When I chose Cuba as my first study abroad trip with the University of Texas at Austin, I imagined it was going to be filled with a road trip or two to infamous beaches, visiting monuments, talking to the locals, and eating the local cuisine but that's all.
I was naive to think I was going to be living strictly as a tourist rather than a student who was there to be immersed into the Cuban culture.
My 27 days in Cuba were fast paced but loaded with more experiences than anyone who hopped off of the Norwegian Sun at Havana Vieja(Old Havana) every couple of days. Not because I was constantly traveling to and from museums learning about various parts of the Cuban's history every day, but because my classmates and I had to interact with the locals whenever we wanted to go out on our own.
We were driven to the best nightclubs, told about the best beaches, and where to go for cheap shots and Wifi. However, those moments were only a superficial part of what living in Cuba was like. A week before I left for Camaguey and Santiago, the truths were beginning to show themselves.
The truth about Afro-Cubans being seen as less than Cuban because their skin color and hair texture didn't match that of their European descended counterparts.
So much in fact that Afro-Cubans were commonly represented in the marketing world as black dolls with giant bright red lips and other stereotypical features proudly sold to ignorant tourists.
The truth concerning why most Cubans haven't been able to travel outside of the country, not because of a lack of money, but rather the government denying them a passport in fears they won't return to Cuba.
This has also happened to many activists found to be a "person of interest" and kept on the island which has been commonly referred to as a "prison."
The truth about locals being prohibited from entering the same hotels and restaurants that tourists were eagerly invited into even though their money was just as good as ours.
There's still this strong idea being passed among the Cuban people that America is the best and is still the land of opportunity, even with the current administration.
Many men called out to my friends and I saying "I love America," or "I love you, I love you, I love you," because we were Americans. They didn't seem to care that a lot of the hardships they faced with water and food shortages or how they were mistreated when they were around us was because of where we came from.
A friend of mine even said that a Cuban man told her that if she were to slap him, it would be him who would be in trouble. Whether it was an exaggeration or not, it feels inappropriate to be welcomed into another country where its own citizens hold you above themselves even when you've caused a lot of their heartache.
Yet, throughout my entire stay in Cuba a lot of people told me "mi casa es tu casa," and I didn't question it for a second because my experiences had always been genuine.
There was never anyone who wasn't willing to spare some time to walk me to a store I needed to find or talk to me about their personal life and that's something I felt guilty for because although it wasn't actually me upholding this U.S.-Cuba trade embargo, I am an American.
Cuba was a chance of a lifetime and I'm glad I went even when it turned out to be less of what I imagined and instead, something with more depth. The locals told my group and me what we needed to hear rather than what we planned on hearing and that right there is worth a million bucks.