The Closest I Have Come to Living in a Parallel Universe… Cuba

Have you seen the Netflix series Stranger Things, or at least heard about it? It’s about a boy who gets sucked into a parallel universe and is living the same landscape of his other world, however, he is alone. Although he can hear and see his loved ones on the other side, he can’t directly talk to them.

The concept of a parallel universe is abstract, and to some it may even sound a bit loony. But, to some degree, it’s experienced when traveling to a foreign country. You’re exploring the same streets that locals walk every day, yet your experience and understanding of their day-to-day is completely different. The awareness of this concept was heightened during my recent exploratory trip to Cuba. I felt like I was living in this parallel universe, right then and there with the Cubans. We were coexisting. Passing each other on the same sidewalk. Seeing the same cars go by. Enjoying the same sunset on the same bench, yet it seemed like we were worlds apart.

 Since 1960, the average American tourist had limited travel to Cuba. Although the travel ban has, more or less, been lifted, Cuba, in a way, still feels forbidden. You need an “authorized” reason to go, it’s required to obtain a tourist visa beforehand, currency exchange from the USD to the tourist currency (CUC) has an additional 10% service fee, and when locals ask if you are from the United States, there is a sly grin that slides across their face. It’s a foreign nation and, in many ways, it felt just that…foreign.

cuba

Last week, after sharing tips about staying connected while abroad and my amazing cellphone service that had yet to fail me, it failed me. This was my first trip to Cuba, and I didn’t know what to expect other than the colorful 50s-era cars that filled the streets. I was off the grid for precisely 48 hours. Unanswered emails and texts that weren’t delivered had close friends and colleagues thinking I was kidnapped or ignoring them. Naively, I didn’t realize that none of my SIM cards would work, or that there wouldn’t be Wi-Fi in the hotel.

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In fact, when I was there, it felt like I took a step back in time..to when payphones were actively used, cars seated 3 people across the front (sans seat belts), and Wi-Fi was hardly a thought. There was no Uber-on-demand and no Google to revert to for the answers to my endless questions. We got a little lost, relied on strangers’ recommendations, and cruised around with wind-blown hair and a static radio in an orange vintage Chrysler. This was normal, and to some, may still be normal. But for a majority of us, we’re not living in that world. And that’s OK. It’s not necessarily good, but it’s not necessarily bad either. It’s just different.

I didn’t do much research prior to going to Cuba, but my colleague did. She conveyed to me the most important information that she read over and over on the blogs, including:

  1. Making sure we had proof of current health insurance (reality: I was never asked for it);
  2. Having patience, because going through customs & immigration could take a few hours (reality: It took 45 minutes);
  3. The amount of time and money that it takes to get a tourist visa (reality: It took 35 minutes of sitting in the Cuban Embassy in Belize City, and cost $15 USD).

Regardless of the number of articles read, or the hours of research before the trip, the reality was that Cuba isn’t all that forbidden. It was a destination that everyone else in the world had been visiting for years. My Argentinian friend mentioned that he frequented Cuba, visiting four times a year over the past 15 years. While there are obvious social differences, including food rations for the locals and radically depressed looking areas, in many ways, it was a lot more progressive than I ever imagined.

cuba

Trip highlights coming next week!