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.

A Peak into Ernest Hemmingway’s Life in Cuba

January 4th was an eventful day for us students in Cuba. We started with a scenic route around Havana, the capital, which included Cuba’s National Hotel, Cuba’s capitol building, and the statue of Maximo Gomez, a Cuban war hero.

Former UN Translator and our Cuba Expert, Ana Elena, introduced to the Cuban customs when building statues of their heroes. If the statue is mounted on a reared horse, the hero died during battle; however, if their horse is standing properly, the hero died of natural causes. Additionally, if the statue is oriented towards the sea, the hero was either a foreigner or was a Cuban who died abroad. In the case of Maximo Gomez, his statue is on a horse which is standing properly, but is also oriented towards the sea, because he was a foreign-born Dominican, who died in his old age.

We arrived at our first destination. The residence of the legendary author, Ernest Hemmingway, who lived in Cuba for 27 years. At his residence, there has been a long tradition of children in the area playing baseball in the yard, so today we joined the children to a game of ball.

We started with the ‘jefe’ or boss, creating the two teams, evenly split between us college students and the children.

The game started between our two teams, for several minutes, a stalemate occurred where neither team could get the edge on the other. We struggled to score runs, but neither team was successful with the score 15 minutes in remaining at 0-0.

In the end, there were a total of 3 runs scored, with two of them being home runs, one of which scored by our UML student Scott, the other by an older Cuban gentleman who had a passion for baseball. The final tally being 2-1.

After our fun game of baseball, we continued into the rest of the Hemmingway Estate, where we were able to get a peek into his home, which has been virtually untouched since he left in 1960. We were able to see into his living room which were watched over by the heads of the game which he caught during his trips to Southeastern Africa. Antelopes and Wildebeest heads lined the walls with chairs and tables in the center of the room for seating in the 1900s style.

In his bedroom we were able to see his favorite books which were in a bookshelf on the left to his bed. On his nightstand were his glasses neatly sat out of their case, as if he had woken up and walked out. One thing I found interesting was the map of British East Africa, which was a colony under the British Empire and is composed of the modern-day nations of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. This map is peak into history as whilst Ernest Hemmingway was living in Cuba, these nations were still under British colonial rule. In Hemmingway’s closet, we were able to see his hats, boots, and his war correspondent jacket from his time in with Time magazine. The greenish-brown colors of the jacket are reminiscent of the U.S. military uniform during the Second World War. In his personal restroom, we saw his toilet and his shower complete with (the thing that goes above toilets), all in 1920s technology, allowing us to take a peek into the past. The most intriguing thing about Ernest Hemmingway is that he kept track of his height and weight on his wall for several years. We can see that between 1954 and 1960 his weight hovered between 198 and 235lbs. In Hemmingway’s study, we can see his desk which is the home several books and perhaps his prized possession, the head of a hunted leopard. In Hemmingway’s backyard, his four dogs, Black, Negrita, Neron, and Linda. Interestingly enough, two of the dogs were named black in two different languages, English, and Negrita, being the feminine adjective for black in Spanish.

Once we left Hemmingway’s house, we went to Cojimar, the place of origin of Santiago, the protagonist in Hemmingway’s novel, Old Man and the Sea, where we ate authentic Cuban taros, which are fried battered fish poppers. Additionally, we met the grandson of Santiago who still lives in Cojimar. He took us on a tour and showed us the area including the one of the first monuments of Ernest Hemmingway ever built worldwide, which is next to the Torreon which is a castle on the shore of a sea. The statue looks out towards the sea, which I believe is a play on the statue Cuban customs; as Hemmingway was a foreigner and left the country, his statue looks out towards the ocean, north, which is where he was from.

Welcome to Havana!

When arriving in Cuba I honestly had only the slightest idea of what to expect. We read books and spoke about how unique the country was, but nothing can explain the feeling of landing here and seeing just how beautiful the country is with my own eyes. We arrived with the warm sun beaming down on us at a toasty 88 degrees Fahrenheit, which was a relief coming from the chilly weather in Boston. From the first steps out of the airport, I was in awe of how different everything was. The first thing I spotted was all of the antique cars from the ‘40s and ‘50s, which I had only really ever seen in movies. Now, I was suddenly looking at almost an entire parking lot filled with cars of vibrant colors from an entirely different lifetime than mine. We got on to our bus that would be taking us around everywhere for our trip, and I was absolutely glued to the window. The view was of an older city with tall buildings with old fashioned structures like you would expect, but also a mixture of tropical trees and a large presence of people everywhere you looked.

Then we arrived at the residencia and again I was in complete awe. We weren’t told a lot about our living situation, only that a woman named Natalia would be housing and feeding us for the next two weeks. Walking into the residencia I couldn’t even believe how beautiful it was. There was bamboo furniture, a balcony overlooking our neighborhood and a large family-style table where we would share our meals every day.

Now we get to the best part of the entire day: Natalia’s AMAZING cooking. We were served a delicious traditional Cuban meal with white rice, chicken, lentil beans, vegetables, a sort of sweet potato fry, and a sweet custard for dessert. All of the food was so unbelievably fresh and filling—it was such a delicious meal. During our meal, we listened to a presentation by our API director in Cuba, Emily. She wanted us to be aware of the differences between American and Cuban culture because there was a lot to learn. One of the main points she wanted to get across to us was that the Cuban people are a lot friendlier than any stranger you would meet in the U.S. She wanted us to know that people would come up to us and ask us questions about how we’re doing and where we’re from. While listening to this I couldn’t really imagine a situation like this happening, because if a random stranger came up to you in Boston and started asking you questions about yourself you would immediately throw a red flag.

However, after our meal, my fellow classmate Maria and I went on a walk to go adventure around 23rd Street, to get a sense of the area we were going to be spending the next two weeks in. We were walking down the street for, I would say, less than two minutes and a man came up to us and asked: “Beautiful ladies, where are you from?” And we had the most pleasant conversation with him as we walked. He told us all of his favorite restaurants to go to on that street and then he said, “I hope you ladies have a nice stay here in Cuba,” and he just went on his way. This was our first experience with a Cuban local, and it was incredible. Before this experience, I don’t think I have ever had a stranger come up to me on the street and not ask me to buy something or ask for money. The man truly just wanted to have a conversation with us because he was friendly and curious. When the sun went down the city came alive with bright lights and loads of people walking along the streets all dressed up for their nights out. We even saw this old fashion movie theater, with a large antique neon sign that lit up the entire street.

Finally, to end the most perfect first day in Cuba all 12 of us students decided to go out together to a restaurant called “1909,” where they gave us an entire private room just for us. As we all ate and got to know each other we also got the complete experience of Cuban hospitality. We all practiced our Spanish with the wait staff, and they practiced their English with us, and we were all having an absolute blast. Our waitress Maria showed us some of her salsa moves with one of the other waiters. Right after, another waiter came over and showed us some of his most impressive magic tricks. They also really wanted to play American music that we all knew and liked. In all the times I have gone out to eat with a group in the U.S. I have never gotten service with a wait staff who wanted to have a good time with us. It was such a unique and amazing experience. All and all our first day in Cuba were a perfect transition to the differences in our cultures and were truly breathtaking every step of the way.


This traveling seminar will use the Cuban experience as a backdrop for experiential learning, along with discussions with professionals in that particular field of study, and writing assignments designed to allow students to reflect upon their experience studying and living in Cuba. Students will gain a multi-disciplinary overview of Cuban contemporary culture and further understanding from a cultural, socio-political and historical context.

You can also read blogs from previous trips to Cuba listed below or from other destinations across the globe UMass Lowell students travel to.