Works and Days

Experiencing Cuba: Sophie Naranjo-Rivera, President's Summer Fellowship Student

Arriving in Cuba was crazy. I had had a near nervous break down the day before, because I had been dreaming about Cuba for so long, and it was finally coming. It was the first time I had ever accomplished anything that big and important to me. I hadn't gotten much sleep and I was freaking out when the plane landed at the José Martí airport in Havana. Everyone was speaking to me in Spanish and I couldn't understand their thick Cuban accents properly. I was certainly not in the U.S. anymore. When I finally reached the other side of security, my family was waiting for me outside the exit among all of the other Cuban families. They recognized me right away, even though they haven't seen any recent pictures of me, because I look just like my grandma when she was younger, as I later came to find out. Driving through Havana for the first time was unreal. I was in a state of shock for the entire first day, as I spent the day talking with my family and taking naps. They were all so excited to have me there.


The strangest thing about Cuba was that everything was exactly as I expected. I had prepared for the opposite-I told myself not to expect anything and that everything would probably be different than I thought. Ironically, Cuba was just how I'd seen it, in my dreams at night, in books, in other people's stories. It was like I had been there before, and it felt not only incredible but very comfortable. Not to mention that everything there was absolutely beautiful. I thought maybe it only looked this way in pictures, but realized that photos of Cuba in tour books and on posters are actually extremely representative. Everything is tropical, there are fruit trees everywhere, pastel colored houses, old cars of bright colors with thick black smoke coming out of the tail pipes. I absolutely loved it. It truly was like going back in time 50 years, not just in how Cuba physically looked, but also in the country's abilities. For example, there was hardly any internet connection at all; it was just not apart of people's daily lives because it costs so much money there. Few people had cell phones and when they did they were not used often. Everything had to be done by phone or in person. Most people did not have cars. People walked around from house to house in their spare time-socializing, having fun, drinking coffee, playing chess or dominoes.


It was hard to conceptualize the fact that I was only 90 miles from the U.S., because everything was just so different. While people attempted to emulate U.S. clothing, and in some ways the culture too, Cuba overall was different in almost every way. People were not stressed about the same things, the only major concern was money. People spent so much time with their families and friends, made home cooked meals that were extremely healthy, and overall everything was so calm. People were not focused on their careers and ambitions the way they are here, because (almost) everyone makes the same amount of money and is a part of the same class. Social ladder climbing, schmoozing, and status worries are non-existent in day to day life. There were no commercials on TV or the radio, no advertisements. I came to learn many things about the way Cuba worked that was different from the U.S., but overall I preferred the culture there a thousand times more. Sitting around and eating fruit and drinking coffee and talking to family all evening... The country doesn't have money, but they have a lot of other things right.

Tags: presidents summer fellowship, cuba, summer opportunity