How 4 days in Havana humbled the hell out of me

To say that I was excited to visit Cuba is probably the understatement of the year.

When my girlfriends and I decided to go and the opportunity presented itself to plan the trip, I thought where the planning was concerned, I had this in the bag. I had been, after all, travelling quite frequently over the last couple of years.

I expected to create new travel memories, capture the moment and bond with my friends. Don’t get me wrong, I did all that; I just had needed to be brought down a few pegs. 

Here’s how four days in Havana humbled the hell out of me.

I became less reliant on my devices

I’ll admit something to you: I arrived in Cuba a little arrogant.

I pride myself on being a master planner, which includes having the best travel apps to help make my transit to and overseas stay smoother. Google Translate is one of those apps. Why let something as trivial as not speaking the language stop me from visiting one of my bucket list destinations, right?

I bypassed pretty much all the advice I’d read from the countless blogs on Cuba telling prospective travellers to brush up on their Spanish. In the weeks leading up to the trip I simply didn’t have time and with Translate, why should I?

So when we were introduced to our Airbnb’s housemaids who didn’t speak a lick of English, I had a moment of ‘I GOT THIS’. Imagine my surprise when I pointed my phone toward our housemaid Ana, ready for Translate to do its magic…and it didn’t work. Everything I thought I had secured by way of planning went out the door almost as soon as I arrived. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a reflection of Cuba. The country is a beautifully fascinating island and I’d quickly recommend going to anyone who’d listen.

In all of my arrogance, I ignored the fact that visiting Cuba means entering an Internet and data blackout. Most apps simply don’t work there; even the all-pervasive Google is no match for Cuba’s virtual abyss.

I was flustered and frustrated that my tech creature comforts were of no use to me, but ultimately I was done a favour. Instead of relying on Google to translate for me, my girlfriends and I were forced to recall our very basic secondary school Spanish and communicate with the locals ourselves.

In the end, it was not as cumbersome as we thought; for one, our basic Spanish carried us further than we anticipated and immersing ourselves in a country where English wasn’t the first language actually improved our listening and speaking skills.

It made me realize how much I have, and how much I’ve taken for granted

Poverty exists in Trinidad and Tobago but we’re still very lucky to have a number of government-run programmes and NGOs that we can take advantage of. In Cuba, residents’ monthly salaries are capped between US$15-US$30 a month; it’s a little more than that if you have specialised skills such as being a doctor, lawyer or engineer.

Additionally, families are required to bring their state-issued ration book, known as “la libreta,” each time they make a trip to the grocery store, something that has been in place since the Castro regime in the 1960s. The food rationing system provides an allotted amount of food per household depending on age, gender and health status of the people living in the house. Along with limited access to household goods however, they have been thriving despite the trade embargo with the United States and tight Cuban government restrictions.

State-issued ration book

On our last day in Havana, we met two elderly women who asked us to buy shampoo, soap, and clothing for them. We got them the toiletries but there were no clothing shops nearby so we gave them 20 CUC (US$20) each. They started crying, explaining to us that they hadn’t been able to buy clothes in over a year because they simply couldn’t afford them.

During a food tour, we met a mother who approached us while we visited a supermarket and asked us for money to buy baby formula. We were initially hesitant because, with the language barrier, we weren’t sure if she was being honest. By the time our guide stepped in, the mother, who misunderstood our hesitance, asked us instead to buy condensed milk (which was cheaper) explaining that she’d stretch it out with water.

Imagine living in a world where shampoo is a luxury item because it’s either too expensive or it’s simply not readily available. Or, as a young mother, not being able to afford basic items like baby formula for your newborn.

This is the reality of many in Cuba. And yet, Cubans are some of the happiest and warmest people I’ve ever met. They’ve adapted and learned to make the most of what little they have.

As I took all of this in and thought about my own life at home, it really hit how much I have and how much–without realising it–I take for granted. I wouldn’t consider myself ungrateful by any means, but sometimes we forget to take a moment to be thankful for everything we have.

It made me realize how much we magnify the silliest things

In playing catch up on my first day back out to work, I read news headlines that, at the time, all seemed rather trivial. News–and jokes of–a politician claiming no relation to ex’s daughter because of her involvement in a marijuana bust and a viral video of a woman tumbling down the street was all anyone could talk about.

I found myself comparing what was being highlighted as issues at home and the real, immediate day-to-day problems that I’d witnessed first-hand in Cuba.

Sometimes when we get caught up in our own lives, it’s easy to sweat the small stuff. But being around people who experienced so much more and are still are so warm and have a positive outlook on life forces you to complain less and start appreciating more. It expands your world view in a way you won’t be able to at home.

My brief visit to Cuba definitely brought me down several pegs. Although I knew of the history and the current state of Cuba, without realizing it, I was visiting the island as a spectacle, as something to marvel at from a privileged distance.

When I got there I was able to truly connect with the people and space, in a way I’ve never done on any of my travels, live in the moment and appreciate the magnificence of this complex yet unarguably magical place.

Ricqcolia The Magazine

A Trinidad & Tobago woman’s guide to beauty, lifestyle and wellness

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