Cuba Awaits

By Avra Shapiro, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2012

Here I sit, anxiously making pros and cons lists for various items with fellow Cuba go-er Amee. The truth is, we don’t really know what to eliminate because we don’t know what will be accessible and reasonably priced in Cuba. And frankly, we can’t wait to find out. How does buying shampoo work? What about medicine? Will Cuba have the type of medicine we have here? What will be the process for getting it there? I am filled with questions, and despite the various guidebooks and readings I’ve been exposing myself too, it will take truly living there to gain an understanding. And what I’m even more excited for is the new questions I’ll have once being there.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to meet Dr. Paul Farmer a couple days ago before he gave the commencement speech. I attended a question and answer session and all the global health minors were invited. It felt very fitting to meet such an important figure in the global health world right before embarking on this adventure. At the session, someone asked the question of what mindset he should have when abroad, as he was leaving in a couple days for Haiti to develop a new technology. Dr. Farmer’s response was a powerful one: He said that Americans go abroad with a certain mindset. We are always taught we are the best, the greatest, we should make our voices heard and empower ourselves. But, Farmer explained, we are all already empowered. That much is clear. So, when we go abroad, we need to DISempower ourselves. We need to become small. We need to be good listeners. We need to help where is needed, and not where we think it is needed.

I hope to embrace this idea of ‘dis’empowerment on the trip. This does not mean not asking as many questions as I can think of, nor not embarking on adventures and seeing and doing things I’ve never had the opportunity to do before. It means that, excitement and eagerness to learn aside, I am a guest in a country and I need to act like one.

That being said… WOOHOO!!

What We Leave Behind

By Claire Williams, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2012

As I walked into his room at 3:43 this morning to say goodbye, my older brother rolled over and sleepily blinked at me. “You’re leaving now?” He asked. “But it’s so early!” The surprise in his voice was evident. I’m not exactly known as a morning person, much to my mother’s dismay, so perhaps the uncharacteristic start was just what I needed to set off on a new and thrilling experience, so different from my everyday life and habits in Evanston.

Cuba, for me, holds a lot of firsts. For one, it will be my first time living abroad and actually getting to know a city thoroughly. It will also be the longest Spanish immersion experience that I have had. Perhaps most importantly, two months abroad will mark the longest time I have been apart from family and friends in my entire life. Cuba in my mind represents a tremendous opportunity to grow and discover myself and my future possibilities, but I will also leave quite a bit behind. One of the most important things I hope to learn is the measure of my own resilience, my ability to keep only very limited contact with my parents, brother, boyfriend, and other close friends and relatives in order to completely enjoy the experience and all that it has to offer, no matter how comfortable these old connections feel.

My last night at home in Rochester, Minnesota, did a good job of showing me just exactly what I would be missing. In her characteristic style, my mother pulled together a wonderful meal for our family to celebrate Father’s Day, a belated Mother’s Day for my grandmother, my twentieth birthday (which will take place in Cuba), and my departure. The house was filled with laughter, loud voices, and, eventually, smoke, when we were too caught up in our chatter to notice that we’d left the bread in the oven. Watching my mother efficiently “solve” the problem – by opening the deck door and throwing the baguette out into the rain – I was reminded of why exactly I love home: the warmth, caring, creativity, and humor that tells me this is a place where I am encouraged to be my best. It will, of course, be difficult to leave that behind and try to challenge myself without that safe place to fall, but I’ll get through it. For the next eight weeks, Cuba is my home and within this group of students and the Cubans I meet, I hope to develop the same supportive, enthusiastic intellectual community. I could not be more excited for this new experience and my new life as a (temporary) Cuban.

One day to go…

By Madeline Schwid, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2012

It’s two in the morning on June 16th. My flight to Miami leaves in about 36 hours to begin the first leg on my journey to Cuba. The short week I spent at home between finals and my departure was calm and relaxing, full of days on the lake and nights watching Friends reruns, not to mention the recurring conversations I had with my parents friends about how Americans are not allowed to travel to Cuba.

The packing process is to put it generously, in progress. I’ve stocked up on the essentials, mainly sunscreen and chapstick, and eaten enough ice cream to last a lifetime just in case I can’t have as much as I want while I’m away. The 44-pound limit really makes it difficult and I guess I am going to have to settle for not bringing six pairs of jeans.

Most of my friends have already left for their summer internships and the like, making the waiting for my program to begin seem all the more unbearable. I still do not really know what to expect about what life in Cuba will be like, but I cannot wait to get this experience started. Now its time for me to try to get some sleep before my final day of preparation and before I know it I’ll be off.

“What are you doing this summer?”

By Michael Hernandez, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2012

Showing off some Wildcat pride with a co-worker.

It was the quintessential go-to question for striking up small talk as I hurried up and down the stairwells of my residence hall over the past weekend. As students finished up the last of their finals for spring quarter and eagerly packaged up their dorm rooms, I would pull out the question while carefully going through Room Condition Inventories with each resident, meticulously checking every nook and cranny of their now-empty rooms as part of my job as a Community Assistant on campus. There was the junior Economics major working on his own start-up business downtown, the sophomore Environmental Sciences major heading off to California for her internship at a non-profit. Listening to more and more students enthusiastically share with me their summer plans caused the gears to slowly begin turning in the back of my mind. In less than I week, I would be in Cuba.

The reality of this entire experience lying so closely on the horizon has only just begun to set in. Informational packets from earlier orientation meetings lie buried under an unfortunate pile of Biology and Psychopathology textbooks on the desk in my room, which themselves were hopelessly lost for three months under feverish notes and frantic scribbles for my Medical College Admissions Test. Yet, with all these other commitments finally said and done, Cuba has slowly resurfaced as a salient truth in my future, the imminent summer experience that has finally been removed from the side shelf in my life. I still recall sitting in a small coffee shop outside of Children’s Memorial Hospital, a warm afternoon during spring break after volunteering in the Post-Anesthesiology Care Unit, opening my laptop and seeing the new message at the top of my inbox: “Welcome to the IPD Public Health in Cuba Program!” It was March 19, 2012, and yet it feels like ages ago, a distant memory worn in and simply stored away.

The Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh

As I currently write this, I am back home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Between closing the residence halls for underclassmen this past week and then checking out the graduating seniors this upcoming Saturday, I have the week off to get away from campus and say goodbye to family and friends before heading off on my adventure abroad. The trip back home is bittersweet; many of my friends have come back home for the summer to work local jobs, conduct research at the University of Pittsburgh, or simply avoid employment, textbooks and responsibilities for the next two months. There’s a part of me that would like to join them in the familiar setting of my hometown, the place where most faces are recognizable and the majority of street names known. However, then I remind myself of the adventure I am about to embark on, the opportunity that will never come along again.

Travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens is currently restricted by U.S. law and regulations, however students participating in academic activities abroad are among those listed as exceptions. I look forward to learning as much as I can during the next two months, through daily classes taught in Spanish, research projects centered on Cuban public health and trips all over the island that will certainly immerse us in the country’s culture. Thus, despite a low-grade feeling of anxiety over the semi-unknown circumstances in which I will be finding myself in the coming weeks, the emotion is washed over by general excitement in the prospect of a truly transformative experience. My departure stands in full confidence that this trip shall positively alter my perspective of health care and allow me to greatly reflect upon my role as a global citizen. So, with that being said… What are you doing this summer?

The Run Through History – A 5K

By Alex Gunn, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2011

As I mentioned in my last post, I have gone on a lot of runs and explored a lot of different parts of Havana. I’ve seen the Necropolis de Colon (one of the largest cemetaries in the western hemisphere), the Havana zoo (which is home to a donkra, and I even ran my way onto a Cuban movie set by accident. Over the course of the past 6 weeks, I have found a route that I consistently love that fits perfectly with the location of our hotel. It ends up being about 5 kilometers with a very big hill in the middle of it. I like to call it the “Run through History” because along the Avenue de las Presidentes and Paseo, there are statues of important historical figures and it circles by the Plaza de la Revolucion.

Usually, I start off running down Paseo to the Malecon, the boardwalk that runs along the ocean. While doing this, I pass a few grand bronze statues and a park that has old men playing dominoes. The malecon is beautiful and always packed with people; fishermen trying to make a living and teenagers trying to do flips in to the water 15 feet below.

From the malecon, I make my way past our old hotel, El Presidente, and trudge up a very large hill that last about a mile and half. Along the way, I see statues of Maximo Gomez and the base of a statue of a past dictator that has been torn down and the name scratched out.  From here, I continue up the hill, but along the way there are three places of note: the memorial of Jose Marti, el castillo del príncipe, and the Plaza de la Revolucion.  The memorial of Jose Marti is a beautiful structure with a few steps leading up to a gigantic statue of him on a horse. As I continue around the roundabout, the road begins to contour around the side of a cliff. All of a sudden, the cliff breaks and very old stone steps appear and cut into the side of the cliff. With a sense of adventure, I begin to climb them; one by one. About 300 steps later, I reach the top, which is home to a huge mansión and swimming pool. However, I’m quickly spotted by a guard so I take off running. As it turned out I was on the premises of the Castillo del Principe.

From here, I keep running through a more urban part of Havana and I end up in my destination the Plaza de la Revolucion. This giant needle-like statue where Fidel Castro would give speeches during the early years of the revolution. You can easily imagine thousands upon thousands of people gathering there to see Castro announce the “victories” of the revolution. Inspired by my recent encounter with Castillo del Principe, I continue forward up to the very base of the plaza. I enter the ramp leading up to the platform that Castro would have spoken from and I here a whistle behind me. This time, a guard is literally running toward me and apparently I was very blatantly trespassing. Whoops. It all worked out fine, I just hightailed it out of there and made the final turn back to our good ‘ol Hotel Habana Paseo.

In addition, as a part of running here, I’ve discovered good post-run snacks. From the local market, I buy these homemade peanut and seed bars that make for a great snack. Also, there is nothing like a 50 cent mojito to ease the muscle pain.

All in all, if you ever get a chance to come to Cuba and enjoy a nice run, I would definitely hit up the Run Through History.

p.s. I tried to add pictures, but the internet is not letting me right now


By Alex Gunn, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2011

This past weekend our group ventured to Trinidad, one of the oldest cities in Cuba. It was a great trip that was highlighted by a club in a series of Caverns, a horseback ride to a beautiful waterfall, and a beautiful beach. There was one part of this trip, however, that did not sit well with me. We met a group of tourists from England that were very nice, but made very ignorant comments about Cubans and Cuba, as a whole. The comments ranged from accusing every Cuban of being a jinetero (someone who hustles tourists) to believing that their guide book knew more about the city than the locals did. I found this very annoying and took personal offense to it. After feeling these things, I examined why and discovered that because we have been here so long and spent so much time learning about this country I feel very connected to it. I feel protective of this beautiful country.

This is because of the way our group has gotten to know Cuba. We are not tourists, not Cubans (even though I would love it if someone mistook us for them), we are students of the country and our attitudes reflect that.

Sayings from Cuba – Dichos Cubanos

By Emily Roskey, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2011

“No se puede hacer nada, pero se puede resolver todo” (In Cuba, nothing can be done, but anything can be resolved)

Los Cubanos tienen tres derechos: el derecho a la educación, el derecho a la salúd, y el derecho a robar del gobierno (Cubans have three rights: the right to education, the right to good health, and the right to steal from the government!)

Cubans who grew up before the revolution have the education of Parisians yet live in the poverty of Haiti

Si eres Cubano y caminas por la calle, está robando del gobierno. (If you are Cuban and walking about on the streets, you are stealing from the government)

“The life of a single human being is worth a million times more than all the property of the richest man on earth” -Ernesto Che Guevara

In Cuba, it doesn’t matter what the rules are, but instead what the punishments are for breaking them.

In Cuba there is enough to eat but the biggest struggle is figuring out where you’ll get that food every day.

*These were collected from readings I’ve been assigned in class and from conversations with my professor while studying here.

La canchancara

By Emily Roskey, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2011

La canchancara is by far my favorite Cuban beverage. This past weekend we traveled to Trinidad de Cuba and were introduced to this simple yet delicious traditional recipe. The drink is made with aguardiente, a type of alcohol obtained by fermentation and later distillation of molasses. Aguardiente is mixed with Cuban honey, lemon, water, and ice. It is served in a small clay pot with a stick in it so that you can mix the honey from the bottom.

Carnival in Santiago

By Anna Krist, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2011

Photo thanks to Emily Roskey

This past week, we took a week-long trip through the provinces, visiting Camagüey, Santiago, and Santa Clara.  We were lucky enough to be in Santiago during Carnival and watch the parades on the 26th of July.  This is the last and most important night of Carnival, since it is the anniversary of the attack of the Moncada barracks by Castro and his followers in 1953.  On this night of Carnival, performers are awarded prizes for their costumes, dancing, and decorated floats, so everyone goes all out.

The massive amounts of effort that Cubans put into the parade are obvious.  Some of the floats were probably the most electrically advanced things I’ve seen in Cuba.  The costumes were crazy, whether they were covered in sequins or giant papier-mache heads.  Every time one group won a prize, the crowd went crazy, cheering, hugging each other, even crying.  The sense of community was obvious and moving.

Getting Around the City

By Anna Krist, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2011

A taxi driver in Havana

One of my favorite things to do in Havana is to take taxis.  For one thing, the rides are a much-needed break from the brutal heat.  As we zip through the streets, the wind streams in through the open windows, providing relief even when we’re stuffed into the car like sardines.  It’s the breeziest way to see different parts of the city.  It can also be entertaining.  On one memorable ride, our driver spent a good ten minutes searching for a CD (while driving somewhat haphazardly), throwing old ones out the window.  When he finally found the right song, he told my friend Hannah that it was just for her.  The song?  “Hero” by Enrique Iglesias.

Being a taxi driver is a very coveted job in Cuba.  A Cuban friend, who is studying to be a computer programmer, says that he would much rather be a taxi driver, if only he could get his hands on a car.  For about 50 cents, the taxis, called máquinas, will take you along major roads to almost anywhere in the city.  Considering how many people can be fit in each car, the drivers make pretty good money.

Cuban Taxi Rules:
1. Don’t slam the door.  The driver will yell at you, I’m guessing because the door could come off in your hand.
2. Hold on.  If you lean too hard on the door, it may pop open.
3. Don’t worry.  It looks like you’re about to hit that pedestrian, but the driver will swerve at the last minute to avoid them.