At about 7 pm, I headed out of my apartment on 13 and G. Meeting up with friends on Linea, we caught a taxi and headed to El Morro to see the sunset. El Morro is a huge castle on the Malecón, marking the entrance into Havana Bay. Tourists flock to this enchanting landmark to see the picturesque sunset and the ceremonial cannon lighting that always begins at 9 pm. We arrived at el Morro and walked up a dirt path to pay 8 CUC, the price of being a tourist. After paying, I climbed up the stone stairway and looked out at Havana. The sun was slowly setting, casting a beautiful wash of pink and orange across the sky, hovering just above the water. As the sky grew darker, the lights from the city grew brighter, demonstrating a clear pattern: half of the lights on the Malecón were white and the other half were yellow. I turned to my friend to ask why there was a change in color, and he said the switch represents where Vedado ends and Old Havana begins. We quickly joined the rush of people heading toward the cannon ceremony, spotting actors dressed in colonial attire. Through a crowd of people, I saw the actors wave the torch overhead before lighting the cannon, producing a loud BOOM that seemed to shake the entire castle. The crowd burst into applause and laughter, while my friends and I headed off to Old Havana to enjoy the rest of our evening.
Classes are over! We had our final cinema class and watched a family comedy called Family Video which centered on a nuclear Cuban family. The themes focused on generational differences, sexuality, authority, and reconciliation. The funny thing for me was that the stereotypical nuclear Cuban family looked a lot like the stereotypical nuclear Caribbean family; I drew many parallels between the family in the movie with my own family. In our last public health class, we discussed the money-making doctor exchange program that Cuba has instituted, wherein Cuba forms contracts with foreign countries and sends their doctors on missions. Previously, Cuba used to export doctors to Venezuela in exchange for petroleum. I’ve really enjoyed my classes here in Cuba, but the trip planned to Trinidad was something I was truly looking forward to. My family is from the rural mountains of the Dominican Republic, so any excuse to get out of the city is good for me. Trinidad was three hours away from our place in Vedado. For the most part we slept the entire way there. We stopped at this campsite that had animals like goats, chickens, and oxen. I think the amount of propaganda in Cuba increases as you leave Havana and go eastward. I took a photo of my favorite billboard featuring Uncle Sam and Cuba’s fist punching him into a brick wall. In Trinidad, we stayed on top of a hill at a place called Las Cuevas. One of the best things about places like Trinidad is that the humidity is a lot more bearable than in Vedado; the air is a cleaner. Trinidad itself is a very touristy place; I’m sure the ratio of tourist to Cuban is very high. Every street in Trinidad had hostels lined up and down; nearly every business seemed to cater to the tourist population. Which again made me think of the way tourist interactions change Cuban way of life, especially in a town where it’s such a central part of daily life.
It’s been interesting coming to a country to observe and be observed. We’ve discussed at length the role of the tourist and the ethical dilemmas that may arise as a tourist; what are role here is. I’ve mulled over it in my own mind and I think that tourism is sadly a large sector of the economy for most Caribbean countries. Especially, in Cuba where natural resources are scarce and other industries are lacking, the area that brings in the most money is tourism. On the one hand, tourists like ourselves help the economy, but I wonder at what cost. This isn’t a problem that is exclusive to Cuba, the Dominican Republic also relies heavily on tourism to fuel their economy; I’ve seen the damage that can do. A lot of resources are allocated to rich tourists and whenever I sit down to a meal I recognize that the food I’m consuming has been set aside for my consumption. This makes me feel uneasy, but on the other hand, my being here is contributing to people’s income. In Cuba, the average person earns around 25 CUC (where 1CUC= 1USD). For my Cuban Cinema class I wrote a paper discussing the irony of the Cuban state and its role in commodifying it’s citizens for tourism. One film we watched that dealt with this theme was called La bella del Alhambra (1989). The film was focused on a mulata Cuban woman who slept with the theatre director to become a star. The film is itself an allegory for the Cuban state and its acceptance of foreign capital. On the one hand, you have a top-down approach by the government trying to control its populace and on the other, you have the population living their reality and reversing the states’ control in a way to gain some autonomy of their own. In practice this game between the state and its people shows up in different ways, especially with jineteros, which are people who serve as informal guides for tourists. Jineteros have become sort of synonymous with prostitutes, but they aren’t always sex workers.
As a Biology major, I have spent most of my time at Northwestern taking science classes and working in labs. When I had to select which elective to take, my first instinct was to go for the class I wouldn’t normally take back in Evanston. When I was younger, I was in a couple school plays, but I had never taken an actual theater class. I’m not going to lie, walking into Teatro Buendia the first day was intimidating. I couldn’t stop thinking that I was way out of my league. On the other hand though, it also excited me to be pursing something completely new. With an open mind, I set foot on that stage and followed along as our dance and movement instructor taught us a traditional Yoruba moves. The instructors, the theater staff, and the rest of my group members were all very encouraging. I was beginning to feel really good about everything until I heard the words “Okay, now we want to see one by one”. My heart sank, and my first instinct was immediately to negotiate: “¿En parejas?” (“Partners?”). My attempts did not work and so, one by one we each performed and improvised our dances in front of everyone. I can tell you I was so nervous I can’t remember what I did for those 45 seconds- which is probably a good thing as I can’t imagine it was any good. After I got off that stage, I realized I was still alive and then felt silly for being so nervous. Performing in front of a stage is not really my thing, but also its something I’m no longer terrified of. I feel proud of myself for stepping out of my comfort zone and trying something completely new to me.
The morning we arrived in Cuba it was raining. The airport was small and dimly lit. We exchanged American dollars for Cuban Convertible Pesos and hopped on a bus to meet our homestay host named Layda. In Vedado, Layda lives on calle 19 y G on the thirteenth floor of an apartment building. She greeted us warmly and helped us get our stuff to our rooms. The elevator we took up to the thirteenth floor was over sixty years old and it’s incredible that it’s still running. You get inside and press the floor you want and when the elevator door opens you’re in front of the door to your apartment which you need a key to get into. I’ve never seen any elevator like that before; it’s taken a while to get used to the scary fact that sometimes you’ll get stuck in the elevator and have to pry the door open with your hands–––if you’re really unlucky you’ll get stuck between two floors and have to pry the door open and try and climb up to your door. That happened to our host mom Layda who is in her mid to late 70’s. When we got home from class, she told us we were lucky that we didn’t get stuck in the elevator like she had earlier in the day. She was stuck between two floors and had to yell for help the neighbor on the floor below hers went up to the thirteenth floor, got a stool and lowered it into the elevator for her so that she could lift onto the thirteenth floor.
Las Terrazas is part utopian society and part resort. We effectively visited neither today while being there for nearly five hours. Before I communicate the wrong message, though, let me say out front that it was a fantastic day.
The bus arrived 40 minutes late to take us over two hours of the city to Las Terrazas, but in the meantime we retrieved items like sunscreen and water that we forgot.
Eventually after a lot of countryside we arrive to site, and we are hungry. We eat at the nearest restaurant; and not only did the meal last nearly two and a half hours, but it was a decidedly sub-par meal. The rice was quite crunch, indicating that it had been scraped from the bottom of the rice cooker.
Later we had the excited prospect of swimming in a river near the site. But first we had to exhaustively get the pay the right people, which meant a lot backtracking in small spaces with a huge bus.
And wouldn’t it just be right that the moment we slip our feet into the river a thunderous clap and flare of lightening greet us.
We had to leave essentially at that moment.
In order to make it back for dinner, we had to leave fairly soon. What a day!
I don’t write this litany to complain, but instead to share how much a schedule means in a country where everyone more or less goes their own pace.
In the states, this wouldn’t fly. People would start audibly become irritable, angry, and generally unpleasant. Yet since we all knew (for the most part) that this was a potential outcome, we weren’t unbending when Cuba and nature came to shove. Instead, you really got to learn how to be flexible, to sacrifice your own idea of what your afternoon will be in order to live what is right before you.
Today really exemplified this kind of flexible lifestyle for me.
One hot afternoon after a 3-hour Culture & Society class, a group of girls and I decided to eat lunch at a local cafeteria before returning to CEM for our afternoon activity. I ordered brochetas de cerdo that looked like the best kabobs I had ever seen, artistically skewered into a thick slice of grilled pineapple. Rice and vegetables were included, along with a strange chunk on a separate plate that resembled a nut or stone. Curious, I picked up the mysterious object and immediately dropped it, severely burning my thumb and forefinger in the process. I quickly grabbed my cold water bottle to alleviate the pain. As the cold began to fade, my fingers felt as though they were being electrocuted. Turning to the only girl with a working cell phone, I asked her to call our program director so that I could receive an ice pack or burn medication at our afternoon activity. My “friend” laughed, saying the director “doesn’t care about your burnt fingers.” In pain and extremely frustrated I took the 25-minute walk in the heat back to our house and was fortunate enough to receive a bag of ice from the women working in the kitchen. Besides two scars on my fingers, that afternoon I received three valuable lessons: those we rely on can turn away from you in times of need, we can find generosity in strangers, and finally not to touch anything I’m not sure about!
Following finals week, I caught a flight back home to New York City. I don’t go home very often, and when I do it’s for a short period of time; so. the question always arises: “When are you leaving?” Family members and friends have grown accustomed to my short visits and they’re excited to hear what I’m doing. Usually, I don’t have very fascinating things to tell them about, it’s usually just: “I’m working, doing research, babysitting, etc.…” Now when I’m asked I get to tell people I’m studying abroad in Cuba; their excitement builds up my own.
New York has been uncomfortably hot these past few days; my mom keeps telling me “You better get used to this kind of heat, you’ll be experiencing this for six weeks.” I have spent the week and a half anticipating my flight from John F. Kennedy to Miami International Airport where I will meet the rest of my Cuba cohort. I’ve been trying to narrow down the books I’m choosing to take with me to read for pleasure…. it’s proving a more difficult task than I thought.
My family is from the Dominican Republic; I’ve visited the island several times with my mom. I remember our two and a half week stay in Santiago with my aunt and uncle, and how we ate avocadoes with every meal. I remember missing things like pancakes and bacon in the morning, but realizing that I was lucky to have three solid meals a day filled with carbs, protein, and fruits/vegetables. I keep imaging Cuba the way I picture the Dominican Republic, but I know there are certainly differences that I’m eagerly anticipating to note. As the day of my flight approaches I’m envisioning Havana street-life and the people that inhabit those streets; how I can’t wait to be in the middle of it.
Even after 14 days in Havana, I am still struggling to find the right worlds to describe this city. Havana does not look like or function like any other city I know. The decaying buildings, cars from the 50’s and strong presence of symbols and figures from the Revolution creates the illusion that we time traveled when we got on the flight from Miami. The absence of billboards or advertisements on the streets, busses and sides of buildings makes Havana stand out from the rest of the cities in Honduras, where I grew up. Casa Lilly, the place where we are staying, is barely 7 blocks away from El Malecón. My room is on the 13th floor, and everyday I feel unbelievably lucky as I wake up to the most incredibly view. Every morning the ocean is a deep blue color, that later transcends to beautiful shades of orange and pink as the sun sets in the evening. If I thought that the idea of coming to Cuba felt surreal, actually being here in midst of this indescribable city feels even more like a dream.
They told us Cubans are resilient. But resiliency takes on an entirely different meaning when you have to be resilient. Such that, Cuban resiliency is not a characteristic that is chosen or slowly molded; instead, Cubans, today, are practically born resourceful, intuitive, and canny.
The Cuban “máquina” (Spanish for machine) perfectly encapsulates this ingenuity.
The old, classic cars in Cuba are probably the 2nd image to come to mind (after cigars), and rightfully so.
When cutoff from a major hub of commerce in the late 20th century, Cuba and its citizens had to make do with what they had. Meaning no more cars (for the most part).
In order to take people to and from places, the owners of the old cars began to function as cabbies. Fast-forward a few generations to today, where I jumped in the middle of traffic and hopped in a máquina, told the driver quatro (my destination).
The car was outfitted with a radio crammed into the console, neon lights flashing in the interior, and at least three different horns (one standard horn for “hey watch it! purposes, one shrill horn for signaling to motorcyclists, and one horn that made a whistling noise for passing women).
The moral of the story is that people #1 got to get places and #2 got to get paid. And for Cubans the solution to both is to constantly renovate and fix these 50-60 year old cars by any means necessary. If that means reconverting the oven into an engine, or using bacon grease to change the oil, then get ready.