The University of Iowa

Cuba: A Forbidden Island

October 29th, 2014

By Maya Hendricks

I wish words could express the unique beauty and my enjoyment of the time I spent in Cuba, but they don’t so I’ll try my best.

As I walked off the plane in to the airport in Habana I couldn’t help but notice the smell of cigarette smoke in the air. Smoking in an airport was a first for me; in fact there was a specified smoking area next to the food court with attendants. Everybody in Cuba smokes. Well, maybe not everybody, but tobacco is a big thing there and everyone knows how famous the Cuban cigar is.

Standing next to some pro-Castro graffiti in a town near old Habana.

Walking out of the airport I was hit with a blast of hot, humid air and a parking lot full of antique American cars. I was finally in Cuba – a trip I had anxiously awaited since the day I landed in Costa Rica.

Our first day of tours consisted of La Casa de Africa. We had a small lecture but the best part of La Casa de Africa was the African dance performance we got to witness and participate in.  An old woman danced to the beat of the drums with more energy than I’ve ever had, putting all the 20-something year olds in the room to shame. 

Cuba has a diverse mix of cultures there and a large part of that mix is rooted in African culture.  I had heard of the African presence in Cuba before the trip, but to actually see it in effect was really interesting.  The mix of cultures in Cuba makes a really exotic looking people.

As I walked down the Obispo, a popular street with many stores and restaurants, I could see people as pale as rice paper or as dark as the night sky but in Cuba there is no white and black, you are just Cuban.

The next day we got to tour a cigar factory. Walking into the cigar factory was like stepping back into time. We saw how women devein the tobacco leaves and categorize them so they can be rolled. The next room was the “rolling room” which was filled with rows and rows of workers who smoked cigars while they rolled cigars. It was kind of a funny sight to see. The rooms were hot, smelly, and not well lit in an old building, but people didn’t seem to be as profusely sweating as us, the gringos. I couldn’t imagine having a manual labor type of job in those conditions but the workers all seemed very content.

Sitting along the malecón, which runs along Habana.

The following day I got to see the most beautiful beach I had ever seen. The beach was called Varadero also known as “La Playa Azul” and it put all the Costa Rican beaches I had previously visited to shame. White sands, blue water, and an all-inclusive hotel— I never wanted to leave Cuba. The last day in Cuba was bittersweet, more bitter than sweet. I was so thankful to be able to have gone to an island most people from the U.S, will probably never get to visit. At the same time, it was hard to say bye to a place that I felt so happy in knowing it was probably my first and last time there. Despite all their current circumstances Cuban people were smiling, happy, playing music, and dancing. It really showed me that money really does not buy happiness because while only making around $25 a month Cuban people were enjoying life.

Cuba stole my heart and one day I will find a way to get back.     

Maya Hendricks is junior from Chicago, IL majoring in interdepartmental business and Spanish at the University of Iowa. She is currently studying abroad in Heredia, Costa Rica on the USAC Heredia program.