I visited Cuba during a tender moment of its life: in the past year, various U.S. travel and financial restrictions have been lifted, however, the status of its long-standing embargo is still up for debate. With the thawing of this previously hostile relationship also comes an influx of tourism, both American and from those who want to visit before the Americans flood in. Even so, tourism is still moderate enough that the country has not yet succumbed to its cancers (read: multinational corporation takeovers).
Visitors are quick to fawn over Cuba for being a time capsule. The colorful old-school automobiles, the ornate yet decaying Spanish colonial buildings, and the general lag that results from minimal exposure to the Internet and technology all contribute to the country’s undeniable charm. I felt this juxtaposition of modernity against history straight out of the airport when I was picked up in a 1954 baby blue Chrysler playing reggae from a bootleg sound system, by a driver who loudly talked in his phablet while manually tying my suitcase to the roof of the car.
I’m personally guilty of gawking at Cuba’s antiquated aesthetic and squealing with glee whenever a candy-colored 1950s car passed by. It didn’t take me long to realize, however, that the country’s suspended state of being is only cute to the outsider. There is far more going on beyond what meets the eye.
I was lucky to experience Cuba through the eyes of a local millennial. My Cuban escort, whom I was connected with through a friend of a friend’s friend, was instrumental in helping me see past my rose-colored lenses and into the country’s unfiltered political, economical, and social state. Getting the inside scoop from a local is made purposely difficult, as the country’s laws are set up to limit interaction between foreigners and locals beyond tourist services. But more on that later.
With the assistance of my newfound Cuban friend and others that I made along the way, I learned that Cuba is much more than a time capsule – it is a country still deeply entrenched in a complex political situation, a struggle for financial stability, and teetering on the brink of a collective craving amongst millennials for a better life.