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Culture Shock

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Cuba, Culture Shock, Havana, Travel

Welcome to Cuba…

I’m going to be honest…I don’t know what to expect from Cuba… Sure, I’m familiar with the stereotypical things – vintage cars, cheap rum, good cigars, and I’ve heard arriving will be like stepping back in time. But, as usual, I am willfully unprepared and have done little planning other than to sort a few night’s accommodation along the way.

On December 3oth, a good friend drops me off at Mangonia Station near West Palm Beach to take the TriRail to Ft. Lauderdale International Airport. After a one-hour train ride and a shuttle bus to Terminal 1, I head to the Southwest desk to check in for my flight. I’m told to head downstairs to a separate check-in area where an employee, who’s appropriately sporting a fedora, tells me to head to the visa desk, get my visa, then come back and get in line to check in. After waiting in many lines and talking to many people, I have the appropriate visa for Cuba and am checked in.

The gates are crammed full of people traveling home from their Christmas holidays and off on their New Years jaunts, and I make my way to B-7 for boarding. I snag an exit seat next to an American guy, Wayne, who sort of resembles Robert De Niro. He’s traveling home to Havana, where his Cuban wife is waiting for him. He looks at me and asks if this is my first visit to Cuba, and at my response, proceeds to spend the entire duration of the one-hour flight making suggestions of where to eat, what to see, what to eat, where to drink, and where to dance. He makes notes on the print out of other recommendations someone had kindly emailed to me and jots down his address and his cell phone number.

Upon landing, I quickly fill out the numerous arrival forms handed to me at the beginning of the flight, grab my bag and walk with Wayne to the arrival hall. He suggests I change a small amount of currency at the airport, but not all of it. I can get a better rate in the city, he says.

Arrival is seamless, despite hearing horror stories of hour long waits to clear security and customs (they x-ray EVERYTHING coming in), and Wayne and I say goodbye. My friend Christy’s flight has just arrived, so I scoop her up and we head off to find our other friend Sarah, who is waiting in the arrivals area outside.

Outside and to the left is a concession stand that sells cold beer, rum, cigarettes and a few snacks. The area is seething with people, but we grab a hightop table we can stand around, order  a cold Bavaria beer each and watch as people drive their vintage cars around the arrival loop road, looking for the people they’re picking up.

The air is humid and smells of car fumes, but there’s a lightness to it. No one is in a hurry. We are already experiencing Cuban time.

We wait for Arianna, who meets us to assist with our airport transfer and help get us settled in at the Airbnb we have booked. I guess all she had to do was look for the three white girls at the airport, so her job wasn’t too difficult. After our hellos, we finish our beers, grab our bags and squeeze into a kelly green 1950s Chevrolet and make our way to Vedado.

We drop our bags at our Airbnb on 23rd & 12th and attempt to change money. After learning that most banks would be closed until after New Years, I audibly thank Wayne for suggesting we change a little bit of money at the airport, and we jump into a taxi with Arianna still in tow and head to Old Havana.

We pass the iconic Hotel Nacional and make a right to drive along the Malecon. By this point in time, it’s nearing end of day, and as we drive, we watch the waves splash up and over the Malecon, splashing the road, the cars and the occasional passerby.

We drive up Parque Central and jump out near Hotel Ingelterra. I can tell we’ve entered the touristic area of Havana but can’t help but be awed by the beauty of the architecture. Once ornate buildings have lost the struggle with the test of time, but they manage to hold on to a sliver of their former glory. It is easy to envision just how jaw-droppingly beautiful Havana was in its heyday.

We stop in to Parque Central Hotel, where every tourist seems to be sitting in the lobby and attempting to access WIFI. Here we’re able to change a bit more cash before heading to the eastern part of Old Havana for drinks and a snack.

We find El Chacon and order a round of mojitos, followed by the national beer, Cristal. Arianna is still with us and we get the chance to learn a little bit more about what her life is like. Besides helping out with her cousin’s Airbnb and working as a makeshift tour guide, she also works as an architect/interior designer and as a teacher. Arianna tells us it’s not uncommon for Cubans to have up to two or three side gigs in addition to their main job. We learn she makes the least amount of money from her full time job teaching, bringing in about $20 a month. She makes better money with her design gig, but the most income is derived from her tourism gig.

As we sit in El Chacon, in what feels like the equivalent of a hip European cafe in a touristy part of town, I hope that I will be able to discover the authentic Cuban experience while I’m here. I’m glad Arianna is still with us and that we have the chance to talk openly and candidly with her. She tells us that she (like many other Cubans) has never left the country and despite being (so say) allowed to, it’s almost impossible for Cubans to get the necessary visas.

From El Chacon, we walk over to Obispo, which is filled with even more tourists, but we find a dive bar on the corner called El Escabeche. The place is dimly lit, and a band is set up in the corner belting out Cuban classics. We order a round of mojitos and meet the crew working there. Carlo, is the manager and Armando and Diego are tending bar with Charlie, who claims to make the best mojito. He even won an award in Chicago.

Carlo calls over a young guy, David, from the other corner, and makes him salsa with me. I think to myself that I’m doing good at following the instructions my good friend Christel gave me before I departed for this trip: 1. drink rum, 2. smoke cigars, and 3. dance. We spend a good part of the night in this little hole in the wall spot.

From here, we make our way up the road to El Floridita – a bar made famous by Hemingway. It’s packed to the brim, so we decide to save it for another day and make our way back to the taxi stand near Hotel Ingleterra, stopping to take a peak at the lobby of the Gran Teatro before hailing a cab.

We head back to Vedado and venture to Cinecita, which is directly next door to our apartment. It’s officially sleepy, but we’re just looking for a nightcap, and a table of Cuban men wave us over and insist we sit down. They offer us a taste of everything they have, and we end up ordering plates of cerdo, mashed yucca and ensalada… quite the midnight snack. We wash it all down with a Cristal, bid goodnight to our new Cuban friends and call it a night.


Around the world travel, Backpacking, Culture Shock, long term travel, Reverse Culture Shock, Travel

Reverse Culture Shock

I have always sort of laughed at the idea of “reverse culture shock.” I remember my professor talking about it before my study abroad trip to Paris in college and not really understanding the concept. What I didn’t understand was how it would be so difficult to readjust to the life you know so well. I suppose what I also didn’t understand then is just how different life can be in different parts of the world.

Studying in Paris, is sort of like living in New York, or taking a summer trip to London, both of which I was fortunate enough to experience growing up. I considered myself to be a cultured person, and these experiences weren’t that foreign to me, but until this year, I hadn’t travelled to third world countries; I hadn’t witnessed an excessive amount of poverty; I hadn’t visited countries where certain places only had power for 4 hours a day. But more importantly, what I didn’t realize as I was going was just how utterly different these experiences were to my “old life.”

I know that sounds bizarre. You must think that when you get to a place where they deliver water out of a tanker each morning that you immediately think “wow, that’s odd, or different.” But I was soaking everything in and enjoying every minute and learning how other people live and how things work in other places. I may have had moments of culture shock, but I never hesitated or thought that the way people were living their lives was wrong, just because it was different.

In fact, for me, it was quite the opposite. I feel my experiences in the last 6 months have been life-changing for me, in a very positive way. What I learned while away is that life is quite simple, and we’ve complicated it with along the way with the desire to acquire more material things, the need to be uber-connected and this never-ending self-mission to cushion and protect our own egos. I realized this upon my return to the US. In fact, it only took minutes of being on the ground at LAX to discover how much we’ve lost touch with reality.

After landing at the airport, and waiting to de-board the plane, I looked around and was astonished to see everyone looking down at their hands. It was like a uniform movement. Plane lands, phone on, text, call, listen to voicemail. We say we’re so connected, but we’ve lost connection with simplicity.

The first week I arrived home, I also realized how preoccupied we are with unimportant issues. For example: Tiger Woods. To be honest, if I heard one more thing about who he did or didn’t shag, I thought I was going to be sick. Why are we so interested in the way he lives his life? Why do we become so consumed with the details of his every movement? Does it make us feel better to know that someone we once thought was super-human and untouchable, is wait, just like us, and prone to screwing up? (no pun intended).

I realized just how sensationalized our news is. We seem to thrive on the energy associated with bad news, whether we realize it or not, and we become consumed with every news alert. News personalities seem to get a high off a breaking news story, and networks fight to deliver stories to us in the most entertaining way in order to receive the best ratings. What happened to simply reporting the facts? Wait, did we find that boring?

Then, I found myself in the midst of Christmas season, surrounded by the last-minute shoppers who had to find the best, and most expensive gift to bring to their family gift-exchange, or the couple at Best Buy, purchasing a new Plasma Flat Screen because this year’s version is so much better than the one they got two years ago. Really? Is this what Christmas is about? This holiday has been turned into a financial game. Each year, vendors compare sales from the previous year to determine how well they have done, and each year, millions of more dollars are being spent. Soon, kids will be tallying their gifts and the money they receive at Christmas and comparing how well they’ve done against their buddies.

Let’s be reminded that Christmas is a holiday rooted in religion, a time to be with family and friends and to help those less fortunate…just in case we forgot.

I know this may read as a cynical entry, and after watching the last Conan O’Brien show, his views on cynicism have stuck with me. I agree with him that it’s a terrible attribute and it won’t get you anywhere. However, I suppose what I’m trying to say is I felt somewhat cynical and disappointed upon my return to the US. For a nation of people who claim to ‘have’ so much, why do we still have so many problems? We have the highest rate of depression, the highest divorce rate, and the national debt has reached a staggering $11.4 Trillion!

I’ll step down off my soap box in a minute, but before I do, I just want to share what I experienced over the past 5 months. I met many people who literally ‘have’ nothing. I met people whose country has just ended a 30-year civil war, people who have been unable to travel to see the other side of their own land. I’ve met people who have barely been able to put a roof over their heads, people whose village has only had clean, running water for the past three years, who have been fortunate to attend school because where they should have been is tending their family’s land. But did you ever hear these people complain once how hard life is, or that they’d been dealt a crappy hand. NO! These people were some of the happiest people I’ve met in my life.

So before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s remember what life is about- it’s quite simple. It’s about family, friends, loved ones, helping others who are less fortunate, supporting those who are in need, remembering to laugh and most importantly, not to take ourselves too seriously.