Two years ago this week, I went to Cuba. It was one of the biggest adventures of my life, traveling with a delegation of 13 women, focused on learning what the lives of Cuban women are like.
We stayed in the Martin Luther King Community Center, located in a residential neighborhood of Havana, called Marianao. It was a working-class neighborhood, which gave us the luxury of interacting daily with regular Cubans, rather than being stuck in a tourist area.
Old Havana is lovely, and I did enjoy spending some time there, but it does not give a clear picture of what life is like for the average Cuban.
The 10-day stay in Cuba was rigorous. One of the rules for traveling there as Americans is that it’s not a vacation. As a result, we had several meaningful — often intellectually intense — interactions with specialists in various fields like medicine, education, journalism, economics, agriculture, social justice and gender rights.
In some ways, going to Cuba is like traveling via time machine. The U.S. embargo went into place in 1960 — seven years before I was even born. So leaving the Havana airport to find 1950s-era American cars on the streets was fun at first. Frankly, it was neat to see them the whole trip. But it didn’t take long to realize they are bad for the Cuban people. Bad for pollution. Hard to maintain. They don’t exactly have access to parts, and have to make do, sometimes even using spare parts from Russian tractors.
The architecture and infrastructure of the island are largely still stuck in the 1950s, as well. I saw no new construction. It seems to be an ongoing, uphill battle to maintain the systems they have.
It was only 10 days, but it felt like much longer because so much information and so many experiences were packed into each day. I feel like I could literally write a book about the trip.
Short of that, however, I made a list shortly after coming home — a list of 15 of the things I found surprising or particularly noteworthy about my visit to Cuba.
1. There isn’t an obvious military presence. In fact, government officials, in general, are not omnipresent as I expected them to be. I have to admit I was a little intimidated flying into the Havana airport by myself; the rest of my delegation had arrived the day prior. I expected olive-green fatigued soldiers with machine guns to be manning the airport. I was wrong. There were, of course, officials at the airport, which is much smaller than the Des Moines airport, where I began my journey. But they were less scary than our TSA agents in the States.
2. I knew I was going to see some hardships due to the embargo, but the shortages are much more extreme than I expected. It’s hard to buy everything from shampoo to shoes, from bread to chicken. There is very little to buy, unless you’re in a tourist area.
3. Cubans seem to like Americans. They may not love American government, but they seem to be able to separate us from our leadership. In fact, I had a Cuban woman actually tell me, "We love Americans. We know you are not your government."
4. The Cuban people do not eat much fresh fish. There is very little beef or cheese, and what there is of these food stuffs is largely saved for tourists. The food I had wasn’t very spicy.
5. Trained doctors are among Cuba’s biggest exports; other major exports are nickel and sugar. Doctors don’t make a lot of money on this practice, but the government does.
6. Although there is a need for many material things, I found myself envious of the close knit bonds I observed in families, communities and in the nation as a whole.
7. Education is free to all the people of Cuba. This is wonderful as it allows people to pursue any career they want, including an M.D. at no cost. But it has created a societal structure that looks like an inverted pyramid, where there are actually too many doctors and engineers and not enough people in agriculture and the skilled trades.
8. There is still talk of the Revolution, as though it’s still going on today. The only billboards are Viva la Revolution type of things and there are many murals. It is not uncommon to be having a normal conversation with a Cuban and have them casually mention the "triumph of the revolution."
9. Despite its status as a developing country, Cuba claims impressive levels of literacy, life expectancy, infant mortality and maternal mortality, similar to the numbers we have in the U.S.
10. There are no boats. I think people got tired of me commenting on this, but I saw no fishing boats, no sail boats, no surfers, no commercial boats. Nothing. In Havana, driving a couple hours along the north coast, flying in and out, I didn’t see boats. Not only does this keep Cubans from leaving the island, I think it hampers their ability to enjoy the fresh fish from the waters surrounding them.
11. Cuban vote to elect local, provincial and national leaders. There is a parliament. The parliament is required to be comprised of a certain percentage of women. I didn’t understand how people were allowed to elect their representation but then also had to keep a particular ratio of women, but I was surprised to learn they had any elections at all.
12. Cuba has a constitution. That constitution expressly ensures the equal rights of all Cubans, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. Although there are legal rights for these groups, there continues to be a need for public awareness. I don’t know how much strength a constitution has in a communist dictatorship, but the fact that it exists and is commonly discussed by the people surprised me.
13. Although almost all businesses are owned by the government, in the past few years Cuba has started to allow private business ownership. For example, my delegation ate at three restaurants that were privately owned and operated out of people’s homes. Those people pay taxes to the government.
14. Many of the Cuban people seem to genuinely love Fidel Castro. One woman, whom I now consider a friend, told me that Fidel was like a father. He loves his children, she said. And like a father, he sometimes has made some mistakes, especially in the early years, but he wants what is best for the Cuban people. Personally, how many Cuban’s opinions of Castro would be different if it weren’t for the decades of the island’s isolation.
15. I felt safer in Havana than I have in any American city. Independently I heard this same statement from several of the other 12 women in my group. It was common for us to walk around our immediate neighborhood late at night or early in the morning. We had early morning walkers and runners, late night bread buyers, and pubgoers. We were often invited to private homes by people we met while we were out exploring the area. The most dangerous thing I encountered in Havana was a broken sidewalk that took me down when I thought I could walk and take photos at the same time.
Ronna Lawless is a writer for the Nevada Journal and the Tri-County Times. She can be emailed at email@example.com.