Dominique Estevez is the Office Specialist for the Global Engagement Office. She had the opportunity to travel to Cuba under a “people to people” exchange, established by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. Since American’s are stilled banned to travel for tourism purposes, the intent of ‘people to people’ exchange is for American’s to meet Cuban people and exchange in conversation about life, and to learn about the culture of Cuba.
We were met by our travel guide and the team from Cuba Travel Agency, yourcubatravel.com, who were our drivers throughout the whole trip. They were SO incredibly nice and just had this sincere happiness to be with us for a week. They seemed sincerely excited to show off their country as were all the Cubans we met who were so proud of their heritage. As we drove around Havana, I immediately noticed the streets were filled with mural political propaganda…”Viva Castro…Hasta la Victoria! Siempre” with Che Guevara or Fidel Castro’s face plastered throughout the city. From a visitor’s perspective, I can see why one would be confused about their government. These revolutionaries came in to “save” the people of Cuba from their previous dictatorship under Batista, but then the new government stripped them of their rights to live in a free world. But let me tell you, these people live life to the fullest and I learned so much from interacting with them. Having limited internet access and hardly any of the luxuries that so many of us enjoy in the United States, it was refreshing to see so many people hanging out in the streets, conversing, dancing, smoking cigars, people watching, laughing, and smiling with seemingly little worry.
Here are a few highlights from the trip:
THE CARS! The cars. The classic 1950’s cars that have been repaired over, and over and over again. They refer to their cars as Frankensteins because today they are made up of spare parts from several other non-US makes of vehicles. Everyone drives around in no rush. The Cuban people do not seem to have the stress we are so accustomed to in the States. Oh, and there are no seatbelts! It was so amazing to see these historic gems still running around the city.
We traveled to Viñales, a small town about 4 hours west of Havana. It is an UNESCO World Heritage site filled with tobacco farms, mogotes (isolated steep-sided residual hills that characterize the region),and thousands of palm trees. We stayed with a sweet family of 4 that welcomed us into their home. We visited a family owned tobacco farm that demonstrated how tobacco is grown and the process in which they are rolled and sold. Unfortunately, due to the communist country, the business is still partially owned by the government. After a long day in the scorching dense heat of Viñales, we were invited to a Cuban feast by the owner’s abulita, who cooked everything from scratch! Black beans, rice, chicken, bistec, yucca, tostones, and fresh fruit. Very delicious!
As an aspiring photographer, Cuba provided me with countless vignettes to capture on film, especially when it came to street photography. There was always something going on outside, whether that be mural art, musicians performing at a nearby restaurant or bar, the locals playing dominoes, or just people hanging out with all the beautiful architecture as a backdrop. If you decide to make it to Cuba and want to really experience the culture, forego the hotels this trip. There are plenty of bed and breakfast accommodations and the people of Cuba are delighted to have you in their homes and will tell you how much they love their country over a cup of cafe Cubano.