Disculpe... ¿donde están los baños? - Excuse me, where are the bathrooms?
¿donde están los baños? - where are the bathrooms?
¿donde baños? - where bathrooms?
¿baños?? - BATHROOMS??
side note: baños is pronounced like banyos but I made it a joke and just called it Bani Yas.
I think I repeated that phrase over 100 times in that 1 week I was in Cuba. Personally, I think it is the most important phrase you need to have in your essential travel vocabulary anywhere in the world. Most people learn swear words first when learning a new language but I think being at ease is far more important than swearing at someone.
Cuba, or the República de Cuba, is the largest island of the Caribbean and one of the only five "socialist states" (communist countries) remaining in the world. Cuba has been under the communist regime from 1959 till today. Although this December, President Obama has talked about loosening up the trade sanctions, the embargo is still in place. Living in a developed country such as Canada where we live such privileged lives, I was very curious to find out what a communist country actually is. Therefore, visiting Cuba was the more viable option au lieu de North Korea!!
Where I stayed?
I had never been on a beach/swimming pool vacation in my life and I'm not going to lie,
I wanted to jump on the bandwagon and do what everyone else was doing. All my friends would come back with Hollywood tans every Christmas and Spring break raving about their week "down south." So I asked my family to come and stay with me for seven days at a beach resort; however, only to realize why this was such a big mistake.
Why I'll never stay at a resort ever again!!
I absolutely hate the idea of staying at a resort. And I vow to never do such a thing ever again! A beach resort is designed for someone who wants to "relax" and truth be told, I do not know how to "relax." I don't understand the idea of sitting on a beach for seven entire days in an isolated resort far from the city and far from the local people. I think this notion is such an elitist idea - to go to a country, use their good weather, their good beaches, their services simply to "relax" with other middle or upper class tourists. I understand beach resorts are good for people who work in offices 9-5 every day and live a cubicle life, for families with little children and for people with hectic stressful lives. I, Mina Mohit, do not need to "relax" - I'm a university student with full course load, a part time job, and a website to manage. Yes, time to time, I may have to sacrifice my social life or sleep so that I can prep ingredients and cook for the upcoming week or do laundry since I'm running out of clean clothes but this is COMPLETELY NORMAL. There are people in worse situations, single-moms trying to get an education while working late shifts to pay the rent and put food on the table- they need to relax. Not me, I don't deserve a "relaxing" vacation. So maybe, in 10 years when I have married and birthed 4 sons that drive me insane, I will stay at a resort to "relax" but as for right now, I'm good.
What I ate ?
Nothing. I practically starved and lost 10 pounds while I was there. This is because little did I know that Cuba's main cuisine revolves around seafood and pork - two types of food that I personally find revolting. I am not nutritionally adventurous whatsoever (perhaps one of the reasons I'll never be a legit world traveller because I'm too much of a food-princess) - I can't stand the smell of seafood and the pinkish color of pork that reminds me of Babe (the movie). And because we were staying at a resort, you are confined to what the resort serves you and you cannot simply tell yourself, oh well, I-am-just-going-to-leave-and-get-myself-something-else. The resort is basically a 5-star prison i.e. you are confined to certain boundaries, you see the same people every day, you eat what they give you, and you eat in a bustling noisy communal area with everyone tapping and screeching their knives and forks against their plates - I dreaded going to the buffet every single day. Even on days when I went, I found bits and pieces of ham in everything. Arroz con Jamon (Rice with Ham -- "Jamon" is pronounced "H"amon). Huevos con Jamon (Eggs with ham). Pasta con Jamon (Pasta with ham). Sopa con Jamon (Soup with Ham). Queso con Jamon (Cheese with ham). WHY WAS EVERYTHING CON JAMON? So I asked my mother to sneak out some toast and boiled eggs out of the buffet when she went (because you were not allowed to take food outside) and that is what I nibbled on like a squirrel all day.
Side note: food is something personal and I do not intend to offend people who enjoy the Cuban cuisine, seafood and pork. I did not only eat toast and eggs, I also ate potatoes, bananas and fresh pineapples. My exaggerative tone is for satirical purposes and must not be taken seriously.
What made everything okay.
Leaving the resort and going into the cities and villages (the nearest city was miles and miles away), interacting with the locals and immersing myself in the real culture. With my chameleon personal appearance, I easily passed off as Latina-looking and did not attract much attention while walking in the streets. That was until I opened my mouth and spoke whatever I had learned in Spanish 101- well, that didn't go very well. I, immediately, then identified as a tourist; suddenly, the roles were reversed and they became interested in me and wanted to know who I was, where I was from, and all the nitty gritty details of my life. In the small towns, I observed the women's sense of fashion, the children's pastime activities, the cars on the streets, people's trades and their obsession with light green and mint blue in their architecture.
Outside the resort, I felt alive. I felt like I had been freed from prison and I can finally do all the things I wanted to do. Oh and yes, I did take a hell a lot of pictures.
The Spirit of Christmas and Gift Giving
Every year around Christmas time, people become a little kinder, a little more generous and a little more giving. Also, I remembered that during my high school years in Vancouver, every time the Social Studies class went on a school trip to Cuba, they asked for donations of any kind, whether it was notebooks, coloring pencils, hygienic products or anything at all. The sanctions placed on Cuba make access to simple things we take for granted very difficult. Most Cubans holding a Cuban passport can never leave the country and people make very low wages. For example, a cardiologist in Cuba earns on average around $100 a month. Now, I understand many people are against the idea of "gift-giving" in countries such as Cuba, and I am sure my friends in International Development Studies reading this right now will not condone my actions since they will argue that it will widen the gap between the rich and the poor. (this article here explains why gift-giving does damage if any one is curious).
Deep inside I had this guilt that I couldn't come into someone's country exploit their beautiful beaches and not give back to their country - I felt so bad! Plus, if I have the ability to make someone happy, then why not. Moreover, I had educated myself on Cuba's economic state and the ramifications of tipping abundantly so I stayed away from giving gifts to the cleaning ladies and the staff at the hotel, but instead bought whiteboards and educational materials for children in the villages (I strictly targeted the niños-babies- so that the items could not be resold to other people).
The children were smiling and laughing with such excitement when they received their little gifts. I have nieces and nephews in Canada who are never satisfied with anything you give them and nothing is ever enough for them. It was so relieving to see that you can finally put a smile on a child's face. I didn't simply want to "gift" and leave but I saw the gift as a means to break the ice, strike up a conversation, and practice my rusty Spanish. To speak and play in the children in the smaller towns, to me, was the most rewarding experience of my entire trip to Cuba.
Snapshots of my Angelina-Jolie-philanthropist-wannabe moments
This month's post has lots of photos so that you can really get a sense of my trip and a feel for the country. I've uploaded most of my random Iphone shots below in a little gallery if you wanted to virtually explore the country further. I wish all of you a very Happy New Year in advance and wait up for my post in January. Until then.. à tout à l'heure!
Mina is a multimedia journalist currently based in London, U.K.
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