African American man walking on the street in front of a mural on a wall which reads "Cuba" in red letters
A man in front of a mural representing Cuba and country's flag. (Credit: Adriana Threlkeld )

One student explores the two similar, yet different realities of Cuba, the tourist side and the local side.

Most people travelling to Cuba, especially those by cruise ship, filter their experiences to meet their own expectations of Havana and its people.
— Adriana Threlkeld

Adriana Threlkeld is one of ten students who left behind the American way of life for eight days to travel to Havana, Cuba and immerse herself in the Cuban culture. For her first night in Cuba, Adriana took note of the two different realities of Havana, one for the tourists and the other for the locals. These two diverging, yet similar realities within Cuba were present throughout Adriana’s time in the historical, vibrant Caribbean country.

Traveling to Cuba was like entering another world, co-mingling the past with the present, unsure of what the future will look like. First, Adriana learned about Cuba’s rich history from local architect, Miguel Coyula with an in-depth presentation on the country’s politics and how this has affected the country’s urban development. A portion of presentation discussed the challenges with the government-owned infrastructure. Many of the buildings that once stood as proud symbols of the Cuban wealthy in the early to mid-20th century are now in a permanent state of disrepair. This is due to neglect by government who does not provide maintenance for the upkeep of the buildings. “There are an average of three building collapses per day in Havana” said Threlkeld. As foreigners would imagine, many of Cuba’s buildings are reminiscent of the country’s “Golden Age.” Bright colored buildings from the “Golden Age” are generally what a foreigner thinks of when they think of buildings in Cuba. Much of this perception is fueled by movies, television, and art depicting Havana as old world romance from the 1950s. Though Adriana learned that the bright colors represented the remittances which were sent by family members who had left Cuba to relatives still living in Havana. This was a way to showcase the wealth of those who had left and most often gone to America.

According to Adriana, one thing which is almost exclusively tailored to tourists is the transportation in Havana. The taxis in Havana cater to the tourists who have the money to pay for a ride, while the locals use various modes of transportation. In Old Havana, she was able to observe the locals as they walked, took the bus, or used rickshaws to get around town.

I questioned every financial transaction, wondering if I was making a difference in the local economy or the waiter’s daily pay, if my actions reflected any American stereotypes, or if my presence alone contributed to the rampant disparities between US/Cuban standards of living.
— Adriana Threlkeld

As the two realities of Cuba, one for the tourist and one for the locals, merged together Adriana entered a state of cognitive dissonance. Her interactions with locals helped ease some of the concerns she had wondering if she was really making a difference. Each time she interacted with a local, she learned more about what life is really like in Cuba. Cuba, she learned is not so different than the rest of the world as everyone experiences hardship and tough times. Though life is different in Cuba due to “el bloque” or the embargo as the Cubans say. One local told Adriana “that the country itself is built around tourists”, though the embargo prevents a majority of U.S. citizens from coming to the country. The dichotomy between Cuba’s two realities comes together for the locals as a portion of the country’s economy is sustained through tourism.

Despite the hardships Cubans face due to the embargo, there is an emphasis on knowledge and learning. As Adriana and her peers toured schools learning about the literacy campaign during the revolution it became clear that most Cuban citizens are well-educated. This is due to higher education being free, allowing people to pick a career which can be very expensive in the United States like medical school or law school. One thing which surprised Adriana was learning that doctors in Cuba usually have to take a second job in addition to their normal job due to insufficient pay from the government.

Through this immersive learning experience Adriana was able to experience Cuban culture and see the two realities of Havana.