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.

Taking New Classes

This may or may not have happened 2 weeks ago but whatever, I’ve been busy, and I thought it was too interesting and hilarious not to share. Miriam, Clare and I were on our way back from a long evening of studying and writing a paper due for our first public health class at one of the nice hotels nearby. The moment we turned down the street that we live on, we saw masses and masses of young people walking up and down and crowding the little parks across the street. We asked a lady on the street what was going on and she said “la fiesta”. “La fiesta de que” we inquired. “la fiesta de verano”. The huge crowds were a result of the annual party in Havana to celebrate the start of summer (why it started on July 15th in Cuba idk).  Apparently there was a concert nearby that many of the people were going to, but there were plenty of groups content just to hang out up and down probably a 10 block stretch of the parks. We went up to put our backpacks away and Clare and I decided to join the throng and see if we couldn’t make any new friends.

IMG_6576[An aerial view of the little parks that the people were gathered]

Not 15 minutes in we ran into Alen, AKA “Ale”, AKA the absolute plug. Quick word about Ale. He was one of the friends we had made maybe 2 or 3 weeks into the program. The most recognizable feature about this guy is his tattoos. This guy is covered head to toe from the “GOOD LIFE” written on his knuckles to the tattoo of his own face on his back. He studies ballet at the National School of the Arts (ISA) and also moonlights as a break-dancer. Up until this point, he was mostly friends with other students in the program and Clare and I hadn’t had that much interaction with him, but he knew who we were and the group that we were a part of.

Ale excitedly greeted us and quickly told us that he would show us around and be our guide for the night. He went on and on saying that everyone was out there tonight. All the crazies were out enjoying themselves (He kept on saying “locos, todos los locos” so I assume that’s what he meant). When I say there were a lot of people I mean a LOT of people. Everybody and their mom were out there. Literally. No lie, Ale’s mom was the first person we ran into. After that he quickly came up with a system. We were young and foreigners so he said that he would be responsible for us as our tour guide/professor. He would go find a group of people that were out tonight, present them to us and then allow us 4 minutes to ask them questions about their way of life and experience in Havana. As we were interrogating the group, he would leave to find another group to present to us and the process would repeat. It was literally like something out of a movie. A very “Mean Girls-esque” introduction to Havana’s young social circles and their place in the social scene. I’m sure our Cuban Culture and Society professor, also an ethnographic researcher, would have been happy about our serendipitous chance at performing some ethnographical field work.

First on Ale’s list were the Punks. When we approached we saw a group of about 6 or 7 decked out in tight graphic t-shirts with even tighter dark jeans, some ripped, almost all with heavy-looking chains hanging on one side. Some sported your typical punk haircuts: the Mohawk, hair dyed red or blue or green. Clare and I were a little awkward in the first interaction having not totally believed Ale that he was going to follow through with the curriculum he had set up. Nevertheless, we ended up asking them if the punk scene in Havana was popular (which was met with an immediate and firm “no”) and if it was growing (met with a less instantaneous “no” and one guy who said maybe). We listened to parts of a couple of their songs (2 of the guys there were singers in a band together with other friends) and one of the brother of one of them and talked about how Punk was a very small but close community. We asked other questions and were in the middle of a song when Ale came strolling back whistling to signify that our time with the Punks was over. He honestly might be the most punctual professor I have ever had. On to the next.

After punks were junkies. Upon introduction (Ale had left again to find the next group) we weren’t sure if junkies meant the same thing as we had known them to be in the U.S. so we asked them what that meant exactly. They said they bought, sold, and used various drugs in a matter-of-fact sort of tone. It was comforting to know that some things remain relatively universal no matter where you go. We talked to two different junkies separately. The first man was well-dressed, seemed completely sober and was walking around with a women’s hand bag (*looks around and whispers* I think that’s where the drugs were!) The other guy seemed trashed. When we first said hello, it didn’t seem like he knew what was happening, eventually he came around a little bit and was pretty chatty, looking around for government agents when we said we were American even though he was wearing an American flag shirt right then and there. Ale came just as promptly as before, yelled “SE ACABO!” (time’s up!) mid-conversation and we continued on.

Next were the break-dancers/musicos. The guy we talked to the most (Joel, AKA “Supra”) was part of a break-dancing group with 5 or 6 of his friends who would do performances in the streets all over Havana. They told us of a favorite bit where two of them would greet each other in a busy area (with a handshake, fist bump or something) and then turn that into a movement that they could dance out of. Then other members of the group would subtly start dancing in the crowd and then join the others more explicitly in classic flash mob style. Supra also happened to be a DJ, typically doing mixes with hip hop, rap, electronic, and reguetón. Like the break-dancing, Supra didn’t have his own place that he could regularly perform in so he would usually just find a public location to set up his stuff after adequate promotion for one of his shows.

The last group was the Freakies. We met a couple, a man and a woman, who were pretty average looking, besides their facial piercings. To this day I am really not entirely sure what that means to be a Freaky. We tried asking them, but whether it was my deficiencies in the Spanish language or what I really couldn’t get a clear picture of what it meant. I then asked the man what he did and he said he had his own business that seemed completely unrelated. In the end I grasped that it was more of a lifestyle than anything else (?).

Then there were the ones who I will classify as the Randos. They were those we ran into in between the specified groups that Ale brought us to. There was one girl named Sheila who might very well be one of the coolest girls I’ve ever met. She spoke a little English and told me about getting her hair done (in braids mind you) for $6! We saw Tito, one of the friends that we had made before, and his friend Raul at least 4 different times during the night and Tito would be just as excited every time. And then there was a guy called Tupac (He’s alive y’all!). He seemed pretty cool. He had a dope haircut.

After determining that there was no way we could possibly do better than Tupac, we thanked and said goodnight to Ale and then went back home. Even though by then it was close to 2 in the morning, I made sure I journaled everything while it was still fresh before going to bed. What I thought was really interesting was that all these very different groups were able to congregate and make the public space of the parks theirs for the night because truthfully, not many of them had any sort of private spaces to call their own. It wasn’t like LA or something where there are designated spaces for people who love smelling grass, or watching paint dry, or are self-declared Bronies (As I assume there are several). Additionally, this lack of private space that made for several groups occupying the same public space made for some fascinating interactions that might not have otherwise occurred. For example, how is it that Ale came to know all of these groups that he was able to introduce us to? I can’t be sure, but I would guess that it came from the countless hours he spent navigating these open spaces and discovering these little subcultures for himself.

Next class is TBD.

IMG_6523[parks in opposite direction]

Trinidad is more than horses and waterfalls

5 weeks in and we finally made it to Trinidad!!!

When we arrived in Trinidad, I was ready for a break from city vibes. Not as many maquina taxis. Not as much Malecon going out nights. Trinidad is one of the bigger tourist cities in the provinces, but it’s essentially horseback riding, hiking through the mountains and tanning on the beach.

But aside from all the beauty of the city — it also struck me to meet someone that truly personifies all the intersections of Cuban culture. Jose.

Jose is the grandson of the owner of the hostel we stayed at during our trip. We met him on our first night when he offered to make us canchancharas — a typical honey- and lime-based drink from Trinidad.

After a couple canchancharas, we were all loving his stories. Plus, the amazing French fries he helped make for us! (Seriously, they tasted so good, even by American standards.)

Jose recently graduated from ISA, our host university, in contemporary art. He’s a painter. He’s currently in the process of painting a mural outside his grandmother’s house, which is where he’s staying for the summer. So, he lived in Havana for 4 years and actively visits his Abuela to help her around the house and visit his friends in the area.

But here’s the real intersection. Aside from city and more rural living, Jose’s parents live in Madrid, and he plans to make the move to Spain in the next year.

Listening to his perspective on Cuba and the influence of both Spain and Cuba on his art was refreshing. I’m accustomed to listening to talks about Cuba and Spain from a strictly colonial and straightforward history perspective, but with Jose, I got to see the mix of influences personified.

On our second day in Trinidad, I got a chance to check out the gallery he’s working at this summer. His work was beautiful. After weeks of doing a program that’s partially organized by Universidad de las Artes, it was great to see the work of someone graduated from the school’s renowned art program. I’m no art connoisseur, but I can definitely appreciate a beautiful painting.

The whole interaction between Jose and I reminded me just how much of Cuba is chance. I went to Trinidad expecting to ride horses and visit the beach — and while yes, I did that, the best part of my trip there was getting to connect with someone who had so much to say and so much to express about the island that I’ve come to love so much.

Last Night I Dreamed About Chocolate Chip Pancakes

So being a vegetarian in Cuba (even a flexible one willing to eat seafood) is not a particularly easy feat. Meat is a daily dietary staple, especially pork – with many Cubans citing meat as their primary source of fiber. Pro tip: fiber does not come from meat. While traditional Cuban side dishes are fantastic – yucca con mojo, Malanga, tostones, and plátanos maduros are fab – sometimes even apparently meatless dishes, like arroz morro (this super tasty black beans and rice thing), are cooked with pork fat.

My preference for food that is green and leafy over food that traditionally comes on a hamburger bun has pushed me to pursue a quest for delicious, veggie-centered food. I have found so many good bakeries, street stands selling 10 peso (50 cent) pizza, and paladares in my neighborhood: there is only so much pizza margarita that a girl can eat before she needs to get a little more creative. Línea Saludable – a new paladar that sells homemade fruit and vegetable juice, pastries from scratch, whole grain bread, and vegan and vegetarian options – may be my new favorite.

But as happy as it makes me to explore my world here and try out new restaurants, I meet the same theme over and over again. Delicious or not, food I find here is not the same as home. Cuban ketchup is not the ketchup I grew up with. Guacamole has a different texture, and hummus (the encounter with which made me so happy I almost cried) is definitely not the hummus I know and love. This seaside Italian place that we found satisfies so many of my recurring cravings: tomato sauce with real tomatoes (harder to find here than you would think) and chocolate. The brownies are warm and gooey and make me so very happy (perhaps disproportionately so) – but they are not quite brownies per se. California Café, which I was inordinately excited about from Trip Advisor’s glowing recommendation, was emblematic of much internationally-inspired food I find here: almost, but not quite. But the veggie fried rice I miss from home is just as Americanized as all the food I find here is Cubanized.
I find myself learning this again and again (and for anyone who knows me well, sometimes I have to learn the same lesson a few times before it sticks): life is different here. And that is okay.

Me before I devour mango juice and bomb veggie noodles

Me before I devour mango juice and bomb veggie noodles

Maybe I am making a stretch here, but I think this analogy applies to my everyday life in Cuba. Just as a brownie can be amazing without being exactly the brownies I miss baking, life in Cuba can be beautiful and entirely wonderful without being the life I have lived before now. And until I can get back to Wisconsin cheese and real hummus and fresh vegetables from my parents’ garden, I have the best mangoes I have ever had in my entire life to keep me smiling, and veggie noodles to keep returning to as I explore this city that is my temporary home.

Chili oil!! (first spicy food we've found in a while!)

Chili oil!! (first spicy food we’ve found in a while!)