Reporter takes ‘educational trip’ to Cuba

January 25, 2017 — by Francesca Chu

“So you guys were here for educational reasons, is that right?” the American customs worker asked skeptically.

Going through customs, I knew that this question would come up. My family and I were returning to the United States from Cuba, a country that the United States had only restored diplomatic relations with last July, and only recently have tensions between the two countries been loosened.

September 2016 marked the first time in more than 50 years that a commercial, non-charter flight flew from the U.S. to Cuba. However, most American tourists still travel through another country, most often Mexico or the Bahamas. When we went in December, we decided to stop in El Salvador, where we were then able to buy a 30-day Cuban tourist visa. If anyone asked, we were visiting for “educational reasons.”

My parents both replied with a confident “yes” to the skeptical customs worker. He then put my 13-year-old brother, Bryan, on the spot, asking him to name one thing he had learned from the trip, since it was apparently an “educational” trip.

Luckily, my dad had educated us a little bit about the culture and history of Cuba before going, something we do with every country we visit. Before leaving, we had spent hours reading the “Lonely Planet,” watching a TV program about Che Guevara and learning everything we could about the country. After my brother responded with some random fact about Fidel Castro, the customs worker was finally satisfied, and then we were off.

Besides this memorable moment, Cuba was an amazing experience. Stepping off the plane in Havana, I immediately saw all the things that remind people of Cuba: the classic American cars from the ‘50s, the bright-colored buildings, the socialist propaganda posters and the photos of Che Guevara hung up everywhere. As an American, it was interesting to experience a place that is so different from what I’m accustomed to.

I’ve traveled to many other countries before, and despite the contrasting cultures, I always saw the familiar images of a McDonald's restaurant or a Nike store each time I left the states. However, as I learned from my dad, the U.S. embargo on Cuba has limited Americans from conducting business there, so American influence is noticeably absent.

Instead, the country is full of its own culture. Everything was different and unique — the food, the language, the cars, the music. My personal favorite was the cars. I have always had an interest in American classic cars, and Cuba was full of them because imports were banned and the country had to make do with ones left there when Eisenhower was president. There were lines of Cadillacs and Chevys in every color on the streets. These cars are just as much a part of Cuban culture now as they were in America in the ‘50s.

In order to fully immerse ourselves in the culture, we stayed in local homes, like Airbnb. My parents purposely avoided the large international hotels because they wanted us to see how the local people actually lived.

Obviously, we visited all the tourist spots and landmarks, too. But the most interesting experience was walking along the rundown streets, where the locals stayed.

I noticed some locals giving us weird looks, and at times I felt out of place, but it was nice to see the country from the perspective of someone who lives there.

In these areas, there were no nice buildings or restaurants. The houses were in poor condition, and trash littered the streets, but everything was simpler and cheaper. The fancy hotels and extravagant plazas were replaced by plain houses and cobblestone roads. My brother and I bought ice cream for less than 15 cents, compared to the $5 it would cost just a few blocks away.

Looking back now, I realize that I learned a lot through my experience in Cuba, enough so that the trip could even be considered “educational.”