El último día

As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. Our last full day in Havana was completely open-ended, aside from our farewell dinner. As a person who loves to make his own fun, this was the perfect day for me to explore and do anything I had not done yet. 

I started off the day bright and early and went on a run with Scott. Going for a run in Cuba was something I had wanted to do the entire time I had been there, but on every day until this one, the activities of the prior night made it difficult to get up and run in the morning. However, I made sure to get it in before my chance was gone. Scott used to be a collegiate track runner, and I once came in dead last in a two hundred person race, so it was quite a challenge to keep up with his pace. I managed to survive the distance, and was satisfied to have done it.

After the run, I did not feel amazing, so I took it easy for the next couple of hours and just played cards with various members of the group. I proceeded to wipe the floor in a game of Rummy, then managed to fall asleep on the couch cushion I was laying on. After the most refreshing twenty minute nap of my life, I was ready to take on the rest of the day. 

An impromptu nap

At this point, it was almost noon, so we decided it was a good time to get lunch. Most of us went to a paladar in Havana called El Gringo Viejo. A paladar is essentially a hybrid of a restaurant and a house. This was a slightly more expensive restaurant than most of the places I had been to, but it was still much cheaper than most American establishments, and it was the final meal we had to pay for, so price was not a huge concern. The price increase was more than justified, as the restaurant aesthetic was top notch, and there were many unique items on the menu, including Ox tail and Chicken Cordon Bleu. I ordered chicken and rice. When we got our food, I was stunned. I had never seen portions so large, and just finishing my plate was a struggle. I left El Gringo Viejo completely full and satisfied.

Inside El Gringo Viejo

After returning to the residencia, Jimmy, Maria, and I walked over to the Hotel Capri. They wanted to go there to use the internet, and I went to partake in my daily ritual of going up to the rooftop pool at the hotel, smoking a cigar, and chatting amongst the guests. It was only three in the afternoon, so the sun was shining bright, and I reminisced on the trip and all that I had experienced. I was offered a drink by the bartender I had bonded with over the course of the two weeks, despite our language barrier. Eventually, Jimmy and Maria joined me, and then we walked back to the residencia. However, I returned to the Hotel one more time shortly after with Julia and Scott, as I figured watching one last sunset certainly could not hurt. As I watched the gorgeous sunset over the city of Havana one last time, I think I achieved my peak happiness for the whole two weeks. It was truly a special view that I was lucky enough to enjoy almost every night of the trip.

Sunset view over the city of Havana

We returned from the Hotel, and then it was time to leave for the farewell dinner. The group loaded up in the bus one last time and drove to the Destino Restaurant. This was a very fancy and elegant restaurant, which usually is not my style, but I still had an amazing time. We had an exquisite meal, took hundreds of photos, and listened to the farewell speeches from the adults of our group. The whole night had a perfect vibe, and it was absolutely one of my favorite moments of the trip. It felt vaguely similar to the final episode of the 90’s television show “Friends”, in the sense that we were all ending this chapter of our lives that we had spent together, and preparing for the next journey in our individual lives. I could not have asked for a better final day in Havana, and all of the experiences I had will be taken with me going forward.

Exploring Central Havana

On our second to last full day in Cuba we ventured once more to Old Havana to view the gallery at Studio Molina. This studio is home to artists Marcel Molina Martínez, Yailen Sellén Sosa, and Moisés Molina Martínez. Here they exhibit both their art and their process of making it. On display is a massive slab of wood used to make their intricate woodblock prints allowing people to feel the carvings and understand the artistic process better. Martínez showed us his tools and made a few carves into the wood to demonstrate. His art stands out for more than its intricacy, however, as it centers around the history of sugarcane in Cuba. One piece, for example, showed a smokestack with boarding houses spreading around and surrounding it. The houses stretched over the horizon, all identical. Every house also notably lacked a roof and had a pitch black interior, which was a choice made to show the emptiness held by them. Other works used fingerprints for people’s faces, a representation of identity. My personal favorite from the gallery was the image of a man hacking his way through tall grasses with a machete, which was inspired by the back of the three peso bill (CUP), but the man’s face was replaced by a fingerprint. The studio also contained some lighter fare, as there were plenty of small cute prints of cats and animals on display.

Some of the prints that can be found at Studio Molina

This gallery was just the beginning of a full day of interesting sights in Havana. After departing from the gallery we wandered for some time in search of a different type of art, food. In this search we stumbled our way through multiple other art galleries and saw drastically different styles in each one. One gallery was filled with crazy works made of any item imaginable. There was even an old Volkswagen beetle converted into some type of artwork in the middle of the room. Another captivating yet unusual artwork was an eyeball in a concrete wall. This eye was emerging from the concrete wall of a building. The detailed eye was in the style of a renaissance sculpture, and seemed out of place on the side of a wall, but it fits in in a city that feels like a piece of art in and of itself.

A sculpture embedded into a building’s concrete wall

Our walk continued away from the art galleries as we sought out the best lunch possible without breaking the bank. We strolled past countless people attempting to usher us into their restaurant with claims of the best food and the best prices in Havana from every single one. We’d often scoff at prices that we thought were simply too high and walk away despite them being outrageously low priced compared to a nice restaurant in America. We’d become too accustomed to the great values found in Cuba, but we remained stubborn as we meandered towards Central Havana. As we turned one corner we saw a great location and approached it to find out that it was just a bar with no food. We felt dismayed for a moment, but the man at the bar pointed us to a restaurant a few buildings away and we made our way over to check it out. The building had no signs indicating it was a restaurant, but the man outside brought us upstairs to the rooftop where there were a few tables and we decided to stay.

Students exploring Central Havana

We immediately knew we made the right choice as they brought great bread to the table. Our orders varied from ribs to picadillo to tapas, but they were all delicious at a great value. Surprisingly, the food was not the highlight of this meal. Despite being a day filled with art, the most beautiful thing I saw was the strawberry lemonade I ordered. I had gotten it simply because I noticed it was the same price as water, and I figured it would be simply any other strawberry lemonade, but after a minute I was surprised by a massive glass filled with a frozen strawberry lemonade that tasted as good as it looked. Immediately our waitress was bombarded by four more orders for the exact same lemonade. This hearty meal accompanied with a heap of sugary pink lemon slush was just the fuel we needed for our long march home. We made our way back to the residencia along a new set of unexplored streets far from the areas we explored before, and on our last walk through Central Havana we enjoyed a hot sun, a cool breeze, and full stomachs.

A delicious plate of ribs

Morning at the Art Museum

¡Buenos días! I wouldn’t typically consider myself a morning person, but since it was my dedicated blog day, I was pumped and ready to go, notebook in hand. At 9:30am, we had a typical breakfast consisting of fresh watermelon juice, muffins, eggs, slices of guava, and (most importantly), a steaming pot of espresso to jumpstart our morning. At 10:30am, we departed for a visit to an art museum, el Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. On the bus ride there, Elena launched headfirst into tourguide mode, explaining that the historic museum was over 100-years old and utilized a top-down approach of exhibits as follows: the third floor features 16th and 17th century religious artwork, the second floor features of 18th and 19th century contemporary works, and the first floor features larger installation pieces.

The group entering el Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
Inner courtyard upon entering

Despite being voted “Most Artistic” in high school, art museums have never really been my “thing.” However, this particular museum was a dime. I genuinely found myself getting lost in the artwork, each piece seeming to become more and more intricate as I wandered the various exhibits. Many were politically-charged and offered new insight and hidden messages at second glance. My favorite piece was “La Canción del Amor” by Pedro Alvarez Castello (pictured below). The more you look, the more hidden details and puzzle pieces you find. I was hooked; I initially walked away but found myself going back for a second, third, fourth look, until I decided to just sit on a bench and really dive deep into the artwork. 

Pedro Alvarez Castello, La Canción del Amor, 1995

There is so much hidden symbolism in Castello’s piece, it was like peeling back layers of an onion to expose the core message. The figures possibly represent snippets of history, as the depth of field changes, signifying a timeline of sorts. On the left and “closest” to the viewer, Castello depicts a cheery image of two Coca Cola delivery men and a young boy, grins stretching their faces ear-to-ear. The depiction screams “1950s Americana,” almost to an excess, as if Castello is mocking American commercialism and materialism through caricature. This exaggerative nature continues throughout as a unifying theme. The second “closest” figural depiction shows two mid-20th century figures singing, with what appears to be a movie reel beside their feet. Lastly, the “farthest” scene depicts two black individuals dancing, instruments in hand. The way that I interpret these three scenes (along with the title translating to “The Song of Love”) is that Castello is criticizing the fact that industrialization and American commercialism has corrupted people’s core values as society becomes more and more materialistic and driven by financial gain.  

One of the most significant symbols that you may not notice at first glance is that the entire scene is displayed as if on a stage, a red curtain drop framing the upper right corner and three spotlights lighting up the figures. As Rachel pointed out, “It’s like how Americans like to cover up and distort history,” or how the United States tends to diminish its economic impact on the Cuban way of life. Castello’s piece was particularly enrapturing, pulling the viewer in with its mystique and hidden messages.

Once I felt I had analyzed his piece enough, I managed to catch up with the group and spend the rest of my museum trip leisurely browsing many of the other exhibits. One of the more (dare I say) “interesting” pieces was a 1986 untitled piece by Manuel Mendive (pictured below). After staring intently at the painting with Scott, we both could not make heads nor tails of the three-breasted, double-beaked, fish-bellied beast locking tongues with the three-limbed, green-headed creature. As a self-proclaimed observant art surveyor, I noticed the most important detail:  beast #1 stepping on a two-headed peapod about to suck its toes, which prompted Scott to utter the iconic quote, “Lemme suck dem toes.” 

Scott “taking studious notes” on an untitled piece by Manuel Mendive, 1986
When you look a little closer . . .

The museum visit was a welcome change in scenery, providing a relaxed and thought-provoking morning. Just like it can be said about American artwork, there is something about Cuban art that makes it so distinctly Cuban that is hard to pinpoint. Perhaps it’s the strong themes of national pride, the rich use of color, or the cultural and historical allusions threaded throughout each piece. It was such a privilege to view and analyze first-hand the fine art pieces that represent and define Cuban culture. El Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes was certainly one heck of a spot to check off my Cuban bucket list and I’ll be forever grateful to have visited.

Scott, Self Portrait, 2020

Rum and Art in Cuba

On January 11th, a little over halfway through my first Cuban experience, six days in, ten narrow escapes from cars when crossing the street, three frantic attempts of cleaning my mouth after accidentally swallowing water, and all thirteen of my shirts damp twice-over due to the belligerent humidity; the last thing on my mind was leaving.

We started the day in Old Havana, buying more freshly ground coffee and fifty cent churros, and ventured our way towards the water to preview where our after-lunch rum tour would start. In Old Havana we split up to find lunch, with a few of us making our way through Old Havana and back towards the Malecon waterfront.

In the first days of the trip, my focus was on the planned events of the day and whatever adventure was brought with it, when I should have been focused on the memories that I could make for myself. One of these moments came on the way to meet at the rum museum when we found an antique market tucked away in a broken down, roofless building with carts that could barely stand. Here, I found the atmosphere to be drastically different than that of the markets where tourist traps were found, as people were talking about what they were selling and wanted us to understand the significance of the old spy camera and the transcript of Fidel’s nine hour long speech, among many others. I was able to talk down a couple of items and made off with some unique gifts for my family back home, with the experience of bargaining in a foreign language as a gift for myself.

After lunch, we regrouped at the rum museum and began the tour with a startlingly loud ring of the bell from Mike. The tour guide proved to be just as ecstatic as everyone else we had met in Cuba, passionately introducing us to Cuba in the 1700’s and the process for creating sugar that was morphed into rum production. We learned about the machines used to turn sugar cane into molasses, which was then fermented with other ingredients in a wooden barrel, of which the type of wood contributed to the taste. During and after the tour we were able to smell the molasses and taste the rum, bringing what we learned about full circle. Cubans are very proud of what they produce because what they produce is theirs; they don’t have the resource’s found in America because of the embargo, but on the flip side, they don’t take what they do have for granted.

After the rum museum we split up again, with some heading back towards Old Havana and others checking out an art market. As we walked into the art market, it didn’t seem like an art market, seeing as every booth held the same chachkies as every other tourist booth we had seen, until we were smart enough to realize there was an upstairs. Going from the first floor to second floor was like stepping on a cloud, from the hustle and bustle of the people trying to sell as much as they could, to artists standing by their paintings proudly and quietly.

In this market I found another one of those moments as I walked around and found some massive abstract pieces that caught my eye and started talking with the artist. Instead of trying to sell me anything, he pointed out his favorite piece and started describing why it was his masterpiece. If this was the first day, I might have dropped all of my money on this one piece, but with it sadly being one of the last days, I happily supported him by getting a hand painted vinyl record.

While I experienced bargaining and haggling, making rum, and the art world in Cuba on this day, the most interesting part was how it all came together. The same pride that I found in the antique market for the hidden treasures of Cuba I found in the rum museum for Cuban history, and still found in the art market. As the day came to a close and we headed back to our residencia, I thought of how I wanted to carry that same pride in my own life as an ode to what I learned on January 11th in Cuba.

Central Havana

On our seventh day in Havana, we visited a University Hospital, Policlinico Universitario Rampa. Here, we met with the director of the clinic and the board of directors. He explained to us that in Cuba, healthcare is free and available to anyone. We learned that this system of healthcare has improved the infant mortality rate drastically since the 1950s (Cuba has the lowest infant mortality rate in the Americas). About 30% of the state budget goes toward healthcare. This budget not only covers the care of Cuban citizens, but it also funds medical research and makes prescriptions very affordable (no prescription costs more than 20 pesos). The director also explained that, in Cuba, their “gateway” to healthcare is through family doctors. Family doctors are strategically placed within the neighborhood of their patients. You go there for checkups and any kind of health issue you may be having, if you need more specific care they will then recommend you to a specialist. He explained that their clinic breaks healthcare down into 4 main focus areas, health promotion, disease prevention, medical attention, and rehabilitation. When asked how the Cuban health care system differs from that of the U.S., he explained that in Cuba they try to focus on clinical diagnosis through developing a real relationship with the patient. They sit down next to the patient and converse with them to try to find the solution to their medical problem, then if they determine it is absolutely necessary they will utilize medical technology to assist in their diagnosis. Meanwhile, he said that in the U.S., medical technology can easily be exploited because we have such easy access to it. This can sometimes be a pitfall when it makes doctors less personal. This is because the doctor will use that technology to diagnose patients before they are able to spend enough time with the patient to get to know their situation. I thought that this was a very interesting approach to healthcare, where the personal relationship with the patient is a top priority.

After leaving the medical center, we headed back to the university to hear a lecture on education in Cuba. We learned that after the Revolution education became accessible to more people than ever before because of the Cuban Literacy Campaign. Before the revolution the literacy rate in Cuba was 75%, by December 1961 the literacy rate was almost 100%. To increase the literacy rate they took teachers from the cities (many were unemployed at the time) and sent them out to rural areas to educate. Also, in June of 1961, a teaching Nationalization law was passed, which universalized the curriculum in Cuba. Today, it is mandatory for children to go to school up until 9th grade. If students decide to continue their education, they can get up to their Ph.D. at no cost. It was clear that the Cuban Literacy Campaign had a lasting effect on academic achievement in Cuba.

After the lecture, we went to Old Havana to get lunch. While many waited in line to get coffee, Jimmy, Rachel, Easmond, Maria and I set out to find a good place for food. After walking out of the bustling square and into the quieter side streets, we found a beautiful place with outdoor seating. We sat outside right in front of a band who was playing. At one point they even came over to sing to us and let us play the maracas. It felt like a scene in an old Italian movie, just with a Cuban twist on the music.

After lunch we found a churros stand. I was ecstatic because I have always wanted to try authentic churros (all I have ever had is the Cinnamon Toast Crunch churro cereal). For 1 peso all 5 of us were able to try them.  Needless to say, I was blown away. We decided to take our time and walk back to where we were staying instead of taking a cab. We walked through central Havana and at almost every corner I was taken back by the architecture and plant life. The most beautiful area I encountered was when we were walking through the thickly settled streets and came out to a small park. The park had a few varieties of palm trees and other tropical plants, in the backdrop of these beautiful plants, you could see the capitol building. I have truly never seen such a beautiful city area. As we walked back into the crowded side streets I saw that Central Havana was a neighborhood with a great sense of community. People were out on the streets and socializing at every corner. I could have walked around Central Havana for hours just taking in the beautiful sights and lively sounds. It suddenly became real that we were in Cuba, and that everything I was experiencing was real.

Easmond and I at the park we found, in front of the capitol building.

After about an hour of walking, we arrived back at our Residencia in Vedado. I was glad we had some time before dinner to relax and talk about our day. This day made me realize how truly lucky I am to have the opportunity to travel here, Cuba is such a unique and lively place.

The gang.

Dancing & Boxing in Cuba

Today, I woke up and took a look at our itinerary, which showed that we’d be attending a class about Cuban music. As I’ll explain, this wasn’t a particularly normal lecture. The bus dropped us off as usual and we met Ruben, our guest instructor, at the front door, and he took us upstairs to a dark room with a small stage and some chairs, which we made into a circle. The room seemed, frankly, dead, and I wasn’t sure why we were there for class. There was an array of different instruments around the guitar on the floor. As soon as Ruben started talking to us, I forgot we were even in a “lecture,” and honestly forgot it was a lecture until I wrote this.

Ruben explained to us in this interactive class the history of music in Cuba, which is extremely diverse in style. Cuba had been such a hub of different cultures during its peak years of tourism and trade, and all of these different cultures circulating through the region had an impact on the music that still exists today. The different styles of Cuban music all had distinct beats, most of which came from the Afro-Cuban culture that was largely due to the origin of slaves in the 1800s. Ruben then began to teach these beats to us.

Trying to play the instruments with Ruben

He handed out a few instruments and the room just came to life. We clearly weren’t the most musically inclined group in the world, but he was happy enough to try and keep us on beat. He gave us all our own beat to keep up, and we started to make what almost sounded like music. This type of music was very foreign to all of us but was so interesting to learn the history of. We played the instruments as best as we could and shared a few laughs. Ruben showed us the beats, talked about the music, its history, and where in Cuba it originated from, and then told us to get on our feet. It was time to dance.

Once we started to dance, it became extremely apparent how much less rhythmic we were than all of the locals. Ruben showed us some of the moves for each dance, and then we would try to do it with music. We all looked like deer in headlights with four left hooves, but we tried our best. Ruben, Ana and Diana demonstrated some of the dances for us, which included la cha-cha-cha, la contradanza, la mamba, and la conga. They all moved very naturally, like they had been dancing like this as a second nature. We, however, never really learned how to dance as a part of our culture. Dance is a very selective art in the United States and is not as widespread as it is in Cuba; dancing is seen as a feminine activity that only some people can do, whereas in Cuba, most of each gender are able to dance. It even gives men a better chance of attracting girls’ attention if they’re good dancers. Hearing this and witnessing it firsthand was a bit of a culture shock, because our boys certainly weren’t innately suave on the dancefloor (sorry, boys, you are all wonderful people). Ruben and the others sure had a laugh, but they didn’t totally judge us for our lack of skills. We all had fun with it, and it was a good time even while we fell over each other.


After our life-changing dance lecture, the physical activity didn’t come to an end. The bus dropped us off at a different school, where we walked up the stairs to a small matted room for a kickboxing class! Boxing is a widely respected and practiced sport in Cuba and has a pretty big importance among its people. In 2012, a Cuban boxer beat his American opponent for the gold, which is definitely remembered among everyone (we even saw an art exhibit depicting the win at the Cuban MFA!).

Evelio teaching us our stance

Emily introduced us to our teacher Evelio, who is a bodyguard for celebrities visiting Cuba and has biceps bigger than my head. We kicked off our shoes and got ready for the next hour or so of huffing and puffing. Evelio was a bit intimidating and I believe I caught him calling me a chicken in Spanish. I understood most of what he was saying to us to help us box, but Scott and Julian were definitely necessary translators. Evelio pushed us really hard as he taught us how to throw punches at the air and at his hands and it was such a good workout, especially once he had us spar. I would say we held our own and did a good job in Evelio’s eyes. Ilene even said we were the best group she had seen so far! We definitely kickboxed some butt.

The best boxers in Cuba!

Overall, it was a pretty physical day between the dancing and the boxing. Although we were technically “in class” for most of the day, both of the classes were such a good time and we got to have fun with it. It showed us even more that our trip was an immersive experience, and not just school. We learned a lot about Cuban culture through their music and through one of their best fighters, and we weren’t just sitting in a classroom listening. We were learning by active participation! The day left us sweaty and strong, and surely some sore days to follow, but it was well worth it.

Varadero, Cuba

On January 8th, 2020 we ventured outside of Havana to Varadero Cuba. Our destination was the ROC Arenas Doradas resort which was over two hours away. We were visiting one of the best beaches in the world according to Tripadvisor, Varadero Beach. Early morning we all packed into our bus to venture over. A few minutes into the ride and everyone was fast asleep.

We primarily drove along the coast, being able to watch the ocean the entire drive
The hotel

However halfway through the ride, we stopped at The Bridge of Bacunayagua which was also a rest stop. The views were absolutely amazing!

The Bacunayagua bridge
The view to the left of the bridge
The view to the right of the bridge

This bridge is considered one of the seven wonders of Cuban civil engineering. It is the highest (approximately 360ft) bridge in Cuba. The building at this rest stop contained a restaurant (Mirador de Bacunayagua), a bar, a gift shop, restrooms, and a mango tree. It was at this rest stop that Brianna bought her “Bay Ban” sunglasses. Cuba’s clothing and accessories are very interesting.

These pictures do not do the view justice. For as far as the eye could see there was not any touched land, besides the bridge and rest stop. I have never experienced such nature as I did here.

After we finished admiring the amazing view it was time to finish our drive. For almost the entirety of the drive, we saw untouched land or small communities. Most cars were jam-packed full of people because so many people were hitchhiking along the highway. In Cuba, it is normal to hitchhike and locals are more than welcome to give rides to strangers. We also many stray horses along our ride.

Finally, we arrived at the hotel. While we were checking in we had to give our passports which they kept until we checked out. The hotel was all inclusive so we received bracelets to wear. Then, the girls dispersed to their room and the boys to theirs. The property the hotel was on was huge. There were several buildings full of rooms, a pool, the main lobby with gift shops, two restaurants, one snack shack, a tennis court, a volleyball court, the beach, and probably more! There was so much space and not enough time to cover it all.

The hotel’s front desk

After we went to the room we got ready for the beach. We found our way down and were able to collect a few beach chairs to push together and mark our area. The temperature for the day was about 78s °F, which is cold in Cuba. It was also windy. There were only tourists on the beach. Being from New England most of us were able to tough out the chilly weather.

The ocean

The water was in the 70s too, I believe. This picture does not show it but the flag was yellow. We could only go up to our waist because the waves were big and the current was strong. When we went in the water the current would quickly move us down (to the left) the shore. The waves were huge! They were small enough it would not have been sufficient for surfboarding but they were the best size for bodysurfing. Occasionally the waves would come in at such a force that you had to be proactive about staying above the water. The water was not clear but it was very clean. There was no seaweed (a big difference from Old Orchard Beach and White Horse Beach) and very few shells or rocks.

The beach

The beach was also really long but just like the water, it was very clean. The resort offered many beach activities too. But since the ocean was rough that day the activities were not being offered. They included scuba diving and paddle boats, amongst other things.

Right off the beach area was a buffet restaurant. A few of us went and ate. I ate a fish that was grilled in front of me. I had to navigate through the bones and the eyeball. It was good. I really put myself out of my comfort zone by eating the whole fish. One time I ordered fish at a restaurant and received a whole fish, and cried. This was actually about a year ago so I would like to thank Cuba for exposing me to this experience again and allowing me to work through my personal issues. Many people stuffed themselves with the spaghetti and red sauce at the buffet (including me).

Later on in the day Scott, Mike, and Julia played against me, Zach, and Jimmy in volleyball. It was a lot of fun! I never have played volleyball before so this was a brand new experience. I told many people including Julian and Ilene that my team won but I would like to set the record straight now, we actually lost (all rounds). Besides volleyball, we also played a game suggested by Scott. I do not know the name but you just throw the ball and catch it and throw it over. It was silly but fun.

Our plan was to eat more buffet food before we left so we would have eaten for the night. However, much to our disappointment the buffetts closed a few hours earlier and would not open until after we were supposed to have left. The snack shack was still open, serving only hamburgers and hot dogs. We decided to eat there. Caution: these are not the same hamburgers and hot dogs we have in the US. Leo, a Cuban psychiatrist who accompanied us on this trip, blamed this difference in food on the embargo. He blamed a lot on the embargo. The food looked like it might make us sick but we sucked it up and ate it anyway.

A photo Julian took of us for the honor college’s Instagram and Facebook

Finally, it was time to leave. We made our way back to the bus and headed up. On the way, there was a beautiful sunset over the ocean. Everyone fell asleep almost immediately. Between the Carribean sun and the Cuba fun, we were exhausted!

First Day of Class

The streets of Havana are full of life day and night with people – both Cubans and the Americans – singing, dancing and talking. It is a completely different way of life here. Dogs and cats roam the streets happily like they were house pets in America. People try to get our attention to ask where we are from and when they do, they are so delighted to tell us that they love Americans.

Today, January 6th,  is our 3rd full day in Havana. We started our day at the Residencia with breakfast at 8am then off to our first stop of the day, the José Martí Memorial. The memorial is larger than I could ever have imagined. It is located in Revolution Square, which is the place where Fidel would give speeches and millions would gather around in the open space. The memorial has a large statue of José Marti. It reminds me of the Abraham Lincoln statue in Washington D.C (I later discovered during our tour that Lincoln had a major impact on Martí in his life and during the start of the first war for Cuban independence). Behind the statue, is the tallest building in Havana. It is in a shape of a  5-pointed star.  Inside of this building each point of the star has a different little museum. Two of the points are about the life of Martí and his major accomplishments, one has the history of the Revolution, one has a new art exhibit and the last one was under construction.  We learned that Martí did not actually live in Cuba for that long, yet he became a symbol of the Revolution and freedom for the Cubans. He was born in Cuba and later exiled to Spain for speaking out against the Spanish, who occupied the island at the time. Martí later lived in Mexico, Guatemala and the United States – New York City to be exact.  He later died fighting for his native country during the Spanish-Cuban War, which Americans refer to as the Spanish- American War.

View from the top of the José Martí Memorial
Brianna, Mya and I pretending the memorial was the leaning Tower of Pisa

Now, we are off to our next stop of the day, CIPS (Center of Psychological and Sociological Studies) for our first lecturer of the trip. But before that we had a fabulous lunch at La Catedral, a local Cuban restaurant. For my lunch, I  tried Marlin for the first time and what a great decision that was. It was so fresh and delicious. Since we landed, I have tried to eat something new each day. At CIPS, our first lecture was on José Martí. Our lecturer was so enthusiastic about the subject; you could tell by his hand movements, his tone of voice, and his words. The only problem was that he only spoke Spanish so Ana, our personal translator for the trip, translated for us. Our lecturer described the life and work of Martí. Martí was a legendary figure to all Cubans. It is difficult to find many other people who had so many titles: Martí was a poet, a writer, a translator, a professor, a revolutionary, and an activist. The lecture was only an hour long which was packed with so much information. I do not think an hour lecture could ever capture how impactful a single man was to the future of a country.

View from the Malécon

After our lecture, we had a few hours free to do whatever our hearts desired as long as we were back for dinner at 6:30pm. Mya, Vanessa, Scott and I decided to walk down to the Malécon,  aka Cuba’s couch. It got very windy as we got closer to the malécon, our shirts, our hair and even my purse was flying in the wind.  The waves in the ocean were some of the biggest I had ever seen in my life. They would crash again and even over the malécon almost splashing us. It was almost like a game to make sure you did not get wet. Once we ate dinner, we were off to our last stop of the day. 

The last thing we did was see the cannon ceremony at the La Cabaña Fortress in Old Havana. The fortress was built in the 1700’s to help protect the city from any invaders that might have been trying to invade the city; the invaders were mostly pirates at the time. Each night there is a re-enactment ceremony of a cannon going off as if there was an invader. Ilene, our API program leader, had talked about this event all day and even said it was her favorite part of her trips to Cuba in the past, and was she right! It was nothing I could have even imagined, seeing a real cannon go off was an experience in itself. We got to the fortress about an hour before it started, as it was planned to go off at 9pm. My roommate, Mya, and I walked around the fortress looking for souvenirs, then we found Easmond (our personal photographer) so of course we got some photos. Finally, it was cannon time, the soldiers dressed in uniforms from the 1700s started walking towards us up near the edge of the fortress. The one soldier was yelling things to his fellow soldiers; some soldiers had a stick with fire at the end that later lit the cannon. About 10 minutes later right at 9pm, the cannon was lit and went off. It was so loud, I almost jumped out of my skin. The explosion of the cannon came and went in a blink of an eye, the crowd – that was a mix of local Cubans and tourist – started clapping as a finale of the flawless cannon re-enactment.  It was such a unique experience, seeing a cannon go off is not something you see every day. If you ever find yourself in Havana, Cuba, I highly recommend it.

Havana’s Skyline
Mya and I’s impromptu to photoshoot by Easmond while waiting for the Ceremony to start

CENESEX: Cuban Planned Parenthood and Sex Ed

Cuba was a unique experience with new lessons and adventures each day. I have the pleasure of filling you as a reader in on our fifth day in Havana, January 7th, 2020. We woke up early in the morning to the smell of eggs, bread, and pastries that our house mom, Natalia, prepared for us. Breakfast was one of the group’s favorite parts because of fresh guava juice, espresso coffee, and delicious home cooked food we could rely on.
This morning’s class was at CENESEX (The National Center of Sexual Education in Cuba or Centro Nacional de Educaíon Sexual de Cuba). I was very excited for this day because of all the controversy in the United States over Planned Parenthood, the LGBTQ community, and health care. A group of working women within the National Women’s Federation in Cuba was created in 1972 to start addressing sexual education throughout the country. In 1988, CENESEX was founded and worked independently but collaborated with national medical groups and universities for research. CENESEX’s main mission is to develop studies and assist with sexuality and sexual health, as well as ensure respect throughout the population. In order to achieve this every day, CENESEX trains people to assist in processes and help improve them, as well as use scientific research, public communication, and provide legal advice and services to its patients or clients.
CENESEX holds workshops and classes as well as provides books in print and digital to help members of the community learn. There are 10 main topics in which CENESEX focuses, those being: public policy in comprehensive education, rights, different stages of sexuality, social integration, sexual violence, quality of life, sexual and reproductive health, child sexual abuse, human trafficking, and the LGBTQ community. Those who work in CENESEX provide help for things like couple orientation, child abuse (sexual and non sexual), transsexual counseling, and more.       They have networks for people who belong to communities involving LBGTQ, mothers and pregnant women, paternity journeys, and more.
Havana has the only CENESEX location in all of Cuba, but has professors that travel near and far to educate the whole country. Each year the organization targets different providences to bring sexual education and awareness to those communities. Anyone, Cuban or not, can take advantage of the teachings and services that CENESEX offers, which I find incredible. Foreigners can take the classes at a small fee, while Cuban’s can attend for free. There are three centers throughout Cuba for children and adolescents who need help. All cases involving sexual violence or domestic abuse go through police, but CENESEX is there for the rehabilitation of the person whether the victim files a report with police or not.
On top of free counseling and care through CENESEX, the government offers universal health care meaning free abortions, free birth control, free births, free sex changes and hormones, and free health services. With this being said, one must be 16 years old or older to go to hospital without parents regarding abortions. But, feminine hygiene like pads and tampons are not free, yet they are still only pennies to buy, which is very cheap.
I was mind blown by the free services the Cuban government offers its people. From the comments and people we spoke to, many seem to like the healthcare system and the services provided. I found this topic to be very interesting due to how different things are handled than in the US.
After the groups CENESEX visit, we had our afternoon classes at CIPS. We were taught a brief history of the Cuban revolutions. The biggest take away from our first lesson was that Cuba was a prime place for trade routes as it was between the Americas and close to the Panama Canal. The land was highly desirable and rich which caused many issues worldwide for battles over the country. Agreement and treaty after agreement and treaty kept leaving Cuba with less and less imports, causing economic crisis. What I found most interesting was in 1994, the US declared that any Cuban who crossed the Gulf Coast and touched American soil was allowed to stay, but almost all who were caught in ocean trying to make it to the US were brought back to Cuba. This almost promotes illegal immigration but gives a loophole for those who are lucky enough to make it to the US. Then in 2004 the US produced a 400 page document telling Cuba the country they would need to be in order to get US support, but it was not what Cuba wanted. The more we were taught the more I realized how complicated our relationship with Cuba has been for decades upon decades.
Like most days, after our lessons were done, we had free time for independent study. Many of us utilized this time to really immerse ourselves with the locals; a group of us walked the Veradero neighborhood and enjoyed the community. Even though we spent some days in classrooms, it was locals who were teaching us about their country. We were able to ask questions and learn a local’s perspective on how things truly are. The conclusion can be made that even though there is a bunch of controversy over Cuba, Cuban’s are proud of their country and history; they want to educate the world about what they truly love and admire in their country.

Play Ball (The Cuban Way)!

In Cuba, baseball is everywhere. It’s a ubiquitous cultural backbone that, much like the antique cars that roam the streets of Havana, has evolved over the past seventy years and transformed from its original American roots into something that is now distinctly Cuban. Baseball can be seen in jerseys and hats, both of Cuban and MLB teams, in the games being televised in hotels and bars throughout Havana, and in the enthusiasm with which the Cuban people talk about la pelota.

Our group had the unique opportunity to experience this firsthand the Sunday after we arrived in Cuba, when the Industriales of Havana clashed with Camagüey in a semifinal playoff game at the Estadio Latinoamérica in Havana. The atmosphere in the stadium was nothing like that of any American sporting event I have ever attended. Remarkably, alcohol was strictly prohibited inside. Despite this, the Cuban people showed up en masse, even well before the scheduled start time of five o’clock. Our tour guide Anna Elena—whom we referred to as the “Mayor of Havana” due to her connections and ability to skip lines—was able to work her magic and procure phenomenal seats for our entire group, with the caveat that we needed to arrive three hours before the game began.

When we showed up shortly after two o’clock, a fair number of Cubans were already there, with many more trickling in as the shadows on the field slowly expanded and the sun sank below the stadium walls. The importance of the game was highlighted well before it was even underway, when a man in a blue hat entered a few rows in front of us, smiling and shaking hands with everyone around him. Our bus driver quickly explained that this man was Fidel Castro’s son.

Antonio Castro-Soto, son of Fidel

The three hour wait took its toll on our group’s stamina and morale, but once introductions of the teams got underway, it was difficult to not be energized. As the visiting team, Camagüey—a true juggernaut of Cuban baseball seemingly equivalent to the NBA’s Golden State Warriors of the past half-decade—was introduced, the small section of visiting fans erupted in cheers, which were drowned out by the boos of the rest of the stadium, all rabid supporters of the Industriales. The introduction of the Industriales, by contrast, prompted such loud cheers and applause that I wondered if even the Rolling Stones got an equivalent ovation when they visited Cuba in March of 2016. The fervor of the crowd was perhaps best exemplified by this man, who brought an enormous lion (the Industriales’ Mascot) into the stadium:

Just prior to the start of the game, an important-looking Cuban government official addressed the crowd passionately about Cuba’s exclusion from the 2020 iteration of the Caribbean World Series in Puerto Rico, a decision he said was politically motivated by the Government of the United States. His speech lasted several minutes and, based upon the reactions of the crowd, seemed to give voice to how many Cubans felt about the situation. He called for the governing body of the Series to stand up to U.S. influence and allow Cuba to participate, as they have done since 2014. In that moment, I consciously felt embarrassed to be American. As our group was told many times, however, the Cuban people as a whole harbor no animosity toward Americans, especially those who desire to travel to Cuba and experience it firsthand.

When the game finally began, the electricity in the stadium was palpable. The Industriales got off to a rough start, giving up two runs in the first inning and being forced to pull their starting pitcher after it quickly became clear that he was having difficulty with his command. At this point I noticed another stark difference between this game and U.S. sporting events. Here, often when the home team struggles at the onset of a game, the crowd loses interest and becomes quieter, if not absent altogether as a factor. In Cuba, it seemed to be quite the opposite: the slow start appeared to galvanize the Industriales’ fans, prompting ever-louder cheers and more energy as the game progressed into the middle innings, even as the Camagüey starting pitcher appeared to have complete control of the game to go along with his team’s 2-0 lead.

At about the halfway point of the game, our group­—having not eaten at this point for five-plus hours—decided to head out and beat the inevitable crowds and traffic that was to come. We then watched the closing innings at a restaurant near our residencia in Vedado. The Industriales dug themselves into a 7-0 hole and, despite a valiant comeback effort in the last two innings, fell short and lost 7-5. Even though we did not stay for the entirety of the game, it was still an incredible experience, one which made it abundantly clear to us how important baseball is in modern Cuban culture.