Alabama student studies abroad in Havana, Cuba

Kailey McCarthy

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Q: How does your daily life in Cuba differ from what it was like in America?

A: My general routine is mostly the same, but the details are much different. First thing every morning in the U.S., I check the weather on my phone, but here I have to pay for Internet by the hour, and I can only use it in the lobby of our hotel.

To get to class, I take a “maquina,” essentially an old 1950s car full of strangers. When I see one of my friends on campus, we give kisses on the cheek to greet one another.

They don’t sell fresh produce in the grocery stores, so we go to little markets called “agros” to get veggies and fruit for cheap. We bring our own bottles and get 1.5 liters of fresh juice for less than a dollar. My favorite is mango-pineapple.

Q: How have your daily experiences in Cuba changed from your daily experiences in the U.S.?

A: There are old cars everywhere, and stray animals – chickens, cats, dogs – roam the streets and even inside the buildings.

When we walk down the street, all of us girls can expect to have men yell things at us. Everyone from here insists that the “piropo,” as they call it, is a sign of respect and an affirmation of our beauty. Our Cuban culture professor, a highly dignified woman, said, “If you were ugly, they wouldn’t do it.” She also told us it was a rite of passage for young girls, so they feel proud when it first starts happening because it means they are women.

It also seems like when things go wrong here or stop working, it isn’t as big of a deal. Like the whiteboard in our classroom is more like a “grayboard” and the marker just doesn’t erase, but the teachers are unfazed. We were in the middle of a PowerPoint in our only classroom with a projector when a power outage happened, and our professor just said, “Well, you got a chance to see the picture,” and told us to open the door to let some light in, so he could keep lecturing. Never once have I heard a professor complain about their room or equipment here, even though it often fails.

Q: What has been the hardest adjustment between daily life in America and daily life in Cuba?

A: One of the hardest adjustments for me is living and breathing in the consequences of controversial foreign policy. Here, the only billboards are for political propaganda, and many of them are negative towards the U.S. One of them even calls the U.S. embargo, here they call it “bloqueo” which actually means blockade, a genocide.

When I first saw it, I dismissed it as overly dramatic, but as I reflected more on what I had learned about the horrors of the Special Period, after the Soviet Union stopped supporting Cuba, my perspective changed. Many people suffered from malnourishment and contracted diseases like neuropathy from vitamin deficiency. Placing economic pressure on an impoverished nation can mean starving people. It is hard to see these kind of messages every day and learn that there is at least some reality, while exaggerated, behind them.

One of my best friends here was explaining to me what a major problem the country has with the price of food. Her dad is in the military, so he makes $1000 moneda nacional per month ($40 USD), but a package of four pieces of frozen chicken costs around $60MN ($2.50 USD).

“Can you imagine paying 60 dollars for four pieces of chicken in the U.S.?” she asked me.

After our conversation, we went to get lunch. I tried to pay, but she wouldn’t let me, but it was one of the more expensive places near the university, so she ordered the $6MN ($.25 USD) Jello instead of spending a dollar on a sandwich. I knew she was hungry, too.

I understand that the embargo is more complicated than one undergrad spending a few months in Cuba can grasp, but from here, all I can see are the people it’s hurting.

Q: Through this experience, how will you think or behave in the future?

A: There’s a lot I took for granted before that I am sure I will become accustomed to once more, but I hope I can remember to think about others. I know I’m going to go right back to using Internet whenever I want and buying whatever food I want, but I hope while I do that, I can remember to think about my friends here. I think being aware is the first step to helping.

Q: Do you have anything to add regarding daily life in Cuba?

A: When you befriend a Cuban, you’re automatically welcome into their homes and their lives.

One of our friends from school found out we were doing our laundry in the bathtub of our hotel and immediately invited us over the very next day to her apartment to do our laundry. She and her boyfriend met up with us to show us the way, and we spent all day cooking and cleaning with them. It really felt like home, even though so much of it was so foreign.

One memory I hope I’ll have for life was chatting about nothing with our friends, watching the cats and chickens on the roof next door, with our just-washed clothes hanging in the sun and the smell of rice and beans and chicken cooking.