Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Cuba


Cuba. This country has a nostalgic appeal to it; one almost feels at home in a place and era they've never been before. Caught in an eddy of time, the streets are filled with classic cars and horse drawn wagons while lined on either side with buildings built in the 1940s. Although travel restrictions have been lifting, shipping embargos have not making a lot of things hard to obtain. Old tube TVs can be seen in most homes as the families gather around them to watch music videos or a game of baseball. Payphones and yelling across the street are the only means of communication as most can't afford cellphones. International trade is scarce. The economy is built off rum and tobacco exports, but most of the profit never reaches the people. One of my taxi drivers said there are rumors of gold and silver mines as well, but nobody knows for sure. Quotes from Fidel Castro are everywhere along with "Viva la Revolucion" billboards and pictures of Che and Cienfuegos. Communism is still thriving here although capitalistic ideas are slowly seeping in as embargos are lifted and the government relaxes their restrictions on free enterprise. Currently, there are about 280 different work permits people can get so they can run their own sewing, bicycle repair, cafeteria, etc. "industries". Hardly anyone knows English as it wasn't taught in schools till about 3 years ago, making communication for me quite entertaining at times. This trip has been a breath of fresh air for me. With the start of a new year, my only resolutions were to embark on new adventures, make new memories, and learn more about the world I live in. International travel is one activity that has always shaken my personal opinions and left no room for hate, misunderstanding, or prejudice. It also provides a good opportunity to disconnect from a monotonous routine that may seek to squelch the thirst for adventure which lies deep inside. I landed in Cuba with nothing but an address to a Casa Particular and knowing hardly any of the local language. Adding that it was my first time in a communist country, it was probably the farthest out of my comfort zone I've been yet. While looking for a taxi at the airport, one pulled up and the back window was rolled down. "Bro, wanna split a taxi?" And that's how I met Victor, a flight attendant from Chicago also on vacation in Cuba. He knew Spanish so I decided to stay at his hostel. Over the next couple days I got to meet people from all over the world. The hostel life provides a unique opportunity to get acquainted while swapping travel tips or simply unwinding after a busy day. Germany, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, Japan, Latvia, Ireland and the USA, all of us with different stories, backgrounds, ideas, and dreams packed into one place. It's been fun exploring the tourist side of town filled with street performers, tall cruise ships casting their welcoming shadows across entire city blocks, the bustle of hurried relaxation as tourists chatter excitedly trying to fill their day with as many activities as possible, taxi drivers calling for business, and the rockous sound of Cuban music filling the air with an undercurrent of frenzied excitement. But it's always nice to return to the side of town where street vendors haggle their wares and old men smoke cigars on the street while besting each other at dominoes. Small boys kick worn out soccer balls past women carrying fresh bread or bags full of dirty laundry while stray cats scurry up and down the balconies. People sit on their front steps and call out to the street life meandering past. This is where my hostel is. This is where I can find delicious local food, friends, and a good night's rest in preparation for another day of exploration in the morning.
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