Very happy circumstances marked the start of our trip to Cuba. I recently finished my PhD in Science Education after five years of study at Teachers College, Columbia University. I decided to go to graduate school in order to keep growing and learning, as well as open up opportunities in the future. I did grow a lot, and completing the degree stands as one of my life’s greatest challenges and accomplishments. I leave graduate school with no regrets and great excitement about the future.
Before leaving, a whirlwind of activities kept us occupied. There were the graduation festivities to attend, and both my mother and mother-in-law were in town and staying with us in our one bedroom apartment. I often reflect on how the extent of my travels may lead one to believe that I am a wealthy individual. While my life has been filled with many privileges and blessings, I also try to be a very economizing individual which enables us to travel as much as we do.
It has been my longtime dream to visit Cuba. With the recent lift on travel restrictions, Allie and I jumped on the opportunity to visit before the country changed too
much. Our first stop was Varadero, a beach destination with a much-desired change of pace from our frenetic life in New York. The beaches were clean, beautiful, and sparsely populated. After a few days in the sun, and no internet, I was finally starting to relax.
One thing I was very interested in was the economy. Conversations with our hosts and others greatly helped in learning about how things worked. The state provides everyone with free health-care and education including university study, and the country is reported to be and felt very safe. According to Danny, our host in Varadero, a collapse in sugar prices in 2002 led the government to allow privatization of some businesses. These were mainly in the taxi business, renting out private rooms for tourism, and service industries like salons and mechanics. This was the first time there were privately owned businesses in Cuba since the 1959 revolution.
Now, the recent surge in tourism is spurring development. Many of our hosts have spent tens of thousands of dollars in renovations to their homes. These are large investments when you consider that the monthly wage for the average Cuban is somewhere around $20-$25 USD. Everyone
we spoke to favors increased liberalization of the Cuban economy, but so far it seems the government is taking a slow and steady approach. Continued development in the tourism industry and the elimination of the American trade embargo would likely add pressure and accelerate this process.
After Varadero, we visited Trinidad, an old Spanish colonial city. Here, Allie and I had a blast going salsa dancing. Aside from this, unfortunately most notable about Trinidad was my developing a very severe case of food poisoning. I was bedridden for a day and battled constant stomach problems for the rest of the trip.
We then went to Viñales, where Cuba’s famous cigars are made. After an hour’s journey on horseback, we visited the tobacco farm of Enoel. His farm had been in his family for several generations and was one of the few not nationalized after the revolution. He gave us a full tour of the cigar making process, emphasizing the love and affection he pours into the tobacco and the cigars. This love and affection was clearly evident in the cigars themselves, and they were the best I have ever smoked. While we smoked and chatted, he asked “When
Fidel died, did the Americans mourn him?”
We finished our tour in Havana, which had a remarkable number of things to see and do. What stuck out to me about Havana were the political differences inside and outside Havana. Outside Havana, there was overwhelming support for Fidel, the revolution, and the government. In Havana, the few that I spoke to were more critical and outspoken. Feelings about Raul in all parts of the country were neutral to negative. Overall, our time in Cuba was highly educational, and was aided by the warm hospitality which nearly everyone showed. In spite of the unforgettable food poisoning, it was a relaxing. It is my sincerest hope that the Cuban trade embargo will soon be fully lifted, so that our neighbors and continue to develop and prosper.
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