Thursday, May 30, 2013

"Where are you from?"

Stevee Chapman

Reporting from Havana 

Walking through the streets of Havana, it is so obvious we are foreigners we may as well have a flashing neon sign suspended above our heads. While most of the locals wear old worn clothes, we parade around in our new colorful dresses and tops, some of which may have been recently purchased specifically with this trip in mind. As we explore, our top-of-the-line cameras are out at the ready, prepared to capture any moment that comes our way. What Cubans see as everyday life, we view as a valuable experience that needs to be captured and immediately shared upon return to the United States.

Murrow students walk the streets of Havana during their
Summer 2013 backpack journalism trip

While many of the buildings on the main streets and squares of Havana are beautiful in their appearance due to ongoing restoration efforts, as you wander deeper into the city, the facades change to resemble more of a city that has yet to have recover from a recent war.

View of Havana from the top floor of our hotel

However, it does not matter what part of the city we are in -- no matter where we go we attract attention. Sometimes it’s just a curious glance, but many times as we walk in and out of shops, a bolder Cuban whose curiosity got the best of them will ask us where we are from.

As simple as this question is, at first we aren’t quite sure how to answer this. The long history of political conflict between the United States and Cuba is no secret to either party, so how will the Cubans react if we tell them we are in fact here visiting from the United States?

Last year when I first began my experience with international travels I was given a plethora of advice on how to handle these situations, most of which included keeping your head down and blending in. While this may have been a little easier to do around Europe, it seemed like no matter what we did in Cuba we would stick out like sore thumb. Changing our wardrobe and ditching the cameras (God forbid) would be one thing, but the light skin and hair that a majority of the girls in our group possessed was a whole different challenge.

Brittany Cardoza and Rachel Trost sit on the streets
of Havana with camera at the ready

One other piece of advice I’ve been given is to say you’re Canadian. True, claiming to be Canadian while in Cuba wouldn’t be outrageous at all. Unlike Americans, Canadians are free to travel back and forth between Cuba as they please. However, I quickly realized that there was no reason for me to fib; we came to Cuba in a perfectly legitimate way. We received our visas, and entered the country with the approval of both governments.

So I decided to just be honest and tell them, “Estados Unidos, United States.” In return we weren’t given the cold blank stares I had expected. Instead their eyes would light up with genuine interest and they’d tell us about their relatives in different states, their favorite Major League Baseball team, and even blatantly express their love for Americans. 

One man, a painter who sold his work out of a little gallery in one of Havana’s many side streets, told us that the people of Cuba love Americans, and made it a point to assure us that all of the conflict that has occurred between our countries has been strictly political, and in no way reflected the feelings of the Cuban people. In return I assured him that at least for me and my fellow journalists in Cuba, those feelings were mutual.

If nothing else this trip has taught me that it may be easy to judge a country based on the things you've learned about it in the history books, but those events are just a fraction of the nation’s story. Just like most Americans would probably not like to be judged solely on the political actions of our leaders, there is far more to the Cuban people than the Castros. They are a people passionate of their culture, and the streets of Havana, which are filled with art, music, and dancing proudly reflect that.

 A man plays Latin American music for us during 
our first meal in Havana

Whenever I return from my travels people always ask me what my favorite part was, and that’s a difficult question to answer.  Thinking of my time in Havana, there are many fond memories I have. The landscape is breath-taking, but when it comes down to it, it was the people, who welcomed us with open arms and genuine interest, that will resonate in my memory forever.

Walking through the streets of Havana, it is so obvious we are foreigners we may as well have a flashing neon sign suspended above our heads, but we are welcomed with open arms nonetheless. 

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