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.