This morning, my roommate Annie and I packed up our suitcases in preparation for tomorrow’s journey, took showers, and embarked on our last chance to explore Havana. Without a bus, tour guide, or planned itinerary, the city looked and felt entirely different to me. The sun was shining and a Cuban breeze blew through the city. We brought no map, only our adventurous spirits and our cameras. We wandered down any street that looked promising and swept past the tourist souvenir shops without batting an eyelash, eager instead to experience and capture Havana, not knowing when or if we’ll ever set foot in the city again. We ran into Maria, Esthella, and Evangelina at the brewery and dined on bruschetta and lemonade. It was fun and relaxing and the day was perfect for picture taking. After idiotically and accidentally erasing all my photos after the first week of the trip, it was nice to return to Havana and replace the pictures I had lost.
The evening proved to be the perfect final installment to our time here in Cuba. We enjoyed a delicious dinner at an outdoor restaurant and then set out to enjoy a fancy cabaret experience at the Hotel Nacional with some of the professors from the University of Havana. Everyone was dressed to the nines and excited to spend this last night together. The show was fantastic to say the least, crazy and colorful–– full of monstrous headdresses, sparkling lights, and other Cuban debauchery. There was so much happening at once, none of us knew where to look! At the end of the show a bunch of us got up on stage with some of the professional dancers, who gave us a dance lesson. Turns out some of us didn’t need it! Manny was declared best dancer of Cuba (or of the night… or something like that), after he laid down his sweet moves on the dance floor. He even got a certificate. We’re all so proud.
All in all, I don’t think we could have asked for a better end to an amazing trip.
June 2, 2011
Today we had many places to go and people to see. We did so much, in fact, that I really had to think hard and remember where it all began.
This morning we visited the White House. No, we didn’t hop on an airplane to Washington D.C., that’s just what the Granjita de Siboney is also called. It was in that little house that Fidel Castro, still a young university student, and other rebels planned their attack on the Moncada Barracks. We wandered around the house, which is now a museum that documents those early days of the Revolution. The best part for many of us though, was that the front of the house is peppered with bullet holes. I thought about how the Cuban government could have repaired these holes, and was really glad they decided not to. It really makes the history not only seem more exciting, but also more real.
Our next stop was a big rock, literally “La Gran Piedra,” where we conquered nature and climbed to the top for an unbelievable view. On our way up, our guide, Joel, warned us not to touch one of the plants during our climb because it would make our skin fall off. Emily, Sarah, Alyse, Annie and I weren’t exactly sure which plant he was referring to (one of those green ones, probably) but entertained ourselves all the way up the rock with jokes about the itchy-itchy plant that would supposedly melt off our epidermis. Despite all of the country’s the amazing sights, it’s silly moments like this that make Cuba so fantastic. There’s really nothing like a good hike, but throw in some great friends, a spectacular panorama of the Cuban mountains and coast and you’ve got yourself a pretty enlightening experience. All of us felt triumphant at the top, and took many pictures to document our victorious ascent.
After purchasing souvenirs and heading down the rock, we had a delicious lunch of fried chicken wrapped in banana leaves. No sooner had we finished our meals then we were whisked away once again, this time to the National Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Charity. The basilica was beautiful and yielded more stunning views.
We had a very different encounter with religion back in town, where we visited the house of a Santería priest. A popular expression of faith here in Cuba, Santería is a colorful religion with African roots. The priest’s house was covered, floor to ceiling, in swirling other-worldly murals and mysterious feathered objects hung from the ceiling. Although the experience was eerie for some in the group, it was also a very personal way to learn more about the Cuban culture. Though we have learned much in the classroom, firsthand experience certainly gives a different perspective.
At the end of a long, action-packed day, we returned to the hotel for dinner, which tonight was buffet style. Just to give you an idea about how random Cuban meals can be, here’s what my dinner plate consisted of: spaghetti, a hard-boiled egg with a ketchup dollop on it (?), chilled ham pizza, cold tomatoes and pineapple. They also serve hot dogs for breakfast here. Cuba never fails to surprise and amuse me in its culinary creativity.
May 31, 2011
Today was the first change of scenery for us in nearly two weeks. I think the level to which we all became comfortable within Havana was amazing. None of us had any hesitation anymore in walking down the street and dealing with the traffic, heading to the Melia Hotel to buy food or drinks, or just exploring in general. But of course, that’s how life is, and once we were all adjusted, it was time to leave. We all packed for our trip to the airport and Baracoa. We were lucky enough to be accompanied by the amazing Prof. Jose Bell Lara for our trip to the east coast, and our Amistur guide, Joel.
I thought the airport we left from in Havana was small, but it was enormous compared to the landing strip we came down on in Baracoa. It is surrounded by water, on the front, back and left side, and it was an eerie feeling being able to see only water all around as the plane descended, just for the ground to appear and catch you at the last second.
Just like stepping off the plane the first time in Havana, this was another moment of feeling like I was on another planet. Havana had a new smell that was so unique, and now so did Baracoa. There were more mountains here, different trees, and a different pace. Anywhere I stand in Baracoa, I can see El Yunque, or The Anvil, the flat topped mountain here that dominates the skyline. I never realized how loud my life in Chicago is until I got to step away from everything. Here you don’t hear planes, cars, or stereos every second of the day.
Havana seemed like a modern civilization compared to Baracoa. The streets here are narrow and filled with so many more bicycles; there are very few cars. I thought Havana was a wakeup call, but this is even more so. The medicine and education in this country are comparable to those in first-world countries, but when I saw people’s homes I realized why Cuba is considered a third-world country. People live with little to nothing, homes made out of corrugated steel and dirt floors. I would never have considered my life fancy before, but it seems like sheer luxury compared to the living conditions here. I will never again take for granted my hot water or comfortable home. When I get back, I know that I’m going to have a really hard time ever complaining again; everyone should be put through an experience like this at least once in his or her life.
Before I left, people told me that this trip would teach me a lot about myself, and I always nodded and agreed, but never really considered the fact that it actually would.
Our first day here was relaxed—we arrived and checked in to the Hotel Castillo and had some welcome drinks.
We all knew we were in the “country” now that we have seen a lot more creatures—cucarachas, snails, frogs, lizards, scorpions, goats, and pigs. It was a good change of pace to arrive and be able to just soak in the city on our first day in town.
Living in Chicago and hearing that we were going to a museum, I expected to wake up and head to a fancy marble building full of cold air and facts printed on cards. But the museum we went to was the complete opposite (which I guess should be expected now in Cuba.) The museum at the Cueva el Paraiso, or Paradise Cave, was literally inside of the cave. It was a beautiful place, but it included a seriously steep incline, making it an aerobic activity just to reach the entrance.
The museum included a few cases and artifacts set into the walls of the cave. The best part was being able to climb up to the next cave system and take in the amazing views of the city.
That day in Baracoa was probably one of the most memorable of the trip for me. After our day trip, we got one of the most amazing lunches I’ve had in my life. Our first course consisted of the enormous Cuban salads that they make, which had things like green beans, beets, cucumbers, carrots, and Cuban spinach with lime and vinegar. The plates of rice and beans and fresh bread kept coming and we all washed it down with lemonade. Then our plates came, and our minds were blown; some people got coconut shrimp, there were halves of chickens, crabs, swordfish, and my favorite, coconut lobster—and it was all caught and cooked that day.
I was expecting to stay in the hotel room and relax and write, but Dr. Calabrese invited me out with the rest of the group to see some traditional Afro-Cuban dancing. We got to the place and I sat down, thinking I’d get to enjoy a nice show. Everyone in Cuba, however, loves making me dance, so I got pulled into the show twice, along with Erin Novak and Alyse Stolz. The dancer performing Haitian Vudu would do a move, and we would have to copy it. It was easy enough until he sat down and started bouncing around on his butt…which of course was my job to copy.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget today; I feel so lucky to have been able to experience it and this trip in general. It is something that has forever changed my perspective on the way I’ll live my life and what I take for granted. I feel like I’m more willing to see the world now for what it is, and hopefully in the future I’ll get to visit even more places in the world. This trip has been an exercise in breaking misconceptions and expectations. Like I’ve said, I’ve woken up every day with expectations of what would happen, what I would get to see, who I would get to meet. But they are shattered every time, and it’s a refreshing experience constantly to be breaking boundaries within myself and within our group.
May 27, 2011
We arrived at the University of Havana for a lecture about “Agricultural changes and challenges”. The lecture lasted only 45 minutes; usually our lectures last for an average of three hours. The University of Havana was having an “International Day” for its students and they asked our group to be present at the fair since we were the only United States students at the University. We were given a table, flag of our country, and materials to make posters and signs of things that represent our country and school. The night before many of us stayed up to make slide shows of our school campus and the downtown Chicago area. It was incredible to see this event come together. The university students were eager to see what we had prepared. At first, they were hesitant to come up to us and ask questions about our country and ourselves. Many of them had never seen American students in Cuba before. After some time, however they became much more comfortable, and the interaction between all of us opened up. The importance of the exchange we had that day will remain a salient memory.
Many students commented that those couple of hours of exchange and solidarity with the Cuban students was one of the most memorable and educational experiences so far. Students from all over the world are studying at the University of Havana. The shock and curiosity that many of them had about us signifies the importance of that exchange.
One of the very interesting things about Cuba is that everyone lives in his or her own reality. The Marxist version of the truth refers to everyone living and experiencing similar situations while experiencing a different reality. This way of thinking is very useful when trying to understand Cuba. While things like the rationing of food and the availability of free health care and education to all Cubans would make us assume that they all live similar realities; the truth is that they don’t. Inequality exists in Cuba. It’s visible to the eye; however, poverty in Cuba and poverty in the United States are incomparable. Cuba should be applauded for the work done over the past 50 years. They have transformed their country in ways that the United States is still struggling with. Below are pictures of different houses we’ve seen in Cuba. Some are extremely expensive and well maintained while others are falling apart. While the kinds of houses may vary in Cuba, the uses of the homes do not. Homelessness does not exist and everyone has a place to live.
In Cuba, the relationships that people have with one another are extremely important. Rarely do you witness people spending time alone. This sense of inclusiveness can be seen in the minute amount of privacy and personal space that people have. Everyone knows everything about each other. The interaction I have had with other Cubans has been some of the most educational and beautiful experiences of my trip to far. Below are pictures of Cubans I have encountered over the past week and a half. Take a long hard look at the faces of Cuba. These people have endured a legacy of struggle and achievement; they should not be forgotten.
The Faces of Cuba
Below are a couple of pictures of Cuban Socialist art.
Below is a picture of the Malecon. This is a place where many of us, like the Cubans, gather to hang out and enjoy the ocean. The Malecon is a large stone wall that separates the island of Cuba with the ocean. It protects the island from large waves and currents.
Our trip so far has demonstrated the importance of experiential learning. Although we prepared for this trip by reading and discussing the past, present, and future of Cuba, experiencing it is an entirely different kind of learning. I’ve seen and felt things I have never experienced before. Cuba is an island of confusion and exceptions. Although I’ve only been here for a little over a week, I know that Cuba is a place to which I want to return. We have a lot to learn from each other, Cuba and I, and I hope this friendship is a long-lasting one.
May 24, 2011
We arrived at The University of Havana for a lecture about “Cultural aspects in Cuban society”. Afterwards, we spent time at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center. This experience was very important because it highlighted the work that Cuba and the center are doing in terms of the services they provide to the Cuban people.
May 23, 2011