My Introduction to Latin America
This is the first part in a series about my favourite things about some of the countries I’ve traveled to. The views expressed in these posts are completely subjective but I will give an explanation of my choices so that you might determine whether or not my favourites could become yours.
First up is Cuba. In 2003 I participated in a five week Spanish course at the University of Holguín in Cuba, the first Latin American country I would visit. I instantly fell in love with the culture and I knew it was just the beginning of a long-term relationship with Latin America for me. The experiences I recount here are from 10 years ago so much will have changed in Cuba since then but here it goes:
Favourite City: Havana
The five days I spent in Havana at the end of my trip were some of the most amazing. History radiates from the walls of the building (and the array of 1950’s cars), Cuban salsa music can be heard on every corner, and the diverse population is always ready for a good political debate.
Favourite Town: Holguín
This is where I studied. We stayed in a small hotel owned by the university and made regular trips up Loma de la Cruz around the corner for some exercise and wonderful city views. Everyone we met was so friendly and they made sure we saw all there was to see around the town which in some ways is like a miniature Havana.
Favourite Food: Plantain
Who knew that you could do some much with one fruit? Similar to a large banana, plantain is actually treated more like a potato: baked, fried, mashed, salted, or sweetened. There are infinite plantain recipes and most of them are delicious although I admit it can get a little repetitive after a few weeks…
Favourite Drink: Mojito
A Cuban original: white rum, sugar cane juice, lime, sparkling water, and (hopefully lots of) mint.
Favourite Beach: Guardalavaca
A gem of secluded white sands and billowing palms popular with Cubans, an hour east of Holguín.
Favourite Music: Orishas
One night in Havana, I was at a house party and some guys there started free-styling to beats on the cajón. I got to talking to one of them who asked “Have you heard of us? We’ve traveled to North America. We’re Orishas”. I hadn’t heard of them but when I got home, I looked them up and it turns out they’re famous! Weaving together traditional Cuban rhythms with hip-hop beats, their music has been highly influential in the Afro-Cuban and Latin American hip hop scene.
Favourite Bargain: Fruit
I’m not sure how the pricing is today but I’ll never forget picking up one pineapple and five mangos for a total of one American dollar.
Favourite Tourist Activity: Walking along the Malecón
Old Havana is full of ancient monuments, colonial architecture, and beautiful plazas but, for me, nothing beats strolling alongside it on the boardwalk: The Malecón. After my first month in Latin America, I spent at least an hour everyday strolling along between history and the sea, reveling in my newfound appreciation for the alternative worldview Cuba had offered me.
Favourite Thing about the People: Sharing and Caring
Many people scoff at Cuban socialism and point to the relative poverty of the country as an indicator that the revolution has failed. But it certainly hasn’t. Cuba is rated 4th out of 20 Latin American countries on the Human Development Index (and currently 59/186 in the world). Every Cuban has access to education, healthcare, basic nutrition, and a roof over their head. But more importantly, Cubans truly believe in caring for one another. No matter how moderate that roof might be, you will always be welcomed under it to share whatever food, drink, music, or conversation there is to be had.
Favourite Piece of History: Cuban Revolution
The triumph of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and the The 26th of July Movement over the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista is a monumental moment in our world’s history. Apart from the relative success of Cuba as noted in the previous section, one of the greatest effects of the revolution is that we cannot take capitalism for granted or taut its superiority without considering alternatives such as Cuba.
Most Incredible Moment: Plaza de la Revolución
On one of my last days in Cuba, I sat under the Jose de Martí monument looking over at the iconic iron Che Guevara image. I could sense the shift that Cuba would create in my life. It opened my mind to a new way of seeing the world and reminded me to always question the dominant cultural norms and teachings. It also afforded me a small taste of the brilliant literature, poetry, music, and people of Latin America that would continue to influence me for the rest of my life…