It was just like Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights

As our trip came to a close, we started our last day in Havana at the Centro de Estudiantes Martianos for a lecture about the sports and sport culture of Cuba. Our lecturer was actually a sports commentator who was very passionate about the history of Cuban sports as well as the sports themselves. Cuba has not historically been recognized as a country with outstanding sports teams in the global Olympics before the Revolution, so it became a priority under the Castro regime to attain a global status through sports. Olympic medals are typically symbolic of a country’s superiority, strength, and power, and as a newly independent nation, Cuba wanted to assert its independence and power by attaining as many medals as possible. Steadily from 1959 to the mid 1960s, Cuba’s intense focus on sports became evident as competitions were won throughout many different sports, reaching a pinnacle in 1964 when runner Enrique Figeroa came in second to the United States at the 100 m sprint during the Tokyo Olympics.

The history of Cuban sports, from the perspective of Cuba, is shown as an underdog story where the Cubans are victorious over powerful American oppressors and reassert their independence with every victory. At first, I was uncomfortable with this view of Americans, but this perspective had been a theme throughout our academic exploration of Cuba. I found the Cubans’ reason for wanting to be victorious very interesting because from the American perspective of sports the focus is generally on being the best in the world and defeating every country (especially Russia in the Cold War era) rather than focusing on just Cuba. It made me feel like America was a bully that regularly beat up so many kids that we had lost count of who we had hurt. With that said, I really enjoyed watching the highlight reels of the Cuban victories because they were extremely impressive even though I was watching my own country being defeated.

After the Cuban sports lecture, we split off into groups to pick our last independent meal of the trip. I ended up with Brittany, Emma, and Jennifer at the palladar where we ate on the first day, La Catedral. It was poetic to start and end my lunches in Cuba at the same restaurant. When I first arrived, I had been very nervous about eating because of personal dietary restrictions. I was sure that I would get sick by day two, as I was stuck with a salad on the first lunch. By the last lunch of the trip I was not only comfortable, but confident while ordering. I even ordered the steak, which is probably the complete opposite of a salad. It turned out to be a very lovely outing. We ate delicious food, reflected on our trip, and spent the rest of our CUC on flan.

Cuba 1794After lunch, we headed back to the CEM for our graduation and certificate ceremony to celebrate our completion of the two week course on Jose Marti and Cuban culture. Another study abroad group, Worcester State, also received their certificates at the same time and got to share their experiences with us. Jake from our group volunteered to say a few words about how we all enjoyed the trip and how we had the opportunity to view a unique immersive perspective of Cuba. Our professor, Julian, also made a nice speech about how traveling anywhere in the world takes a leap of faith and he was very proud of us for furthering the thawing Cuban-American relations.

Cuba 1801My favorite part of the ceremony (besides the delicious sparkling cider afterwards) was when the director of the CEM, Ana Sanchez Collazo, ended the ceremony by encouraging both groups to further our education of Jose Marti and the teachings of Cuban history when we return to America. She urged us to share the truth we have witnessed about Cuban culture, whether it was good or bad. Her words made me feel like Cuba wants to enter a more open relationship with the United States based on honesty and trust between common ambassadors, such as us students. Director Collazo ended her speech perfectly by sharing the CEM belief that culture should have no borders. I felt like she was giving me permission to actively participate in the Cuban culture back home in America and consider it an extension of authentic experience I had on this trip. In some way, it made me feel like a part of Cuba could be mine and I could carry it with my in checked bag when I left.

Cuba 1802After the ceremony, we returned to our residencies with a little free time before our API dinner and dancing event. Most of us had decided to be proactive and start packing until it was graciously interrupted by our lovely host Carlos offering us a pot of tea. The six girls living in the residencia sat, chatting in the familiar sun room which we ended dinner with every night, and reminisced with Carlos about Cuba and the experiences we had had so far. Generously, Carlos offered to show us his rooftop garden which was easy to tell that he had much pride in. Right above us this whole trip was an adorable rooftop with the best view of Havana I had seen in the past two weeks. A little shaded patio surrounded by flora and a 360° view was overwhelmingly beautiful to say the least. It was evident that Carlos prides himself with his own work.

Cuba 1817

Cuba 1818Cuba 1823At the main residencia, we met up again with Worcester State and traveled as a large Massachusettean group to a special restaurant in which we practiced all of the skills that Cuba has taught us. We drank authentic mojitos. We practiced our salsa moves. We waited patiently for our meals. We sang with the live band playing at the restaurant, favorites include “Hotel California” and “La Bamba“. We smoked cigars. And eventually we ended up eating our delicious meals. We had a very fun sendoff meal and had to say goodbye to a lot of familiar faces including our translator for the trip, Ana.

Returning to the resedencias for the final time, I began to feel nostalgic for the moment. The unique and fleeting moment of being in Cuba at time of, thawing relations, impending American tourism, and 80 degree weather in January. When will I ever again feel the midnight breeze of the Malecon? What if I never see Old Habana again? I strained my head around the bus’s windows trying to get one last glimpse of Cuba before heading back to America. I realized that just as Jose Marti sparked a revolution in Cuba from abroad, and how Hemingway was never the same after he left his Cuban home, it seems very hard to lose passion for Cuba once you have been a part of the culture. Director Collazo’s philosophy that culture has no borders became a comfort to me in my moment of sadness that night. Although we cannot physically return to Cuba whenever we miss it, we can always access the feeling of being in Cuba, of being in the moment, through cultural practices and timeless memories.



Hemingway with a Side of Cannon-Fire

After celebrating a very exciting and heartwarming twenty-first birthday with my friends and peers, I was ready to experience the wonders that the next day had to offer. January 13, although not quite as large of a milestone as the day before, revolved around the exploration of Ernest Hemingway’s life in Cuba. This was to be a particularly interesting day of our trip because, like Hemingway, I myself am a writer (despite the fact that none of my works are published). Therefore, I was eager to learn about how he lived as a writer and see the different locations of Cuba that inspired his works.

To start the day off, our class drove to Old Havana in order to visit Ambos Mundos; a hotel that is famous for being the place in which Hemingway resided for a whole year. On the way there, our professor gave us a short lecture about Hemingway. One aspect of the lecture really stuck out for me. Our professor revealed that Hemingway was one of his favorite authors but that one of Hemingway’s works was one of the most atrociously written pieces that our professor had ever read.

This inconsistency made me curious as to why that was so. Our professor claimed that it was because Hemingway rushed the work, to an extent, and that he did not seem to consider the reader while writing it. It was not just our professor who believed this, because the book was widely considered terrible by audiences in general. It was very enlightening to learn that no matter how popular a writer is or how greatly he writes, audiences will not give him a free pass if the writer composes a subpar piece of work.

Eventually, we arrived at the hotel and saw how deeply the people there revered Hemingway. There were portraits of him everywhere and his signature dangled from the emerald green wall of the lobby. He had a room on the fifth floor that no one was allowed to stay in, and even if one were allowed to enter it, he or she could not touch or change a single thing in the room. The beige colored room was set up like a museum exhibit. Certain parts of it were tied off with thick rope and Hemingway’s personal effects, such as his trusty typewriter and his small collection of his written books, were encased in pristine glass as if they were ancient artifacts from a prehistorical era. It was pretty amazing to realize how much respect a writer can maintain and command with a stroke of his pen. Hemingway’s writing had made such an impression on the Cuban people that they decided to leave the room that Hemingway was staying in as a preserved shrine to him and his accomplishments. A part of me began to wonder if I would ever become that famous in my pursuit of writing. I am not sure if such an outcome will ever happen, but I feel a certain peace in knowing that I will embrace my future as a writer no matter what will occur in my life.


hemingway signature

Once the hotel visit was over, our group travelled to the town where The Old Man and the Sea took place. The ocean contained a greyish blue hue and it expanded to farther reaches than my naked eye could ever hope to see. The town itself was a very small and isolated area. It seemed like the kind of peaceful place where the main hero of a series would spend some time in a self-imposed exile in order to peacefully recollect himself. Being there was such a rush. Travelling to the setting of a certain novel is always extremely cool because it is a rare event when the words described to you on a page come to life in the real world as the exact place that they were attempting to describe.

The same feeling overtook me when we travelled to Hemingway’s house afterwards. That place was the setting for the climactic scene of the novel Adios Hemingway by Leonardo Fuentes. On another note, visiting the house was enlightening because it was able to tell me a lot about Hemingway’s life just by looking inside of it. His army suit in the closet served as a stark reminder of the fact that Hemingway spent a portion of his time as a war correspondent in World War II. The animal heads hanging from his walls showed me that he had a penchant for hunting. The millions of books crowded around in his house told me that he was a man who liked to drown in them. The list goes on and on.


hemingway house

Once the visit to the house was over, we did something that was completely separated from anything involving Ernest Hemingway: we saw people shoot a cannon inside of a fortress. The wait for it was long and it was raining on us for pretty much the entire time, but the explosion and the loud crackle that the cannon had fired made the wait well worth it. The cannon was loaded with a blank, of course, but the orange explosion that erupted from the cannon’s black mouth still looked like something from a highly-budgeted film. The people who fired the cannon were dressed in eighteenth century war clothing, and I was convinced that I had been thrown smack dab into the middle of the Revolutionary War.

My twenty-first birthday was my twenty-first birthday, but the day of January 13 was still very enjoyable. I got to learn about the life and legacy of one of the most famous American authors of all time and I got to travel to a neat fort and see a cannon go boom. Overall, it was a pretty productive day.

Cultural Connections in Cuba

“Soy moreno…mulato. Mi origen es africano y latino. Estoy lleno de orgullo de ser Afro Cubano.” –Eider
(Translation-I am brown, mixed. My origin is African and Latin. I am full of pride in being Afro Cuban.)

Before arriving in Havana, Cuba, I was worried. As a black student attending the University of Massachusetts Boston, by way of Virginia, I was an outsider to the group of students coming from the University of Massachusetts Lowell. There was not only a difference of school location, but also a difference of race. In the weeks leading up to our departure I wondered, “Who will I talk to?” “How will I feel?” “Will I be seen as strange? As different?”

As soon as I stepped into Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, mind you more than 7 hours after our original arrival time, my worries were alleviated; I saw black people! Cubans dressed in green uniforms welcomed our group at around 5 am into the small building. All of the Cubans working at the time were brown, black, and smiled as they gave me instructions in Spanish. I felt a sense of belonging that had been missing since landing in Miami and meeting my group, and each day in Cuba this sense of belonging increased.

ca99e562-3d86-4588-be72-cc46dde47fa9I met Eider, a young Cuban man, who I quoted above (also pictured above on the left, I am on the right). Through this quote, and the many other subjects we discussed, I could sense his pride in being a black Cuban. This pride is not only shown by Cubans’ words, but even in their institutions and culture. The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts) is one example of these institutions.7c99c141-bcb2-4618-ad48-7f7a59e80232I am generally not one who appreciates nor enjoys art; however, many of the works in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (pictured above) made me think I should change my opinion. Unlike currently in the United States, the Cuba of today holds a strong appreciation for not only its Spanish roots, but its African roots as well. Many of the collections in the museum depict elements from the Yoruba people, an ethnic group from West Africa. Many of the slaves brought to Cuba by the Spanish beginning in the 16th century were of Yoruba origin. Works in the museum also illustrate slave life, social life, and the unique intermixing of cultures that occurred in Cuba and other Caribbean societies. In one painting, three generations of Cubans were depicted. The women depicted were different shades, had different hair styles, but were still all Cubans.

I asked our guide about the reaction to the Afro Cuban artistic movements in Cuba and she explained the importance of art in instilling pride in the Afro Cuban heritage. Art is probably my least favorite subject, but I place this museum close to the top of my enjoyable moments in Havana.

Museums and lectures are informative, but I feel I got the most of the trip when time was not structured and planned. Our trip to the market (pictured below) after the museum allowed for a little freedom. We entered into a sort of bazaar, with small shops selling souvenir pieces. Again, the influence of Africa was evident in the sorts of items that vendors were selling. There were mini statues of women and men, painted black and in traditional dress, posed in dance-like positions. CDs of African inspired rhythms of the Congo drums were also sold. A woman even stopped me to ask about my braids, as her business is offering to braid the hair of tourists entering the market! Braids are another element of African heritage. While extremely touristy, I again enjoyed seeing African heritage infused into the Cuban culture.

edaee09b-a46c-4a90-8dfb-a3f0c31d3979Although the museum and market were extremely informative, I will again return to the quote I started with; “estoy lleno de orgullo de ser Afro Cubano.” Eider was proud of his Afro Cuban heritage. His sense of pride helped me feel proud of being black. While I could not get this from my group, I learned a lot from my compañeros, but I learned even more from the Cuban people. I left Havana proud of my African heritage. Proud to be African-American.



¡Que Bola!

From the beginning of this trip we quickly learned that few things in Cuba go as planned. Our flight from Miami to Havana was delayed 5 times and we spent 10 hours in the airport getting to know each other. Events we had anticipated in Cuba were rescheduled or cancelled more times than I can count, and it has rained almost every day during what is supposed to be the dry season. Despite this, one thing we could always count on was breakfast. For the past nine days each day has brought a new class, experience, or adventure. But each day Carlos, one half of our host family, has also brought us coffee and toast, the classic Cuban breakfast with his fresh homemade juice. The only change to our beloved morning routine was that this morning we did not have any power due to heavy rains and strong winds last night. Thankfully, this had no effect on our breakfast. 2

Following our coffee and toast we arrived to the Centro de Estudios Martianos to attend our lecture. Today’s class had been changed from focusing on Cuban religions to Cuban music. As you can see, in addition to the information provided in these classes we are also learning to be quite flexible with our schedule. During this Cuban Beats lecture we learned about the evolution of music, rhythm, and dance in Cuba. This was a nice companion to the instruction we already received in the art of salsa dancing class we had taken days before. Today was our first hands-on lecture in which we had the opportunity to play one of several Cuban instruments which ranged from classic maracas to the unexpected cowbell. Those not playing instruments gave their best shot at a few more Cuban dances. While it may not have been our best performance, we were definitely able to enjoy the moment and laugh at ourselves.

The second aspect of our day was the trip to the Museo de Guanacaboa. Guanacaboa is a city in Cuba where the religion of Santeria was first established. Santeria is a new religion created by those Afro-Cubans brought to Cuba by the Spanish as slaves who were banned from practicing their former religions or worshipping their deities and instead had Catholicism imposed on them. Rather than abandon their beliefs and culture, many Afro-Cubans merged these two very different religions and used the Christian saints as surrogates to pray to their deities. Essentially they called their deities by the names of the saints, who had similar characteristics, in order to still be able to practice what they believed and maintain their identity and culture. In this museum we saw the elaborate shrines built for each deity. In order to keep the deities happy, worshippers would leave certain foods, drinks, or items which that particular deity was knows to like. Certain colors were also identified with each deity. Beautifully ornate outfits were designed for the worshippers in the corresponding color to their deity along with specifically symbolic accessories such as fans or maracas. Overall it was very interesting to see the adaptation of these two nearly opposite religions into one.

I was surprised to find today’s lecture and museum visit had very similar underlying messages. During the lecture it was brought up that Afro-Cuban music was banned from being played in public places despite the fact that the Afro-Cuban culture and people were a major contributing factor in the development of Cuban music. In addition to this, it was typical for black Cubans to struggle to find employment outside of being musicians, which was, in turn, deemed a disrespected occupation. I felt that this air of hostility toward Afro-Cuban culture was carried over in our museum tour as well. The creation of Santeria was due to the fact that Afro-Cubans were banned from practicing their religions and were instead forced to adopt Catholic practices. This tension between white Spanish Cubans and black Afro-Cubans is still evident today. Presently the issue can be clearly seen economically as many low paying or manual labor jobs and few high ranking jobs are held by black Cubans.

In contrast to this, I saw the introduction of Santeria and the perseverance of African music as a testament to the resilience of African Culture in Cuba. This strength of the Afro-Cuban community has led to the emergence of a new, mixed culture in order for Afro-Cubans to balance their identities of being both African and Cuban.

There is an overwhelming aspect of polarity in Cuba’s culture. As an outsider it is intriguing to see brightly painted classic 1950’s cars parked next to white sedans produced on a few years ago. Yet these contradictions of sorts are fairly commonplace on this island; beautifully painted houses sit next to water damaged hoes falling into disrepair. Houses and public buildings commonly lack flushing toilets or running water but are nearly always furnished with televisions. It was very interesting to find that what we might consider luxury items were more easily accessed than items I would deem necessities.1

Today seems to highlight major disconnects or contradictions in Cuban culture. Racial disparities, while clearly evident, seem to go ignored or disregarded. This was also a reminder that such issues are ones we also struggle with in the United States. In addition to this, it also feels as though the average Cuban lives their life half in the mid-20th century and half in the present day. It could be suggested that there is common experience shared by all Cubans: learning to make do with what they have, no matter how little, whether it is due to religious restrictions or economic embargos. Despite the many political and social restrictions and oppressions the Cuban people face, the adaptations of culture and overall resilience and success of the Cuban people is inspiring and deserves admiration.

Havana Club, A Necessary Evil: A Capitalist’s Take

“The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money” – Margret Thatcher

Havana Club Rum. Besides cigars, this is Cuba’s biggest export. As this was the highlight of an otherwise rained out day (the eastern coast of the United States, and Cuba with it, was under the influence of a large storm system at the time) this is what I will discuss. The process of making rum starts in Cuba’s numerous fields, which are only used for growing cane part of the year. The cane is then turned to molasses and burned to create what can be described as a gin made of sugar. The newly formed gin is then aged in burned out American white oak barrels imported from either Ireland or Scotland, with ethanol and anywhere from 24-to-36 percent water added. While the process of making rum, however complicated it may be, is somewhat common knowledge, what is not, is the company of Havana Club. Havana Club is a company that is very commercial, especially when compared to what little industry the rest of the fledgling nation of Cuba has –  I imagine this could be a form of admittance that the rest of the known world, possibly even America itself, is somewhat correct when it comes to commerce. It should be mentioned, as further evidence, that Havana Club is partially owned and operated by French beverage producer, Pernod Ricard. The company utilizes a very precise method of production, in which a product is specifically made for a certain market, in a certain country. For instance, Havana Club has started manufacturing a vanilla spiced rum to cater specifically to the youth market in Spain. In this way, Havana Club as a company almost seems to be directly opposed to everything the Cuban revolution stands for. Alas, nothing in the world is without its fair share of hypocrisy. In another highly unusual move for Cuba, Havana Club rum is then perfectly packaged in post-production in what can only be accomplished by modern mechanized computers and bottling machines. Each label and box looks to have been planned out by a graphic designer to maximize marketing potential and sales internationally. It can be said that even a government-run entity must compete in a more loosely regulated market if it is going to sell its products within Europe and the Pacific Rim. This is not to say that Havana Club is alone in its strange forbidden fruit-like business endeavors, Cohiba, another trademark of the island, seems similar in operation.

I will admit to being a free-market biased business major, but Havana Club can only be described as the conundrum that is the Cuban Revolution. Just like the communist Manifesto itself, the Cuban Revolution is a great idea. In fact, it is downright brilliant. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work and never will. Havana Club represents this difference between the practical and ideal. However attached the Cuban government may be toward the system of economics they chose to pursue, when push comes to shove they still need money from a capitalistic enterprise like Havana Club – the same capitalistic enterprise that the Cuban government pretends to loathe and not need. When an agricultural economy such as Cuba’s arises, it is fair to gamble that a socialistic stance may be taken, as demand is almost perfectly inelastic and so the government may regulate operations to the betterment of both the buyer and seller. We, as Americans, can see this concept in our airline industry and pre-oil-crash petroleum trade, where the case can be made for further government regulation. However, a socialistic stance with reference to an agrarian economy such as Cuba’s will never give rise to any type of lucrative prospects without industry on top of it like Havana Club. Industry that is perfected in capitalism and thus, in this case, it can be said that Havana Club is a necessary evil for the Cuban Government

IMG_20160111_142540 IMG_20160111_141922 IMG_20160111_143609

Journey to Vinales

After six days of traveling in and around Havana and Old Havana we traveled outside of the city on a three-hour bus ride to the town of Vinales. Driving through the different provinces was so different from the city. Instead of the crowded, busy streets with people all around we were on one straight “freeway” with a few lanes in each direction traveling fast and even saw a car driving down the wrong side of the road. Green grass, trees, and farms on either side surrounded the freeway as we drove away from the city. As we went off the main road, more houses appeared and became closer and closer together. The houses were simple yet colorful, such as orange or pink with an overhang over the front of the house so those who lived there would have a place to sit. It was interesting to see how many of the houses had their doors open even when it appeared no one was around. But, most of the time, there were many people out in front of their houses, either sitting or hanging up laundry on a line. It was so interesting to compare the differences of how they will leave doors open and spend time sitting outside. Where I live, everyone leaves their doors locked and it is rare to see people enjoying time outdoors around our houses.

Driving to Vinales       A House

Once arriving at the tobacco farm we walked around and saw the plants and leaves drying. We were able to watch a demonstration of how the cigar is made from start to finish. The man made it look so simple and it was amazing to see the process for something that is so popular about Cuba. In the United States I would always hear about how great Cuban Cigars are, so I was happy to have the ability to see this process first hand.

The Tobacco Farm
After seeing a prehistoric mural, a painting of dinosaurs in bright colors on the face of a large rock wall, we continued to a cave and took a boat tour through the caves. It ended outdoors on a river, but while in the cave, the guides showed us the different rock formations and had them imagine them to be different objects, such as tobacco leaves or a seahorse. At this same cave, outside there were multiple booths of individuals selling different souvenirs and wooden pieces of art. It was some of the first “tourist” items I’ve seen so far on this trip. After this we got back to the bus and started the ride back to Havana.

The Prehistoric MuralThe Cave

It was interesting to see a different part of Cuba from what I have seen so far. On day six, this trip seems to be blending together. The beginning of the trip feels like it was so long ago, however, at the same time it’s going by fast. As I am here more days I am becoming more familiar with the streets and am learning locations and directions. In the beginning it seemed the area would be hard to get around and that transportation seemed complicated; however, this is changing as I feel more and more comfortable in this neighborhood and at the Residencia. By being more comfortable we are able to see more of the neighborhood and feel that I am getting more out of my time here in Cuba.

Being about halfway through the trip I know that as more days go on time will go by faster and faster. Through all the lectures and tours that we have I have learned so much about Cuba and am excited to see what else I will discover while I’m here.

The Cuban Sandwich

Bread, mustard, cheese, pickles, ham, pork, then cheese again.

This is the Cuban sandwich.

Our lecture today was on the subject of education in Cuba. I rememeber I had posed a question regarding whether or not Cuban students have the freedom to choose their college majors. The API interpretor, Ana, relayed my question to the lecturer in Spanish – a language to which I am almost a complete stranger. The speaker at first explained that students did indeed have that freedom, but that, like anywhere else, certain fields would require higher test scores than others. I then attempted to probe deeper by asking whether or not there is a quota for each occupational field hiring. The speaker answered, to what I understand, that a “projected” quota does exist for each field. However, for each field of study, you would need a certain amount of credits, and, based on the number of credits you receive, you will be assigned a field based on your top choices with the quota in mind. This policy is similar to ours in the U.S. except that we have no limitations as to the amount of people who can work in each field by the government – though the supply and demand of each field might indicate otherwise.

You are given some ingredients and told to make a sandwich. So you do.IMG_2331

Next we went to ArteChef. We had the choice of volunteering to participate in one of two Cuban cooking demonstrations. I volunteered to demonstrate the making of the mojito, trying to do exactly as the “teacher” did – though I must admit to improvising on the quantity of each ingredient I put in the drink. That aside, the drinks were made from the exact same ingredients in the exact same order. When we went to eat lunch, we were served non-alcoholic mojitos as we were on API time. However, little compensation was made for the lack of rum in the mojitos. It was simply replaced with extra seltzer while the amount of the other ingredients in the drink was kept the same. The taste of seltzer and bitters ended up stronger than desired in our drinks since the chefs adhered strictly to the traditional recipe and did not factor in that rum accounted for a significant portion of the drink’s flavor.

IMG_2332You are given some ingredients and told to make a sandwich. So you do.

IMG_2350For our third destination, we paid a visit to the Cuban Literacy Museum. We learned about not only the situation within Cuba during its literary revolution, but also the involvement of Cuba with other nations. As we were all educated in the United States – a nation that has placed an embargo on Cuba – back home we were, for the most part, not taught historical perspectives that showed sympathy towards Cuba. The museum drew a stark contrast between the American and Cuban perspectives. One example portraying such differences in perspective includes the Bay of Pigs Invasion. To Americans, this invasion was launched in attempt to stop the rising power of Fidel Castro’s communist government which posed a “threat” to our way of life. To Cubans, however, this invasion tried to show how we threatened their way of life by emphasizing that the invasion looked to remedy the overthrow of Cuba’s former absolute ruler, Fulgencio Batista, who was installed into power by the United States. With a basic understanding of both perspectives, we were told to form our own views on the situation.

IMG_2348You are given some ingredients and told to make a sandwich. So you do.

We ended the day with a Cuban salsa class in which we were taught the “easiest” routine. The instructor showed us all the steps and we were told to imitate. Once we had been taught all the steps, we – well, everyone but me (I don’t dance) – were told to partner up, practice, and perform that routine. I watched as my peers struggled to perform each step exactly as our teacher had shown us.Screenshot_2016-01-24-18-32-01 Screenshot_2016-01-24-18-33-25

You are given some ingredients and told to make a sandwich. So you do.

But that’s the thing. Ever since we’ve been here in Cuba, we’ve been making sandwiches. Regardless of how we make our sandwiches, though, they end up being pretty much the same. We are given the same ingredients and the freedom to arrange them however we like by the government’s educational system. No matter how we ordered the ingredients, though, our sandwiches will all taste similar. We cannot add ingredients that were not provided for us. In a sense, this sandwich-making is what really opened my eyes to the political and social differences between Cuba and the United States. In Cuba, I felt a sense of artificial freedom. In other words, Castro tries to make his subjects feel as though they have freedom by allowing them to arrange their sandwich ingredients however they like. However, he manages to set parameters by providing certain ingredients and prohibiting other ones.

Though every nation imposes some limitations as far as freedom goes, when I’m in the States, I feel a greater sense of personal freedom. My craving for a tuna sandwich does not stop you from getting one made of turkey. In Cuba, though, community is emphasized over individuality. If one person wants pastrami and another wants chicken, maybe everyone will settle on ham or bologna. When it comes down to deciding what kind of sandwich to eat, there is not necessarily a right or wrong. Every sandwich is a delicious sandwich. The United States prides itself on its ability to accept all different kinds of sandwiches. Why, then, do we shun Cuba on the basis that its sandwich-making ways differ from, and therefore threatens, our own?

Bread, mustard, cheese, pickles, ham, pork, then cheese again.

This is the Cuban sandwich – a sandwich just as wonderful as, though different from, our own.

Past and Future

We started off the day with a lecture at the Centro de Estudianos Martianos. The lecture was about the student youth movements in Cuba. Our professor took an unconventional approach to the topic. Rather than beginning with the youth movements themselves, the dates they were formed, their purpose, their actions, he started by talking about Ancient Greece. He continued through history, describing the founding of European universities, the differences between Catholic and Protestant institutions of education, and finally brought us the University of Havana. It was a fitting subject for the day after the 288th anniversary of the founding of the University of Havana.

The lecture started off with the professor reciting his information, pausing every few moments for the translator to clue us in as to what was going on. It was before our coffee break, so we sat quietly, trying to pay attention. But as the class progressed, the professor became more animated and the lecture was more engaging. A student asked him about racism in Cuba. After trying to deny its existence, the professor finally conceded that there was racism in Havana, but only because Havana had taken on many capitalistic characteristics. He concluded by saying that there was no racism in the countryside, and that “the future is in the countryside.”

We had a chance to observe the countryside that same afternoon. We drove outside of Havana to the Escuela Internacional del Cine (International School of Film). On the bus ride, I reflected on what the professor said that morning. We saw many farms, but we also saw more poverty. The houses are smaller, and not as well kept-up. There are also fewer cars on the road. More people travel by bicycle or even horse-drawn carts. I understood the merits of living in the countryside, closer to food, causing less pollution. But we also passed by a dirt road strewn with trash, and I’m not sure the professor’s future is one I want.


Amidst bucolic countryside, a small collection of buildings sits atop a small hill. A collection of disused athletic courts slowly crumbles nearby. The paint on the basketball court has worn away, exposing the concrete. A pile of branches lies in the middle of the tennis court. Inside this small, unassuming campus is a highly competitive film school, where students from 23 different countries learn to perfect the art of movie-making. The campus resembles a small American college, with a dining hall, a dorm, classrooms, and an athletic area for its 120 students. The school is purposefully isolated, so it is quiet for the students to shoot their films and focus on their craft. We were able to see two classes in progress. When we first walked in, students were walking around with sound cranes, practicing how to maneuver with the large, unwieldy pieces of equipment. We also quietly slipped in the back of a class learning how to use visual equipment. The tour began and ended with a hallway that displayed movie posters of the films created by the students as their final project. The visit was a good reminder that education does not depend on gleaming, state-of-the-art buildings, or the latest technology, but rather a desire to learn.


We arrived back in Havana with about an hour and a half to explore before dinner. A group of kids was racing down the street in little make-shift scooters. One would run down ahead of the rest, to check the intersection at the bottom of the hill and wave the others on if the way was clear. It felt like stepping back into the past, with children playing in the streets, and the adults standing around on the sidewalks, talking.

We walked down the Malecon and saw the clearest juxtaposition of past and future of the day. There were two sheep grazing on the side of the road in front of a high-rise apartment building. The agrarian past mingled with the industrial present. A distance as small as 90 miles can bring big changes.

When we returned from our walk, the sun had set and the sky was darkening, but the boys were still racing their scooters down the hill. We watched them until their moms called them home for dinner. Then we, too, went in to eat our own delicious meal of pork, rice, beans, and fried plantains.

Of Rice and Beans

After an arduous journey through a sea of troubles I find myself sitting at the Hotel Nacional, taking in the smell of the waves crashing against El Malecon de Habana. Four hours in the air, twelve hours in the terminal, and countless of calories consumed through airport junk food has brought me to this moment in time, both antique and modern. Brand new Nissan Centras ride the roads next to Chevy Bel Airs as the air is filled with the sounds of Sinatra and Bieber. It’s a place fluid in style and in culture.
When I first arrived in-country, I noticed the overwhelming presence of the government. Cuban flags and men in green were seen on every street to the point where it would’ve been almost natural to see Patrick Swayze pop out of the bushes screaming “Wolverines!”
However, as we traveled closer to our rescidencias, the environment took on an entirely different atmosphere. Gone were the military and pro-Communist influence, replaced by soft lighting and bright colors. It was as if we had ended up on the shore of a Latin American metropolis. Of course, this could have been a side effect of a 9 PM to 3 AM flight delay.IMG_2232
This dichotomy continued on the first morning (2 hours later, mind you) when we awoke to a grey, drizzling sky and a trip to the Jose Marti Memorial, directly in the heart of the government center, and thus Havana itself. The bland constructionist architecture blended in with the overcast sky behind it, creating a drab plaza littered with red stars. The pride of socialism was made most present by the large statue of Marti, imposing over the square and its inhabitants. The interior of the concrete tower he guarded contained his entire history, of fighting and freedom, of diplomacy and exile, showcasing the Cuban trait of independence. And yet as I stared at the iron mural of Che Guevara, I wondered where the homely city fit in with this ideal.IMG_2239
With that question in mind, the second say brought us an even stranger twist: Old Havana. The bright palate and Spanish architecture lit the streets in a festive atmosphere, fueling a chic and paradiso vibe. Walking among the throngs of tourists, I saw capitalist-styled shops and artistic street performers akin to something you’d find in an American or European city. Gentrification was hidden behind the pastel walls, with modern conveniences provided at no small cost. After experiencing this touch of heaven, I was still confused as to why there was an equally imposing style.DSC_0811
Until, that is, I looked up. I saw the beautiful clock tower of old Havana and the serious looking windowed box of the government building in the same image. And then it hit me: Cuba’s charm is its fluidity, changing from socialist modernism to consumerist tourism in the blink of an eye. Like their delicious plates of rice and beans, the bland but necessary rice is complemented by the juxtaposition of the hearty and flavorful beans. Yet were one not to exist without the other, the system would fail.
So as I sit in my rescidencia in one of the East German-esque apartment buildings, facing the Hotel Presidente, I can appreciate the almost hidden art in its existence. Next to the harsh reality of Communism lies a plaza of bliss, creating a society of determined yet generous people. With an expansion of American pop culture in the city and an ease in tension between neighbors, I am left to wonder. Will this Caribbean Gemini continue to shine for future generations.?


Winter 2016 – Special Topics in Honors: Cultural Immersion in Havana, Cuba

Cuba Promo_tcm18-200700This course 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. Topics covered by Professor Julian Zalbalbeascoa and guest lecturers from the University of Havana will provide students with a multi-disciplinary overview of Cuban contemporary culture. This is a Winter 2016 course that runs from January 2-16, 3 credits. Satisfies the H6 requirement for Honors students. Learn more.

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