Patricia LaSalle spent a semester at the University of Havana, Cuba as part of her international development degree. She was there for 3 ½ months, sharing a room with Kristin, another student in the program.
Cuba has so much history but it seems as if everything has paused. There are many educated people in the country who are doing things they never would do if they had opportunities. Even with a ration system, they have to be very resourceful to survive.
No one questions or challenges the system, even at the university. I think the young people who never experienced the Revolution want so much more whereas the older generation is afraid to talk.
There are situations that we would find surprising, such as when I briefly stayed with a girl and her parents in their historical home. The parents were divorced but had to live together because they were unable to sell or buy property so had nowhere else to live. Instead, they split up the house.
Or when my roommate Kristin travelled to the countryside and was served beef for dinner, which is forbidden, and the person responsible for the trip was so upset because she didn’t know how to tell Kristin that she had eaten beef instead of pork.
What was most difficult was the constant harassment of local men—the catcalls and unwanted touching. We had to keep our guard up all the time and that is hard after a while. We couldn’t even run along the Malecon in the morning without being harassed. I didn’t like that feeling at all.
We did meet some incredible Cubans. One was the woman we stayed with. Her name is Nelsa and she had this one-bedroom apartment just across from the university. Kristin and I each had a bed in the one bedroom and Nelsa slept behind a blue curtain in the kitchen. We each paid $10/day for accommodation, breakfast and dinner. Nelsa was amazing and took care of us, even when we were very sick. We totally trusted her.
We escaped a couple of times by going to a resort for a day or two. In the end, though, I was starting to feel more comfortable with Cuban culture. I remember staying in Pinar del Rio in accommodation arranged by the university and spending the night with my host and her boyfriend playing dominos and drinking rum. Just a touch of Orange Fanta was added to the rum to give it colour. I haven’t had rum or played dominoes since then, but I clearly remember that evening as being one of the most memorable moments of my stay.
I have not been back to Cuba but would like to do that—not just to touristy resorts but to the real Cuba as well.
This interview had been edited and condensed.
Slideshow photo credit: gildemax
© Riding the buses 2012