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Cars, Cigars and Communism: Culture Shock In Cuba

A street graffiti mural of Che Guevara, a prominent figure in the Cuban Communist movement, Central Havana, July 2019

For many of us, travelling is about meeting new people, discovering new places, eating new foods and trying new experiences. Depending on where you travel and how you travel, experiences can push you out of you comfort zone and create an adrenaline rush of excitement.

But when does trying something new and fun turn into culture shock? How can you overcome this unfamiliarity?

Culture shock is generally described as a wave of anxiety caused by exposure to a new environment and culture. It can be influenced by a range of things; including climate, food, languages, values, dress, etiquette, and behaviour. The uncertainty and nervousness associated with culture shock is a tricky terrain to navigate and can really affect your holiday if you don't embrace it!

I would consider myself a well-rounded traveller and have been exposed to Asian, European, Central American and North American culture. However, when I travelled throughout Cuba with my cousin, I experienced genuine culture shock for the first time. In mid-2019, I was fortunate to travel to Havana, Viñales, Trinidad and Cienfuegos. Cuba has always been on my dream travel list, not only for the classic cars, Mojitos, salsa dancing and cigars, but for their unique culture and communist political structure (which I have always been fascinated in). I had many colleagues who had travelled to Cuba and gave me tips and tricks about what to do in Cuba and about the unique systems they had over there, however, experiencing it was something different that I had to overcome on my own.

Our trip style was budget and I organised everything on my own, partly because I wanted to avoid the typical tourist experience, but also because Cuba has very limited internet access. This meant that generally; tours, transport and accommodation had to be booked as you go. I am definitely a ‘planner’, so this idea made me somewhat anxious. We also stayed in Casas (houses) with Cuban families. We shared living spaces, commuted with them, and ate with them; so, this was a different experience to previous travel where I’ve stayed in a more private hotel or hostel.

One of the main challenges we faced was lack of internet access. In Cuba, to access the internet you need a card, similar to the old-school ones you needed back in the day to call overseas numbers. It had a code on it which you could use to access the Wi-Fi, which was weak and only available in certain public spaces such as parks. At first glance you may think this is a superficial problem that only impacts your Instagram feed, but in reality, it limits your access to maps, translation apps, itineraries, banking, and even makes it difficult to send an ‘I’m ok’ text to your mum. A lack of access to internet, while it might seem like a first world problem, actually amplified our shock, then then forced us to work through it.

The town square on grocery day (because of the Communist scheme in Cuba, fresh produce is rationed and is available for purchase on a 'main' shopping day each week), Central Havana, July 2019

It forced us to ask for directions from locals (using mainly hand gestures), wander through streets, stumble upon new experiences, and randomly order things on a menu without translating the names of dishes. It forced us to embrace the laidback culture of Cuba, like travelling to a city and finding accommodation once we got there and forced us to embrace the people in a profound way, more than I have normally experienced whilst travelling. Due to the lack of internet and language barrier, we really had to communicate with people in creative ways and trust people, even with the little things.

These quirks were all part of the charm, hospitality and family orientated culture of Cuba. By embracing the people of Cuba, it made the trip one of the best holidays of my life. My experience and my approach to dealing with culture shock is something that I will take on future travels. For me, I found that the main takeaways of this experience were:

  • Recognising your feelings: if you find yourself in a new environment and you’re feeling anxious, know that it’s completely normal. Where possible, try and find home comforts, ensuring that it doesn't encroach on your enjoyment of the new culture you’re experiencing.

  • Get active: exercising produces endorphins and endorphins make us happy! Besides boosting your mood, going on a hike or doing an activity can establish connections with the country and the people who join you.

  • Challenge yourself: although it may be daunting, I found that my experience of culture shock was eased and eventually overcome when I pushed myself and did things outside of my comfort zone.

  • Talk to locals or find a local guide: make a new friend and get a true experience of the country you are visiting. It will likely help you overcome the difference that makes you feel anxious and will help you understand the country’s customs better.

Henry's car!!! Henry was one of our Cuban hosts and we stayed with him and his family during our stay in Trinidad. He was very proud of his classic car and offered to take us around town in it! The Manaca Iznaga Tower, Trinidad, July 2019.

Overall, I think culture shock is a constructive thing as it makes you understand and learn to appreciate different ways of life and culture. I believe it can lead to a better understanding of other people and learning to identify and accept culture shock is essential in developing a deeper understanding of other people.

Sunset in the town square, Trinidad, July 2019

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