What I really learned in Cuba

Last night I got back to the States from spending a week in Cuba. Cuba?, you ask. Yes. For the iMedia program, 5 groups of about 8 students travel to a foreign, Spanish-speaking country to gather video, audio, photography and interviews to create a project for the public good. In our case we got the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Cuba to put together a project on the physical restoration of Old Havana. What we found though is that it’s not just the physical buildings that need to be restored. It’s the lifestyle of the people.

I’m writing this from my personal blog since my experience there had a pretty deep impact on me in ways I wasn’t expecting. I’ll save all the professional stuff for our group’s blog post. When we arrived in Havana one of the first things I noticed was most of the public restrooms did not have toilet paper, soap and sometimes the ability to flush. The upper middle-class privileged person in me was angered by this. “This is unsanitary!” “This is disgusting!” “Have they no care for their bodies and germs?” What I quickly discovered was that the reason behind this “madness” was the fact that these people are too poor to afford even soap or toilet paper. So if they do have it, you have to pay a peso or so to use the bathroom. I’ve never seen poverty like this. I’ve seen it on TV but actually being put into that environment is unlike anything the television screen can try and convince you.

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Besides what looked to be a 6-year-old boy begging for just one single dollar (a peso) and candy, what really struck me was an interview we did with a local who had to close his door and curtains during the process in fear of being caught talking ill about the government. I have yet to see the footage yet but from what my teammates tell me, it was intense. He spoke of growing up without parents after his father was killed in the Revolution and mother died shortly after. Since the government rations the food, he struggles to eat, as I assume the dog he had with him the whole time did too. He couldn’t afford a leash, so he uses a belt to walk his canine friend. Most of the dogs in the city are strays but this one was his companion.

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Havana is definitely doing a lot to restore itself, as we learned from the Office of the Historian, in terms of the social programs being implemented. But we learned it’s still not enough. Roofs are caving in, beautiful architecture is being degraded and the people, who are kind-hearted and friendly, just want to be free from their dictatorship. I got back last night, made a bubble bath and downed a whole bag of M&Ms (they don’t really have chocolate in Cuba) and my first thought was how much I deserved this from what I had the past week. But that’s not true at all. I don’t deserve it, I did nothing to deserve it. I woke up this morning and saw my fan circling above my bed keeping me cool. They don’t even have air conditioning. I looked at my half marathon medal on my dresser. I “deserved” that for running 13.1 miles. I don’t deserve crap. These people deserve just to eat and wash with clean soap and have a roof over their heads. That’s what they deserve.

An eye-opening trip. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed the mojitos, delicious fresh seafood and beautiful excursions to the mountains. But I also saw the other side to Havana. The side the government wants to convince its people doesn’t exist. I think it’s changed me and I hope I always keep that realization of just how lucky I am with me.

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