Stories of Cubaneo
From Our Travelers
#1. Smartphones were utterly useless.
We were at peace
When our band of eight law students and affiliates set out for Night Beach on the last evening in Varadero, we didn’t think about stargazing. Even on the clearest night, it’s a fool’s errand to stargaze in an American metropolis. But when we formed our circle of lounge chairs under the waxing moon, the clarity of our view was revealed: the Big and Little Dippers; Polaris; and Jupiter. Their signatures accentuated by a shooting star racing across the night sky.
As we drank Havana Club rum and smoked Cuban cigars, the stark purity of the moment was overwhelming. No background music was blaring. Smartphones were utterly useless. We were at peace; audience only to the heavens, the gentle swells of the moonlit Caribbean, and to each other.
Cuba was long the forbidden fruit of previous generations: alluring in its possibilities, nevertheless taboo to grasp. Yet here we were eating our fill of it. What a marvelous feeling! Amid the laughter, banter, and ill-advised plotting to throw a member of our tribe into the sea, the concerns of our lives vanished.
Still, even at the height of our merriment, we knew it couldn’t last. The abstract charm of the island that had drawn us in was laid bare over the course of several days. Realism had intruded on our fantasies. With the end nigh, Night Beach was our last stand against the dawn and its ruthless vengeance.
Alas, by 3 AM the rum supply was exhausted, the cigars extinguished, and the minds weary. We capitulated to the inevitable. Soon enough, we would return to the connected world we had temporarily forsaken. But for a final moment, Night Beach provided a haven from reality and a reflection on our time in Cuba: absurdity, beauty, and collectivism enmeshed in a singular experience.
Columbia University PhD
#2. The cop pulled us over and…
We bounced in the back of a 1955 Chevy down a hill headed towards Hotel Atlántico at 12:30am. Our Cuban driver, Lou, and his two friends had spent the evening driving the antique car as a means of income, earning some cash to buy the alcohol and snacks for Lou’s birthday party scheduled to begin later that evening. As I contemplated a world where birthday parties began after 1:00am, we saw the lights of a police car up ahead. Lou veered down a side road as he stated that we needed to find a legal taxi. Where in the world were we going to find an official taxi at 12:30am!? Instead, determined to find an alternate route, Lou practically drove onto the beach upon hitting an unexpected dead end. I struck a deal with Lou’s co-pilot – a story where all six of us were headed to the birthday party excited to dance the night away. As I taught my fellow HBS friends the story and the names of our car mates, Lou’s friends practiced ours. Laughs were had by all as the story developed and unfolded and names were mastered. As we drove up to the police officer confident that we could save ourselves from the impending fine, the cop pulled us over and asked Lou and one of his co-pilots to exit the car. Ultimately our story didn’t work and our crew paid the fine. As our group drove on we collectively laughed at the failed attempt. In this moment I realized just how unique an experience my trip to Cuba would be. Where in the world would I have the chance to co-create such an entertaining story to evade a fine? The story of the misadventures of a 1955 Chevy trying to make some money for a birthday party at 12:30am. Worth every penny of the 10 CUC fine. #cubacandela
Harvard Business School
#3. Why would I do that, if here I have it all
On our last day in Cuba, hours before our departure, four of us decided to explore the streets near the University of Havana. The colors of the city danced past us with every step. I absorbed every sound, every face, and every smell not knowing when I would return and feel the city’s warm embrace. In the distance we spotted a mural of Che, his fierce presence guarding the entrance to a small neighborhood. As we walked there we spotted an elderly gentleman sitting on his balcony peering out onto the street. He caught our gaze and smiled, his aged grin an embodiment of the beauty and resilience of Cuba. At that moment, one of my peers expressed an interest in wanting to take a picture on a traditional Cuban balcony. Given that two of us spoke Spanish, we approached the gentleman and asked if it would be possible to take a picture with him. He of course smiled and welcomed us into his home. We made our way up the stairs, his daughter scurrying to make their home more inviting to las Americanas. Her smile was so inviting as she held the door open to four complete strangers. Their home was humble, adorned with pictures, fading calendars, newspapers and a single chair in front of the antiquated television. We walked past the small dinner table, past the single chair onto the balcony where the gentleman stood waiting. His balcony was painted with the vibrant greens of his plants and flowers. In a matter of minutes, we learned so much about the kindhearted man whose house we stood in. He had served in the Cuban army and proudly held his fifty-year medal in his wallet behind his granddaughter's picture. As we were leaving I asked him if he had ever left Cuba to which he smiled and laughed and replied “Y porque haria eso, si aqui lo tengo todo.” (And why would I do that, if here I have it all).”
Harvard Graduate School of Education
#4. Help me sing a song
On my first day in Cuba, I had a little brush with magic. Our group was walking around old Havana, and we had the opportunity to take some time to explore the city for ourselves. I was walking through an old square, filled with small children and artists, when I heard someone playing the guitar. It caught my attention because he was playing a song that I used to listen to when I was a little girl. I walked over to him and I gave him a CUC. He noticed that I was clearly not from the country, and he took me over to a bench to talk. He asked me where I was from, and I told him, “I’m from Puerto Rico,” and he exclaimed, “Puerto Rico! Help me sing a song.” And for the next 10 minutes, we sat on that bench and we sang songs and talked about music. He surprised me, because he knew so many songs that are classics in Puerto Rico, like ‘En Mi Viejo San Juan’.
After a little while, I felt guilty because I had taken so much of his time, time he could have used to play to other tourists and make more tips. I reached into my bag to offer him some more CUCs. He rejected it. Instead of taking the money, he asked me whether I could give him some gum, and if I had any extra for his family. I was floored. I was first shocked at the fact that he wasn’t playing me songs because he wanted more money. He was doing it because he loves playing music to other people, and he was completely happy doing it. And then, conversely, I was shocked at the fact that he didn't have access to something that we as Americans don’t even think about as being a commodity. At that moment, I started to see some of the systemic issues directly affecting the Cuban people, but, at the same time, how kind and welcoming the Cubans are.
Harvard Graduate School of Education
#5. I did see the real Cuba, but it wasn’t what I expected—it was far more beautiful
There’s something magical about taking a trip to an unknown country. A country mired by American misrepresentation and bias. Many of the people in our group weren’t sure what to expect, but hoped to see the real Cuba. The Cuba behind Castro, supposedly strained by socialism and stubborn in its international relations with our country. Personally, I felt like I did see the real Cuba, but it wasn’t what I expected – it was far more beautiful.
"Viviremos siempre luchando.” The Cuban people are always fighting for more in life, but they fight together. The sense of equality, cooperation, and communal camaraderie is evident, even among strangers. Homelessness is a foreign concept to most Cubans. Doctors care more about their patients because their patients are their neighbors and their friends. This element of Cubaneo isn’t just for hospitality venues, it’s in the blood of the people and the heart of what makes Cuba so unique.
It’s certainly different, and far from perfect, but so are we – not just as a country, but as people. Cuba, to me, represents the exquisitely complex mosaic of life. When challenged with crumbling infrastructure in our lives, we need to build and restore the foundation. When we’re lacking in resources, we rely on inventive thinking and ingenuity. When faced with barriers, our aspirations must be resilient and revolutionary. And sometimes you just need to slow down and let the flow of life be the “candela” to your next big adventure.
#6. We ARE friends. All of us
It is easy to describe to those who have yet to experience this still forbidden land about its inherent beauty and old-world charm. Its sea weathered walls and crumbling architecture that speak of a once glamorous golden age. I love to describe how, despite having very little, people here take such care and pride in what they do have.
And the COLORS! The colors of the classic cars, the buildings of old Havana and even the mix’n’match attire of the people. Lime greens, electric blues, hot magentas, the most lemony yellows. So many vibrant, vivid colors! And the MUSIC! Heard on the streets, spilling out of restaurants and bars and homes. People dancing. Dancing with such fluidity. I should learn salsa.
I love to brag about how we got to cruise down the Malécon in pristine Bel-Airs. My curls unfurling in the wind, sun kissing my brown skin. Definitely a once in a life-time experience in Cuba. But what I cherish most from my trip, was the time spent with Yane, our tour guide and our bus driver, Abdel.
Yane shared not only the beauty of her country but also the realities they face on a daily basis as Cuban citizens. She shared how she lives in a small apartment with her whole family. How after earning 400 CUP / month, buying a 50 CUP bottle of shampoo is not always an option. How, no matter how much fun we are having on the tour, we MUST stick to the schedule. This is her job. People are watching.
We bonded with Yane & Abdel. So much so that even after hours, they'd take us (all 30 of us!) out on the town - to catch Buena Vista Social Club and to real salsa clubs where locals twist and twirl to the beat of their country. It was great to see Yane and Abdel be free from their responsibility for a moment and just dance with us. Like friends.
As they dropped us off at the airport on the last day, Yane teared up. We ARE friends. All of us.
New York, NY
#7. Slows down time
Las historias tienen importancia. Stories matter. We walked around one of the main squares where a variety of odds and ends were being sold—only in Havana can you scan tourist items and discover Barcelona ’92 Olympic pins, original Celia Cruz discs, polished horseshoes, and vintage Polaroid cameras. The items by themselves would have little to no use for the average American, but these purchases promised the opportunity to proudly start a future story with, “I brought this back from Cuba…” This inspiration led us to scour the rows for any obscure/relevant/hip/cultural/authentic items we could find that represented a physical manifestation of a place we were desperately trying to understand.
The most intriguing offerings were the endless shelves of literature, which mainly featured profiles of national figures like Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Jose Marti. Cuba is one of the most literate countries in the world, and the prominent book displays seemed to be both a demonstration of their importance and an invitation to immerse oneself in learning. I picked up a tome written by Jose Marti, and an elderly woman came up to me and asked if I was familiar with his works. Once she ascertained that I was American, she began reading me passages in Spanish where Marti noted specific American cities. Whenever her fingers would pass over “Chicago” or “Brooklyn”, she’d look up at me with a smile.
When was the last time someone read aloud to you? I’d forgotten that it’s actually an intimate and special experience that evokes a sense of home and slows down time. I listened to this sweet woman read to me for about five minutes, which was clearly long enough for both of us to know that she was not trying to get me to buy the book; she was using it as a way to form a pure connection between us individually, and perhaps, nationally.
#8. I was somehow a dealer of that hope
We are walking up a dark stairwell, following a man we just met on the street. It feels like a labyrinth as we watch our step and duck our heads. Eventually we arrive at the door. He opens it and motions us to enter. Inside we meet the man's wife and casual conversation begins. Despite their broken English it is obvious that they are excited to meet Americans. The building is rundown and their apartment is furnished only with the essentials. A long conversation ensues, covering politics, history, and stories. We can tell there's so much on his mind that he wants to tell us, but he raises his finger to his lips: “Shhhh.” Scavenging for pen and paper he frantically writes his phone number and tells us to call a few days later at noon as he waves his hands toward the neighboring apartment.
This was just one of many in-depth conversations. Asking Cubans about Fidel, communism, or Democracy provoked a mixture of hushes and whispers. However, it is clear that Cubans are anxious for change. Communism has allowed them to survive, but not to live. They see America and wonder if it means prosperity for Cuba. Life has been hard for them, but there is a sense of hope everywhere you go and with everyone you meet. I personally felt like I was somehow a dealer of that hope. Whenever I said “I am from America,” their eyes lit up and a smile formed as if their hopes materialized in that moment.
Harvard Business School
#9. Can't wait to go back!
I got back to Boston, after 24 hours of travel, exhausted and frustrated. I sent out a tweet in my car ride home from the airport: "Tip: never ever ever use the airline @FlyEastern for your trip to Cuba. #delaysforever"
Within a few minutes, @FlyEastern followed me on Twitter and their CEO messaged me asking for details of my trip, an explanation of my complaint, and a promise to look into the problem. I gave him that information. His next response: "Let us make it up to you with a free ticket to Cuba on your next trip."
After the struggle of a day, it just reminded me of what you said about Cuba after the hiccup that first night checking into hotels. While their infrastructure is not great, and problems often arise, you can be sure that they want to make up for their shortcomings and ensure you have the best experience possible.
Can't wait to go back!
Harvard Law School
#10. Cuban hospitality is unparalleled
Cuban hospitality is unparalleled. Before I even got to Cuba, I was introduced to the Cuban way through Sam, a Cuban born man in his 70's that left Cuba as a boy. Sam was in line for the same flight as us. He happily spoke to friends from Harvard and later sat in our area. He experienced the frustration of the delayed flight as we did and shared laughs and conversation with us. He later bought Kay lunch and continued to express kindness. When I mentioned my hunger, he invited me with him to the snack bar and bought me and 5 of my friends meals. He gave me his number and asked me to promise to call when I got to Cuba. We tried and failed at connecting so many times that I thought he would give up. It was challenging communicating without a phone, but we ended up being in Varadero at the same time! He even texted Chad! And randomly Julissa saw Sam on the beach. By that time, Sam had already left three voicemails for my room, hand wrote me a note and asked the maid to write me one as well. He said that if he didn't find us on the beach that it wasn't meant to be. After hanging out on the beach, he invited us to a fancy Cuban dinner later that night. We ate, drank and even took a horse carriage ride back. He paid a pretty penny for it all! Sam is no mango but he was the perfect gentleman to the six of us! Upon our return to the states, I mailed him a package on behalf of us to express our gratitude. Sam and I plan to speak once a week. He also has our graduation on his calendar. Thankful for the many Sams we ran into who showed us a great time. Viva Cuba!
Harvard Graduate School of Education