Bread & Cola- My Unforgettable Experience in Cuba / by Jewell Bell

I embarked on my trip to Havana  with the excitement and mysterious curiosity of any typical American who viewed Cuba as some sort of magical yet forbidden place, due to the history and strained relationship between the U.S and Cuba. Having no expectations, I pictured old vintage American cars in vibrant colors cruising down old bustling streets while passing colorful and decayed architecture that felt like you had stepped back in time. Although the description remains true, I was in no way prepared for the reality of Cuba to far succeed my fantasies, which initially sent me into a full fledge culture shock. Cuba proved to be difficult, navigating significant language barriers and stripped of modern comforts back at home, but it was one of the most rewarding, educational, and beautiful experiences of my life. 

Deciding to stay at an Airbnb in Centro Habana (Central Havana) rather than a luxury hotel or resort in Old Havana, I was able to first hand experience the Real Cuba- surrounded by significant poverty, heaping piles of trash on almost every block, stifling heat, lack of hot water that I was accustomed to at home, as well as the inability to hardly speak any Spanish, which proved very difficult to perform the most simple tasks. However, once the initial culture shock and 'westernized' discomfort quickly subsided, I realized that this trip was less of a "vacation" and more of an education. Moreover, it significantly became more about the wonderful interactions and beautiful relationships I began to form with the Cuban people. My mother and I immersed ourselves in the hustle and bustle of our neighborhood, Lealtad St., fascinated by the elderly woman who lowered her basket from her terrace to await groceries and items her family brought back, the people that stood in line in the mornings at the small store to receive rations of food the government provided for them, the men who pulled carts through the streets selling mangos, bananas, and flowers, as well as the taxi drivers who fixed the old vintage cars that they were set to drive tourists around in all day. It was a simple yet comfortable life, and I grew to appreciate the simplicity and beauty of being so present and aware, a luxury not afforded to me at home that's mired by technology and social media distractions. 

It wasn't until my visit to Habana Vieja, or Old Havana, whereby I realized the stark contrast of economic ineqaulity, standard of living, and modern comforts. Suddenly, the streets were cleaner, the air fresher, beautiful luxury hotels and resorts reminiscent of home that greeted you with a cool blast of air conditioning the second you walked through the glass doors, and restaurants that dripped with as much opulence that Cuba could muster. I suddenly begin to feel sick, as I watched tourists in a position of privilege and wealth make their way into the old vintage cars and take selfies with hubris and ignorance towards the actual lives the Cuban people themselves lived just blocks away. To 'fine dine' and partake in the limited luxuries the country had that its people could not even partake in. I do not condemn or judge those that choose to stay in the luxury hotels and resorts but to solely immerse yourself in that without attempting to connect to the people and visit the real neighborhoods felt irresponsible to me. I returned to Central Havana with a new found appreciation, thanking God, and fully immersing myself in its people and culture.

Despite the language barrier, the Cuban people are so beautiful and filled with warmth, welcoming me wherever I went. I had the pleasure of spending much of my time with a beautiful boy who lived next door and showed me around all of Central Havana-walking me hand in hand along the Melacón and through backstreets of Havana, away from tourists and seeing his wonderful home though his eyes. When he took me to a theatre, where I got to watch the talented young dancers perform at their recital, I got emotional as I looked around- watching how proud they all were of their culture, their heritage... themselves. "This is what Ché gave his life for" I thought to myself. "These are the people he loved the most and fought so hard to protect from exploitation and western imperialism." It wasn't about materialism, opulence, and artificiality but more so the deep connections and relationships they established with each other. 

Right on the corner of where I was staying, was a small bread shop, whereby people in the neighborhood were able to buy fresh baked bread for 1 Cuban peso, a currency worth much less than the standard CUC (1 CUC is worth 25 Cuban pesos) and that typically was not allowed by tourists but regularly used by the people in Cuba. I fell in love with the small bakery, not just because of how delicious the bread was but because of the sense of community that surrounded it- watching the families that strolled through all day and night to buy bread, the small children laughing and receiving sweets from the shopkeeper, and the warm greetings and conversations they exchanged amongst each other. As I sat on the terrace eating my own bread from the shop and drinking cola (which I lived on while there) I felt so connected to the spirited people who greeted me and welcomed me into their own community. Who, though had so little, were filled with so much. 

To say I'll miss Cuba is a significant understatement. To the spirited and resilient people on Lealtad Street in Central Havana: the old man whose voice I heard every morning yelling "flores!" as he pushed his flower cart through the Havana heat, my beautiful hosts who spoke no English yet were so accommodating and kind, the warm kisses and hugs from the people, the small bakery shop and its sense of jovial community, and most importantly my good soul who reminded me just how deliciously sweet, romantic, and adventurous life can be. You all have left your mark and the most magical imprint on my life- reminding me that love transcends all barriers, whether it be language, embargoes, or socio-economic classes. I anxiously anticipate my return to Cuba and its beautiful people I now consider family.