Cuba Confessional by Hannah Skjellum

When I first decided to join the Cuba trip in November, much of my thought process revolved around how I would use it as a means of bolstering my Fulbright and Boren applications. I thought it would be a cut and dry look into the country—I didn’t really know how I would feel, but I never expected the experience that I had with Cuba, the country and the wonderful Cubans who I met throughout our travels.

Even after taking the class with Dr. Sippial during the spring semester, the reality of being in Cuba outweighed every expectation, disrupted all of my previous conceptions about Cuba as a country, and opened my eyes to more of what Cuba is and was outside of what we read as children in American history classes. I won’t say I fell in love with the country because that feels a little bit too Julia Roberts; and I can’t say I fell in love with the culture because, having only been there 11 days, there are many aspects I did not see and many things I continue to misunderstand about Cuban culture. What I fell in love with in Cuba—what makes me sad to have left—were the people and the experiences I had the honor of being involved in. Too often, I think, tourism exists in bubbles outside of the realities of countries and the monuments seen and the museums explored become stagnant histories that don’t allow the current country’s political and social climates to show. But countries don’t live in stagnant spaces nor do they exist only in the monuments and the museums. I have had little experience with international tours, but from what I have seen and heard, the trip we experienced in Cuba broke from those expectations of complacent tourism confined to seeing monuments and looking at people.

What I experienced in Cuba was the meeting of dozens of people who all embodied parts of Cuba and the Cuban experience. From our guides, Domingo, David, and Ernesto; to people who worked where we were staying; to people I met selling their wares and their crafts, like Gloria, who I met while translating for a friend in the group, or Azariel Santander Alcántara, a nationally-renowned figure in Cuba for his decades of pottery work; to those who helped us find natural beauty through guided tours, like Luis, who took us to the Topes de Collantes and talked to us in part about the government’s relationship with ecotourism; and to those people who I randomly spoke to in the streets or who welcomed us into their homes and restaurants as if we were family—I met so many people who all walked different, similar, divergent, adjacent paths from everyone around them, but all in their own ways embodied the ways in which Cuban people have worked within and around the restrictions placed on property, jobs, and mobility. When we started our class and when we were first introduced to Domingo in the van, the trip’s big question became, “How have Cuban people learned to combat and to work within the system set up by the government, socially and politically?” From the 20 plus people I met, I feel like I have gained only a fraction of a response to that question and have seen only parts of what I needed and now need to see of Cuban society. But from that fraction has come a bigger understanding of Cuban-American relations and the possible future between us.

But, that tiny understanding about Cuba and the people I met while traveling around the western parts of the island has put me in a place in which I am not as sure about my own future, my own career path, or my own sense of identity. I took this trip initially as a means of bolstering my own focus on Africana studies—the study of Africa and the diaspora of African peoples throughout the world, mostly by way of slave trade—but after this experience, so many doors have opened. For the most part, I want those doors to lead back to Cuba, but that’s a plan still in progress.

Even more important than my career, I feel like I have been given a gift in meeting all the people who I was able to meet. I’m trying not to sound like I’m drinking the Kool Aid because, as they reminded us in our study abroad mandatory meeting, sometimes the process of leaving a country you visited involves romanticizing the country where we just left. But through my interactions with Cuban people and being placed in a situation of evaluating their country anew, I have also been given a rare opportunity to examine my own country through a different lens. The many, diverse people I was able to meet and talk to gave me such a better insight not only into my own thoughts and misconceptions about Cuba, but also allowed me to discuss with those people their own perceptions about the United States. As a student from the United States, I felt like I was being taught by those people I talked to but also was put in a position of promoting the United States, of possibly changing minds or creating conversation. I felt lucky to represent my university and my country in that respect because I could freely discuss my opinions and have more open conversations with people based on my position as student.

My favorite part of the trip was that conversation I was able to have. In Trinidad, I spoke with Azariel Santander Alcántara, and we discussed at length the process of his making art. While I originally began the conversation because of a friend who sculpts, the discussion became something that connected us and, in response to this connection, he gave me a gift of a clay bracelet and read to me this quote from Jose Marti:

<<Cuando nací, la Naturaleza me dijo: ¡Ama! y mi corazón me dijo: ¡Agradece! Y desde entonces yo amo al bueno y al malo, hago religión de la lealtad y abrazo a cuantos me hacen bien.>>

“When I was born, nature told me, “Love!” and my heart told me, “Thanks!” And since then I love the good and the bad, I make religion of loyalty and I embrace those few who make me well.”

That quote, for me, sums up my experience in Cuba, and in being given the chance to see Cuba outside of the context of history books and op-ed pieces and through an on the ground view with people who were honest and thoughtful in their discussions of what it means to be Cuban. I feel so grateful I was able to go on this trip and the group of people I went with helped make it even more of a fun, educational, incredible experience.

 

Favorite place in Cuba: Trinidad

Favorite song from the trip: <<Hasta que se seque el malecon>> por Jacob Forever

Favorite food: Plantain chips

Favorite monument/location: Topes de Collantes (even though I almost gave up and lived on the mountain)

Favorite musical evening: Disco Ayala in Trinidad (Las Cuevas)

Favorite Cuban phrase: <<Todo bien>>

Favorite band: Los Bravo (although Los Boys were also amazing)

 

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