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.?