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When others say don't go

Imagine yourself laid out on the white sand beach of a tropical island -- palm trees rustling around you while you alternate between sipping on the rum and coke in your left hand and chewing on the world-class cigar in your right. A waiter is offering mango or avocado from the bar, but the Olympic-size pool in the five-star hotel is beckoning you to come back inside. Welcome to Cuba, tourist style.

But try to remember that Cuba is a land of many contradictions, and that what seems to be isn't always what is. So instead of strolling back up to your room, take up the offer for a city tour from the local gentleman outside: All he asks for is a dollar.

For starters, ask the "guide" why he just happened to be walking by the hotel so late at night.

"I guess you make about $10,000 a year, huh?" you ask. "No, no, amigo. $9.50 a month. $9.50 for July, plus your dollar, makes $10.50."

Then, everything started to make sense.

Such was the shock that hit me the night I spent in Havana. After I spent a night in the tourist world to wait out my layover, I flew to Santiago de Cuba, Cuba's second-largest city, to stay with a Cuban family.

I decided to travel to Cuba this summer to try to get some real-life Spanish-speaking skills, as well as see what the effects of communism and the U.S. embargo on Cuba really were. Is Cuba dangerous? Can you have an anti-revolutionary opinion without being an outcast? How good or bad is everyday life? And about as much as any other reason, sadly enough, I wanted to go because there are so many rules that said I couldn't.

The answers to most of my questions were complex, which does justice to the state of Cuban life today.

There is a deep rift between two sectors of the Cuban population today -- those who have family abroad and those who do not. This translates to a division between those who have dollars and those who do not. The typical Cuban salary, about 2,000 pesos or $10 a month, can sustain a family with food, clothing and shelter. But the prices for all other "extras" are set in dollars, not pesos, which makes them unattainable to the roughly 50 percent of the population that does not have foreign family. Extras include things that here we consider necessities: soap, toothpaste, new clothes, tennis shoes, laundry detergent, meat, Coca-Cola, deodorant and cooking oil.

Everyone is not equal anymore. Half of them have developed into a bourgeoisie that is not interested in sharing what has been received as gifts. This inequality goes unregulated and causes a man who makes $9.50 a month to feel cheated and jealous when his neighbor receives a check for $25 from his uncle in Los Angeles.

What is communism like? Complicated answer. Friends couldn't tell me enough about the free medical care everyone gets; I even benefited myself.

I had blood poisoning from trying to scrape out sea-urchin spines with my Swiss-army knife. I had to turn down the tourist hospital for lack of money. The family I stayed with responded by bringing me to the local doctor, who injected me with penicillin for a week, free of charge (about a quarter). But if I needed more expensive medicine, the free-of-charge deal wouldn't have mattered. In Cuba, the medicine just can't be found.

The education in Cuba is free -- grade school, college and med school.

But what can you do once you've got the education? The most money a doctor gets is about $15 a month, compared to the $8 a month the factory worker makes. So the answer is again, yes and no.

How safe was it? Again, complicated. If you're talking about everyday life, extremely . I felt safer than I had ever felt before. Police were on every street corner and they never bothered me. I walked down dark alleys in the middle of the night like I never would in a big American city. I was reminded almost daily of the fact that guns are illegal in Cuba and that the only violence that really occurs comes as fistfights.

For most of the time I had to remind myself that I was in the midst of a communist dictatorship, because if I didn't, I fell into the rut of believing life was simpler than it really was.

The only thing that reminded me of the possibility of danger was my tourist guide book, which had stories of outspoken Cubans who made a little too much criticism one day and disappeared the next. Well, that, and the 50-foot billboards that read "Patriotism or Death."

If anyone else has an interest in traveling to Cuba, I highly recommend it, but be prepared for a few shocks. And don't expect any help from travel agents. It is illegal for American tourists to fly directly into Cuba, but the trip is possible if we fly to a third country such as Mexico or Canada first. However, the best way to get around this roadblock is to go with a university that has a program there, of which there are many.

Another way to get there is to do what I did, which was to get a special license from the Treasury Department, which allows you to fly directly from Miami to Havana if you can prove you are going to study.

Above all, the lasting impression I have of Cuba is one of the friendly nature and generosity of the Cuban people. Whatever they had, I had. And even though they didn't have much, they never hesitated to let me have half or even all of it.

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