When a Group Becomes a Family

Traveling to Cuba was my very first experience studying abroad in a different country, and what a way to begin. When I had applied to take advantage of this opportunity I didn’t know any other student who was also going at the time. We had all met briefly before leaving to discuss literature required for the class, and that felt like any other classroom experience I have had before. But over the duration of this time spent studying abroad, I feel that something magnificent happened. From not being able to remember everyone’s names in an ordinary classroom, to making 10 wonderful new friends in a country that felt like it was cut off from the rest of the world.

Everyone is so connected to the internet sometimes that they don’t take the opportunity to converse with new people around them. I think the fact that there was no internet readily available in Cuba, paired with the phenomena of being in a different country, helped open everyone to being interactive with one another. I think that everyone was able to make new friends that they really enjoyed the company of, that they may not have thought they would by looking at their Facebook profile. I felt like I was almost witnessing a social experiment that couldn’t be conducted in most other places of the world because of the constant internet access available. I have never thought that technology played such a huge role in my day to day activities.

It was an odd phenomena when I wanted to do something as simple as check the weather for the day by opening the weather app, but I wasn’t able to do that. Admittedly, I found myself subconsciously going to open different applications on my phone when I really didn’t need to. I was doing that more because I felt like I didn’t have something to do in that moment so that is how I could pass time. Once I realized this, I was shocked and spent the rest of my time being more social with the rest of the group, a decision which I did not regret one bit. By the end of our journey, we have become one of the most cohesive, and non-internet relient groups to have visited Cuba.

With this mentality, each member grew closer together by the day. From when we first arrived to the Residencia in Vedado, to when we said our final farewells to our gracious hosts on our last day, it was a complete transformation. Personally, I was both very excited yet nervous, to discover how cohesive of a group we would be. But by the end I feel like I had made friends that will last a long time. Part of what makes these friendships so special is the fact that it was forged by such a unique experience.

We visited many places as a group such as museums, and spent many hours together during lectures learning about the Cuban culture. But it was not during these moments that united us, but when we had independent research time where we relied on each other to navigate through Havana. Spending time together and being able to socialize strengthened the bonds between us all. We were able to not only see each other in the classroom, but also outside of the classroom where we were able to be ourselves. It was what we learned about the Cuban culture on the streets, and in different restaurants, that resided with us most naturally.

Throughout each day the group became more trusting of one another. One night we were all keen to walk along the Malecón all the way to Old Havana from where we were staying in Vedado. This walk took us roughly about 45 minutes, but every bit of it was enjoyable. It is truly a remarkable sight during the day, but it is a whole nother experience at night. It was very mysterious and ominous, only being able to look out about 30-40 yards if you were lucky. There was a calm, tranquil element to the way the waves were stirring about and crashed against the wall and rocks below. I felt like it was a hidden beauty that not many people are aware of unless you know about it and are there at the right time.

This was truly a unique experience and I could not be happier that I had signed up to be a part of it. It was not only Cuba, but the people as well who made the trip so wonderful. I am glad to say that I will be able to carry these memories with me for the rest of my life. But equally important if not more, are the friendships and the bonds that had been created as a part of this journey that will continue to thrive back in Lowell. I can confidently say that my time in Cuba would have been entirely different if it were not for those that I had the pleasure of sharing these experiences with.

Cuban cuisine

Time has passed very fast. Now, I have already traveled in Cuba for several days. Today, we finished our delicious breakfast at our residence house very early. After breakfast, a bus took us to the Centro de Estudios Martianos for Evelina Cardet’s lecture which talked about cooking. Cuba is an island country. It has its special food culture. Evelina Cardet is a faculty from the university of tourism in Holguin. She has her own cooking opinion. “Eating well doesn’t mean eating a lot. Eating well is the most important things in health maintain.” She put lots of music and songs in her cooking books to make the recipes very attractive. Cuban food is inspired by three major places: Spain, America, and Africa. Most of their original flavors are pineapple, pawpaw, guava, pumpkin, squash, yum and nuts. Most of their meat is shellfish and fish. When the Spanish moved in, they brought grain, rice, spices, onion and garlic and wine. She also mentioned that they combined Chinese food with Cuban food. They use steamed cooking, frying and Chinese sauces. They also learned that Chinese people use some vegetable to make flowers. They call that Chinese butterfly. They found that the Chinese food usually always included rice in their meals. From the French, Cubans included coffee and baking. While from the Americans they got fast food, which the Cubans include with birthday cake for their fast food.

After the Cuban cooking class, I tried to continue researching the history of Cuban cuisine. Cuban cuisine is strongly influenced by southern Spain and particularly Andalucía. In addition, it also contained strong influences from Africa, a little influence from Haiti and French, a little influence from Italian and even some influence from Chinese. This various mix of cultures resulted in delicious flavors with distinctive seasoning and spice. Cuban rum is especially popular and known around the world. They also create the unique flavor combinations within Rum cocktails and drinks.

Before I came here, I cannot believe that Cubans eat fruit, beans, and rice with almost every meal. I also feel so grateful that we have meat every day. After I came here, I compared the food’s difference between Cuba and China. Although Chinese and Cubans use similar vegetables and fruits for daily life, they still have some different. In China, we eat a lot of white rice without beans. In addition, we cook vegetable with meats and sea food, because meats and sea food are very common in China. Furthermore, in Cuba, people like boiling as a form of cooking. They offer a lot of soup, for example, red bean soup, bean corn with meat. I recall one Cuban professor telling me me Cuba’s rice is completely different from the Chinese, and he really misses Chinese rice. In Cuba, if you want some Chinese rice, you should buy it from California. So, a lot of Chinese restaurants in Cuba do not have really Chinese food because they are lack of materials. As a business student, I can understand those restaurant owners. In order to attract more customers, they must reduce the cost. Profit is the most important thing to a business person.

After learning about Cuban cooking culture, we visited a local Paladar Las Bulerias and learned about the rise of privately-owned business in Cuba. We also practiced Cuban cooking in the private restaurant. I learned how to make a sauce for meat. We used garlic, onion, vinegar and oil to make the meat sauce. It is so much more delicious than just eating fried meat. I will try the recipe again when I go back home. We also tried to fry plantain. It needs four steps. First, you need to cut the plantain. Second, you need to use low temperature oil to fry it. Third, you need to press the plantain like a cake which you already be fried on first step. Fourth, you need using high temperature oil to refry it again. I am so happy that I learned a lot cooking tips from today’s tour. I will use them after I go back.




A Breath of Fresh Air


            My back cracked and mouth widened into a yawn as I forced myself to get out of bed. The cold water drops from the shower acted as a rude and abrupt awakening to my aching body. After being here in Cuba for over a week, I was starting to tire out—we all were. With the days being so packed full of activities, a week felt like a month here. After running around to so many different places yesterday (including Hemingway’s house, Cojimar, the rum museum, and the San Jose Craft Market), today was a much-needed day to relax and slow down. We had seen the hustle and bustle of the streets in Old Havana, sat next to screaming baseball fans, and danced our hearts out learning salsa, but what we had yet to really experience was the so called “island time” that the country ran on. Sure, we had experienced a lot of waiting—waiting for food, waiting for tours, waiting for the bus—but today was our day to get a sense of the slower side of Cuba and experience some of the techniques Cubans use to relax and unwind.

Pictures of the Past

            After a delicious breakfast of eggs, crepes, coffee, and fruit made by Natalia, we boarded the bus for our first destination: The Museum of Fine Arts. Welcomed by a tour guide and given a brief history of the museum, we were then let free to wander around on our own for an hour. Elaborate paintings covered the walls and various styles of sculptures adorned the floors as we explored the halls. I was drawn especially to a painting by René Portocarreo in 1961, titled Paisaje de la Habana. The canvas, covered in layer upon layer of thick, clumpy paint, depicted colorful, abstract buildings like the ones found in Havana. We joked about how the paint still wasn’t dry after all these years. I imagine for the artists, these paintings and sculptures were relaxing to create as they meticulously dragged their brushes along the paper or chiseled a slab of rock into a realistic figure. There almost always seems to be an aspect of chaos in Havana, Cuba, but for these artists, their work was a technique to withdraw within themselves for a bit and breathe. Walking through the museum can be just as relaxing as painting the pictures themselves for some people. The museums offer a quiet space to reflect upon others’ works and ponder about the meaning and inspiration behind a piece.

Illustrations of Donald Trump drawn by Cuban school children in The Museum of Fine Arts

Dancing the Day Away

            The Fine Arts Museum also unexpectedly featured a children’s dance recital. The children, mostly girls in brightly colored crop tops and skirts, were all roughly under the age of ten, but their dance moves were better than much of the people I know. Seeing their faces light up as the music began and parents pressed the record button on their phones, the recital contrasted the silent aspect of the art museum. Relaxation techniques don’t have to be quiet, however, as dancing is a great example of a way to de-stress while having fun and releasing endorphins at the same time.

Children’s dance recital

Go With The Flow

            Next on the agenda was the Santa Maria beach. Everyone had been anticipating this beach trip for a while, so when the day came, and the weather was cold and windy, we were all a bit disappointed. Clothed in bathing suits under layers of warm clothes, we took the bus for around half an hour along a cracked and bumpy highway. I could see how the beach would be a popular attraction on a typical sunny, hot Cuban day. Sand stretched along the coast, lined with palm trees and chairs. My feet sank into the fine sand as I made my way over to the water, dodging the scattered jellyfish that washed up on the seaside. Waves crashed onto the shore, bringing the water to my toes. Ironically, the water was warmer than my shower that morning. We ate our lunch on the beach, making sure to feed the two dogs that followed us onto the sand. The weather cut our trip short though, and we ended up traveling down the beach to a small drink stand serving drinks in pineapples. Although our beach day was less than ideal, we still got to breathe in the salty air and chill on the shore for a bit. Lined with beaches and coastlines, the Cubans can definitely take advantage of the geography to unwind after a stressful day.

One of the two dogs we fed on the Santa Maria Beach

Washed up jellyfish

Refreshed and Recharged

            The rest of our afternoon and night was fairly uneventful, consisting of long naps, dinner at the residencia, card games, and singing, but relaxing nonetheless. By chance, our dinner consisted of spaghetti and croquets, sticking with the “relaxation theme” and offering us a taste of home with comfort food that we absolutely devoured. All and all, although the weather worked against our plans, our day served as a way to refresh and recharge to fully take advantage of our last few days here in Cuba. With the additional rest, we were able to explore Old Havana on our own in the coming days, feeling confident in our shared sense of direction and eagerness to explore.

Preservation: What will withstand the test of time?

Ah, finally, it was Saturday. We were originally supposed to go to the Grand Theater today. As can be anticipated in Cuba, things didn’t go according to plan. The weather forced us to hold the baseball game with the Little Leaguers until this Saturday. I was really pumped; I love baseball and I love playing baseball with little kids even more. I had brought a baseball bat, some baseballs, and baseball cards to give out to them. Unfortunately, to my dismay, the field was a mess from the rain and the coach decided to call of practice, meaning we couldn’t play with the kids. I was really looking forward to playing with them but even though things didn’t turn out as planned, we still had a busy enjoyable day. During the day, we viewed and learned about many aspects of Cuban culture that are preserved including Hemingway’s work and his home, baseball, rum, and the passionate, inviting personality of the Cuban people.

Even though the weekly baseball game was cancelled, we still visited Hemingway’s home right near the field. Talk about preserved, everything was left the way Hemingway left it, from the numerous amounts of drinks on the tables to all the books he had and even the bathroom which remained untouched. Cubans adored Hemingway and his work, and in their eyes, there would be no better way to honor him than to keep his house and possessions completely intact just the way he left them. It’s truly a sign of respect that the Cubans had for Hemingway. To me, it was great to see this. I had read many of Hemingway’s works and wrote many essays on him. I knew he was a great writer of high caliber but to see how well-respected he is in other countries proves to me how great a man and a writer he was.

A quick view of Hemingway’s bedroom.








Hemingway’s desk, where he wrote many of his famed writings.



After touring the house and the outskirts (along with his large pool and massive boat), we got a pleasant surprise from the Little League coach and his star player who was of Chinese and Cuban descent. Going through the training regiment of the Little Leaguers, the coach explained that he holds practice with his team every day, getting them ready for any challenging teams they must face, with the hope of a career in baseball in the future. Quite successful in his endeavors, as many of the players he coached and trained went on to play for Cuban national teams like the Industriales, the baseball team originating in Havana. He told us that his deep love and passion for baseball is what motivates him to keep coaching, even as he gets older. Soon after, the pair graciously accepted an array of donations from us including baseball cards, hats, balls, banners, and the bat. All donations go to the Little League team, which is a great feeling. Even though we couldn’t play with the team, we donated to the cause, which is an equally satisfying feeling. By coaching new up-and-coming players in the sport of baseball, Cuba preserves its long-lasting sport. Bringing kids through the system until they transition to the national level helps keep the sport alive and entertaining. Even as the country continues to grow and advance, baseball will remain as a dying passion of the Cubans. As an avid sports fan, I love to see this passion for a sport. Being from Boston, pride runs deep for Boston sports because of their successful, accomplished history. The same can be said for Cuban pride of baseball, it runs deep and that is something that can never be taken away and will always hold strong as long as baseball remains.

Hemingway’s 38-foot fishing boat, the Pilar.


The Industriales, Havana’s home baseball team lining up to take on Las Tunas in a playoff game.



As the day progressed, we continued to move, now heading to the rum museum. One of the most anticipated parts of our trip and now I know why. It was a blast; even before the tour started, we got to see sugar cane getting grinded to get the juice out of it and be used in drinks. We even got to be on the job and crank the cane ourselves. Our tour began shortly after: we had a nice, smart tour guide who showed us through the museum, and elaborated about the fermentation, refinement, and preservation process. Rum, of course, must be preserved, but in Cuba, it is preserved in a cultural sense as well. Rum was around in Cuba before the days of the U.S prohibition and has remained up through today with Havana Club, “el Ron de Cuba”, one of the best, if not the best brand of rum in Cuba. To the Cubans, rum is a cherished drink that has stuck through most of their history and is still around today. It is still served today in common drinks like rum and coke in restaurants and bars everywhere. For me, I see rum as another cornerstone of maintaining Cuban culture. Obviously, there are other types of drinks without rum, but the rum is so well-known that even the glasses at restaurants are marked with the Havana Club logo. That just shows how much of a prevailing force rum has in Cuban culture.

A prototype of what the rum museum used to look like.


The bar of the rum museum, where a variety of rums are served.



To end the day, we went to a Cuban market, the Almacenas de San Jose Arts Market. Filled with booths full of tacky souvenirs, fascinating ones like ceramic mugs and glasses, and even some art, this market had everything imaginable for markets. The market really embodied Cuban culture because of the products and the atmosphere. Back home, I’ve seen vendors try and drag people into their store but never like this. At every row, every step you take, they’re shouting offers to you, pulling you in, telling you to look. As their motto goes at the market, “Looking is free”. Not only do they do it but they are persistent too. If you wanted to Cuban personalities, look no further than the market. It’s a true embodiment of the relentless, passionate personality and character of the Cuban people. As long as the market remains, that personality will forever live on. This is truly important as a place is commonly described by its people and the people have so much passion and energy, they exude it and you can feel it talking to them. It helps make Cuba such a unique and special place. There is no other place like Cuba in the world. As time moves forward, Cuba will as well. Some things will stay, and some will go but the Cuban culture will never disappear, it will be forever preserved.

The Endurance of a National Musical Tradition: A Brief Examination of Cuban Music

While I legitimately enjoyed all of our guest lectures at the Centro de Estudios Martianos during this trip, my favorite was, unsurprisingly, Rubén Moro’s guest lecture on different styles of Cuban music. My musical studies at UMass Lowell have emphasized the importance of text to Western musical practice, but not to so great an extent the importance of dance. Considering that we had a separate dance class, I was a bit surprised to see just how much Rubén incorporated dance into the music class. In hindsight, perhaps I should not have been surprised; Cuban music and dance cannot be divorced.

The popularity of a piece of culture does not necessarily predict its ability to endure, and it appears to me that multiple factors have coalesced to make Cuban musical traditions both popular and enduring. The United States has seen many dance fads gain brief popularity only to be immediately forgotten. What sets Cuban song and dance apart is Cuba’s stronger sense of a national cultural identity. José Martí wrote of Cuba’s need to remain independent of any other country, and the persistence of this Martinian ideal has resulted in the embrace and preservation of those cultural elements considered uniquely Cuban. Another important point of contrast to consider is the diversity present within each style of Cuban dance, with composers exploring the possibilities of each dance’s respective rhythms across many songs; at least in recent decades, American dance crazes typically revolve around a single recording.

The Cuban musical tendency towards a strong national identity extends to instrumentation, and the music of Cuba thoroughly incorporates a number of instruments seldom found in the United States, such as the tres, one of which I was able to acquire during my trip and bring back to Lowell. In a manner suggestive of the close ties of Cuban music to dance, stringed instruments such as the tres and laúd tend to play syncopated arpeggiations rather than the strummed harmonies of a guitar. I haven’t had much time since returning to Massachusetts to immerse myself in the technique and literature of the tres, but I certainly hope to be able to incorporate it into my ensemble performances during my time at UMass Lowell.

Here I am experimenting on the tres that I was fortunate enough to bring back to the U.S.

I appreciate the relative complexity of some of the rhythms that Rubén showed us, such as the punto clave, which alternates between compound and simple meter, and the cinquillo cubano of the danzón. Undoubtedly these rhythms derive from the dizzying polyrhythms of traditional West African music, such as Ghanaian agbekor. The origins of the Cuban rhythms are even referenced in the language used to describe the music: música afrocubana. Perhaps that is just an extension of the Latin American tendency to make liberal mention of race, but a part of me wishes that the United States honored the African origins of much of its music in a similar manner. Despite the prevalence of certain chord progressions in Cuban traditional music, such as I-IV-V-IV or its minor variant, it was refreshing to hear music not based on the i-VI-III-VII progression, which was used in almost every single reggaetón track that I heard in Cuba. You may recognize it as the chord progression from Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” and a number of other reggaetón songs. (Linked recordings are of me playing the tres I bought.)

Rhythmic notation of the punto clave.

Rhythmic notation of the cinquillo cubano.

Being a jazz musician, I’ve pondered why America’s classical music doesn’t have the same sort of mainstream appeal anymore as traditional Cuban music, and I have arrived at a few conclusions. Swing music, intimately connected to swing dance, was the “pop music” of its day. Bop artists like Charlie Parker intellectualized the idiom of jazz, distancing it from its roots as dance music. Without any socio-political reason to hold onto swing, and with artists like Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane pushing the boundaries of jazz further and further, it was inevitable that jazz would lose popularity despite achieving higher and higher levels of artistic greatness. In other words, despite the great beauty of bebop and free jazz, the people who most fully understood and enjoyed them were always going to be other musicians. Cuban music never strayed from dance, and in never straying from dance it never strayed from its mainstream appeal.

Despite the brevity of his lecture, Rubén Moro did manage to change my perspective on musical evolution. That, and after his demonstration of the dance to the guaguancó, I will never be able to hear the word “vaccination” quite the same way again.