A Life Unplugged

Certainly, travel provides new life experiences, but it also has a way of changing a traveler’s life expectations. For one student, a study-abroad program in Cuba did all of that and more.

by Georgia Schrubbe

I’m standing in line for a bathroom at a gas station in between Cienfuegos and Havana – the middle of nowhere – praying this one will at least have running water and maybe even soap. Perched on a rusty chair outside the bathroom is a salt-and-pepper–haired man, jovially strumming a traditional Cuban guitar-like instrument called a tres and rationing out squares of toilet paper to the cranky ladies waiting their turn. He fixes his bright clear eyes on me and begins serenading me in Spanish as the line inches slowly forward.

I’ve been on my fair share of road trips and I can safely say that I’ve never been serenaded outside a gas station bathroom – or any bathroom, for that matter. Indeed, during my 10-week stay in Cuba with the College ’s Semester in Cuba Program, I checked many items off of my bucket list, including things – like being serenaded outside of a bathroom – that I never even knew were on it.

The College has one of the longest-running Cuba study-abroad programs of any school in the country, and that’s the reason that some students decide to come here. The program has been under the direction of Doug Friedman, associate professor of international and intercultural studies, since 2000, first as a summer program and now with a full semester program as well. Students come to Cuba and take classes led by Humberto Miranda, a professor and researcher at the Instituto de Filosofía, and other professors from the University of Havana. That education is supplemented by a range of cultural activities and excursions, from a visit to the Cuban parliament to the famous city of Santa Clara that Che Guevara captured during the Cuban Revolution.

I had to adjust to many things about this unpredictable place that’s still considered a Third World country. There’s a shortage of milk? Oh, no big deal, that happens every year. The power’s out? Oh, just relax – it will be back on in a few minutes.

The people are extremely resilient and creative, and have the ability to make something out of almost nothing. Our housekeeper, known as La China, served me and the 11 other students in the program tuna from an industrial-size can and then turned around and used the can as a pan to bake her famous flan. And I was able to check tuna-can flan off of my bucket list.

But things like China’s inventive cooking antics came from a lifestyle that I could barely wrap my mind around before arriving in Cuba. Even though my classmates and I came from different backgrounds, I’m fairly certain none of us ever went to bed hungry when we were growing up. My Cuban friends Camilo, Xavy and Ariel grew up during the “Special Period,” the time after the fall of the Soviet Union when Cuba’s economy went into severe decline and there were shortages of everything. Cuba’s economy prior to the ’90s depended heavily on trading with the Soviet bloc – Cuba exported sugar to the USSR and in return received food, fuel, technology and so on for low prices. After the Soviet Union fell, Cuba was plunged into a state of crisis similar to post-Katrina New Orleans. While I was getting new Barbies and learning to ride my bike, Camilo, Xavy and Ariel were sitting through hours of blackouts. They said that instead of blackouts, they had “lights-ons.” And, even though during my trip I thought it questionable to buy meat from a hole-in-the-wall stand where pieces of freshly butchered pig were hanging from hooks on the ceiling, Camilo told me that, during the Special Period, some restaurants seasoned and fried mops and sold them as steak.

But I think that, despite these setbacks, in some ways our Cuban friends are a lot richer than we are. Instead of being constantly plugged in and updated via the iPhone 5 or Android Razor or whatever, they actually have to talk to each other. Camilo, Xavy, Ariel and their friends have Facebook and a few have cell phones, but high-speed wireless is basically unheard of and Twitter is as foreign as Malaysia. I’m a self-confessed Internet addict, checking email and Facebook dozens of times daily, but in Cuba I had a chance to detox. To get a wireless signal, I had to walk almost 30 minutes to a hotel, pay $8 for one hour and then walk back. Internet access costs about twice as much as a typical meal out in Cuba, so – suffice it to say – I kicked my habit. Yes, I missed my friends and family, but I developed stronger and closer relationships with the other people in the program and with my Cuban friends and “family.”

I also had to kick my dependence on Google to find out things to do. If we wanted to know what band was playing at a particular club, we had to call or rely on the good old grapevine. One night, one of Camilo’s friends, Alexis, came to our apartment, claiming that a friend had told him about a block party with different DJs. We followed his directions and stumbled upon an event center hosting what was essentially the Cuban version of the MTV Music Awards. I’d never realized the power of word-of-mouth until it was practically the only way I ever found out about anything. I would have never gone to a Beatles-themed club in a basement, seen one of Cuba’s best tres players (not the bathroom attendant) or known when a performance of the Ballet Nacional was if someone hadn’t physically told me about those events. I would never have known that these things were even on my bucket list.

And, as I continued checking things off of my newly edited bucket list – driving through the mountains of Escambray, swimming in the crystal blue waters of the Bay of Pigs or watching the sun set over Havana from the rooftop of a hotel frequented by Hemingway – I wasn’t texting my friends photos or updating my Facebook status about it.

I was living it.

– Georgia Schrubbe is a senior communication major.
Photos by Levi Vonk