“You’re back! How was Cuba?” is the question many of my peers have asked upon my arrival back in the States after a six day intensive family trip.
Automatically my lips want to respond, “It was great!”
It was great? Was it great to see and learn about the impoverished Cubans who make the mere minimum of money to survive? Was it great to learn about the rations each Cuban gets that only allows them the lowest grade of rice and beans to eat? Was it great to learn that divorce rate was at a sky high of about 70% because newlyweds have no privacy due to the housing shortage?
No. It was not great. It was extremely upsetting to see. Incredibly sad.
As my lips start to express these difficulties, my mind reminds them of other thoughts. Less sad ones. Some interesting.
While we had the privilege to drive around with a tour guide, we noticed there were no advertisements for McDonald’s or hair product or basically anything. Instead, we saw signs with images of Fidel, Raul, and Che and propaganda about the salvation the Revolution has and will always bring to its residents. The Revolution is the answer to all of Cuba’s problems.
Our tour guide told us about the high divorce rate. While he explained there was no privacy for newlyweds, he also expressed an interesting point. Women have the right to be completely independent and equal to men in Cuba. Each person — not each family unit — receives social services, like rations. A woman can make her own decisions and earn as much as her partner, which unfortunately is not very much.
This to me was one of the more beautiful points because a person is a person is a person. No matter what race, age, or sex — each person is treated equally. Incredible. This was evident in our trip.
We also had the opportunity to visit sites my grandparents lived in. We visited the town Mantanzas my Abuelo lived in and went to high school. We visited the University of Havana where both of my Abuelos attended for some part of their lives. We even visited my great-aunt who still lives in Cuba. I met her for the second time in my life. This was the first time I could remember meeting her.
Seeing my great-aunt in Cuba connected me a little more to the land. The problems I saw and was learning about were no longer foreign issues that were incredibly upsetting; they became my problems. It was personal. I saw my great-aunt. My family. She has to face these Cuban hardships.
The question I am left with is the same one I have experienced during my service-learning trip to Israel last year after meeting with an Eritrean refugee in South Tel Aviv and listening to the daily hardships he has and continues to face. It is the same question I am faced after interning and working with older adults who are lonely, which affects not only their emotional health, but physical health too. It is the same question I get after seeing the many homeless people on the street of New York City.
What can I do? What should I do? What is my obligation as a person, as a woman, as a Jew?
We have seen this life and now we must return with our visas back to our American lives. Luxurious. Back to a land with toilet seats in public restrooms. Back to a land with air conditioners blasting a little too high. Back to a land with cars accessible to most of the public. Back to a land where race and gender and age play affect in everyday life. Back to a life where everything is advertised and you cannot escape it. Back to a place where families live further apart and communicate via social media.
And so I express my trip like this:
“It was incredible. Incredibly sad, beautiful, and interesting.”