Juguera is absolutely amazing with its fresh ingredients. One bag of juice was mango ginger for Angelita and Silvino, while the other was tamarind and cinnamon for Evyn and Mitra’s summer neighbor, Alida.
The final day we spent at the beach. The beach in Cuba is a huge lure for tourists and Cubans alike; summer is approaching, and the heat becomes “insoportable.” We all got a little burned despite applying and reapplying sunscreen countless times, but it was worth the crystal clear water and relaxation after spending the previous days running around.
We packed up in a rush, gathering receipts, exchanging money, and sharing photos in preparation for our exhibition. Aldenis arrived to hand off his girlfriend Lucy’s t-shirt to bring to her, and we ended up saying goodbye to him and Mitra about ten times each. Soon enough, we were speeding down the carretera in an orange 56, the sun setting behind us.
I always feel a tug at my heartstrings when I say goodbye to Cuba. The people I know there mean so much to me, my time there, invaluable. I will always remember my first two months studying there as one of the most important periods of my life. Cuba made me a more confident and conscientious person. Cuba taught me to be more appreciative of everything I have been blessed with. Cuba taught me patience, resilience, and calm.
I want to return as soon as possible. There is still so much of this country that I’ve never seen, so many people to keep visiting and meeting. If I could have it my way, I’d stay with Mitra for the next month helping with her work in Los Pocitos, re-establishing a routine in Cuba like I had two years ago. Practicing and perfecting my Spanish. But “se supone” that I have to go graduate.