Pre-departure

It is still very surreal to me that in less than 48 hours, I will be in Cuba. I cannot lie, preparing for this trip has been a stressful couple months and so I am relieved that it the departure day is almost here. Paying for this trip is not something that came easy to my family or myself. Searching and applying for scholarships, working two jobs, and trying to figure out creative was to reduce costs has been very tiring. At times, it all got to be so frustrating that I wondered if all my work and my family’s sacrifices for me to get to go on this trip would even be worth it. I rid my doubts by reminding myself of what getting to live and study in Cuba meant to me. It is more than a dream come true to have this opportunity, and I will be sure to make the most out of it. Getting to go abroad for the summer is such a privilege and as I have found out this quarter, also requires a lot of work and preparation.
I am thankful for the help I have received, and for the support of my family. So here I am, the night before I depart for Miami, humbled to have this opportunity and excited for this new adventure.

T-3 days

That’s how many days till I am no longer in the fickle winds of Evanston, nor the, often seen as, backwater country of Bowling Green, KY. Rather in a mere 72 hours or so I will be in Havana, Cuba.

I’ve noticed how people react to this news. Due to some combination of embittered history and perhaps ignorance, Cuba is seen as some kind of Shangri-la, a mystifying place of secrets. Perhaps it is; but, on the other hand, I am certain that there is normalcy everywhere, and Cuba is no exception.
Despite my assurance that Cuba and Cubans will be like everyone else in their own ways, I will undoubtedly enter the country with starry eyes, seeing everything like it’s the first time I’ve ever seen it.

I do have worries though. I’ve taken 5 years of Spanish now, but I’ve never been thrown into an immersion circumstance. This is a challenge; but with all adversities, it allows for a growth in character. So yes, I’m a tad worried about Spanish. I’m also worried slightly about the fish out of water experience. I won’t say being an American in Cuba is going to be hard, instead I’ll say it will be eye-opening. I will voluntarily forfeit many of the privileges that I am afforded here in the states for my Cuban summer. But that’s ok. Because as the dictum says, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. And I want to see exactly what I can do without, and how I handle that. I am so excited.

T-3 days seems like it’s practically here, and I cannot wait.

Reframing the Stars and Stripes

I have always striven to think critically about my place in the world: in my family, my community, my university, my country. I thought that I understood myself and my privilege fairly well, but traveling to Cuba pushed me to radically reconsider.

Returning to 27980770925_8683d21e9e_othe United States after living in Cuba for eight weeks was an unsettling experience to say the least. Switching back into constant English, unrelenting internet access, and capitalism was an abrupt transition – at times startling. After living a more socialist life for a summer, my normal life at home looked fundamentally different. American consumption of energy, clothing, and even food seemed odd, extraneous, over the top. The return to a prioritization of comfort felt beyond luxurious, unnecessary, but a relief just the same. The gloriously clean air of rural Wisconsin reminded me just how much I had previously taken it for granted. Living in a foreign country, especially one so removed from the U.S., forced me to recognize all of the privilege in my life, and the enormous (and problematic) power of my country. Everyone thinks their culture is natural, but moving away from it allowed me to critically examine not only the way we as Americans conduct ourselves in international relations, but also the way in which we recklessly consume and take our massive privilege for granted. And I came to recognize my own assumptions – about freedom, independence, justice, human rights, safetairbrush_20170101012232y, choice – and the possibility that those ideals may not be entirely, simultaneously compatible.

To make myself perfectly clear, Cuba and its people were (and are) so much more than an opportunity to better understand my identity and country. Cuba is not defined by its relationship to the United States of America any more than I am defined by my time in Cuba, or by my U.S. passport. But just as Cuba left its mark on me, and just as I am inescapably a U.S. citizen, Cuba and the United States are politically and historically intertwined. History is not black and white, and nor are international relations. The way we do things in the U.S. is not inherently superior, and sometimes, it is obviously inferior. We as Americans could learn much from the Cuban people. I know I have.

 

Getting Back Home

Right now I’m sitting in my dorm room, settled into life on campus. At first the transition to the US was hard. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what it felt like to step into the Miami airport and feel air conditioning again. It was so strange. What was something I never paid attention to before became something I couldn’t ignore. When I got to the food court, the smell of fast food was overwhelming. It took me a while to stop mentally preparing to engage with strangers in Spanish when I was out. But eventually I adjusted.

Even though I’ve gotten back into the swing of things, I still find myself thinking about Cuba. I can’t help but miss the people and how slow paced life felt. As it’s getting colder in Chicago, I even miss the heat. It’s only been two months since I left and I’m already trying to figure out a way to get back.

img_3387Before leaving, I wrote a blog post about being unsure of what I would find in Cuba. What I discovered was a place so full of contradictions there was no way to understand it after only two months. I didn’t get the clear answer I had hoped for. It was neither the ruins my grandparents described it as, or the paradise the revolution promised. But through the contradictions and complexity it became a real place. A place I want to visit again. A place that hopefully will continue to play a role in my life, even as it grows and changes.

Cuba and Yuma are two different worlds

It’s taken a few days for me to compose my thoughts coming back from Cuba. I thought by now I would have an eloquent description of my time there. I thought I would be able to neatly explain what Cuba was like — out of the Cuba fog and into my American logic. But here I am… missing Cuba more than ever and struggling to make sense of everything that happened during my two months in Cuba.

My best friends and I have our “Las Niñas Lindas” group text going strong. That’s a start. We both are going through reverse culture shock back in the U.S., where wifi is unlimited and a five-minute phone call doesn’t cost a million dollars.

The real culture shock hit me the other day when I ordered my first Uber to go out. The fact that I could sit at home and click a button to order a car brought me back to my days on Linea y G, where we’d stick out our arm and wait for a maquina (Cuban taxi cars) to stop for us and let us know if they were going toward the street we were heading for. Granted, it was incredibly annoying when you couldn’t get a car to stop in rush hour… but some of the best conversations I had were with drivers asking me about my experience or introducing me to new Cuban music.

When I went to the beach in Miami, I was again hit with the shock of not being in Cuba anymore. It’s no joke when people say that Varadero is one of the world’s most beautiful beaches. The water, the sand and the overall environment trump any beach I’ve ever been to.

Thinking of Varadero reminds me of the weekend trip we took to the famous beach.

Welcome to Varadero

Welcome to Varadero

But really, some of the most notable parts of that weekend had nothing to do with the beach and everything to do with the amazing company we kept while there. By sheer luck, one of our friends’ brothers lived in the town over from Varadero, so instead of looking for a touristy rental house, we were able to rent from a family friend instead.

While the house we stayed at looked like any other house, the experience of staying with family friends was the best — and it’s easily because of the crab. Sounds strange. Crab is a big reason for why I loved my weekend in Varadero, right?

In Cardenas (town next to Varadero), there’s a ton of crab and it gets sold at ridiculously low prices. So, our friend planned a whole crab bake at his aunt’s house for us to enjoy. Needless to say, we had plenty of bread and other snacks while we waited for the food to cook. And aside from the great food, the entire process really brought together me with my Cuban friends.

After a day of waiting for the crab to cook, we gave in and got bread to snack on in the meanwhile.

After a day of waiting for the crab to cook, we gave in and got bread to snack on in the meanwhile.

We sat on rocking chairs for hours listening to Cuban music and talked about how hungry we were for the crab. I swear, we talked about so much more than that, of course. But it’s always notable to me just how excited we all were for that meal.

All in all, it was shared days like those that I miss the most. I miss my friends in Cuba. I miss knowing that they’d be waiting for “las niñas lindas” in the evenings when we were ready to go out. Thankfully, wifi (albeit terrible and expensive) exists in Cuba now so we are able to communicate via Facebook and other apps — but obviously, it will never compare to the interactions we had in person.

Here’s to hoping we all make it back to Cuba together and continue finding space for all our new Cuba knowledge in our Yuma life.
P.S. Yuma means United States in Cuban Spanish.  

Learning how to cook: Cuban mom edition

After more than five weeks in Havana, I can say I had sampled a pretty good deal of the food the island had to offer. But what I was missing was my friend’s mom’s cooking.

My friend had told me for days that I should take a cooking lesson with his mom and every time we planned it, the plan would fall through. But on a random Thursday, he unexpectedly called me after class and said, “Let’s go hunt for groceries so we can do that cooking lesson today. My mom is excited.”

And boy, it was really a hunt.

I wish that my weather app worked, so I could give you the exact temperature. But I guarantee it was over 100 degrees on this day.

I wish that my weather app worked, so I could give you the exact temperature. But I guarantee it was over 100 degrees on this day.

We went to one shop for beans, one for steak, one for plantains, and one for eggs. All involved ridiculous lines and zig zagging across his neighborhood to find other ingredients.

When we got to his house, I was met with the heat of the kitchen where I made congri (white rice mixed with black beans aka heaven on earth). Then, I helped (and by helped, really, I just watched) seasoning the steak and putting together the ingredients for an amazing flan.

What really struck me throughout the whole process was how effortless cooking came to my friend’s mom, Luisa. She flowed with so much ease while mixing different dishes and preparing multiple things at once. I asked how she got so good, and she said, “Cooking is always easy when you have the ingredients. Watch me on a day where I have to improvise for seasoning or only have two things in the refrigerator. That’s when I get real creative.”

That reminded me of one of the major themes I have noticed throughout my entire time in Cuba: the art of improvisation. Cubans are experts at improvising. There’s no seasoning? We’ll make it. There’s no electricity? We’ll cook things by hand. No car? We’ll walk. And those are just basic examples on my part. The list goes on and on.

Let me get back to the meal though.

This was the table ready for dinner. But really, it only lasted like this for seconds.

This was the table ready for dinner. But really, it only lasted like this for seconds.

When we finished, we filled up the dining room table with all the food and in seconds — my friend and his brother were sitting at the table ready for all the food. I hadn’t felt that proud of my work in a while. Probably because the most tedious cooking I do in the U.S. is some chicken breast with garlic salt and microwaveable rice.

It was sitting in this meal with people that had become family to me that I realized, I really have grown for the better during my time here. And now I can also make a great flan…that could easily put anyone in a sugar coma.

Nails Done, Hair Done, Everything Did.

I spent basically the entire today, our very last day in Cuba, getting my hair done and I’m actually really glad that I spent my last day this way. Like most everything in Cuba I’ve found, I was surprised to see that I learned something new and significant about an aspect of the island while doing something very mundane and ordinary.

I was originally supposed to do my hair on Thursday as Jamila (see blog #2) had arranged for her friend from medical school, Lamisi, to help me out. When it wasn’t able to happen then, we rescheduled, and at 8:00am this morning Jamila and I met to take me to the student residence where Lamisi lived. We took the gua gua to La Residencia Estudiantil de Presidente Salvador Allende and I said a final goodbye to Jamila. *The gua gua (pronounced wa wa) is what Cubans call the public bus that many Cuban citizens use instead of taxis because it is so much cheaper. Because of this it can often get really crowded with inches of space. There is also no set schedule for the gua gua. It has its regular stops that it always makes but there is never a set time for when it will be there.

We went straight to work on the hair (I was getting a braided bob) and we started chatting. She told me how about the differences between the public health system in Ghana where she is from, and the one in Cuba, appreciating the fact that Cuban medicine is largely preventative with a strong emphasis on public health education while noting that Ghana’s was typically curative. We started watching the Olympics and as we continued to work, several of her floormates came in and out of the common area where we were, some staying to chat and watch, or to work (one was making some clothes, one running up and down cooking), or to help with the hair every now and again. Most, if not all of Lamisi’s floormates were from Ghana and when I mentioned that I was Nigerian, we talked a little about what we had in common and what differed, mainly in relation to food. It was really cool to be in that little micro-community of West Africans in Cuba of all places. And it was even more than that. When we were finishing up the hair, Lamisi told me that in her torre (as they called each little section of the student residence), there was a floor where the South African medical students lived, one where the Congolese students were, and one that housed the Angolans. Additionally, throughout the residence of about 3,000 students there were people from Chad, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, Honduras, the U.S, and the Bahamas amongst other countries.

Lamisi and her friends were a real life look at what we had learned a little bit about in class. Due to Cuba’s reputation in the health care world and its goal to be a leading world power in health, along with exporting doctors to other countries to address issues overseas, Cuba also hosts foreign students to get their medical education here. Lamisi mentioned two programs: one was the Cuba sponsored, in which the Cuban government gives scholarship to foreigners to study medicine in Cuba, and the other was sponsored by the home country, in which that government would give students scholarships and send them to Cuba to get their education, provided that they come back to serve at home for a specific amount of time. I was surprised to realize how many foreign students were living in that housing complex. It was so interesting that this health care initiative had led to this international educational hub in a place that, at least from the American perspective, can seem fairly isolated.

20160813_184605    20160813_184909  20160813_184552

(Residencia Estudiantil de Presidente Salvador Allende)

We talked a little more about health care and I noticed that I was intrigued about what they didn’t say. In our Public Health courses here in Cuba, we learned a lot about the informal sector and the people to people based interactions and systems coproducing the impressive health statistics that Cuba and the rest of the health world like to highlight. Knowing this, at first I thought it was interesting how the medical students tended to repeat those same statistics, like the low infant and maternal mortality rate and the high life expectancy, without acknowledging what I had learned to be a crucial part of Cuba’s health successes. However, given that the government has been responsible for the formal (that is the more visible) reforms to health since the revolution, it makes sense that the medical students, like the majority of spectators of Cuba, see the health accomplishments as a direct result of those reforms.

We finished up the hair, and I thanked Lamisi and her friends for their help and gave her a little gift (she wouldn’t accept any money). She walked me to the bus stop were we said our goodbyes and I boarded the Wawa to take me back to our casa particular and reflected on that cool, chance, and in a weird way, so typically Cuban experience. I got home, painted my nails because I felt like it, and started packing.

PS: Shout out for Drake for making his hit single “Fancy” just so I could quote it as the title for this blog post. You the realest Drizzy.

 

20160813_222051(Miriam and me with my newly braided hair)

Four canes, a tarp, and a light

It’s hard to believe that it is already my last week in Cuba. So much time has gone by, but in many ways it feels like we just got here yesterday. We only just started working with Teatro Buendía (a world renowned theatre company in Cuba) a few weeks ago.They perform a lot of adaptations of western stories, reimagining within the context of their own country. They have performed shows based on pieces like The Tempest by William Shakespeare. They use metaphor as a way to overcome censorshiIMG_3357p, allowing them to create stories that challenge the people around them.. 

While Buendía has traveled the world, they are a small theatre company. The theatre must be collaborative to get things done. While one person writes the script everyone gets to have input. The actors help find costumes and props and also help build the set.It’s so easy to get caught up in the big productions in the US, where they have working kitchens on stage, and realism is what a lot of theaters aim for. Sometimes, though, like I’m learning with Buendía, it’s just about coming together to tell a story.

This past Thursday we got the chance to see the work of a theatre company that emerged with people who had been part of Buendía. They presented an adaptation of Oedipus Rex. It was amazing what they did on stage with two lights, a scarf, a tarp, and four wooden canes. Because they had to make choices about what things they wanted to include, they became creative about the ways that they include them. Everything serves multiple purposes. The light stationed at the front of the stage not only allows you to see, it allows their to be shadows on the wall, creating tableaus during the whole performance. The canes not only help the blind Oedipus walk, they are weapons for his two sons or a tent when he needs to rest. 

Because these artists don’t have crazy budgets like a lot of places in the US, they must be resourceful with what they do have. This is something I have seen in most places in Cuba. People have to get creative to make things work. In the case of theatre, at least, it isn’t necessarily always a bad thing. The shows created are so much more creative than a lot of theatre I have seen in the US. It just goes to show how little you need to tell a good story.

Respectfully Foreign

Cuba, especially Havana, has a thriving tourist industry – in case you were unaware. This is fairly obvious as you walk down the street, with many people speaking in languages other than Spanish, wearing stereotypical tourist fedoras and Bermuda shorts, and taking way too many pictures of questionably photo-worthy subjects. As at least a slightly long-term student and resident of Havana, I feel a little differently than a typical foreign tourist. Although I am in no way living the life of a typical Cuban, neither am I a typical tourist. I have a purpose for being here; I am a student. And one of the most interesting thing I’ve learned about – mostly through living and exploring – is the dual economy here in Havana, and in Cuba in general.

Cuba has two forms of currency: moneda nacional, which is the normal Cuban currency, and CUC, which are convertible into U.S. dollars. One dollar of the national currency is worth a fraction of a CUC – currency only accessible to wealthier Cubans and foreigners. Realizing that the average Cuban salary paid for a state-sponsored job is less than $20 a month, when Northwestern told me to bring enough money to spend $200+ a month was actually shocking. So many of the spaces targeted towards tourists are almost completely inaccessible to most Cubans, though the ones that we befriend usually get taken along with us. That dynamic, of Cuban friends depending on us monetarily, is in and of itself a little uncomfortable sometimes, but there is not getting around the fact that $20 to a Cuban means a lot more than it does to me, even if I am not rich in any sense of the word by American standards. For Cubans, it’s not just luxury items, club cover fees, or fancy restaurants that require CUC. With the amount of food and necessary items decreasing in monthly state rations, there is an increasing number of things available only in CUC, or on the black market.

Me unapologetically showing off my aggressively American Chacos.

Me unapologetically showing off my aggressively American Chacos.

This situation makes living as a foreigner in Havana incredibly strange. As happy as I am to be in the sunshine and on the seashore, to be exploring the city and learning about Cuban culture, to be practicing my Spanish and trying new foods – as much as I have loved Cuba – I know that my experience here is not that of most Cubans. It was honestly uncomfortable adjusting to my place, realizing that whether or not I was eating food that Cubans couldn’t access – I still had to eat.

 

I am hopelessly, irrefutably, obviously foreign. Although, according to Cuban friends, my features and coloring could possibly be Cuban, and my Spanish does not give me away as American, I am still evidently not from here: I dress distinctly, I carry myself too cautiously, and I smile too much. But I’ve come to realize during my time here, that even though I will never pass as Cuban, I am okay with that. I can be polite and speak in Spanish and treat other people with courtesy. I can tip waitresses and let myself be ripped off sometimes in the market to allow people to make a living for themselves. I could not change my American identity, even if I wished to. So for the rest of my time here, all that is left to me is to be respectfully foreign, and unapologetically myself.

Tom Haverford in Cuba? (maybe)

Around the second week we got here, me and three friends were wandering around looking for food to eat. Not knowing where to go, we allowed ourselves to be ushered into this modern white box that looked totally out of place among the romantic decay of Spanish architecture surrounding it. When we got inside we saw flashing lights and black furniture. There were two levels, and on the second we saw a bunch of tables that each had a laptop on them. It looked like something Tom Haverford from Parks and Rec would pull together. This was around the time we realized we had stumbled into a tourist trap, but we were too hungry to bother finding somewhere else. So we sat down and treated ourselves to a somewhat okay, but definitely overpriced meal.

As we were eating, it wasn’t hard to overhear the conversations at the tables next to us. We didn’t pick up much, besides their southern accents (something I hadn’t heard since I had been in the US) and thIMG_3087at they all seemed to be together in the same group. It wasn’t long before some of them started coming up to talk to us. We discovered that they were here on a cruise and had been docked in Havana for the day. Having grown tired of Havana Vieja (the more traditional tourist attraction), they hopped in a taxi and told the driver to take them somewhere for dinner.

What I remember most from that night is speaking to this one man from Miami. He was in awe of what he had seen so far in Cuba. To him, everything seemed just fine. “You always hear these stories from Cubans of people starving in the streets and not having food,” he told us. “Things seem just fine to me.”

I have thought about what this man said a lot while here. On first glance after docking here for a day, I’m sure Cuba doesn’t seem as bad as some stories make it sound. At the same time, on closer inspection it becomes clear the Cuba outsiders get to see is different from the Cuba actual Cubans experience.

Take the currency for example. There are two different types of currency—one is used by tourists (CUC) and the other is used by Cubans (CUP). The tourist places most of the time charge CUC, which is worth more than CUP. Cubans only receive about 20 CUC per month (about $22 in the US). As a result, most Cubans are kept out of places like the ones we were eating in that night where each of our meals cost about 10 CUC.

There are other ways that our experiences are kept separate unrelated to price. Sometimes, for example, Cubans can be kicked out of certain places tourists frequent just for being Cuban. There have been times when people have had to use the bathroom at a hotel, but Cuban friends have had to wait outside for them to be done. Cubans also aren’t supposed to talk to us. If a Cuban is found bothering tourists, tourists are allowed to turn them in to the police.

When you are in Cuba for a short amount of time, it can be hard to see the full picture of what is going on in a place as complicated as Cuba. Because we have the chance to stay here for two months it almost seems like our responsibility to look past how things appear. That isn’t to say that we will ever understand what that is actually like to live here. We never experienced the successes (such as the literacy project in the 60s or free accessible health care) or failures (such as government censorship and the special period in the 90s) of the revolution, and while we can learn about them we didn’t live them. At the same time, it is important that we try make our best effort to bridge the gap between the Cuba we are living, and the Cuba just beneath the surface.