Once I got to Havana, I saw it. Crumbling buildings, streets in disrepair, hoopties galore. Then there was the task of figuring out how to communicate with the outside world in a country whose government controls access to everything--even internet and telephone.
It is a plus to have friends that are as passionate about great travel as you are. My friend Meico, founder and CEO of A Mindful Techie, recently took a trip to Havana, Cuba to attend the Annual Havana International Jazz Festival. Since his return, I took some time to pick his brain about the experience. Specifically, I had some questions about the difficulty of accessing telecommunications on the island. For many travelers, this is a big issue considering that some of us share our travel experiences via social media, and more importantly, want to check-in with family and friends back home.
Duration: 12/14/2016- 12/19/2016
Purpose: Annual Havana International Jazz Festival
Ronnell: I have been researching the status of telecommunications and public access to internet and cellular service in Cuba. I understand that it is difficult for travelers to obtain these services. Meico, what was your experience on your recent trip to Havana?
Meico: Based on my research before the trip, I was prepared to have no phone or internet access during my stay in Havana, and told friends and family that I would be unreachable by phone and email while I was away. Fortunately, over the last year or so, U.S. companies such as Verizon, have started offering text messaging, talk, and data services on the island for international travelers. I rarely used my phone during the trip given the cost of international cell and data coverage through my provider ($2.99/min for calls and $2.99/1MB for data). Text messaging was significantly cheaper at $.05 message. Some places, such as some of the major hotels offered paid access to internet.
R: What did you notice about the way that Cubans access and consume social media and how have they have experienced the wave of mobile devices over the past decade.
M: My biggest observation about mobile devices and internet usage among Cubans is the limited access. Access seemed to be limited to informal hotspots. There were a number of unofficial hotspots throughout the city where locals congregated with their mobile devices. While walking through the city, we’d run into groups of (mostly young) people camped out on the sidewalk near a local cafe or hotel with their faces glued to their mobile device screens as they engaged in activities like video chatting or taking selfies.
R: You shared with me that you were only able to post to social media after you had returned back to the U.S. How did the lack of constant connectivity and social media impact your travel experience?
M: The lack of constant connectivity allowed me to focus on being more present to the experience of being in Havana and made me more conscious of time and punctuality since I couldn’t rely on my phone to communicate with my travel mates.
R: You are a tech guy and your career is focused on using technology to facilitate better health outcomes for minority communities. What is your greatest hope or aspiration for how technology might facilitate optimal health outcomes for Cubans?
M: I’m hopeful that access to the internet and mobile devices will become more democratized in Cuba; breaking down barriers to the rest of world and making access to a range of knowledge and information more widely available. Specifically, as it concerns achieving optimal health outcomes for Cubans, there’s a great potential to use technology such as text messaging for health promotion and facilitating better medication adherence or distribution of limited resources such as medications or medical supplies to places where they are needed the most.
R: What is your definition of great travel? What advice would you give to folks heading to Cuba so that they might experience great travel while visiting the island nation?
M: Great travel is about creating the space and time to get off the beaten path and uncover people, experiences, and history that may not be written in a guide book.
For those heading to Cuba, I’d say bring an open mind and a lot of patience. Although some things are beginning to change as result of the U.S. government and business community, Cuba is a “virgin island” and remains a low-resource country with its own culture and way of doing things.
Meico Whitlock connects peoeple to information and technology to ensure that they will have the opportunity to live a healthy, productive life. He is based in Washington, DC and is an avid traveler. You can engage with him on Twitter @amindfultechie.