By Simone Poliandri, Bridgewater State University
When CASCA announced that its 2018 annual meeting would be hosted by the Universidad de Oriente in Santiago de Cuba, I was elated, to say the least. I had never been to Cuba before and, when I finally embarked from the special Cuba line at the Fort Lauderdale airport in Florida, I did not have many expectations on what to find there, save for what I had read and the memories, perceptions, and suggestions of a few people I know who had gone before. I had been warned that traveling to the island would be a bit more “laborious” for a US citizen, in light of the new US administration’s Cuba policy. Luckily, it turned out to be only partially true and, in fact, less problematic than I was made to believe.
In Santiago, I chose not to stay at the conference hotel, but booked a casa particular (the equivalent of a B&B) on the internet. I did this partially for cost reasons but, most importantly, because I pictured the hotel resort as a sort of golden cage inaccessible to Cubans, somewhat a reminder of colonialism and western privilege. Mind you, it is not my intention to cast judgement on the colleagues who stayed there. Rather, my decision stemmed from the reflection I entertained while arranging my accommodation with the travel coordinator at my University. “What could be more anthropological,” I thought, “than immersing oneself in the local lifeway?” I saw this as an ethnographic opportunity, which it turned out to be, indeed.
I was surprised to find a few casas online, given the difficulties (more below) for Cubans to access the internet on a regular basis. Nonetheless, thanks to or despite Google Translate (oh, well), I managed to arrange things over a thread of emails in a Spanish language well above my basic knowledge, usually embellished with quasi old-fashioned but charming expressions like “Estimado Profesor” and “Querida Señora.” I knew right then that the conference would not be the only focal point of this trip. I was right. I began to learn about Cuba first-hand since my two-hour car ride from the Holguin airport to Santiago with Señor Carlos (the house taxi driver of the casa I was staying at). Luckily, my native Italian fluency provided me with adequate ability in Spanish to discuss Cuban economy, the double currency conundrum, the Revolution, setting up a taxi business in Cuba, the differences between Santiago and Havana, country versus city life in Cuba, and various other topics that emerged spontaneously from what we encountered along the secondary roads he decided to take to avoid traffic and delays. We would resume and extend those conversations, albeit focusing more on the Revolution and his life history, a week later while driving back to the airport on my departure day.
There were many ethnographically interesting things I noticed in Santiago that could not possibly be listed, let alone discussed, in this brief travelogue and, in any case, would necessitate further field and archival research to be studied properly. A phenomenon I both observed and experienced first-hand was the unavailability of ubiquitous internet access, a privilege that we now take for granted in North America and much of the industrialized world, and the resulting people’s strategic use of public space to connect to public Wi-Fi. For most people in Santiago, except at hotel resorts and a few other locations, internet is only available at specific public squares by internet cards that cost 1 CUC (convertible peso), equivalent to 1 USD, per hour. Although many people, particularly the young, possess smartphones, the limited connectivity requires a planned use of the city space and some scheduling. The limitation in both spatial and time availability of the internet compels people in Santiago to be physically located in a Wi-Fi square and to make sure they have enough time left on their countdown internet cards.
A quick and incomplete look at the some of the ready-available literature on the use of mobile phones in public spaces reveals that many studies have focused on issues ranging from the practices and perceptions of mobile-phone use in public spaces (Baron and Hård af Segerstad 2010) to the use of social networking services to organize public encounters (Humphreys 2010) and the psychology of mobile-phone use in public spaces (Love and Kewley 2005). Although interesting, these studies take the ubiquitous availability of connectivity for granted. This is not the case in Santiago (and, I suspect, the rest of Cuba).
Since I walked to get everywhere, as most Santiagueros/as do, I found myself charting my movements to include deliberate stops at Wi-Fi squares, where I could use the internet to talk to my family (US cell phones do not work in Cuba), at specific times. In fact, the offline map app that the CASCA organizers suggested the conference participants to get was all but essential for mapping my urban trajectories. Furthermore, making sure to have enough time left on the card required me to log off the system as soon as I was finished.
During my stops, I began observing (discretely) the behavior of internet users, as they arrived, logged on, used the internet with little to no interaction with the people around them, and left soon after they finished. Some of the strategic planning involved with this practice regarded the competitive occupation of park benches, which are limited in number and, more importantly, under the direct sun during the hottest part of the day. I found myself climbing the learning curve rapidly, after sitting a few times on “a surprisingly empty” bench (I thought) in the sun, only to rush for shade and no glare on my screen seconds later. As a few locals glanced somewhat amused, it is in these occasions that I perceived the insider/outsider dynamic at its strongest.
In the end, the conference was very interesting, as were my explorations of the city with its innumerable opportunities for ethnographic observations and daily life experiences.
Baron, Naomi S., and Ylva Hård af Segerstad. 2010. Cross-Cultural Patterns in Mobile-Phone Use: Public Space and Reachability in Sweden, the USA and Japan. New Media and Society 12(1): 13-34. Available online <https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444809355111>
Humphreys, Lee. 2010. Mobile Social Networks and Urban Public Space. New Media and Society 12(5): 763-778. Available online <https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444809349578>
Love Steve, and Joanne Kewley. 2005. “Does Personality Affect Peoples’ Attitude Towards Mobile Phone Use in Public Places?” In Mobile Communications: Re-negotiation of the Social Sphere. Ed by Rich Ling and Per E. Pedersen. Pp. 273-284. London: Springer.