January 3-15: Havana, Cuba

A lot was going through my mind as I watched the large Caribbean island of Cuba disappear from the view of my plane. This had been my first time leaving the United States, and I still haven’t fully processed the experience. As Cuba disappeared from view I thought back to when I first laid my eyes on the island. For someone who almost never flies, landing on an island and seeing a different world from a bird’s eye view had been an incredible experience. Despite the sheer terror I felt hoping the plane wouldn’t crash (it was a very smooth ride), I had felt something unlike I ever had before. This feeling remained present but had a tendency to evolve as the trip progressed, but can only be expressed through details of my experience rather than by a simple word.

I stepped off the plane in Cuba and instantly everything was different. The airport lacked much of what I had been accustomed to seeing in the United States and my knowledge of Spanish beyond the word “gracias” was non-existent. I found myself in a daze, partially due to only receiving a couple hours of sleep but mainly due to my unfamiliar surroundings, as I exited the airport and was surrounded by a new world. Everyone in our group was fairly quiet that day, perhaps because of a mix of awe and as well as the fact that we had only recently met. The bus ride into Havana, however, was the first real tease of what was to come. As we rode deeper into the city and were bombarded by sights massive posters of Fidel regarding the revolution, old cars only seen in period piece films, and weathering buildings each with their own personality. For the first time I became fully aware that not all nations are even close to being similar to our own.

Keep in mind, this was my first time leaving the country, and yes I’ve been told that Cuba is quite the place to do it. Being in this richly cultured and vastly different society felt very much like I was walking through a dream. Of course, this could be due to the fact that I was averaging four hours of sleep a night, but I assure you that there is a palpable feeling while present in this country that I truly cannot put my finger on. I can, however, recall moments where this feeling was particularly strong. I felt it as I stood like a cockroach amidst massive structures tributes to polarizing people in the revolution square, as I sped down the Malecon in an ancient pink convertible at night watching furious waves crash upon battered streets, and as I sat on the rooftop of our residencia, overlooking the city and smoking a thick Cuban cigar. On this island is a forgotten nation that is alive and seeking a chance to thrive.

The more time we spent in Cuba the more I tried to identify this feeling I had. I found that much of it could be embodied in both Castro’s revolution and the man, the myth, the legend: Jose Marti. So much of Cuba’s identity is these two things, so it should come with no surprise that they contributed to this feeling I keep referring to. But why? I knew nothing about the great Jose Marti before entering Cuba, but I can assure you, spend one day in Cuba and you will hear tales of his brilliance, writing, and ideal character. In fact, he was Fidel’s inspiration for the revolution, an event that many Cubans still regard as their greatest victory and their first real step towards becoming a competitive global nation.

Regardless of how brief this overlook of my experience in Cuba is, I still admit it to be incredibly vague. I assure you this is by no means evidence of a lack of substance during my trip, for it was quite possibly the most incredible experience of my life. The reason I have been so vague is simply because there is no way to put into words in such a short amount of time what I experienced. In fact, I am still taking it all in today. However, one thing I can say is that leaving that island on a plane I felt that I had just discovered a hidden gem that not only deserves, but is desperate for its chance to shine. To anyone who may be reading this, I encourage you to check out this nation yourself, and if you can identify a word for the feeling I described please let me know.

Cuba: January 12th

It was 12:57. I squeezed past the gate guard and stepped down into the ferry. I felt as though I had just woken up. The two museums on the Santería religion we had visited that morning felt like a blur. Would the rest of the day pass this quickly?

Bang! The entire ferry lurched as we hit the pier too hard. It felt like an electric shock, bringing life back into our day. We were in Old Havana – a quaint, colorful, and unsurprisingly older version of Havana. This part of the city is about a 15-minute drive from where we were staying in Vedado. Despite them being relatively close, geographically, the atmosphere of the two places could not have been more different. Vedado is the rich suburb of Havana. Houses do not sit directly on the street, and there is vegetation everywhere. In contrast, the narrow streets of Old Havana are hustling and bustling with tourist activity.

After a few minutes of wandering through the narrow streets we stopped at a restaurant for lunch. As a northerner, nothing drives me crazier than waiting around doing nothing. Therefore, Cuban restaurants are the bane of my existence. The food is generally good, but the service is so slow! It can easily be twenty-five minutes after you finish your meal before you see the bill. C’mon people, I could be exploring the city instead of waiting here!

Following lunch, we made our way back to the residence where we were staying. Just before I could go in, Nathaniel pulled me aside and asked if I wanted to join him and Mike in getting a Cuban haircut. Of course I did! What a perfect way to experience more of the Cuban culture! What is a Cuban haircut, you ask? A two on the sides, longer on top, and of course, the line. (A few days later, a waiter at San Cristóbal recognized the cut, and asked us if we had gotten it done at a Cuban barber).

We walked over two streets and took a seat in line. The barber was really friendly, and we talked about Cuba and the US. The theme was similar to many other conversations I’d had: “We love American people, it’s a shame our governments don’t get along.” Of all the things I learned whilst in Cuba, this thought will affect me more than any other. The Cuban people, not the government, are the ones suffering under the United States blockade. After we each cut our hair, Mike and I decided to get shaves as well. I had never had a straight edge shave before, so I was nervous. However, all my fears vanished when I realized the skill that the barber possessed. The best part about the haircut was the price! Nine dollars for the three haircuts! NINE! That’s cheaper than a single haircut back home!

After the haircuts, we hung low until after dinner. Then we went to one of the best dancing clubs in Havana, The 1830. The dance floor is outside, and sits directly on the water. There must have been over 200 people there, all dancing flawlessly to the beat. We hung back at first, but then decided to join the dancing. We quickly picked up the steps and within minutes were dancing like the pros. Okay, that’s a complete lie. We had taken lessons before, but they were of little help. I kept losing the beat, and stepping on those around me. I must’ve stepped on at least 10 people before the night was out. However, despite these mishaps, we all had a great time. Before we knew it the music had stopped and the lights were turned on. Where had the time gone? As we walked back I was so glad that the day had taken a turn for the better. Looking back on the trip, Thursday the 12th was one of the most memorable days.

Cuba: January 11, Day 9

Gran Teatro de la Habana

To begin our 9th day of adventures in Cuba, we gathered at Carlos’ residencia for breakfast. The breakfast included toast with guava jam (my favorite fruit), banana, watermelon, and pineapple juice. After the meal, we departed for Havana Vieja to visit the Gran Teatro de la Habana.

The theater, designed for an audience of 1047, was constructed in 1837 and integrates several architectural styles including French, Belgian, and Czechoslovakian. Upon entering the building, I was overwhelmed by the grand staircase that leads up to the four balcony levels. The theater hosts world renowned musicians, plays, ballet performances, and even Barack Obama when he visited Cuba in 2013. I was amazed to learn that the theatre does not rely on any microphones for performance because of its acoustic design. With much excitement, our next destination was the Havana Club Rum Museum.

Havana Club was established in 1817, and has been the largest rum manufacturer in Cuba since Bacardi was forced to relocate to Puerto Rico. As it is very relevant to my studies in chemical engineering at UMass Lowell, I found this experience to be my favorite thus far. Making rum is both an art and a science. Traditionally, the science of the rum making process, as with all other alcoholic beverages, was a poorly understood phenomena. It was not until the advancement of our understanding of the microbial world, that consistent and quality rum manufacturing required collaboration between science and art. The unique flavor profile of Havana Club rum is a direct result of a well established recipe. Primarily, this recipe includes a proprietary yeast strain, sugar cane, and pure water. The process is broken up into the following major steps: milling, brewing, distillation, and aging.

Havana Club Rum Factory

The sugar cane is harvested from the plantations between November and May and transported via railroad to the mills where it is processed to molasses and sugar crystals. Next, the molasses is mixed with yeast and water in 22,000 liter stainless steel fermentation tanks. During fermentation, yeast metabolizes the sugars and converts them to ethanol and various aromatic products that contribute to the flavor profile of the rum. The product of fermentation, known as low wine, contains approximately 6% ABV, and is harvested after 24 hours. The low wine is then distilled in pot stills to both increase the alcohol content to a 75% fraction and a 95% and remove residues that negatively impact the taste of the product. Following distillation the distillate is passed through carbon filtration to remove fine impurities and subsequently aged in oak barrels. Last but not least, the group was taken to the tasting room for the one and only interactive exhibit. After raising my glass of Havana Club Añejo 7 Años for a cheers, I was struck by the taste of Cuban terroir. Initially, my nose was met with with a scent of roasted nuts and bitterness, and my palette with a sweet and toasty taste with notes of vanilla. This nationalized cuban beverage revolutionized my perception of rum. After the tasting, seven of us in the group went to Havana’s newest microbrewery for lunch, Cerveceria Antiguo Almacen. It was here that I had my first taste of Cuban private industry in the form of a Cuban sandwich.

Upon returning to the residencia for dinner after a busy day venturing the bustling streets of Havana Vieja, I learned of an opportunity for another round of salsa lessons. My tired legs were no match against my desire to absorb every drop of Cuban culture. To my surprise, the students from New York University also attending the lesson were at what I would call the “advanced level” and the instructor spoke not a word of English. Regardless, I was ready for the challenge. In this hour-long lesson I learned more about dance than I could have ever imagined.

Interactivo at Cafe Corner

To conclude the evening, I went out with some new friends from NYU to the Corner Cafe to see a local band called Interactivo. The performance and musicianship were out of this world! Interactivo, directed by keyboardist Roberto Carcasses, is described as a cuban fusion band, however it was like nothing I had ever heard. Their avant-garde style is a coalescence of jazz, timba, hip-hop, funk, and everything in-between. My experiences today validated my initial impression that Cuba is an enigma wrapped in a mystery stuffed into a Cuban sandwich.


Cuba: January 11th

Among many areas, Cuba is especially notable for its unique and distinct culture that is not replicated anywhere else in the world. From the food and drink to the arts and dance, Cuba has illustrated itself as a one of a kind nation that is extremely passionate about its own identity, with the city of Havana being a hub for this passion. Today, we witnessed first-hand Cuba’s distinctive culture by visiting the Gran Theatro de la Habana, or the Great Theater of Havana, the Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market in Old Havana, and the Havana Club Rum Museum.Gran Theatro de la Habana

The Gran Theatro was an old and opulent theater with grand staircases, marble floors, and elegant chandeliers, and could seat approximately 1100 people for its shows. The most popular performances are flamenco ballet, opera, and especially classical ballet, for which they were in the process of setting up the stage for an upcoming seasonal performance of The Nutcracker. There was also an exhibit celebrating the Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso, who is revered throughout the country, and the rest of the world, for her dancing talents and determination to keep dancing even after she lost her sight.

Gran Theatro de la Habana

The top floor of the theater was comprised of various art galleries, with one in particular being devoted to an artist named Moisés Finalé. Many of the works of art displayed in this gallery were painted within the past year and utilized unique methods to illustrate certain underlying meanings. For example, one painting contained layers of canvas sewn onto one another in a stack in the shape of a person as a visual depiction of how societies have developed and changed over time. Many other paintings in the exhibit were created with a combination wood, woven fabric, and canvas that blended together to create the inimitable Cuban art that can be seen throughout the city of Havana.

Gran Theatro de la Habana

This great interest in the arts was also observed when we visited the Artisans’ Market later that day. There, we saw numerous Cubans selling various paintings and hand-made items enclosed in an enormous warehouse along the Port of Havana. Each person that we spoke to showed great passion in their work, especially the Cuban painters. Some of these artists were even in the middle of painting their next work of art to sell when we approached their stalls. Although there were multiple stalls with paintings of the same iconic scene of a colorful car from the 1950’s on the streets of Old Havana, each painting contained each painter’s own artistic touch. Supplementing those iconic images were paintings of scenery in Havana and other areas of Cuba, figures of women dancing ballet, and portraits of famous political figures in Cuba’s history, such as Che Guevara and José Martí. Each work varied from artist to artist, with each using different painting methods and canvas materials, including some that were painted on pages of the Cuban newspaper The Granma. Other stalls were filled with hand-made wooden cars, planes, and statues, leather wallets and purses, and jewelry made from all kinds of metals. Each stall owner was very vocal when you walked by, trying to entice you to look as and purchase their wares. The market was a unique experience to see the type of artwork that is created everyday by regular Cuban citizens.

Almacenes San José Artisans' Market

Moreover, the Havana Club Rum Museum displayed Cuba’s passion for drink and the art of creating their prestigious rum. In the museum, we were taken through a guided tour of the entire process of creating the Havana Club rum, from harvesting and transporting the sugar cane all the way to the essential distillation and aging steps. The aging process is the most significant stage because it is the determining factor of the rum’s distinct aroma, taste, and more. This process can last anywhere from three years up until 50-60 years, and requires a specific oak barrel in which the aging takes place. One type of rum made by Havana Club even changes in taste and aroma every year. The devotion to the craft of producing rum stood out as we learned the level of attention to detail each process requires and the amount of pride these Cuban citizens have for the exceptional quality of rum they are crafting.

Havana Club Rum Museum

Havana is a city with a population that unanimously displays their passionate attitude in all facets of their daily lives and culture. From their unique ways of creating artwork to their patience and devotion to producing some of the highest quality rums in the world, this Cuban passion can be seen and felt wherever you turn in the city. However, this passion is not only limited to Havana and is expressed throughout the rest of the nation. Reflecting on this day, I believe that I will start to put the same amount of passion into my own hobbies and interests, hopefully exhibiting the same intense pride that the Cuban people have and continue to display.

Cuba: January 10th

The day began like all others at the residence; a breakfast made by Carlos served with freshly made mango juice. The bus picked us up and dropped us off at Centro de Estudios Martianos (CEM) for our last lecture while in Cuba. We took our seats in the small classroom and waited for our lecturer Rubin Morro.

He came in with a guitar case slung over his shoulder and a big pull string bag in his arms. By then we had already arranged ourselves in a circle and within minutes most of us had instruments in our hands. He taught us the different styles of dance and rhythm in the country like conga, rumba and the cha-cha. At the beginning, most of us were shy with the instruments we had never played before, but by the end we were comfortable with the support and enthusiasm of the lecturer.

Somehow the teacher had learned that there were some in our group who played back home. Even though we had already stayed past our scheduled time, everyone was more than happy to stay a bit longer for a jam session. Since we had spent the last couple hours playing and dancing to Cuban music, the lecturer wanted us to play and sing some American songs. We tried our best to come up with some we all knew, but all that could come to mind when we were put on the spot were songs sung by British bands. Of course, later that night we were all able to come up with more than a few. Mr. Morro was kind enough to play a song himself before we left for the day. I asked him to play a Silvio Rodriguez who is a Cuban artist known for his talent with a guitar. It was the perfect way to wrap up what I thought to be one of the best lectures we had at the CEM.


Later in the day we paid a visit to a local clinic. The building had a simple, clean look to it. Outside there was a bust of Jose Marti and a group of workers laying the foundation for a mini cement wall. A group of professors who were touring Cuba joined us for the tour of the clinic. We were ushered upstairs to a conference room for a short presentation.

The doctors giving us a small presentation about the healthcare system before the tour

The doctors giving us a small presentation about the healthcare system before the tour

Two doctors from the clinic explained that this was also a learning hospital. One of them had just come from administering a test to some students. The doctors explained the structure of the health system which sounded a lot like the overall structure in the U.S. I found it interesting that the doctor and nurse that were designated for any clinic or hospital were required to live in the area they serve in. If that were the case in the states, many people in the medical field would need to rent a U-Haul truck. Throughout the Q&A session of the presentation, questions were asked that pushed the doctors to find improvements that could be made to the system, but every time they only said things that were positive. Even though everything can be improved in some way, I appreciated the passion and love they had for what they did. That really came across when they explained that Cuba may not have all the new equipment in their clinics, but they had the love and compassion for people that made their system as successful as it was today.

The tour itself brought us through the lower level of the clinic. The doctors showed us the area for dentistry and physical therapy.

One of three chairs in the dentist area of the clinic.

One of three chairs in the dentist area of the clinic.

Just like the outside of the building, the inside was simple and very minimalist. While some may see that as a red flag for the clinic not having the resources they need to treat the people, I looked at it as money being used for the right things even though the latter may be the case. Seeing this clinic made me appreciate what we have back home, but also left me wondering why hospitals in the states put so much money towards aesthetics.

A poster listing the prices of procedures that the government pays for if a citizen needs it.

A poster listing the prices of procedures that the government pays for if a citizen needs it.