Art Classes

By Madeline Schwid, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2012

Starting this week Leah and I have been taking art classes from a local artist here in Havana. We met last week to go shopping for supplies in Central Havana. The store that we went to was very undersupplied and did not have many basic colors of paints like white and blue. Also, unlike most of the stores here, all of the art supplies were surprisingly pricey. Because of this, our teacher brought us art supplies to borrow that she had used before or bought in the underground economy.

Leah and I are not in the Cuban cinema class that meets on Tuesday mornings so we decided to have our first art class during this time. This day we focused on drawing portraits using pencil. We looked at a bunch of examples of previous works and some charts that outlined some basic techniques for drawing facial structures. Then Leah drew me and I drew her, taking up the rest of our class time. Throughout the class we conversed in Spanish and learned a lot. We decided to meet again on Friday afternoon to begin learning about painting.

On Friday, we looked at photos of ourselves and drew the outlines of a self portrait from it. Then we learned a step by step process of painting our portraits beginning with painting the darkest areas and proceeding to get lighter and lighter. Instead of using realistic colors we used other colors and created a more pop art like style. Just like in the United States, pop art was and is popular in Cuba and many examples of pop art are on display in the art museum in Old Havana that we visited the first week we were here. It was cool to walk through the history of the art museum and see the trends of art in a Cuban style that were happening elsewhere in the world.

It is very interesting to talk to artists in Cuba. They have to be very talented to be successful because so many people here want to be artists. Our teacher is married to another artist and they both studied art for many years at the university level. Her husband will be joining our classes later but he is recovering from leg surgery.

We will be meeting one or two times a week for the rest of the time we are in Cuba. We are going to work on painting portraits more with different techniques and we are also going to look at painting landscapes. I am really excited about painting Cuban landscapes, especially the city because the buildings and style is so unique.

Top ten – week three

By Claire Williams, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2012

This week, I learned that when you’re living in a foreign country, it’s best to expect that nothing will turn out as planned. You might find yourself breaking up with someone you saw in the rest of your life. You might meet someone on the beach who is a gorgeous Cuban professional wrestler and wants to take your group out salsa dancing. You also might realize that water and electricity can stop working for hours at a time right when you come back from an hour-long walk, leading to a very exhausted trek up thirteen flights of pitch-black stairs. Life can be strange and disappointing, but through the law of large numbers, the aggregate is more wonderful than you could have imagined. With that being said, here are the ten things I learned that best sum up my week:

1. One of the biggest disappointments I faced this week was an order that came down from the Minister of Health. Somehow, he was informed about our program at the Institute of Tropical Medicine (IPK) and denied us permission to officially use any government health facilities. Northwestern University was the only program of its kind at IPK, studying public health from within the system, and it’s really upsetting that we won’t get to have that opportunity. However, Adrian, our program director, is a logistical genius and within a couple hours of the news, he was already setting up an alternative class. We’ll still be able to have all of the guest lectures we would have had at IPK, but they will have to be done informally – at Casa de las Americas or at Casa Lilly, where we live. It’s a shame to be denied access to the facilities, especially since one of the fundamental contradictions of Cuban healthcare is the amazing outcomes they achieve with substandard resources, but I’m glad that this event won’t change the basic outline of our program – I’m sure the experience will still be amazing.

2. Another surprising piece of news is that cholera was discovered in Santiago de Cuba, on the eastern edge of the island. When I last checked, two people had died and fifty-three were confirmed to have been infected. Adrian says that the last time a cholera outbreak occurred, the government did not publicize it – so the fact that the disease is in the news must mean that the situation is serious and out of control. We were supposed to travel to Santiago later this month to go to carnival, but we don’t want to get trapped in a quarantine – especially since it’s unclear if the carnival will even occur. Luckily, Adrian again saved the day and promises to use the funds to explore other interesting cities in Cuba with us if we’re unable to go to Santiago. While it would be interesting to see carnival, all of my experiences in Cuba have been valuable to me and I have no doubt that alternative plans will do the same.

3. When someone first is initiated into santería, an Afro-Cuban religion that is extremely popular in Cuba and has vast effects on culture, relationships, and music, they have to wear white for a full year. They may also have other restrictions, such as being banned from touching money, eating certain foods, or engaging in some sexual behaviors. Seeing people in all white is fairly common here in Cuba.

4. Fully 9% of all employment in Cuba is in the tourism sector. Since working for foreign-based companies or in service jobs like bartending or taxi-driving often pays in C.U.C. (the tourist currency), a resort worker could easily make $25 a day, while the normal Cuban salary (paid in pesos) is equivalent to only $20 a month.

5. The Cuban people are highly inventive and ingenious. Once, when crossing a road, we had to wait for a taxi to pass. This isn’t entirely unusual, except that the taxi was being run in a tractor, with people hanging out the sides and observing the more traditional cars passing by. It was one of the funniest, most surreal, and most emblematic moments that I’ve had while here – if there’s one Cuban value that would sum up what I’ve learned, I would say it’s the ability to make do with what you have. In another amusing moment, we saw a man delivering an enormous sheet cake – by balancing it on one hand while he biked along a highway.

6. Cuba has exported thousands of doctors to work around the world – more than USAID, Doctors without Borders, and WHO combined, and yet the health parameters here didn’t drop, just like they didn’t drop during the Special Period even though the economy almost completely collapsed and the hospitals became useless. This is one of the fundamental contradictions of Cuban health care, which we will explore further in our classes and which I am very interested in.

7. Offerings to the gods are often thrown from the wall of the Malecón into the sea. People also fish, kiss, and buy treats like popcorn, peanuts, or candy from street vendors. It’s an amazing place to go to get to meet people, especially those our own age.

8. One of the best ways to spend an evening in Cuba is to go to the movies. While I have not yet gotten a chance to go, the friends of ours who went reported that you pay in moneda nacional (it’s less than a dollar per person) and movies vary from blockbuster American films (The Adventures of Tintin is currently playing) to art-house cinema from Latin America. I’d love to experience a Spanish movie here and see how much I understand – I’ve been doing fairly well at our weekly movie nights in Casa Lilly, where we watch famous Cuban works.

9. I’ve had an amazing time getting to know some members of our own group. I think we have a fantastic mix of people and interests, from pre-meds to film majors to journalism students. Everyone brings a unique point of view and set of interests – and the questions we ask make everyone’s experience richer. I’ve particularly enjoyed getting to know my roommate, Kaitlyn, a Cuban-American who is this year’s editor of the Daily Northwestern. Despite our varied histories and goals, we’ve become great friends who push each other to enjoy Cuba more fully, something I very much value.

10. There’s still so much ahead of me! I get nervous sometimes that I’m now a whole three weeks (!!!) into my Cuban experience, with only five left to go. I want to make sure I take advantage of every opportunity and don’t get complacent or stick with what I’ve already learned. We’ve just started our salsa lessons (I dance horrendously, but with much enthusiasm) and I’m going to begin taking art classes next week. Our cab driver today made us promise that we would go see the cannon at a fort in Old Havana – apparently there is a ceremony about it he thinks is important to understand Havana. These plans, and others, I’m sure will help me have the best experience I can – and a wonderful five more weeks I will never forget!

Wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish… even Havana, Cuba

By Lauren Sadowsky, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2012

¡Hola from Havana! We are now officially done with week three of our trip, and I have been having the time of my life. For a brief description of the program so far, we toured Habana Vieja during the first week, exploring and learning about Cuban historical sites with our amazing Cuban tour guide Girardo. Since then, for the past two weeks, we have been taking classes at Casa de las Américas in Vedado (the neighborhood where we are staying).

During the first week of our trip, our group of seventeen realized that seven of us are Jewish. While walking around in Vedado, we stumbled across two synagogues, a conservative synagogue named Beth Shalom, or in Spanish, El Patronato, and a Sephardic synagogue (which has a gym and is where several people purchased gym memberships). Coincidentally, I am able to see El Patronato from my bedroom window, as it is only a block away. As a result of this, I did a little research on the Jewish community in Havana, and Cuba in general. I found that there is a community of approximately 1,500 Jews in Cuba, and there are 3 synagogues in Havana. Curious and wanting to know more, a group of us, Jews and non-Jews alike, decided that we would attend Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat services at El Patronato.

My friend MAC and I went a little early ahead of the rest of the group and ran into an American tour group from New York. We chatted for a while and found out that they were here with a trip from their home community synagogue, donating medical supplies to the pharmacy in the synagogue (serving both Jews and non-Jews in the Vedado area). The New York group was about to tour the pharmacy, and MAC and I were able to tag along for the tour.

The woman running the pharmacy spoke of the history of the pharmacy in the synagogue and the impact the drugs have had on the community. We found out that the drugs are donated mostly from Jews in Canada, the United States, and Argentina. She mentioned that gastro-intestinal medications are the most commonly prescribed and the most needed in the area, and thanked everyone for their contribution to help the Havana Jewish community. After the tour, MAC and I met up with the rest of the Northwestern group to attend services.

Participating in services in Havana was somewhat of a surreal experience for me. I have toured synagogues abroad before (in Vienna, Budapest, Prague, and Toledo, Spain) but I had never attended services and interacted with the Jewish community of the area. Furthermore, the services were conducted in Hebrew and Spanish (obviously) but it was awesome because I was able to understand what was going on, as I can speak some Spanish (as opposed to Czech or some other language). I was absolutely amazed by the services and the Jewish community here. The community lacks a rabbi, and a group of 4 different teenagers led services for the congregation. I was extremely impressed. It was also fun to hear Spanish accents pronouncing Hebrew words, see the differences in the transliterations in the prayer book (i.e. they used a ‘j’ for a ‘ch’ sound… Pesach was Pesaj), and hear the different tunes for familiar prayers.

After services ended, we joined the community for Shabbat dinner in the basement. We met a guy named Jacob who is a student from Harvard here studying and conducting research on the Jewish community in Havana. He said that the Jewish community here is very complicated. On the one hand, the Jewish community is very small and it is hard to develop a strong presence in the community despite international efforts. However, on the other hand, many people in Cuba have been recently rediscovering their Jewish roots and have been trying to return to the community, since the limitations on practicing religion have been lifted since the 1990s in Cuba. However, this is somewhat questionable, as word has started to get around about the fact that the synagogue has access to lots of drugs from donations abroad, and that the synagogue provides a lot of services (ex. the free Friday night dinner) that people may just want to benefit from. Therefore, El Patronato has had to establish guidelines to be able to join the Jewish community. A Cuban has to prove that they have Jewish heritage via at least one Jewish grandparent (if I understood this correctly). Then, they must attend conversion classes and officially convert; there are currently 80 people enrolled in the class. However, many people from the Jewish community here have made Aliyah to Israel (which basically means that they have immigrated to Israel) and have left Cuba altogether. So in some sense, converting to Judaism may just be providing a relatively easy way to leave the country, as it is very hard to emigrate out of Cuba.

This leaves the Jewish community in a precarious position. Funneling people both into and out of the community does not bode well for the future of the community, as the numbers are not increasing overall. This whole situation is extremely fascinating to me and I am grateful that we ran into Jacob so he could help us better understand the dynamics of the community here.
I do not know how much I will be involved with the Jewish community while I am in Cuba. However, we have to conduct research projects as a part of our study abroad requirements, and I am looking into whether or not I will be able to incorporate the Jewish community and the pharmacy into my project. Regardless, attending services and learning about the Havana Jewish community was an experience that will be with me forever and has left an impact on my life. As a song I used to sing at Jewish summer camp goes: “Wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish; you’re never alone when you say you’re a Jew; so when you’re not home, and you’re somewhere kinda ‘newish’; the odds are, don’t look far, ‘cause they’re Jewish too”, and I am amazed by how relevant this song is to my life at this moment.

“But what little we have, we share.”

By Michael Hernandez, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2012

I shuffled into the front seat of our taxi car from 1951, bitter over the fact that I would have to pay $1.25 for our drive across town (spend a week in Cuba and you discover that that’s more than twice the normal price). With only the slightest glance, I looked at the tan-skinned Cuban driver, probably in his late 40s, wearing a nice button up polo and a baseball cap, as he shifted the car out of park and into drive. Catching my glare, the driver smiled and replied with “¿De dónde son?” From the back seat, the girls chimed in by saying the United States, which opened up to a dialogue about Chicago, the weather, and how our driver thought that Americans were the nicest people he’s given rides to (I’m not sure if this was an ill-contrived compliment or if this man had really just lucked out with his customers).

Somewhere between Habana Vieja and El Malecón, the conversation found its way into a discussion of academic studies, during which we learned that our driver had attended college back in the day, a significant accomplishment for Cubans. Out of reasonable curiosity, we asked him what he had studied when he was in school. Call it fate or serendipitous luck, but it turned out that in a car full of pre-med students, our driver had studied medicine, and was currently an OB/GYN. None of us understood this remark, and assumed that there was simply a mistake in translation; there was no way an OB/GYN would be driving a cab during his spare time. Double checking on what we thought we had heard, the driver affirmed this strange reality, and as we sped down El Malecón, proceeded to lecture us on the way things worked in Cuba.

“Imagine that you are a doctor in Cuba. You meet a young girl and after dating for some time, you ask her father if you can marry her. What does he tell you? ‘No. Not a chance.’ Now, imagine you are a hotel concierge, and you meet the same young girl. You again date her for a while, and then ask her father for permission to marry her. What is his reaction this time? He is thrilled, and quickly says yes.” This horribly backwards logic is how things work in Cuba. Our driver, he revealed, makes $24 a month as an OB/GYN; much less than most employees in the tourism industry. He has gone through extensive schooling and spends stressful days caring for his patients, constantly worrying of the dangerous fallout he would face from male family members and the government if he lost a baby. And yet, despite such physically and emotionally taxing work, he must do more. On his days off, in order to support his family, this man drives well-off tourists across the city, sometimes coming home with up to $20 a day, but many other days empty-handed.

Unsuccessfully grappling with such an ugly truth, my first question for our driver was why. Why would he be a doctor if there was such little pay? He looked at me with a confused expression, and simply replied “Why not?” For him – and I can imagine for most Cubans – it is not about making the most in this country. This is a culture that has raised its people to look after each other, to live, work and play united. I once read that Cubans often say, “We don’t have much. But what little we have, we share.” As the car continued along the waterfront, the many Cubans coming and going along their daily routines, the phrase really struck me. This is how Cubans’ lives work, with each member of society contributing in whatever manner they can. It is in these moments that I find myself reassessing my perceptions of the world. As an aspiring physician, this summer has truly challenged me to continue delving deeper into the ways in which, like our taxi driver, I am called to share what I have, and to fully invest in such a tremendous commitment to the values and goals of the career ahead of me.

Every Day is Like a Week, Every Week is Like a Day

By Avra Shapiro, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2012

It’s true.

This has been such an important, jam-packed first two weeks here. My time here has been so colorful and stimulating. I have discovered a new passion of mine, the guava fruit, referred to here as “guayava.” I cannot get enough of it. Another wonderful discovery has been “cocoglace,” which is basically coconut ice cream inside a coconut. Oh, and I also cannot forget the cold chocolate drink that can be found at the Museo de Chocolate in Havana Vieja. I suppose the non-food related experiences are also worth mentioning.

There is so much beautiful art. Everywhere. Murals on buildings, graffiti, art markets, music, and dance. This past Saturday night we went to a “Free-Hop” show held in a small area in the projects. We saw an incredible rapper named David who sang about a “revolución personal y individual,” and how there is enough space in the world for everyone’s opinions. There was also some guitar playing and free-styling. The coolest part was that behind the performers was a sheet and different pictures and art were projected upon it.

Another awesome thing I got to see was Ana’s dance studio. Ana is a Cuban who works at Casa de Las Americas (the cultural center we go to) and spends a lot of time with our group. She took us to see her dance studio which has been functioning beautifully for 18 years. It is a private dance studio, with kids from all ages. It has thrived solely on people’s hard work and donations. Everything is voluntary. They have a big show coming up in July and we go to see a rehearsal. The idea for the show is performing dances to music of a different style, for example, doing tango to salsa music. I got to speak with some of the girls there and they said it is a cool challenge and that they’re excited for the show… as am I!

On Friday night I went to Shabbat services at the synagogue located two blocks away, El Patronato. The synagogue is connected to a private pharmacy (the only one in Cuba) that serves Jews and non-Jews alike, run fully by private donations. The synagogue was beautiful, with a youth center and everything. The service was fun, it’s so special to know the same melodies as Jews in a completely different part of the world. My favorite part was the additional line that they added, in Spanish, to the traditional Shabbat prayer Lecha Dodi. “Igual a novio busca a so novio salgamos en busca de Shabbat,” meaning, “Just as a man searches for his girlfriend, so too do we go to search for Shabbat.” The synagogue is conservative and impressively progressive, and women can lead services and wear a Tallit (prayer shawl), which I thought was neat. I learned a little about the Jewish community here- about how there are conversion classes for Jews who can claim to have a Jewish spouse or family member, and about how the Jewish community shrunk significantly after Castro made Judaism illegal in the 60’s. It became legal again in the 90’s and Jews are now starting to reconnect with their roots. I’m left with many questions, particularly about identity. There is a common question asked in the states, “Are you an American Jew, or a Jewish American?” I’d be interested in asking if people identify more as “Cuban Jews or Jewish Cubans.” Somehow, I could see this phrasing getting lost in translation very quickly… I’ll probably change up the wording.  Anyway, I look forward to returning and conversing with more Cuban Jews.

These have all been fun, cultural experiences, but one conversation today really hit home for what Cuban life is like. We were taking a cab back from Havana Vieja and struck up a conversation with our friendly driver (who was driving the most exquisite aqua-green car from 1951). He was telling us about life in Cuba. He is a doctor, obstetrics, but also a taxi driver two days a week. He is passionate about women’s health, but said it’s very hard because “the responsibility is high and the pay is low.” He makes $20 a month from being a doctor. In one day taxi-driving, he makes $10-20. I immediately thought of what Adrian, our program director, mentioned to us the day before- “All the doctors here deserve metals.” This man certainly did. They all do. He could easily make more money taxi-driving more often if he had the time (if he wasn’t a doctor). He has a daughter to feed, as well. These Cubans… they’re fighters.

I could go on about the hilarious drag show I attended, the gay pride parade I walked in today, the inspiring Cubans I’ve interacted with, but dinner calls. I’m hoping there’s guavaya for desert…

A Brief Tour I: Our Homes

By Michael Hernandez, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2012

So I feel like this somehow goes against the typical blog post, but I’ve been itching to provide you all with a sort of descriptive tour of my new home here in Havana. So that’s what I’m going to do. My first post will be about the building all of us are living in, on the corner of Avenue de los Presidentes (G) and 13. Between the 17 students on this trip, nine are living on the 13th floor, four on the 14th floor (myself and the three other guys), and four more on the 17th floor. The apartments (one per floor) are owned by families who live here as well. We all share bedrooms (two people per room) and have private bathrooms. Our apartment on the 14th floor is owned by an older woman named Marta, who has two sons now living in the United States. Since we’ve been here, Marta has sort of taken myself and the other three guys as her adoptive sons; when we arrive back from classes, she’s quick to exclaim “my boys!,” and she always makes sure we have enough to eat (we get breakfast every morning consisting of eggs, fresh fruit, toast and coffee). Four nights a week, we also have dinner here in the apartment, which consists of some meat dish always accompanied by slabs of avocado, fresh fruit juice and of course (and thank goodness), more coffee.

One thing that I was initially disappointed about with regards to the Cuba study abroad trip was the fact that we weren’t able to arrange homestays, where students live with families in their homes. If I understand correctly, last year’s Cuba group actually stayed in hotels for their trip, which certainly limits the amount of home-contact with natives. However, after living here in this apartment for the past two weeks now, I can say that this has still been an outstanding learning experience. Despite the fact that the apartments are set up to divide guests away from the owner’s side of the floor, there is still a good deal of contact with Marta and the help who work here. In the morning at breakfast, Marta usually stops at the dining room table to engage in some small talk, and despite the fact that she knows English, she refuses to let us talk to her in anything but Spanish. She has helped me figure out the currency system here (there are two forms of money in Cuba), find the local gym in Havana, and also advised me on some of the different churches that are good to attend for Catholic services. In the evenings, there have been times where all the guys have sat down in the living room with Marta, the cool ocean air gently blowing through the open patio windows, as we talk about things like politics, nightlife, or simply movies (Marta has an interesting take on the movie ‘Inception’).

All in all, I wouldn’t trade our current arrangement for any other. We’re living in such a perfect location, with everything we need within walking distance. In the mornings, heading over to the University for classes is just a seven-minute walk (for any Northwestern readers, think the distance of Foster-Walker to Tech). Any place that might be more reasonably reached by car can easily be visited by waving down one of the antique taxis that frequent the main road outside our building. The view from our apartment’s patio is stunning, and we’re usually finishing up dinner right when the sun is setting over the Atlantic Ocean, prompting us to all get up from the table and crowd over the balcony, cameras in hand. Every now and then, new guests will move in and out of the rooms down the hall from us, and I’ve had the opportunity to meet and talk with people from Canada, Columbia, and even Israel. Indeed, regardless of the fact that we’re not in a homestay arrangement, I have been learning so much from within these four walls alone, and I’m certain that this experience will only get greater as time progresses.

Top ten – week two

By Claire Williams, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2012

We’re now about to start our third week in Cuba. I can’t believe how quickly my experience here is passing by – I want to savor every moment while I can! This blog entry might not be as scintillating as planned because this week, our group was struck by a mystery ailment that committed all of us except about three to bed for at least a day or two. While three of our party had to visit the hospital, thankfully, everyone is feeling much better now! With that in mind, here are the top ten things I learned in Cuba this week, hopefully chosen to be both educational and amusing:

  1. Writing top ten lists is infinitely less appealing when you’re busy dragging your aching body to the bathroom to throw up again. There will never be a time where you miss more the comfort foods and people of home.
  2. There is a genre called “free-hop.” There is also a genre called “flamenco-hop.” I learned about these new currents in music when we attended an underground hip-hop concert with our program director Adrian. The show took place outside the main city and the artists performed in a small garage while the rest of us gathered in the street, dancing along, occasionally scattering for a passing car or motorbike. The lyrics were synced with photographs and illustrations shone onto the sheet that served as a backdrop. It was an amazing experience and definitely not something that Cuban tourists usually get to appreciate – I’m so glad we were able to go! The Cuban artistic community is both incredibly diverse and incredibly rich – we’ve seen so many different talents and this was a new and exciting addition.
  3. A “cerrajero” is a locksmith. Like many Cuban businesses, he is not open on Sundays. This is inconvenient when your bedroom door decides to stop accepting your key. It is helpful, therefore, that your landlady seems to be quite skilled at lock picking and can jimmy the door open. She is also handy at elevator mechanics, and can open the door into the shaft to look for the car. This is not recommended to amateur gringas, but does help you ascertain if the primary elevator has stopped again and you’ll be taking thirteen flights of stairs. Stairs are the other option, of course, because when one elevator stops working, the other follows suit, like a pair of obstinate twins.
  4. Class differences do exist in Cuba. They are not as glaring as in the United States, but you can see them. They are differences like who showers with a bucket versus who has running water, whose plumbing flushes and whose has to be flushed by pouring water in, who can go out and have a drink at a club which charges admission in C.U.C. and who sits on their steps with a beer. It’s interesting to start picking up on these differences and the emerging new Cuban middle class, which can afford some of the luxuries formerly reserved for tourists.
  5. Havana was actually a British colony for eleven months after the Battle of Havana, between 1762 and 1763. It was returned to Spain in the Treaty of Paris in exchange for Florida and Minorca.
  6. It is interesting how language shapes the way we think of historical events and their aftereffects. Here in Cuba, the Civil War is literally called “The War of the Secession.” The American Revolution is called “The War of the Thirteen Colonies,” though the French and Haitian revolutions are called revolutions. I wonder what these differences in terms mean for attitudes towards these historical events on both sides.
  7. The camera obscura is unbelievably cool. For only two C.U.C., it inverts the city of Havana on a basin and you can see everything – churches, autos jostling each other for position, a boy on a roof alone watching the laundry blow – in real time. Despite its technical skill, it is also a masterpiece in reflecting not only the image, but the profundity and variety of experiences in this amazing city.
  8. The Special Period in Cuba was a time of economic distress that began after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which had been sending massive amounts of financial aid to the government. Under it, the government could no longer pay teachers a living salary. They responded by beginning to quit their jobs and find work as taxi drivers, cooks selling meals out of their home, or basically any other position that was more lucrative. Without trained teachers or the funds to re-hire them, the government instituted a program in which high school students returned to teach elementary school. They were supposed to control the kids and get them to watch pre-recorded lectures, but instead often put on telenovelas or cartoons. Frustrated parents who wanted their children to actually learn something would re-hire the old teachers to tutor their children in the afternoon, effectively privatizing what had once been one of the best public school systems in Latin America.
  9. American men could take some tips on pick-up lines from Cubans. While not particularly effective, they can be funny, a little dramatic, and definitely memorable. Some of my favorites from the last two days include: “Hi. You need me,” “I can be your boyfriend. I can be friend. I can be partner?” and, of course, “Lady, I will die if you don’t listen to me!” At last sighting, he was still alive, though confounded by the failure of this declaration.
  10. Nothing is quite as amazing as a Cuban sunset. It takes its time (like everything else here), but descends calmly, surrounded by delicate colors, over the endless sea. Watching it from a balcony far above the city streets, it looks like hope – a promise that tomorrow will be just as challenging, rewarding, and beautiful as today.

Top ten – week one

By Claire Williams, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2012

I’ve decided that while I’m in Cuba, I’m going to write lists – the ten things I learned today, every day. Monday night was a good start, because I was still exhausted from travel and didn’t get into bed to write until almost two – when I was expected downstairs and ready at nine thirty! I stuck to my resolution, however, and wrote a list of things cultural and political, serious and joking, about Cuba, about the people with whom I am traveling, and about myself. I hope to compile a week’s worth of “Top Tens” into a weekly “Top Ten,” which covers the highlights of what I’ve seen and hopefully elaborates somewhat on the context and importance of my sleepy scribbling.

For week one, the top ten things I learned in Cuba are:

1. Everything in Cuba is late. If it is on time, it is either an accident or a miracle. Either way, it won’t happen again. The Spanish verb “esperar” means both “to wait” and “to hope for” for a reason. The only thing that ever goes fast in Cuba are the cars, which will not stop for pedestrians or even other cars. The reason why driving remains an exception to “Cuban time” is still a mystery to me.

2. It is not extremely warm in Cuba, but it is humid and sticky. To that end, showers are not just for morning or night. They are not a once-a-day thing. Showers are for morning, mid-morning, noon, afternoon, teatime, after teatime, evening, and late evening. They are basically for anytime you find yourself near one, because your clothes will always be sticky and you will always feel so sweaty.

3. Casa de las Américas, where we are taking classes and which has kindly provided us with a lobby in which we can get internet during the day, is an amazing cultural center and has art from all over the Spanish-speaking Americas, not just from Cuba. Their collection is amazingly diverse – there is currently an exhibition up about the “new figuration,” and pieces range from pop art to enormous oil canvases to an intricately carved tree of life that weighs two tons. Casa is also a tremendous community of artists and thinkers, and overall a beautiful place to work. They also serve coffee saturated with sugar every morning. This is your lifeblood as a Cuban student.

4. Havana as a city was founded under a ceiba tree. The tree itself was eventually chopped down and replaced with a monument. Now, the closest ceiba tree is revered by Cubans as having magical powers. You can tell it your three deepest desires, the ones you can’t tell anyone else, and they will be granted. Suggested ways to connect with the tree include walking around the tree’s circumference, putting the hand closest to your heart on the tree, or embracing it. As long as you focus on your desires and leave a little money at the tree’s base, the outcome will be in your favor.

5. There are two forms of money in Cuba: the C.U.C. (the convertible peso) and the moneda nacional (the Cuban peso). The conversion is about 24 Cuban pesos per C.U.C. You need to carry both forms of currency at all times, because some things can only be paid with one or the other. Generally, if you can pay with moneda nacional, what you are buying will be cheaper, since this is the currency most Cubans use everyday.

6. Flirting is huge here. It ranges from men on the street, who will make kissing noises at you and call out compliments to you, to the casual flattery between friends. Flirting occurs regardless of age, sex, gender preferences, relationship status, or anything else. It is not a romantic flirting and it does not really have aims, it is simply the language in which you communicate with others and get things done. It’s also not bad for the ego when you get four marriage proposals within a block of walking.

7. The embargo means that almost every American product cannot be found here. Occasionally, food products will surface (5 Hour Energy, Red Bull, Nestle candy bars and ice cream, and Coca Cola through Mexico), but there is really nothing else recognizable as American here, at least not from the present day. Almost all of the cars you find are old American models that have been constantly repaired since the 50’s, lending the entire country a sort of timeless, placeless feel. You can forget very easily here that you’re less than 100 miles from America.

8. Some Cubans have never met a U.S. American before, even those that work at four-star all-inclusive resorts. They are extremely excited to meet you, though, and will talk all about how they love American movies. The man I met, Ernesto, also made me promise to tell all of the other girls in our group that we were prettier than any Americans he has seen in the movies. While the compliment was a first, the enthusiasm to meet Americans seems pretty commonplace. Everyone I’ve talked to wants to know what it is like to live in America and how things are different from what they’ve been told by their media and American media. The fascination goes both ways.

9. There is a tremendous artistic community here. In America, it’s extremely difficult to make it as an artist or a writer, but in Cuba, it seems like that is as normal an occupation as “shopkeeper” or “secretary.” I’m sure that this attitude contributes to the incredible diversity of art and expression that we have seen, from music (jazz, salsa, hip-hop, classical) to performance art to poetry readings to abstract installations made of found objects. I have never been in a place with so much vibrance and creativity.

10. No complaining, no excuses, and no apologies. I’ve learned to realize that I am in a new place, having an experience that is so rare and unique that I will never be able to replicate it. I need to feel free to ask and answer questions fearlessly, without considering how good my Spanish is or if I’m embarrassing myself. This is my time to be exactly what I am and to discover what I can be and that – not the painted houses or the friendly people or even the savory Cuban food – is what I find most beautiful of all.

La fruta prohibida

By Michael Hernandez, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2012

As the 19 of us sat in the small, air-conditioned classroom at Casas de las Americas, surrounded by our professors for the next two months, the term coined by Professor Geraldo to describe the country sunk in. “The forbidden fruit.” We were finally in Cuba, after months of eager and somewhat restless anticipation. I recall the vibrant colors of the island coming to life as we first left the airport terminal, the golden sun beating down warm rays in the Caribbean air. It was just like the photos depicted it to be: tropical trees, exotic flowers, and most striking of all, the antique cars that made you feel as though you had just stepped back in time.

Unfortunately, the serenity of it all was met with a bitter reminder of the current state of affairs between our countries, as we boarded our bus and departed from the airport, driving through traffic on the way to our apartments. Billboards lined the streets with messages promoting Cuba’s socialist government, with many more condemning the United States for its actions against the country: “End the injustice!” and “Blockade: The largest genocide in history” were among the propaganda that rang out on every street corner. We sat on our bus, silent as the driver played Spanish music, absorbing the sights and sounds of our new home.

It’s amazing that we’ve already been here for five days. We’re constantly asking each other what day of the week it is, as each person exchanges confused glances until someone with a digital watch answers (struggles of not having a cell phone). Since our time here, we’ve bounced around at a lot of good restaurants as our program director, Adrian, helps us get acclimated to the safe places to eat in Havana. We’ve gone on museum tours in Old Havana, which is rich in history and culture. We’ve even managed to stumble upon an old cigar-making shop hidden in the upper alcoves of an ancient, castle-like structure, where we all bonded over choking on/successfully conquering the infamous Cuban cigar.

Yet, it seems all of these culturally-immersing experiences have only exacerbated the fact that I acutally know little about Cuba. I came into this country with a general jist of things, but as Professor Geraldo led our tour through one of the city’s history museums, I quickly realized I had more questions than answers. As we moved from room to room in the dimly-lit corridors of the museum, I struggled to keep track of the island’s intricate history, of the semi-familiar names being thrown out and the significant dates rushing by. In a way, I think it’s a good thing. I’m glad that there is so much for me to still learn, and I am looking forward to the next seven weeks of classes and outings, in hopes that I may get these questions answered, while discovering new things to start thinking about.

¡Bienvenidos a … Minnetonka? Miami?

By Lauren Sadowsky, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2012

The summer has just begun.  After struggling through the last of my finals and the end of the year, I finally arrived home in Minnetonka, Minnesota for a glorious ten day stay.  I visited with friends and saw family I hadn’t seen for several months.  Going home is becoming somewhat surreal, as it has started to feel less like home due to the infrequent and fleeting nature of my visits. However, after my sister’s graduation and attending several graduation parties, Minnetonka started to feel like home again.  It was fun being able to see my sister and her friends experience the same graduation festivities that I enjoyed two years ago.

Yet the fun was shortlived.  After several days, I already had to think about repacking my belongings and figuring out what all was going to be traveling with me to Havana, Cuba.  I also had to catch up on all the sleep I severely lacked during the previous finals week, not to mention during the entire school year. After 8 days straight of sleeping twelve-hour nights, I finally began to feel rested and reenergized.

Packing for Cuba proved to be a challenge, as I have never been in a foreign country for more than a month before, so I really had no idea what was necessary for a 2-month stay.  I still don’t know, but I know I overpacked and hopefully have everything I will need.

Now I’m sitting in Miami, Florida, after a very early flight this morning.  The group is staying at a hotel near the airport and part of the group had some fun bonding time as we waited for the rooms to be cleaned and ready for us. It still hasn’t hit me that I am going to be in Cuba for two months.  I think once we unload from the flight tomorrow in Havana, it will probably come to life.  Especially when everyone starts speaking in Spanish, which should be interesting and a bit of a culture shock.  I cannot wait for the adventure to begin!