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.
We went to the beach this past Sunday. The plans were made hastily the night before with sparse details. We hailed máquinas (Cuba’s hybrid of hitchhiking and an Uber ride), and drove to our first landmark Hotel Inglaterra.
From there we waited for a bus that was supposed to say Transtur. The bus eventually arrived; we paid a $5 round trip fee, and watched the countryside pass by.
Upon arrival, one is nearly stunned. Minimal trash, white fluffy sand, palm trees, deep azure waters, and a kindly smiling sun all greet us on the Santa Maria beach. We spent nearly six hours alternating between lazily wading in the waters and lazily sprawling on the sand. Many local vendors were selling grapes and beverages, but many more local Cubans were doing precisely what we were doing: enjoying a Sunday afternoon on the beach with friends. We all (the local beach-goers and my friends and I) found some circuitous path to get here, and we all were certainly struck by the beauty of the beach.
After leaving the beach, we waited for the bus and took it back to Hotel Inglaterra. As the bus traversed the countryside, I looked out at many abandoned homes, stray animals, aimless wanderers, and overgrown bush areas and thanked the forces that be for my great fortune to be able to visit such a lovely beach.
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.
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.
In 2 days, I will be on a plane heading for Miami. In less than 48 hours, I will say goodbye to my family, friends, boyfriend, and life in Chicago for the next six weeks to head to Havana, Cuba. In the next 2,880 minutes, I need to fit all my belongings into my three bags without a surcharge, get a pedicure, read Chomsky’s “Experiments With Socialism,” and buy as many cans of bug spray containing at least 30% DEET as I can carry. In the next 172,800 seconds (trust me, I used my calculator), I will embark on a journey few have had the opportunity to experience, and even fewer may in the future, as Trump plans to announce a new policy towards Cuba next week. Thinking back to saying goodbye to my dad yesterday after an early father’s day dinner, he hugged me and said, “Enjoy this moment. You have been given a once in a lifetime opportunity.” He’s right, I’m extremely lucky to be travelling to Havana to study Public Health with the ipd Public Health program, but I can’t help but feel a mix of emotions. I’m sad to leave everyone, but excited to finally be leaving. I’m nervous about the drastic changes (it’s going to be SO HOT) but also distracted by everything I still need to get done before my 8:35 AM flight to Miami in two days. This whole year has gone by so fast, and these last few days have been a complete blur. Hopefully in Cuba, I can enjoy each day to the fullest at leisure, but until then, there’s so much that needs to be done!
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 the 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, safety, 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.
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.
Before 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.