Cuba is a beautiful country. Visiting the island just south of Florida is on the Bucket List for many people, myself included. In fact, after talking about it with many of my friends, I discovered all of the reasons why young adults want to visit Cuba. But as a Cuban-American, I also had my doubts about going there. I had anxieties, worries, and even bouts of jealousy whenever I saw my American friends traveling to Cuba. And then, earlier this year, I did it. After years of talking about it, I finally visited Cuba on my honeymoon. And I was… absolutely horrified.
When my friends told me their stories of visiting Cuba, they were always stories of wonder and adventure. They talked about the incredible, resilient people (totally true), the natural beauty of the island, the gorgeous beaches, the cigars and the rum tours, how wonderful Old Havana is for walking around, and the history. But no one ever mentions the tragedy of visiting a country your family once called home and seeing it crumbling before your eyes.
When my parents suggested to my then-fiancé and I that we take a cruise to Cuba for our honeymoon, I instantly loved the idea. Just 24 hours later, we were booking one that seemed to have the perfect itinerary: A Royal Caribbean boat that sets sail from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, stopped in the Bahamas and then continued for a day in Havana. It wasn’t an overnight trip and we would barely have any time there, but it seemed like a great way to start our marriage together since two big priorities for us were traveling more as a couple and visiting my homeland.
The cruise wasn’t the best experience for us, however. Our first night on the boat was very rocky, due to a storm offshore as we made our way to the Bahamas, and virtually everyone on the boat (us included) ended up getting sick. We were also traveling at the very beginning of January, which can sometimes be just as warm as summer and other times (like when we went) it’s just cold enough for sweaters and jackets. Arriving in Havana to gray skies, gloomy weather, and cold temperatures was definitely not the homecoming I had envisioned.
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But more than that, I just felt sad seeing the island of my father’s youth in such disarray. So many Americans I know talk about how “charming” Cuba is because it has retained its 50s style. But you know what? It’s not charming that buildings are crumbling and people are starving and the cars are old. It might be cute to come to Cuba as a tourist and pay someone to drive you around in a brightly-colored 50s convertible, but how many people really consider what is happening? Those cars are old because the country cannot import anything newer and they’re brightly colored because painting over the rust is one of the few things people can do.
I will admit that I barely had enough time to fully experience and absorb Cuba. We only really had half a day in Havana, so I know that not visiting other parts of the country likely very much clouded my take. But as we walked around Old Havana, which is largely falling apart, I felt more depressed than overjoyed to be visiting the island I hadn’t seen since I was 5 years old. My memories of swimming on Varadero, the famed gorgeous beach just a couple of hours from Havana, weren’t materialized again. Instead, I found myself walking around a strange, crumbling city that I didn’t recognize.
I also know that I came to Cuba as a fairly privileged American. I’m an immigrant originally, but I have my citizenship now. Life is pretty good and easy for me, and I know that. I also know that, unlike many other Cubans, I don’t really have family there anymore. In theory, there are many third cousins that are still around somewhere but neither my close family (who are all in America) nor I are in touch with anyone. In a way, visiting Cuba — the land of my ancestors — feels just like visiting any other third world country: Interesting, fascinating, but also ultimately sad. The level of poverty that I saw there deeply moved and saddened me. But why did no one warn me about this before?
I think, for a lot of Americans who visit Cuba, it’s no different than visiting other nations that have high poverty rates. And especially for Americans who visit Cuba, there is some excitement in visiting an illicit country due to the U.S. embargo that has kept Cuba and its people poor and unable to prosper, due to limited resources. It’s sort of like having a drink as a teen, when you know that your parents don’t want you to get drunk. It’s illegal, so it’s exciting. The same applies for Americans who visit Cuba, I think, and they come back talking about how beautiful and exciting the island is. They never talk about the crumbling buildings or the old cars except to say that it’s “charming.”
My experience visiting Cuba was very different from my friend’s. I didn’t find Old Havana charming at all. Instead, I found it depressing. Sure, the people were kind and friendly — but many confessed that life is difficult and that they would get out if they could. Although this experience didn’t fully sour me on going back to Cuba in the future, because I definitely want to see more of the island and even visit the home we lived in when I was a toddler, it was definitely a much difficult experience than I imagined. I love you, Cuba, but I am forever changed by the tragedy of visiting you.