These days, I have to be careful how I list my studies at the University of Havana in Cuba on my résumé because people tend to think I sneaked into Cuba illegally, and never bother to ask how I was able to enter legally.. I traveled to Cuba through the Global Exchange program, which has a license from the U.S. government to sponsor trips that are educationally and culturally focused. At that time, Global Exchange had a partnership with the University of Havana where Americans can learn and develop their Spanish-speaking skills through total immersion in that the instructors, tutors, and host families speak Spanish only. ....
Being the salsa music lover that I am, I was excited about not only improving my Spanish, but improving my salsa dancing skills as well. In my travels to more than 150 cities in 14 countries, I've never felt so much at home as I did in Havana. It was pure joy to just walk down the street hearing son-montuno music, charanga music, danzon, and timba music blaring from cars, homes, and businesses. One afternoon, there was a group of us walking through Central Havana where we heard this loud salsa song coming out of a restaurant. I grabbed one of the women in our group and we danced right there in public.
The beauty of this trip was that I stayed with a family in the middle of a community where there are hardly any tourists. It was amazing how so many people in the community looked at me and assumed that I was just another Cuban until I opened my mouth. My foreign accent was a dead give-away. I did make some fine friends with people who went out of their way to make me feel like one of them. One was Denalys Fuentes, a cute, petite Afro-Cuban woman who was my salsa dance partner as we went to party at the Palacio de la Salsa (Salsa Palace), a major Havana night club. She and I continued to write each other after my return to the US.
In a city of over two million, I found the Habaneros (Havana City people) to be so pleasant, neighborly; and highly approachable. You don't feel that sense of paranoia and fear when you stop people and ask for directions like here in US cities. It's probably because Havana is a much safer city than "any" mid to large city in the USA, mainly because punishment for crimes are a lot stricter in Cuba, and the potential criminal, more often than not, will think thrice before committing any crimes. The street hustlers, called jineteros (hee-neh-tay-roes), will befriend you and coerce you into spending your money on them. For me, this was an amusing opportunity to practice my Spanish.
Any animosity between Cuban people and the United States lies solely with the two governments, not the people. The average Cuban citizen I met admire American people and American culture. They love it when American visitors bring t-shirts, CDs, and other American-style items they no longer need to give away. In fact, I didn't want to wear any of my Cuban t-shirts that I bought as souvenirs because that would have been another dead giveaway of my being a foreigner. I simply waited until I make it back to Oakland.
Side note: I'd be remiss not to mention the thousands upon thousands of Cubans who fled Cuba and are scattered not only throughout the US but in Europe and Latin America. These Cuban refugees who sought asylum in other countries lived and experienced a Cuba that visitors like myself do not get to see or experience.