Sin Tarjeta, Sin Vida

From the moment my flight descended in Havana and I saw the city skyline hugging the sea, I was instantly transfixed with this place. One week in, after days of orientation, I’m still in that honeymoon phase where everything is new and fascinating. I have a handle on public transportation, the currency system (sort-of), and general directions around my casa in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. I’m also getting familiar with my host mom and the students in this program from other universities. I’d say that’s pretty good for my very first week here.

However, like many others on my program, I’m still figuring out how to stay in contact my friends and family back home in the United States on a regular basis. I brought my iPhone that I used daily in the US. I also was given a prepaid cellphone that has a Cuban SIM card and a local number, but all I can do is make calls and texts to Cuban phone numbers. Besides the apps and files I have downloaded for offline use, I can only use my iPhone while connected to internet. WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, iMessage, Facebook, Outlook, Gmail, the Weather App and many other apps do not function for me if I’m not in a Wifi-hotspot.

These are also my only apps that also work without a Virtual private Network (VPN). Some apps, like Netflix or Snapchat, are entirely inaccessible without a VPN in Cuba. The only apps I really use daily are my Maps.Me app, which is an offline version of Maps, and the offline Spanish Dictionary app. Other students in my program figured out how to unlock US iPhones to function with Cuban SIM cards, which comes with the risk of wiping your iPhone of its memory completely, and you have to pay for a Cuban data plan to use the apps on your phone without Wi-Fi. The process of using technology to communicate is more complicated than I ever anticipated, but it also puts a lot into perspective for me — we’re arrived in a country in the midst of its own digital revolution.

Now, these are things I fully expected going into this program. In pre-arrival materials form study abroad program I learned that the Cuban government controls all internet connection. It is rare for businesses and homes to have their own internet router like we do in the United States. I didn’t have an expectation on how accessible Wi-Fi would be each day, because it’s something I almost never considered. When I’m at home, if I’m not on Wi-Fi, I still can use my cellular data and my phone functions. Because I don’t have that basic accessibility here, figuring this out has been a big to-do.

Internet is most commonly accessed in public parks where there are Wi-Fi hotspots, but as foreigners we also have access to hotels lobbies with Wi-Fi. They’ve told us that if we go to a hotel to use Wi-Fi, it’s expected that you buy something. To use the Wi-Fi, we must buy a scratch card with a unique log-in and passcode. The one-hour cards typically cost $1 Cuban Convertible Peso, which is roughly $1.00. You can log out of the Wi-fi and your time will pause, so it’s possible to conserve your time, but I never realized how quickly and hour can slip away online. There were more than a few times where I would log in believing I had a half hour of Wi-Fi, only actually having 5 minutes.

For the first few days of my program, the other students and I had been buying them from the hotel where our orientation took place. Earlier this week, however, my friend and I were struggling to buy cards so that we could have more time online. The hotel where I brought my first few cards told us they were completely sold out. The receptionist kindly directed us to the nearby Etecsa (Cuban National Communications office) where we could buy more, but we got lost looking for it. Frustrated and confused, we went to a nearby park with a small Etecsa kiosk right outside, and the shopkeeper there told us the same thing: she had no Wi-Fi cards to sell. I was upset, but in retrospect, I gave up looking for the Etecsa office too easily. We were so close!

Two days later, I went with another friend back to the main Etecsa office in Vedado (with better directions!) and I was finally able to buy three five-hour Wi-Fi cards. I had to show them my passport and it cost $15 CUC. I’m hoping that these cards will last me a long time so I don’t have to go through this ordeal again. Next time, I will buy multiple cards if I can, because at some places they only let you buy one at a time. Apparently, there is a big demand for internet!

I’m trying not to let this whole internet thing consume me, because it’s one of the main reasons why I went on this program. I think it will end up being personally beneficial if I spend less time online and on social media. But I never thought something as simple as calling my mom after a long day would come with so many considerations.

I’m giving myself the goal of updating this blog before the end of the month. Hopefully I have more things to share about the beautiful things I’ve seen, the awesome things I’ve done, and the amazing people that I have met here in Cuba. Adios!