Cuba: January 9th

With eleven inches of snow on the ground back home, it seems unjust to complain about the temperature on this small island in the Caribbean. But it was indeed another (I admit, relatively) chilly day here in Havana. We started off our day a little earlier than usual, eager to arrive at the Centro de Estudious Martianos (or CEM, as we call it in the business). Awaiting us was a lecture on the history and evolution of education in Cuba, delivered by none other than Senora Ana Sanchez, the director of CEM herself.


As it turns out, Cuban education has several nuances none of us would have anticipated. In 1959, before the Triumph of the Revolution, the Cuban education system was in utter disarray. With only three universities nationwide, a low education budget, ludicrous amounts of corruption in the Ministry of Education, and an average level of school completion of third grade, the distress of the education system was not far behind that of the social and political structure. After seizing control in the Triumph of the Revolution, Fidel Castro declared that the future of Cuba had to be the “future of men of science and thinking”, and began to establish massive educational reforms throughout Cuba. Today, through the efforts of the Cuban government, Cuba now has 48 universities, an illiteracy rate of only 7.2%, and a school attendance rate of 99.3% in children between 6 years and 11 years old.


One aspect of Director Sanchez’s lecture that stood out to me was her description of how the United States is portrayed in Cuban education. In U.S. classrooms, Cuba is mentioned in context of three other topics – Fidel Castro as a historical figure, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Bay of Pigs Invasion. But the Cuban academic curriculum takes their portrayal of their longtime political enemy a step further. According to Director Sanchez, the United States history is taught with a focus on its origin, the American Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution. However, the intriguing part is that, when teaching students about the United States, a very clear distinction is made between the U.S. people and the U.S. government. This is a philosophy we have heard many times from a wide variety of Cubans, and it gives me great hope for a future of peaceful relations between our two countries.


Later this afternoon we had a couple of hours of elusive free time, so we wandered 23rd Street, taking in the sight of the shops, restaurants, and homes lining both sides. There was a noticeable distinction between many of these establishments and those we often see on the more traditionally tourist streets – you can often tell with little more than a glance if they deal in CUC (Cuban convertibles) or CUP (moneda nacional). It was intriguing to walk through this area and see the contrast from our normally-traveled path.


After 23rd Street, we meandered down Paleo en route to the Malecón, where the ocean waves were slamming the wall and exploding upward with force and vigor. The ocean was in great upheaval as far as I could see, and they rolled in a dark blue, turning turquoise as they neared the stone wall. Some of the waves hit the Malecón with such force that they flooded the drainage system under the street and exploded up through the manholes, rocketing the manhole covers airborne, flying over to the other side of the median. We gave that area a wide berth when departing for the Residencia. Later in the evening, as the expansive dinner Carlos fed us began to make us feel sleepy, several of us sat on the terrace and told jokes until we were laughing too hard to speak.


And that is what I believe this trip has been all about: learning how to coexist peacefully and joyously with those with many differences. Cuba has taught me much about what it means to be part of a community, on both a minute and a global scale.

Cuba January 8th

After being able to sleep in for the f1irst time since arriving in Havana, we traveled back into old Havana for the day to learn about Ernest Hemingway, when he visited Cuba in the 1940’s. As we drove along the Malecon, everyone watched as the waves crashed against the wall spilling over onto the road. This was the first time we witnessed the power of the ocean as it crashed into the sea wall. The winds were a result of the previous night’s storm and brought cool air in from the north. The ten foot waves hit the Malecon with enough force to send water above the tops of the streetlights.

W2e started off our day in Old Havana in the lobby of the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway had always stayed before buying his house. The lobby had a pleasant atmosphere with someone quietly playing the piano by the entrance. People were scattered throughout the lobby occupying almost every seat with quite a few enjoying mojitos and other mixed drinks. The hotel seemed like a very relaxing place to stay and demonstrated the relaxing Cuban lifestyle which Hemingway enjoyed. After spending a little time in the lobby, we walked through the streets of old Havana visiting several noteworthy bars.3

Our first stop was at La Bodeguita del Medio, which is known for its mojitos. Inside there was a small band playing for the crowded room and everyone waiting to get in to get a mojito for themselves. Although they were good, my opinion was that they didn’t taste any better than any other mojito even though they cost twice as much. While waiting for the drinks to be made, we admired some of the art bring sold nearby by local vendors in small rooms or a staircase up to the second floor of a building. Most of which were paintings consisting of a Havana street with a brightly colored old car like the ones which are used for tours.

Since our day had a focus on Hemingway, we went to his favorite bar, El Floradita. The bar was extremely crowded with tourists that it made it almost impossible to walk inside to see the beautiful room with a band performing to the left as you walk in. A statue of Hemingway sits at the bar in the corner where he often enjoyed the lively atmosphere​. El Floradita would have been a great place to hang out and slowly enjoy a drin4k for a quiet afternoon, but due to the number of tourists it was too busy and loud. Everyone who was visiting Havana seemed to want to go to the bars which were famous to get a drink and experience Havana the way they had read about, but with all the tourists the experience was dampened. The bars unfortunately felt more like tourist attractions than anything else.

We finished the day with a discussion about Hemingway on top of the Hotel Ambos Mundos. Fortunately, the discussion was cut short because everyone became very cold due to the wind and sixty degree temperatures (which seemed cold to us even though back home it was close to zero) that no one was prepared for. Everyone was expecting it to be warm the entire time we were in Cuba. On our way back, our bus had a slight mechanical issue, but by the time everyone had noticed, our bus driver had already opened a hatch in the floor and fixed it quickly. Since Cuba had been cut off from the rest of the world for so long it isn’t surprising that many cars break down in various place and the drivers need to know how to fix it wit5hout too much trouble. Although it makes sense that anyone who owns a car would know how to fix it (more so than everyone in the United States), it still surprised me how quickly he could find and address the problem. The cold and the bus breakdown were two surprises that I didn’t expect to encounter during the day which made for a more interesting day along with the surprising number of tourists throughout all of Old Havana. Even with the busyness from the tourists, the city had a very peaceful feel with no one was rushing around and worrying about being late, instead people just wandered around enjoying the day. Except for the wind and cold, it was a beautiful day to wander around Old Havana and experience life as Hemming way did in the 1940’s.

Cuba: January 7th

Today started out bright, warm, and sunny, which means it was a great day for baseball. Back home baseball isn’t played during January since it is always too cold. After we were all done eating our daily breakfast with Carlos at the Residencia, we took a bus ride to Cojimar to see a youth baseball game. On the bus ride, our Cuban translator and tour guide, Ana, told us a story about how Ernest Hemingway helped to create the first children’s baseball team in Cuba in 1938. The team name was Las Estrellas de Gigi. Hemingway bought the property his house sits on in 1940 and promptly allowed the neighborhood kids to play baseball there. He even paid for errands to help out all of the kids’ families and he paid for most of the water supply. When we got to the baseball field, Ana also told us a lot about the current baseball project being held at this baseball field. It started 5 to 6 years ago and it now has a total of 60 kids from ages 5 to 10. They don’t have any funding, it’s free to play, and nothing extra is given to their program. However, good grades are needed in order to remain in the program. Back in Hemingway’s time, he used this field and drove kids there to compete with other kids in numerous baseball games. Jorge was the instructor of the youth baseball league and he let all of us play baseball with the kids. Stepping onto that baseball field brought back many memories for me. I played baseball throughout my childhood and when I was their age, I enjoyed playing baseball. I don’t play it that much anymore because I got hit by pitches too many times for my liking. But when I stood behind the plate playing catcher, I got a flashback to my childhood days as I saw all of the happy kids around me enjoying the sport of baseball. When I went up to bat and drilled a line drive down the 3rd base line, I saw the kids run after the ball so fast to try to get me out. When I was in the field, I loved running after the ball to get the batter out and I loved talking to the kids in the field with me as if they were my actual teammates from my childhood baseball teams. While my favorite baseball team is the Red Sox, my second favorite team is the San Francisco Giants. One of the kids had asked to try my Red Sox hat on, and I asked if I could try his Giants hat on. Seeing that kid with a wide smile on his face when he tried on my hat was what really made my day worthwhile. Baseball is such a great sport, and it’s a common language between Cuba and the U.S. We have been enemies for quite some time and only now are our countries fixing the relationship. Baseball is a key part in making this relationship better and Obama going to Cuba to watch the Tampa Bay Rays play a Cuban baseball team was a big step forward. It may be an old cliche, but making a kid’s day can really go a long way, especially when he and I have never met each other before today. We returned our hats to each other and I gave him a Babe Ruth league baseball before I left. There aren’t too many great Cuban baseball players in Major League Baseball, but who knows what may happen with these kids. Maybe one day one of them will be the next Big Papi. Or better yet, maybe one of them will be the next Aroldis Chapman, who is the best Cuban-born player in the MLB and is one of the best, if not the best, closers in the entire league. And like Big Papi and Aroldis Chapman, maybe one day they can be the ones that break the so-called “curse” for their respective team, in which they help their franchise win their first World Series Championship after a long history of losing. Cubans take a lot of pride in playing and watching baseball, so seeing one of their players win a World Series Title would be huge, and especially for their family. I have no doubt that I will remember this moment the most out of all of the events that we do in the two weeks that we are in Cuba. I wish I could have played baseball with them for the entire day. It was such a blessing to be there today and be able to relive my fun childhood. And we must always remember, Mel Ott hit 511 home runs.







Por La Luz y El Amor! – Cuba Trip Blog Entry for January 6th

After my trip to Cuba I will have spent time living, taking classes and doing service work in Argentina, Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Cuba, and will have spent much of my college education concentrating on the studies of peace and conflict in Latin American countries. I’m not from a Latin American country so I can’t possibly completely understand the sorts of ideals and philosophies that are present there. In my opinion, there are overarching themes of liberation present in every Latin American country. And to really understand how that philosophy functions in that country in everyday life it’s especially important to travel there and be able to understand the people and their history.

Student movements and solidarity based on nationality are iconic in most Latin American countries and stem from a philosophy of liberation. Cuba is a great example of these sorts of movements. We were able to experience the power of the Cuban student movements through our guest lecturer of the day, Jorge Lozano, who might be the most passionate person I’ve ever met. What was the most interesting thing to me about this lecture and all of our lectures is that the professors who are lecturing us were part of the history that they’re teaching. They completely encompass living history in a way that makes it feel so real for us as students. Talking to the professors or talking to Ana, hearing their stories, you realize that all of these terrible and wonderful and inspiring things that have happened in Cuba’s history don’t feel like history at all, not when you’re hearing about it like it happened yesterday. Lozano actually told us a story in which he spoke on behalf of the entire student movement and Fidel Castro responded directly to him. To me, it’s hard to wrap my mind around the things that so many Cubans have experienced, but to them they’re just doing their national duty as Cubans.

We were also able to experience an amazing organization called Quisicuabo, where almost a hundred people volunteer their time to cook food for those who can’t obtain food themselves. They are able to do this in the most graceful and beautiful way imaginable, going out of their way to ensure that all of their patrons continue to feel dignified and not like a charity case. They also emphasized that we could take pictures, but not to post pictures of their patrons anywhere, because it’s inappropriate and unnecessary to publicize human suffering to gain sympathy.

The entire experience from that day brought me back to the Latin American philosophy class I had taken the semester before. One of the philosophers we learned about theorized that the best kind of philosophy is the kind that comes from the periphery. Meaning that those who are on the outskirts, and not in the center, can see most clearly. This allows them to write philosophical thought which is of a higher quality than those in the center. While in Cuba, I thought about this concept a lot. If we’re looking at Cuba and the Cuban people as a whole, they really have been pushed to the peripheries for most of recent history due to it’s relationship with the U.S. If we imagine the United States as the center of the modern global world, and especially of the Western world (which most U.S. citizens likely do), then Cuba has been forcibly left out and moved to the outskirts of international relations for generations. I thought about what that does to a people and a government, and realized that Cuba has been experiencing life in the periphery since before the time of Jose Marti.

When we think of Cuba we often think of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara as the most prominent political and historical figures. And they are extremely important. But after visiting Cuba it was clear to me that the ideals of Jose Marti have a much greater influence on the modern daily lives of Cubans. His philosophy speaks the most clearly to them. Which is especially interesting considering he spent so much of his life in exile in Spain, New York and other foreign countries. I realized again that he was writing about Cuba, as someone who was seeing in from the outside but had a close connection within. Maybe this is why he was able to connect so deeply with the hearts of the Cuban people, he was writing from the peripheries.

After both of these experiences I realized that to be Cuban is to be a part of the struggle for independence, for freedom, and it doesn’t end, because there is always suffering and repression. Cubans are constantly being forced into the peripheries of life. And it’s so important to always feel that fiery passion that causes you to need to do something to stop it.

Cuba January 5th

I woke up on January 5th with my first thought “Happy birthday to myself.” I thought today would be another birthday away from family. I didn’t really tell anyone that I was turning 22 today so I had not expected what the day had to hold.

This day started with breakfast at Carlos’, our host family, like usual. Carlos and his wife, Neida, came up to me with a “felizidadez” and a hug. For a moment I lead myself to believe they were as my parents wishing me like every January 5th for the last 21 years.

After breakfast we had the opportunity to visit hotel Nacional, one of Cuba’s newly named national monuments. The hotel was busy with guests and tourists coming in and out. With high ceilings and original furniture, the hotel was quite an amazing view. You could still feel the ambiance of the 1930’s when the hotel was first opened.  The tour guide had showed us around the different floors pointing out famous celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Kate Moss who have stayed there before. We were able to see the location of where the mafia had conferences and stayed while in Cuba. We saw with our own eyes what we had read about only a month before in Havana Nocturne. hotel

When we walked outside to the garden, you could see the Malecon and ocean only a few yards away.

We were led down further to see the bunkers of the Cuban missile crisis. The bunkers were very narrow and stuffy. It is so hard to imagine that only a few decades ago Fidel Castro himself and others ran back and forth in these small tunnels. There was barely any light and I had to hold on to Ania in front of me to make sure I wouldn’t trip on this trail.


During this time, Eileen our API instructor asked me if I wanted to make a call home since it was my birthday. To me, this was the best present I could receive. I called my twin sister to congratulate her however she did not pick up so instead I called my mom and she became my messenger to my sister that day. Even thought we were out and about exploring Cuba, I was very homesick.

After dinner a group of us went upstairs to smoke the cigars we had gotten a few days back. I have never really smoked before Cuba nor do I find myself wanting to back home but there is something about being up on the terrace with a cigar and lighter in hand that really makes you feel like you belong in Havana. I sat there looking out at the sky. Although the sun had already set you can see outlines of houses in the distance as well as hotels. I don’t usually take time for myself to just sit and enjoy the present but Cuban culture started to grow on me because I was doing just this. The whole ambiance in Cuba was living in the moment. It is not like we could use our phones or had internet. We were completely disconnected.

Out of nowhere, my moment of relaxation was interrupted by the entrance of the rest of the group as well as our professor Julian and Carlos who was carrying a cake. I was definitely not expecting this gesture but it was really sweet of them. The cake itself was huge and more than enough for all of us. I officially felt like I had turned 22 as it was welcomed with a cake and the birthday song in both English and Spanish.

We then went down to 1830 a salsa club by the Malecon as part of our iteniary. At first we all sat and watched as the experts stole the dance floor. Eventually we were able to muster up the guts to dance with some Cuban natives.

“Right, Left, right” that’s what they keep saying but I couldn’t keep up. Our official salsa class would not be until the following day. Eventually I let go of the insecurities I had about my bad dancing and was able to enjoy the night dancing poor salsa.

I ended my birthday night celebrating with my temporary family in Cuba.


Cuba: Day One

We started the fateful journey from Miami, Florida to Havana, Cuba at 5:45 in the morning. Fourteen groggy students arose from their luxurious Miami hotel rooms and continued towards what they had imagined as anywhere from a paradise to a third world country. We landed in Cuba at around 11:00am EST. Surprisingly, the customs and baggage process was fairly easy.

Once we left the airport, everyone stood in line outside to exchange funds which was a long wait, but a fairly straightforward process. The humidity hit us like a ton of bricks, it was as if one moment, you were content and right when you walked outside, you were covered in sweat, as if you had just finished a long, intense workout. You could feel the thick air run through your when moving your arms back and forth. We boarded a bus and got our first true look at what Cuba was like.

The land was beautiful; a constant mix of farmland and urban population. Along the way, one thing that stood out was the tremendous amount of nationalism. In fact, one of the most interesting signs I saw read along about fifty feet of highway: “SOCIALISMO O MUERTE” or “Socialism or death.” We then arrived at the houses that we would be staying at for the two weeks. Our hosts were Carlos and Claudia, as well as a second house hosted by a man named Hector. My group stayed with Hector who was a very nice man, but spoke no English, so finding ways to communicate presented a challenge for us to overcome. We then had lunch at Carlos’ house which was excellent.

Our group took a tour of the Vedado, our neighborhood in Havana where we stayed. Two of the most interesting parts of our tour had to be both the North Korean embassy as well as a statue honoring John Lennon of the Beatles. The Lennon statue sported his classic glasses which are guarded by a local man who makes sure the glasses are not stolen from his head.

At dinner, we went out to a restaurant had mixed apps, virgin mojitos, and a pork meal with rice and some sort of potato, which although I was unsure as to what some of the food was, it was still excellent. To wrap things up, the entire group went up and sat on roof top of Carlos’ house and exchanged stories until we called it a night. My goal for the next two weeks is to try hard to speak Spanish when possible, no matter how rough my skills are. I went to bed exhausted but at the same time I could not believe I was in Cuba- a country that less than one percent of living citizens of the United States have visited. This alone was enough to keep me up, but what truly wired me was the fact that we still had so much to experience. It all had just begun.

Cuba: January 4th


Cuba: January 4th

José Marti Lecture, José Marti Memorial, Old Havana

Lindsay MacDonald

     As we began our first full day in Cuba, we arrived at the CEM for a lecture on the life and works of José Marti. Prior to our arrival, we briefly discussed Marti as a figure in Cuban history, culture, and identity. After the lecture and our first tour of Old Havana, it became clear that one could not possibly explain the role that Marti plays in Cuban culture. The lecturer spoke with pride and admiration toward the historical figure and spoke about him as a thinker, writer, and political leader.   As a thinker, it seems as though he serves as a philosopher to the Cuban people, establishing a moral and ethical code. As a writer, he wrote as both a “reporter” and wrote literature. As a political leader, Marti had ideas of a Cuba that were independent and autonomous and fought for these ideas. He explained to us foreigners the difficulty in finding one person who can play all three roles that made Marti so important. Through the lecture, the role that Marti played and tbe importance of Marti to the Cuban people became more and more clear. One thing that struck me is that the lecturer noted that when people have upstanding ethical standards there is a word that, roughly translated, means that they are a follower of Marti. This is evidence that Marti continues to live through the Cuban people today.

After the lecture we arrived at the José Marti memorial. This memorial is dedicated to honoring the life and work of José Marti. The building serves no other purpose then to honor their great hero. It is important to note the placement of the memorial. In revolution square, the memorial remains one of the only buildings to not serve as a government building. Instead it is to remind the people of Marti, his work, and his beliefs. Every statue and painting make Marti out to be a strong figure. When looking at the artwork of Marti and his various statues around Havana, including those at the CEM and the memorial, the way people portray figures through art is often telling of their interpretation of the figure themselves. Marti, through art, is continuously portrayed as a strong heroic figure. It seems as though Marti is their hero of independence, while serving as a philosopher who established an ethical code that, ideally, all Cubans would attempt to adhere to.

When we toured old Havana we, once again, saw the influence that Marti had and continues to have in the identity of the Cuban people. As we walked through one of the plazas we saw a sea of booksellers encompassing the area. Every bookshelf was filled with books about major figures in Cuban history. Many of which were books about José Marti. The sellers also had many posters, many of which featured Marti. On signs, on posters, or on graffiti one can find images of Marti everywhere. As I saw these images I tried to make a comparison to a figure in the history of the United States. It was easier to instead combine figures in our history to represent what Marti represents to Cuba. José Marti is, in my opinion, our founding fathers, our Emerson, our Lincoln, and our Martin Luther King Jr all in one figure. It is hard in American history to find a figure that serves as a thinker/ philosopher, a writer, and a political leader.

Marti clearly is a recognized important figure to all Cubans but it appears as though he has been immortalized by the Cuban people, or at least by the academics. What is clear is that José Marti remains alive in much of Havana; on many street corners and walls and many more museums and memorials. One thing to note is that we have not heard the opinion of the general public on José Marti. What we have heard has been simply from academics at the CEM. It is always important to know and recognize what kind of possible bias that comes with the information we are receiving. This leaves me with the question: does the average Cuban feel as passionately toward Marti as the academics we have come in contact with? Another question that remains is whether Marti would have been such an important and significant figure in Cuban history and identity if he had survived his first battle. Perhaps our future time in Cuba will help answer that question.