No WiFi, no problem. A trip to Cuba forced our group to disconnect, contemplate our two-dimensional social media lives and embrace interpersonal communication.
One of the many early memories I have of growing up is using dial-up, the form of internet access connected with the telephone line used mainly from the ’80s until the late ’90s. I would sit patiently as the yellow America Online running man appeared on the first of the three screen boxes, then the second — the word “connecting’’ appearing underneath, until it eventually joined the third box with all the other people. Ahh, finally I am connected.
I would browse through my AOL buddy list or chat groups. There in the middle of North Philadelphia, I bonded with my internet friends from all over the country and more importantly the world, over music groups and games. As I got older, the age of social media shaped my form of communication and how I presented myself. From chatrooms to social sites like Mi Gente (a Latinx version of MySpace before MySpace), I learned to code and build friendships from the keyboard of my computer.
Much of the world embraced the digital age and the internet, but the Cuban government long forbade logging on, viewing it as a threat to their society. While I’ve navigated the internet space my whole life — the Cuban people have been introduced only recently.
The U.S. restored relations with Cuba in 2014 (and sought to improve internet communications), and I became consumed with the idea of visiting the country. This past April, I had the chance to travel there with four other women, each with a different idea of what she wanted to learn and experience. I wanted to observe the structure of the country both politically and socially. But it was the lack of WiFi that really controlled our trip. With only 35 hot spot parks in the country (where vendors sell cards with internet logins and PINs), every day was a mission to get to one and spend one hour connected.
I journaled every day while in Cuba. I wrote what different moments felt like, the smell, the imagery. A social media detox forced us to absorb everything as it happened. As children of the social media age, we have the habit to automatically post without analyzing how the current situation or event happening in the photo makes us feel. We see a pretty sunset or a cool coffee drink and think “aesthetic,” but how does the experience of watching the sunset make you feel?
I have to admit that exploration is a bit more anxiety-inducing without the assistance of a map app, and I was overwhelmed at first. But the anxiety became more of an exciting challenge. Forced to use an actual physical map, I found my way through the inner neighborhoods of Old Havana — feeling a new kind of pride afterward.
Citizens coming from a more developed country may think that Cubanos lack pop culture knowledge and tech know-how because web use is limited. But thanks to the “packete” or packets, a USB drive that holds music, movies and articles, they are up-to-date with it all. When speaking with locals, you realize that they watch Game of Thrones like we do, they know all of reggaetón’s golden era music and they are very aware.
Cubanos have an emotional intelligence we don’t have. They have a way of connecting with people that is much more present and fearless. As millennials and gen-Zers, many of us have missed out on the most important aspects of face-to-face communication. Communicating in person swells our senses and intuition in recognizing feelings, tone and body language. Talking to the same locals over time, you begin to realize how you can build a friendship in so little time and how much of the person’s life and history you can learn.
During this journey, we all learned a valuable lesson about logging off. But we’re still living digitally. The Instagram were (mostly) posted after the trip — but yes, we’re aware of the irony of these posts!
“Being in Cuba, disconnected from the internet and my family was strange in different ways. A few months ago, I had given up my Instagram for a few months, so in that respect, it wasn’t difficult. Being disconnected from my family was a little more difficult, because I would sometimes think that something was happening, and I wouldn’t be able to find out. Luckily while I was away, nothing bad happened to my family, but it taught me how attached I am. It also taught me that being disconnected from social media is good, because I was able to soak everything in without feeling the pressure to post on social media. Our society is so pressed on posting when they are on vacation, as if to prove that they’re living a grand life. It’s almost like if they don’t post a photo, it doesn’t validate the experience of a vacation.”
“While in Cuba, I learned a lot from having very little access to the internet. Not being able to access any social media made me appreciate more of my surroundings and even gain more interest. It made me want to ask the locals questions about their history, and current lives. Because they’re so used to not having easy access to the internet, it was great to find so many small book stores, music stores, and small meeting places where locals sat and talked to pass time. It made me want to do more of that, not just while there on vacation, but also when coming back home. Now that I am back, I find myself taking more time to live in the moment and remember every little detail of my days away from my phone and the internet.”
“I appreciated the feeling of time traveling, as I was in awe of the classic cars and antique architecture. Most of all, to my surprise, I appreciated the disconnect from the virtual world. Being without internet put into perspective how addicted we are to our phones and how detrimental social media can be to our mental health and core values. Not being able to post reminded me of the beauty of just living in the moment. My complaint about being disconnected will have to be safety. The proof technology will be better accessed in case of an emergency, and not having that made me feel uneasy. Overall, Cuba was a unique learning experience compared to the other places I’ve been to.”
“How incredible it was to wander and explore an island where social media is not of any relevance at all, where my personality and interaction skills shaped my experience…and acknowledging more than ever, the importance of what it is to truly be in-tune with the present.”
Simply put, to understand Cuba, the history, the politics and the people, it’s necessary to experience it for yourself. Luckily, we were able to speak to the same locals throughout our stay. We learned about their families, their experiences and their professions — but most importantly, we learned that in the fast-paced online-obsessed culture we come from, it’s important to take it slow and disconnect once in a while.