By Alec Timpe '18
Over spring break of this year, I had the privilege of traveling to Cuba with a group of Lawrence alumni. Our weeklong tour took us across the island, staring in the northwest in Havana, moving along the northern coast to Matanzas, down south to Trinidad and finishing in the north again in the keys off the coast of the mainland. Wherever we stopped, we experienced cultural events, saw breathtaking architecture, met artists and learned about the small and vibrant island nation. The experience was very eye-opening in two ways: first, it made me reconsider how I view Cuba and its niche in the world, and second, while interacting with the alumni, I saw how diverse, interesting and successful their lives have been after graduating from Lawrence. I loved hearing about their experiences at Lawrence, and was amazed to learn about all of the small changes that have made Lawrence into the college that it is today.
As a student of anthropology (among other things), I tried to experience and analyze my time and experiences in Cuba through the lens of an anthropologist. I wanted to learn about Cuban culture and understand that culture from the Cuban perspective—what in anthropology we call an emic approach—then compare it with my American culture, thus learning more about both in the process. We had a wonderful guide, Gretel, who shared her experience with us, and helped us better understand some of Cuba’s more peculiar cultural, political and economic nuances.
Cuba is an interesting combination of past and present. There seems to be the perception in the United States that because of the trade embargo after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the entire island has essentially frozen in time, and that going to Cuba would be like taking a time machine back into the early 1960s. While this may be the case in some respects, especially when considering the style and age of architecture, and the cars and technology commonly available to everyday people that influences their lifestyle, I got the sense that there was no such time freeze in the cultural identity of the Cuban population. Cuba is changing rapidly, and I am glad that I had the opportunity to go during what I expect will be a profound cultural renaissance. With the increased access to the internet and social media as a result of more economic opportunities, Cubans are able to express themselves and critique the country on a public forum that was unavailable until very recently. Powerful political art and music have become mainstream as the population adjusts to their changing world. Anti-government and critical opinions have been able to be more widely disseminated, which better allows the population, especially the young, well-educated generation to consider and plan for what they want the future of Cuba to look like.
Cuba is a mélange of seemingly antithetical components unexpectedly working together. The politically and economically restrictive communist government presides over a very socially liberal population. People sit in 1960s Chevrolets parked in front of limestone apartments from the 1850s while calling and texting on smartphones. The populace has high-quality universal education, contemporary healthcare facilities and an overall good quality of life in regions with abject poverty and no modern amenities. Dealing with these inconsistencies taught me the importance of flexibility; taking a second to evaluate problems and look for a solution or change plans in response to the unexpected makes life much easier and more rewarding.
As the only current student in the group, I had exposure to the wealth of experience of traveling alumni, and they provided valuable insights on how I can apply the type of thinking that Lawrence fosters to postgraduate studies or my professional life. They stressed the value of being able to draw on past experience from multiple sources to be able to synthesize responses and solutions to problems that present themselves later in life, and the importance of thinking critically from an interdisciplinary perspective. This trip, and in many ways Cuba itself, acted as a metaphor for the liberal arts thinking that makes Lawrence unique.