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A Traveler’s Tale: Shattering Stereotypes on Both Sides of the Florida Straits

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Studying abroad in Cuba was an experience that is impossible to forget. People’s eyes bulge whenever I mention that I lived in Cuba for five months. A torpedo of questions always follow; “Did you feel safe? How did you survive? Isn’t Cuba communist?” While I love to discuss my time spent in Cuba, it’s questions like these that make my mind race and my blood boil.

Yet they also remind me of why I wanted to travel to Cuba: to understand daily Cuban life and how Cubans identify with their own history, as opposed to the way their history is written in U.S. textbooks. Through U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba, we have walled ourselves into a way of thinking that isn’t quite pro-American, but definitely anti-Castro.

This is why I believe opportunities for exchange are so important. Rather than reading about Cuba in the media, you need to actually see Cuba, because when it comes to Cuba from a U.S. perspective, something is always left out. And even though Cuba sits 90 miles from Miami, it is impossible to see it, moreover understand it, from the States.

Once I got to Havana, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. However, after adjusting to the immediate climate, my experiences only flourished. Cubans are infamous for being talkers, and I definitely listened. But I was also able to express my stories and opinions in return and what I said did not fall on deaf ears. Cubans young and old want to learn about life outside of Cuba and are fascinated by the United States. Many Cuban-Americans return to Cuba carrying fabricated stories about the grandiose life that lies across the Florida straits. I was there to counter those fairytales.

Whether it was simply sitting down in a café with some Cubans talking about school and American hip-hop, grocery shopping at the agromercados, dancing in rumbas at Callejon de Hamel, or sweating intensely at packed hip hop and reggaeton concerts, I can say that I have experienced the real Cuba.

People say that it’s impossible to see Cuba as a tourist. But it’s not, the real Cuba is there. It’s merely a matter of stepping outside your mental and physical comfort zone and taking on the challenge. It’s not easy, but it’s about being open-minded in Cuba. Your own expectations can either make or break your experience.

This blog was re-posted from NAFSA’s (Association of International Educators) Connecting Our World website. Click here to read more stories about study abroad experiences in Cuba. Emily Chow studied abroad in Havana, Cuba during the Spring of 2009 through American University and the University of Havana.