Cuba: My Eat, Pray, Love

Featured

Day 1: We’re Not in USA Anymore

When our plane landed at the José Martí airport I felt as though I was in a movie. The movie was a mixture between The Wiz, Hallmark Channel, and Telemundo and I was the main character. Nevertheless, the film didn’t start smoothly. I was terrified of flying; a fear that was only intensified by the rough entry onto the landing strip. But rough landings are to be expected. What was not expected came next. Upon exiting the plane I realized there was no gate; only steps. The entire airport was one large room about the size of two high school gyms. However, the real culture shock came when I went to the restroom and discovered, THERE ARE NO TOILET SEATS IN CUBA. We met our wonderfully amazing guides at the airport and the rest of the day was spent getting a crash course on Cuban culture. You know that scene in every movie where the protagonist gets to a foreign city that starts with a montage of her walking down random alleys, taking pictures with and of the most obscure art, and wandering around until she winds up in the middle of the city and ends with the camera doing a 360 pan of her standing in the middle of a street to symbolize her taking in the rhythm of her new home. Replace the 80’s Pop with Cuban Son and that was how the rest of the first day in Cuba felt.

Packing List: Hand sanitizer, toilet paper, tennis shoes, camera charger, money for bathrooms, snacks that won’t melt, string backpack or purse that you don’t mind carrying

Tips: When converting money, get as many small bills as possible. You will thank me when you realize you tip at EVERY SINGLE MEAL. It is best to plan for tips when creating your budget. We tipped 2-3 Cuc every meal.

 

 

Days 2-3: When In Cuba, Do What the Cubans Do

What do the Cubans do? Judging by he amount of activities we packed into these three days, I’d say they do everything. We hiked through forests, swam in natural springs, danced in the street, took boats to the hidden Taino village, visited the Bay of Pigs Museum, and ate on the coast of the actual Bay of Pigs; and that was just the second day. The third day was all about Ché. It took less than five minutes at his mausoleum to understand just how important his legacy is to Cuba. Che’s mausoleum was like a holy ground where even the slightest hint of noise was forbidden. He is enshrined among many other fallen heroes, with little distinction between his tomb and the rest. Yet the single wall where his lone plaque lies is still enough to demand respect and show the amount of reverence people have for him to this day. Sadly, like all respected leaders there were no pictures allowed so to fully understand you have to visit yourself (which I highly suggest you do for all the locations described in the blog). The mausoleum was followed by a lighter trip to see the local professional baseball team. The Cienfuegos Elephants were a nice group although very few understood English. The few that understood my choppy Spanish  were eager to explain about their economic situations and their dreams of playing in America. One of the players, Ortiz, was even nice enough to sign my souvenir jersey for free.

Packing list: BUG SPRAY, SUNSCREEN, shorts, sandals, phone and camera chargers, money for souvenirs and tips, change of clothes if you plan on swimming

Tips: You can never have too much bug spray and sunscreen. If you think you have enough, bring extra to share with a friend. They will greatly appreciate it.

Days 4-6: It’s Time to Eat

And eat, and eat, and eat. I ate so much within these three days I think I gained ten pounds. It didn’t help that most of the activity was touring historic districts of cities where people are willing to sell you food for 50 cents. Lunch and dinner was always lobster, rice, salad, bread, desserts, etc. I would’ve kept eating too, if it wasn’t for the food poisoning. However, my sickness came just in time for me to miss out on the long hike up the mountain on day 6. Thank God! There was also plenty of dancing as Trinidad is a city that never sleeps and music fills your ears from sunrise to sunset. A night on the town steps was worth a month of Salsa lessons in the US. Everywhere you looked there were people of all ages dancing the Cuban Son better than most professionals I’ve ever seen.

Packing List: A nice sundress, money, sunscreen, camera, shorts, phone charger, and a light backpack or purse

Tips: This was when we learned you had to pay for wifi. I didn’t use more than three hours total the entire trip so don’t go crazy with the wifi cards. You really won’t stay in one place long enough to use a ton of wifi. Trust me, there is a lot more interesting things happening around you than there is on Facebook. You’ll live without it.

 

Days 7-8: Let Us Pray

Day 7 started with a much needed visit to a local Cuban church. Surprisingly, there was another group from South Carolina visiting as well. Their pastor was the guest of the church and was the leader of he sermon that day. Later we had the opportunity to sit in on Sunday School classes. I sat with the older students and talked with the teacher about the way the school and meals work in the small town. We learned that the church had an outreach group that visited families with disabled children. We were able to visit some of the families that the church helped and learn about their challenges and ways they receive help. They were very thankful that we came and grateful for the few gifts some of the other students brought. Lastly we visited an organic farm that was sponsored by the church and learned about the growing methods. The purpose of the farm is to provide food and economic opportunities for local families while teaching farmers about organic, sustainable growing methods. Day 8 was a return to La Habana with more touring and personal history lessons. The day ended with a musical performance from the infamous Buena Vista Social Club at one of the local restaurants. It doesn’t get more authentic than that!

Packing List: gifts for the children (baseball cards, baseballs, coloring items, dolls for any girls), bug spray, sunscreen, sandals, a mini bible, money, camera charger

Tips: My biggest regret of the trip is not having anything to give the families I visited. Don’t make the same mistake as me. You’ve been warned.

Day 9: And Then We Rested

Seriously it was a day of rest for me. I went with a small group to Chinatown to meet some of the descendants of Chinese immigrants and walked around downtown Habana. It was a calm day for the most part.

Packing List: sunscreen, camera, money for souvenirs

Tips: This was the best day to find souvenirs. Take advantage of the free time. You can sleep when you get back.

Days 10, Part 1: Love at First Sight

Day 10 was when I found it. I found where I wanted to have my wedding. It was the perfect mixture between rain forest, mountain, and garden. After yet another long van ride listening to the musical selections of the best chauffeurs Cuba has to offer,  we arrived at the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen, Orquideario Soroa. It is a beautiful orchid garden tucked away into the mountains. There is a lovely bridge in the middle of the garden with a view of the valley below. It is the most magical place for a wedding and 10 years from now when I find a husband that is where I will get married. Sadly my pictures don’t do it justice.

Packing List: bug spray, sunscreen, camera, bathing suit

Tips: There was a pretty waterfall  in the valley that we were able to swim in. The steps are no joke so be ready to burn some calories.

Day 10, Part 2: Going Out With a Bang

Surprise!!! Rooftop party at Sylvia’s!! Ernesto, the hero of my trip, the protector of the squad, the musical tour guide, the man of 100 jobs, and the man that does everything with the smile and aura of what can only be described as authentically Cuban, surprised us all with a rooftop performance of my favorite band in Cuba, Los Boys. How he made it happen is still a mystery but it was the best surprise of the trip. There was so much loud dancing and singing  that people in the streets below us joined in. We met the families of Domingo and David, our tour guides, and gave away shirts to the men that made the trip possible.

To everyone that made this magical trip possible,

Thank you for allowing me to live the life I’ve always wanted. Thank you for opening your hearts and homes. You will forever be remembered and I will forever be grateful.

With Love,

Victoria Roberson- Your long lost Cuban.

Advertisements

Chronicles of Cuba: Kelsey Edition

Hola! Welcome to the Cuba blog! I just want to start out by thanking Auburn for such a wonderful trip as well as Tiffany Sippial and our many tour guides! It would not have been the same trip without the wonderful group that we had!

Day 1: lunch at Porto Havana 

We ordered ceviche, fried stuffed plantains, garlic shrimp, and ropa vieja. Before our meal, Camilo (professor at university) and Cuban diplomat talked to us about Cuban relations with United States and how Cuba sustains their economy through places like china. Then we walked around old Havana and talked about the cathedral and various architectural structures. At night we had a great time at the sangri-LA club. We met members of the band and got to experience dance and night life as the Cubans know it.

Day 2: woke up and had breakfast and then left the casa around 8:30 am. We took a long drive and ended up at the national park that is known for the bay of pigs. Once we got there, we took speed boats out the the old Asian villiages and got to learn about why they created the project and the reasons for the sculptures lining the edge of the land. We also go to learn about how to tree relates to the mix in religion between African traditional and Roman Catholicism. Then we went to a restaurant where I got super sick, so I don’t remember the name of it :(. I then went to Ernesto’s aunts house (Teressa) and she let me sleep in one of her guest rooms. We then went to our cases to check in and out to dinner at casa prado restaurante and had such a wonderful time.

Day 3: we woke up and had breakfast downstairs at the little porch. After that , we loaded into the buses and headed to the Santa Clara City. We saw the memorial of Che and walked around the city. After that we went to lunch at a buffet and enjoyed good food and then headed to the baseball stadium to see the Cienfuegos elephants! We got signatures from the team and got to learn a little bit about their team and the baseball culture. After that we walked around the city and got to shop around more and then we went back to the casa to relax. After that we went to dinner at Florida blanco downtown!

Day 4: we woke up and chilled until around 12 trying to get wifi and then we went to the hotel Jagua and had lunch (cubano sandwhiches) and we went to swim at the pool and got to jump off the dock. We also got to go to the rooftop of the bar Terraza. After that we drove to Trinidad and walked around the city for around an hour and went back to our casa to drop off our things. We then went to dinner at El Galleon and had various palleas and mixed fruit cups for desert. The bar tab came in a treasure chest. We went back to the casa and got ready for bed. Some people went back downtown, but some of us stayed in.

Day 5: we woke up and had breakfast on the casa patio. After that we went to iznaga tower and climbed up a lot of stairs. 40 meters. After that we got a few crafts and I got postcards to send and mail out. Then we went back to the casa to pick up Maddie and check on Kate. We then proceeded to the beach at the hotel where we got lunch at a buffet, checked wifi, swam, and relaxed on the beach with an open bar. After that we went back to the casa and got ready to go out for the evening. We went back to the pottery workshop and had the experience of trying chenchachara, a local drink. After that we went to dinner and sat up stairs on the patio and listened to live music while we ate great seafood. Last but not least, we got to club at the disco ayala which was an underground “cave” club. Which was absolutely amazing.

Day 6: we woke up and had breakfast at our casa in Trinidad and then loaded in the taxis to go to the mountains. We had the experience of sitting in the open air jeep which was super awesome because we got to feel the breeze as we went up and down the mountain. We first stopped at a coffee house which was awesome because we got to learn about the different ways they roast and grind coffee, we even got to try a cup! When we got to the visitors center, Luis gathered us all around the map of the area and explained the trail we would take on our hike. We then ventured out on our hike and it was definitely difficult and strenuous. We had so much fun, but my legs were definitely jelly at the end of it. I think going up was much harder for me just because I forgot my inhaler, but going down the hill was tougher on the knees. Once we got down we had the opportunity to jump into the fresh water spring under the water fall and all I can say was it was freezing! But definitely a good way to cool off. After we dried off, we started our way back up the mountain. After we made it to the top, the cars picked us up and we went to the restaurant. After lunch, we headed back to Cienfuegos and had the chance to take a nice nap before we left for dinner. At 7:45 we went to dinner at an international style restaurant and got to try both Italian and Caribbean style food. After dinner, we went home and chilled the rest of the night.

Day 7: we woke up this morning and had breakfast in Cienfuegos at the same place we did the last week. It was great! Then we loaded the buses and had a two hour drive back to Jovellanes. We had the opportunity to visit a local community church and sit in on their service for a little while. After we sat in on their service, we went to the farm where the farmers taught us about organic farming and the difference it makes when it comes to local produce. We also ate lunch there which was prepared by the women in the home. After that, we went to go see those who were underprivileged and disabled. This was the hardest part of the day because of how sad it was and how struggling the families were. After visiting, we went to the beach in Valadera and had a beautiful and wonderful time! Although security tried kicking us out, I did connect to their wifi for a little bit! After the beach we went back to the church center we were staying at and had a home cooked meal. When we were done, Allison, Sarah, Kaitlin, and I went to Fresca y chocolate, a local ice cream shop which was so awesome! We ended up ordering 21 scoops of ice cream because we couldn’t understand the menu, so needless to say, we were stuffed. On the way back, we took a horse carriage! Once we returned we got dressed and headed out for a musical evening on the town.

Day 8: we woke up this morning and had a breakfast in the community dining room. After that, we loaded the buses and headed to Havana. On the way, we stopped to take pictures at the tallest bridge in Cuba! They are also a great spot for tropical drinks, which came in big pineapples. Our next stop was the revolutionary museum in Havana, it was really interesting to see the spot where college students stormed the president’s mansion. You could still see the bullet holes in the wall. After that, we took a car ride in the old fashioned cars to the national grand hotel of Cuba which was built in 1930. My favorite part of visiting the hotel was seeing all of the famous people who visited on the wall. Their pictures were displayed in chronological order which was super cool because you could go by decade to see if any of your favorite movie stars, singers, of political figures visited too. We then went to lunch at Ajiaco, which was delicious! Very traditional, family style Cuban food. After lunch we went to go visit the artwork of a local artist, who transformed a neighborhood into an amazing art project! He used different glass pieces and painted pieces to create a story among the different houses and elements of the street. Then we went to check into the casas with Sylvia. This was the first casa we stayed in on our trip, so it was really nice to be back in Havana! Then we went to dinner at El Classico and spent a good time talking and chatting among each other about our days. Then off to the social club in downtown Havana for a nice of traditional Cuban dance and song! I felt like I was on an episode of “I love Lucy” watching Ricky Ricardo at the Tropicana club. 

Day 9: Today was full of exciting things! We started off the morning with salsa dancing lessons at Casa Del Son which was such an incredible experience. We definitely got our work out in for the day! After we finished our lessons, we went to an art museum near by to get drinks and walk around for around an hour. It was a very interesting experience because we had the chance to see all different, cultural pieces of art. Next, we had lunch at the Starbien restaurant which was by far my favorite meal of the whole trip!! They had lettuce for salads, which was a big deal let me tell you! After lunch Tristan, Allison, and I went to Havana Libre and had a nice time swimming and eating snacks before we went to Opera for dinner. This was an Italian restaurant that had wonderful food and even better deserts! They were a reservation only place and used only organic and locally grown products.

Day 10: we woke up this morning and had breakfast on the porch at Silvia’s and then loaded up the busses to head to Orquideario Soroa. This is a botanical garden that is run by the environmental agency of Cuba, but is headed under the local university (Pina del rio). It was first built in honor of Spanish man’s daughter who died giving birth to her child. There are beautiful orchids and many different plants and flowers along the route that we walked. We took a tour from the guide at the park. The most interesting thing I learned from the park was that there are around 35,000 species of orchids around the world. We also learned that this is area is one of the most humid in the world having anywhere from 85-90 percent humidity during the summer. After we left the park, we went on a little bike down to the waterfall. After spending around 30 minutes dipping in the water and taking pictures, we made our way back to the top to head to lunch. When we were done eating, we headed to La Terrasas, an ecotourism hotspot and environmental restoration project. Included in La Terrasas is La Moka, the small reforestation community. This was my favorite part of the day because I had the opportunity to zip line across over 1600 meters of canopy and see some amazing sights. Then we headed back to Havana to get ready for the party tonight with Los Boys. 

Cuba: An Adventure of a Lifetime

I spent my whole life dreaming of that one adventure. You know how you watch movies and TV shows where the protagonist takes a trip, often to a foreign country, has the time of her life, and “finds her bridesmaids”? I thought that wasn’t real life…until Cuba. In Cuba I learned to not be afraid of anything. Whether it was a giant cave, a tall tower, or Cuban food, I did not hesitate to enjoy every moment I had in Cuba because I knew this entire trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And Cuba did not disappoint. Every day in Cuba was unforgettable. At the end of it all, I was sad to leave Cuba, but I knew that the friends I made on the trip would stay with me for a long, long time. So in a way, Cuba lives on in my life. I cannot fit the experience I had into a blog post, but I will try to highlight some of the key moments from the trip, and hopefully you’ll understand why I believe Cuba was the adventure of a lifetime. Here are my top 20 favorite things from my trip to Cuba.

IMG_5017

Sylvia’s Kitchen

20. Sylvia (and her eggs): We spent our first and last few nights with our wonderful host
Sylvia. We were in the top apartment, with views of the ocean. We slept at night with the window slats open and the patio doors unlocked, and I never felt safer. Her breakfast in the morning was the best breakfast of my life, and none of us could figure out how she made her eggs so wonderfully fluffy. We had coffee, watermelon, bread, and these amazing eggs every morning. If I had to pick one place in Cuba that was home, it was Sylvia’s.

 

19. Cats of Cuba: Touring Old Havana (a UNESCO Heritage site) was the first time we saw IMG_6036all the cats and dogs roaming the streets. We had seen a cat before at lunch at Porto Habana, but Old Havana was where we really saw the extent of street animals in Cuba. Not many people keep pets in their houses, and instead the streets are filled with (friendly) cats and dogs. We saw so many cats in Cuba that we started a collection of photos!

18. The Food: The food in Cuba is very simple, which is how I often cook for myself. It wasn’t spicy or crazy like I thought, but since meals were included we often were daring in what we tried. Since our group was close we would order a few different items and share, giving us the opportunity to try new things. The first night we had carpaccio (raw beef), one night we had seafood paella with octopus, and for lunch one day we had a whole fish served on a table. However, I have to admit, my favorite meal was at a restaurant run by an Italian woman who married a Cuban man!

17. The Old Cars: You know when you see pictures of Cuba and it looks like time was frozenIMG_5220 in the 1950s? Well, it really does look like that. I love cars and seeing all the unique 1950s vehicles around the country never got old. My favorite old car moment was riding in a 1950s Jeep to the Escambray mountains, though the close second was taking an old car tour to the Hotel Nacional!

16. Taking a boat ride in Cienaga de Zapata: I loved taking a boat ride through a reserve, seeing the birds along the marsh and visiting an original, preserved settlement. I was able to use my GoPro to take video of the channel opening up and the vast expanse of water. The nature in Cuba never failed to amaze me.IMG_5267

15. Hiking the nature reserve: We had a guide take us through Sendero Enigma de Las Rocas, and he was incredible! I couldn’t believe how he was able to hear a sound barely audible and then track down the bird. We saw so many birds and lizards I lost track, especially because I was so in awe of the limestone pools that we came across in our hike. I was so glad we did so much hiking in Cuba!

14.  Learning why Che was important to Cubans: We visited many museums and learned a lot of unique history on this trip (I say unique because their history has a very different slant than ours), but learning about Che was certainly the most interesting. There are many monuments to Che, as well as a mausoleum and museum that we visited. Talking to our guides about Che revealed a side of Cuban history not taught in the United States.

13. Our Hostel by the Sea: In Cienfuegos we stayed in the cutest white hostel, with comfortable beds and a wall unit for A/C (it’s the little things). It was so simple, with plain white walls and curtains, but the breeze, the views, and the simplicity of the life there could not be beat. If I ever go back to Cuba (which I hope to do), I would stay here and at Sylvia’s again, for sure.

IMG_604712. Seeing the differences between Cuba and the United States: Life in Cuba is different from our country. The internet is incredibly hard to get and the houses are simple with many generations living inside. The craziest thing was that there were
no toilet seats in Cuba, and we couldn’t figure out why you’d have a toilet but no seat! Also, you are supposed to tip often, IMG_5284including to use the restroom which had an attendant. The billboards aren’t advertisements, they are political slogans, and almost everything in Cuba is owned by the government. There is only one type of bottled water, cleverly marketed as “No 1 in Cuba,” which is funny because there is only one type of bottled water since the government controls it.

 

11. Having authentic conversations: So many times on trips you see only what people want you to see, or what they think you want to see. While I won’t say that I feel I lived exactly the way Cubans do, I had an experience that really got me close to the true Cuba. By staying in casas I was able to talk to the hosts about the real Cuban life. By having David, a Cuban close to our age, as a guide, I was able to find out little things like how Cubans get music and what they do for fun. By shopping in the streets I was able to talk to young artists, one being a girl my age who so sincerely wanted to learn English. This helped me learn more about Cuba than any book or hotel could.

IMG_5502.jpg10. Climbing towers and facing fears: It felt like Cuba brought out the best in all of us. We were all nervous to climb the Iznaga Tower, a 200 year old, 147-foot tower with narrow, steep steps, but we all made our way up and down, taking pictures and admiring the (well worth it) view. This wasn’t the only time we had to be brave, but it certainly involved the most steps!

9. Dancing: We went dancing many nights in Cuba, and we had an array of experiences. The most memorable was the cave. Let me start by saying that my biggest fear is claustrophobia, so caves are a no-go for me. Especially a cave with no support beams, no emergency exits (this is Cuba, after all), and huge speakers playing deep bass. However, as was a trend in Cuba, I shook that aside and climbed down into the most amazing discoteca I’ve ever seen. Another memorable dancing moment was the salsa lesson we took in Havana. This was no formal, cruise-ship worthy dance lesson. This was true Cuban dancers dancing how true Cubans dance. It was fun, it was fast, and it was Cuba!

8. Urban Gardens and Sustainable farms: We visited two locations on two different days that stick in my memory for two reasons: they both had to do with sustainability and they IMG_5649.jpgboth had my favorite dessert. Dessert first (always), they had this dish that was just hand-shaved coconut boiled in sugar water. It was simplistic, delicious, and I loved that the coconuts were grown right where we were eating. I used my Spanish skills to find the chef and ask how to make it! In terms of sustainability, I learned a lot by visiting the sustainable farm. For example, water ran under the pig pen to collect the waste into a vat to convert into biofuel, which in turn fueled the farm. That was a small farm that needed to save on energy, and came up with this idea. Then, on our last day we had lunch and learned about urban gardens in Cuba. They aren’t as prominent as I was expecting from the research I did before we left, but that’s because Cubans don’t eat a lot of vegetables. With limited resources, urban gardens are very useful in Cuba, and I saw many community gardens around.

IMG_6033

“Each tree is life”

7. Evaluating Sustainability as a Whole: I’ve got a passion for sustainability, so I kept this topic in mind when looking at Cuba. In some ways, Cuba is the sustainability experiment I’d read about. A lack of resources has made them, well, resourceful. Parts are reused because they need to. Energy is conserved because it’s valuable. But some of the features are also their downfalls. Pollution from old cars and factories reduce air quality. Total government control leads to conflicts of interest. Cuba isn’t overdeveloped, but there isn’t enough housing for its citizens. Cuba is in some ways an example of sustainable development, but I worry a jump in tourism could ruin the beautiful undeveloped coastline and simple way of living.

 

6. Visiting the Baseball Stadium: This is by far one of my favorite experiences. In the IMG_5359United States it’s almost impossible to meet a baseball team, and if you have the opportunity to, you’ll probably pay a large sum for it. When we visited the Cienfuegos team’s stadium, we drove up in our white vans and they said of course we could go in. We found the team was practicing, and after entering inside they asked if we’d like to go on the field. We took pictures with the team, but more importantly were able to talk to them. They don’t get paid very much, and we were able to support them by buying signed baseballs!

5. Finding a chameleon on my own, conquering the steepest climb of my life, and swimming under a waterfall: It’s crazy how in Cuba so much happened in not just each day, but each location. Our day in the Escambray mountains was one of these days. We hiked down deep into a valley and when we reached the bottom we were rewarded with a beautiful waterfall to swim in. Although the hike back up was incredibly steep, Kelsey, Sarah, and I sang songs to motivate ourselves up the mountain, and we were proud when we reached the top. Along the way up, I was excited to find a chameleon, as our guide admitted that they are incredibly rare to find as they avoid humans.

4. Pinar Del Rio and the orchid gardens: I have a green thumb, especially for orchids, and I have 4 beautiful orchid plants in my apartment to date, so visiting Soroa, a botanical garden with over 700 varieties of orchids, was heaven to me. It was built by a Spanish man honoring his daughter, who died during childbirth. He built the $1.5 million garden because orchids were her favorite. It was incredibly beautiful, and I love that the Cuban government has preserved even after his death.

IMG_6256 (1)3. La Moka: I had studied La Moka in the Ecotourism class I took in the Spring, and you wouldn’t believe how excited I was to finally visit it in person. The hotel was built without cutting any trees, and in fact, a giant tree comes up through the middle of the lobby! I was able to talk to a zipline guide who told me that people are happier in La Moka. He said that the community isn’t any wealthier than places like Varadero (the beach), but that everyone has a better quality of life because everyone is employed and works together as a community.

2. The pottery place: My favorite thing we did was visiting a pottery shop that had been making pottery for 500 years. Here one of the grandfathers actually asked if we’d like to IMG_5469make pottery. I was able to sit in the chair and make pottery, with the hands of a legacy helping me. That type of once-in-a-lifetime experience is something you could only get in Cuba, and it is something I will remember forever.

1. The people: Despite all the amazing adventures we had, my favorite thing about Cuba was the people. From my classmates to our guides to our hosts to our drivers, every person was a joy to talk to, and every Cuban was willing to answer our questions. Our drivers didn’t speak English, but they made every day fun. Ernesto, our leader, took great care of us, and David and Domingo were amazing guides. I made so many friends on this trip and I’m so lucky to have had this experience. I loved every moment in Cuba, and I thank all the people that made it possible.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Gracias!

Kaitlin Robb 

Una Rosa Blanca y un Corazón para Cuba

Cuba was my bucket list. I’m obsessed with Dirty Dancing (which is odd considering I cannot dance), and I have dreamed of going to Cuba ever since I saw Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights on ABC Family (now Freeform) while I was in high school. I pictured myself in 1950s garb, strolling the streets of Havana with my Cuban beau/dance partner by day and being king and queen of La Rosa Negra discoteca by night. A few disclosures:

1. I cannot dance.
2. La Rosa Negra does not exist.
3. Cubans do not wear poodle skirts.
4. Also, I cannot dance.

If you can’t tell from my fantasy-version of Cuba, I had no idea what to expect. That’s kind of my thing: go into life-changing situations with no expectations other than to have my perspective on life altered and maybe learn something new. That was my mentality approaching my internship last semester, and it was my mentality going in to the Cuba trip. It’s a great approach to somewhat terrifying experiences; if you have a general expectation of having your life changed, you will leave with a new appreciation for your life and great plans for your future.

A few days before our departure, I was suddenly hit with reality. In a mid-finals week delirium, I realized that I was about to go to a foreign country that had tense relations with the U.S. (at best), with a group of 12 strangers, and my Spanish skills were rusty (at best). My nerves only got worse when I arrived in Miami at midnight to a dark hotel room with 3 of the 12 strangers already fast asleep. I was ready to lose my Starbucks on the plane over the Gulf. Once on the ground and through customs, I threw away all memory of childhood safety warnings and got into a white van with two strange men – one of which did not speak English. And I got into that van quite happily I might add. I fell in love with Cuba before the plane even hit the landing strip. The green farmland we saw on our descent to Jose Martí reminded me of summers spent at home and at the lake. I was achieving the number one goal on my bucket list. It was going to be an epic adventure.

Now I could go into detail of our itinerary like others in my travel group, but there’s no way I could say anything about our shenanigans around Cuba that my friends have not already told. Instead, I will give you a general, birds-eye view of the life-changing experience. Now, back to getting in the white van with strangers…

In all seriousness, the men in the vans were our drivers and guides. By the end of our trip, they would be lifelong friends for all of us, so allow me to give some introductions. Our drivers were Magdiel and Yoandi. Neither spoke English, but both had excellent taste in music. Yoandi could bust a move at the díscotecas and had an appreciation for Celine Dion. Magdiel sang for us on our long drives through the Cuban countryside, even when most of us were catching up on sleep. I was in Magdiel’s van most of the trip, so I got to know him better than Yoandi. Magdiel really seemed to get a kick out of the random questions from the Americans, and he used us to learn more English while letting us practice our Spanish. Both drivers were amazing, and both were committed to taking care of us. Our guides – David and Domingo – were equally committed to our troupe. They both had so much to share about Cuba, and not just history. They were willing to address the touchy subjects of politics and Cuban-American relations. Domingo was a fatherly figure for all of us on the trip. He had so much wisdom to share with us, and he gave us encouragement as we tried new foods. David was like a cool older brother, and he gave us the 4-1-1 of our Cuban peers. Both David and Domingo shared their dreams for the future, their experiences in life, and where they hoped to see Cuba in the near future. Anywhere we explored, our guides and drivers had our backs, and it was clear that they loved seeing our reactions to their beautiful, wonderful country.

Squad goals set with the best drivers and guides in Cuba - make that the world

Squad goals set with the best drivers and guides in Cuba – make that the world

The base squad in Cienfuegos after meeting the Cienfuegos Elefantes baseball team

The base squad in Cienfuegos after meeting the Cienfuegos Elefantes baseball team

Squad with DAVIIIIID! (aka our wonderful guide David)

Squad with DAVIIIIID! (aka our wonderful guide David)

Let’s move on to the landscape. Habana was almost what I expected: colorful, colonial-style buildings, classic American cars, and relaxing tropical plant life. As we moved across western Cuba, we saw towns and cities with architecture styles that varied based on the town’s history and the needs of the people. Now before I decided on accounting, I wanted to work in architecture or building design, and I have always loved photographing the architecture and landscapes of new places. Buildings reveal so much about a place. Architecture is a living autobiography of a culture, and it exposes the needs and priorities of a people over time. The architecture in Habana revealed the Spanish and various European influences at the foundations, but the open balconies and bright, chipped paint on the walls exposed the harsh reality the Cuban people have faced. The people are doing the best with what they have, and just like the bright colors that vary from one building to another, they are optimistic for a brighter future. Life is hard, but these wonderful people are resilient. More than resilient, the people are hopeful and inviting and kind. Yes, these people are kind even to silly American girls (and token guy). They want to share with us as much as we wanted to learn from them. Just like the architecture and the natural landscape, the Cuban people are bright, welcoming, and full of life. From Habana to Cienfuegos to Trinidad to Jovellanos and back to Habana, I fell more and more in love with this place I had only dreamed about. Cuba was my bucket list, and it broke my heart to fall so in love with a place – and its people – only to leave it behind so soon.

DSC_0007

An example of a Cuban junkyard in Habana. Notice that it's pretty empty. Nothing goes to waste here.

An example of a Cuban junkyard in Habana. Notice that it’s pretty empty. Nothing goes to waste here.

Habana Vieja

Habana Vieja

One of our first views in Cienfuegos, from the balcony of our amazing casa

One of our first views in Cienfuegos, from the balcony of our amazing casa

DSC_0070

The beautiful streets of Trinidad

The beautiful streets of Trinidad

This view made the hike here worth every stumble and ache. The hike back up, however, was less satisfying and more painful.

This view made the hike here worth every stumble and ache. The hike back up, however, was less satisfying and more painful.

Classic American car tour of Habana

Classic American car tour of Habana

"1, 2, 3, turn!"

“1, 2, 3, turn!”

In short, Cuba changed my life and made my heart grow three sizes in the course of ten days. The people were warm and welcoming, and by the end of the trip, our hodge-podge group of thirteen American travellers had expanded to a somewhat dysfunctional family of Cubans and Americans who desperately wished they could change their genetics just enough to be a little more cubana. I cannot wait to go back and visit my “familia cubana” again, and until then I will revel in nostalgia by looking through the 1,000+ pictures I took.

Our Russian friend who shared interesting fashion and political advice. We dubbed him the "Second Cuban Missile Crisis"

Our Russian friend who shared interesting fashion and political advice. We dubbed him the “Second Cuban Missile Crisis”

The Cuban and U.S. flags flying side by side

The Cuban and U.S. flags flying side by side in Habana 

P.S.: I even learned how to dance! I’m still not great, but I can follow a good lead 💃🏼

Squad with our wonderful dance instructors 💃🏼💃🏻💃🏽💃🏾

Squad with our wonderful dance instructors 💃🏼💃🏻💃🏽💃🏾

Cuba 2016: Voy a Extrañar Este Pais Hasta Que Se Seque El Malecón

cuba2 - Copy

I don’t even know how to formulate words that could adequately capture the amazing experiences of this study abroad. This trip has left me with a tremendous love for the people of Cuba and a trove of memories to remember forever! Writing is not my forte (#engineer), so I am just going to narrow this down to some of my key learnings and favorite things.

THE CUBAN PEOPLE ARE INCREDIBLY WARM AND WELCOMING //

Domingo // The greatest guide ever! He basically knows everything you could possibly ask about Cuban history or architecture. And he has the patience of a saint. Thank you for putting up with ten college girls (plus Tristan) for ten days and having such a good sense of humor!

David // What a guy! David was shy at first, but as the trip went on he was so funny and also open to sharing his experiences and feelings about his homeland. I feel like I learned the most about real Cuban life from David (thank you!!). I really appreciated being able to hear the perspectives of someone at a similar place in life; it was powerful and eye opening. He has so many amazing hopes and dreams, and our discussions helped illuminate some of the differences in freedoms and mobility between our two homelands.

Ernesto // The magical phantom! Ernesto has the ability to appear and disappear at the drop of a hat, and he always returns with whatever you needed! He is probably the best trip coordinator on the planet, and I am certain that he knows 75% of the Cuban population. He also melts your heart every time he calls you, “My queen”!

Magdiel and Yoandi // Our fearless, speedy van drivers! But, let’s be honest, they were also our body guards, mealtime entertainment, dance partners, and DJs. At one meal, Magdiel was humming a song from La Sirenita, and I joined in singing “Kiss the Girl”! He also trapped and ate a fly during this meal… Yoandi had some kick butt dance moves that he brought out when we went to Espacio in Havana.

Alicia and Ramón // These were Ashley and my hosts in Havana. We stayed with them the first night and then three nights at the end of the trip. We immediately felt at home with Alicia, an absolute gem of a woman. She is so welcoming and loving! The first afternoon we arrived, she sat us down and talked us through our itinerary to give us advice and stories. She was a chemistry professor and now tutors English, so conversations came easily since there was a minimal language barrier. (I thought I was decent at Spanish before we arrived, but man, I overestimated my skills.) Ramón, Alicia’s son, is an anesthesiologist at the hospital in Havana. It was interesting to hear about his work and his schooling, especially since Ashley’s dad is also a doctor. Both Alicia and Ramón, and her other son Alberto, were so kind. They also shared so much of their life experiences with us. Thank you for opening your home and your hearts!

All of the people we met demonstrated such warm hospitality! Our many hosts, waiters, shop clerks, the Cienfuegos baseball team, and so many more were all willing to share their passion for Cuba. Thank you to everyone! I miss you and hope to see you again in the future!

THE BEAUTY OF CUBA IS UNDENIABLE //

Sendero Enigma de Las Rocas // This was one of my favorite places! We pulled off the highway to an inconspicuous gated path where we were met by a man with his horse and buggy. We followed him to a hiking trail and then proceeded into the forest. The ground was mostly limestone formations from when the region was once covered by the sea. There were crabs, lizards, and all types of birds that our guide would call to and entice them to come closer. So many hummingbirds (sum-sums)! Eventually we arrived at a freshwater pool surrounded by limestone ledges. The water was deep enough that we could leap into the pool from the edge! It was nerve wracking but totally worth it!

Topes de Collantes // This was the best day, even as a recovering food poisoning victim! Our guide for the day, Luis, picked us up from breakfast in our Trinidad casas with a fleet of taxis (apparently the vans couldn’t take the mountain climb). My taxi driver whipped us up into the Escambray mountains where we stopped at a retired coffee plantation before continuing on to the hike. Most of the “hiking” we did on the trip was like walking with some minor hills, but this was pretty legit. We had to descend down a steep path to reach this gorgeous waterfall and icy pool that had both been etched into the mountains by centuries of rainfall. It was amazing, and so refreshing since it’s a little hot in Cuba 🙂 Please consult Ashley Kinsey’s posts to see videos of synchronized swimming.

Trinidad // This city was full of color and beautiful architecture! We had time to walk around the city, and Domingo gave us some of the history. The city has been around for over 500 years, so it was neat to see the blend of French and Spanish elements. I also had the best red snapper of my life at a pirate themed restaurant, El Galeon, one of the nights we were here!

All the views out the van windows // We spent a lot of time zooming around the island in our pair of vans. When I wasn’t catching some shut eye, the views were breathtaking. Most of the highways we took were right along the coast. The country is just stunning!

The beauty of the country was awe inspiring. The beaches, the mountains, and the colorful cities all come together to create a place unique to what I have seen before. It also reminds me of the importance of sustainable development, which I think will be a challenge with the sudden surge of tourism and the singular ownership of the tourism industry. It will be something to keep an eye on in the future. What a beautiful place!

cuba1 - Copy

Overall, this trip was so much more than just a study abroad program. It was a genuinely life touching experience. There is so much more I could write, but instead you will just have to call me up to hear more 🙂 I have made lifelong friends and learned mountains about this dear country! The feelings of hope and excitement that pulsed through the country make me excited to see what the future holds! Thank you to everyone who made this experience magnificent. Espero regresar pronto!

Besos,

Kate Duke //

 

My Experience in Cuba

I was looking forward to going to Germany with the Honors College next year, right up until I found out about this trip. I study German and Political Science, focusing in international relations. With the US now trying to renew relations with Cuba, this was a difficult opportunity to pass up and I’m glad I didn’t. After I signed up for the trip, in October, I couldn’t wait for the end of the spring semester.

When I finally flew into Miami the night before going to Cuba, I was brimming with excitement. Before going to Cuba, the only places I’d been out of the country were in Europe. The time in the airport the next day were nerve racking though, I’m the kind of person who hates waiting to leave even if that means getting where I’m going super early. As we left Miami, the excitement only built as we got closer and closer to Cuba. It wasn’t until we landed that I realized something very important, I would be experiencing a language barrier for the first time in a very long time.

The first day was one of the few relaxed days we had. We got there and met with the people with whom we would be spending the next 11 days traveling around Cuba. After that, we went for a really late lunch, at 4pm. We didn’t even get food until around 5! The place we ate at had a gorgeous view of Havana, though. We also had a talk with a professor and former diplomat, something I found particularly interesting. After that, we had a walking tour of Old Havana, courtesy of our guide Domingo. We saw a lot of interesting things, including the hotel that Earnest Hemmingway would stay at and the location of the first religious service in Havana. After seeing Old Havana, we had dinner at 10. After dinner, we went to hear a popular Cuban band called Los Boys.

WP_20160509_14_09_11_Pro

The first picture I took in Cuba

WP_20160509_16_18_52_Pro

The view from where we ate lunch

WP_20160509_19_19_30_Pro

Three of the classic American cars seen throughout Cuba.

WP_20160509_19_51_38_Pro

The hotel Hemmingway would stay at when he visited Cuba

WP_20160509_19_49_20_Pro

The hotel Hemmingway would stay at when he visited Cuba

WP_20160509_20_00_29_Pro

The location of the first mass in Havana

The second day was a travel day. It was also a really long day. We got up early to get started, but we left a bit later than intended, something that would become the norm. The travel was from Havana to the town of Cienfuegos, with a couple of stops along the way. The first stop was for a river tour of a Cuban aboriginal settlement called Guamá. After the tour, we got back in the vans we would travel Cuba in and stopped after a short time to eat lunch at a buffet style restaurant. After this, we visited a location known as Enigma de las Rocas. This is a location that where subterranean rivers have formed pools of brackish water where the fresh water mixes with sea water. After a short hike, most of us swam in the water, after confirmation that the water was clean. After leaving this location, we went to the Cuban museum about the Bay of Pigs. They charged for taking pictures, so I don’t have any from there, but talking with people who could translate the signs in the museum I found that they were labeling the invaders as “mercenaries.” This was our last stop before reaching Cienfuegos. After checking into where we would be staying for the next couple of nights, we left for dinner at a rather high end place. It was a kind of place that didn’t even have menus. After all of the traveling through the day, we remained at the place we were staying for the rest of the evening.WP_20160510_11_56_02_Pro WP_20160510_11_56_47_Pro

a candid shot I took during the river tour

a candid shot I took during the river tour

WP_20160510_14_30_05_Pro

One of the pools of brackish water

One of the pools of brackish water

One of the indigenous birds of Cuba

One of the indigenous birds of Cuba

The third day we went to Santa Clara to visit the Che Guevara monument and mausoleum. This was a very new experience, since in US history we really aren’t taught about Che or Castro. I suppose that that’s due to the fact that we haven’t had anything to do with Cuba since the 60’s and both Che and Fidel were revolutionaries and communists, or at least socialists. After the monument we went to have lunch at another buffet style restaurant, and then back to Cienfuegos. In Cienfuegos we visited the baseball stadium to meet the team just before the began practice. Before we left, I bought a hat for 20 CUC, which we were later informed goes into the team salaries. After leaving the baseball field, had some time to explore the main square of Cienfuegos After we left we had a few hours to rest at our hotel place before heading for dinner.

WP_20160511_11_11_01_Pro WP_20160511_15_28_30_Pro WP_20160511_15_28_38_Pro

A statue of Cuban cultural icon, Jose Marti in the main square of Cienfuegos

A statue of Cuban cultural icon, Jose Marti in the main square of Cienfuegos

The fourth day was another travel day. It was also the latest start we had since we cut out something from the itinerary. It was also the first experience we had with Cuban Wi-Fi. After spending some time there, we went to a building right next to the hotel that was the home of a very wealthy family in Cuba’s earlier history. After that, we further delayed our departure and had lunch at the hotel where I tried a Sandwich Cubano, something we were told was eaten by many Cubans but after talking with our guide David, I was informed that it wasn’t so commonly eaten and that it was just a sandwich for Cubans. When we did finally leave to get to Trinidad, we had another walking tour once again thanks to Domingo. After our walking tour, we went to the workshop of a very awarded potter where a few of us got to try making pottery. After that, we checked into the place we stayed at. Then we went to a ship themed restaurant called el Galeón.

One of our pottery products

One of our pottery products

WP_20160512_18_56_18_Pro WP_20160512_17_20_53_Pro WP_20160512_17_32_59_Pro

The view from the top of the former house we visted

The view from the top of the former house we visted

WP_20160512_19_15_01_Pro

One of our pottery products

One of our pottery products

The display outside of the restaurant we had dinner at

The display outside of the restaurant where we had dinner

The fifth day was our first relaxing day. We got up early, though I did get myself locked in my room…, to go to a tower built by a man attempting to build the tallest tower in Cuba. We were told it was 40 meters tall, and it had very steep stairways. After that, we went to a beach and relaxed. I did get myself sun burned snorkeling, but it was fun. After that, we went back to where we were staying and relaxed until dinner. After dinner, we had an impromptu salsa lesson from one of the people who works at the restaurant.WP_20160513_10_23_14_Pro WP_20160513_10_23_36_Pro WP_20160513_13_52_44_Pro

The sixth day was probably the most demanding. We got up early and went to the mountains. After breakfast, we were getting ready to leave but had to wait for a couple of taxis. The only one of our taxis that were already there was a jeep, so a few of the others and I got in it and it left immediately. It wasn’t until we were half way up the mountain that we finally saw the others. That, combined with the lack of anything to keep us in the jeep was a little worrying. Not long after that, we stopped at the restaurant where we would be eating lunch I guess to confirm our reservations. After that, we went to the visitors’ center for the national park we were in, then went to a place where they grow and make coffee called “Casa de la Café” where we had a cup of coffee before beginning our journey in the mountains. After walking for quite a distance, we got to the point where we would begin descending to the waterfall we were going to be visiting. After a very long hike down, we finally got to the waterfall and were given a little while to swim in the resulting lake. Not too long later, we had to leave and the steep hike down became a very grueling hike up the mountain. I started in the lead and was very aggressive in my climb. As a result I was very winded about a third the way up the mountain and had to stop for a few minutes. After finally getting back up the mountain, we took a different path to our starting point and then headed to lunch. After that we went back to Cienfuegos to eat dinner and sleep

WP_20160514_10_37_10_Pro WP_20160514_10_37_28_Pro

before the descent

before the descent

right before the waterfall

right before the waterfall

WP_20160514_11_34_48_Pro

The seventh day we went to a place called Jovellanos where we briefly sat in for a church service. After that, we went to an organic farm where we had lunch made from only what they grew on the farm. After that, we spent time meeting disabled children. Then we went to a resort area called Varadero. the This gave us the opportunity for Wi-Fi once again and I spent that time doing so.

The eighth day was our break day. We got up and went to Havana, and stopped at an interesting place called Fusterlandia. Fusterlandia is a courtyard decorated with mosaic tiling. It had a very surrealist feel to it and it was a little difficult to look at. After Fusterlandia, we checked in where we would be spending the rest of our time in Cuba. We then had the rest of the day to ourselves. A couple of the others and I went to a hotel to hang out and swim, another group went back to Old Havana and walked the Malecón, and a third group went to the Havana Chinatown. After we had our free time, we went to dinner, then to listen to the Buena Vista Social Club.

Day nine was another fun day. We started the day with a sala lesson, then we went to an art museum. After that, we went to the museum of the Cuban revolution. We had about an hour to walk around there, then we had a car tour of Havana. Two of our cars were bright pink and the other was a light blue. After that, we went to a hotel were we had just a couple minutes to be told a little bit about its history. After that, we had some time to rest before going to dinner.

WP_20160516_11_38_55_Pro WP_20160516_11_42_25_Pro WP_20160516_11_45_59_Pro WP_20160516_12_46_03_Pro WP_20160516_12_54_39_Pro WP_20160516_13_02_16_Pro

John Wayne was on the hotel "Wall of Fame"

John Wayne was on the hotel “Wall of Fame”

WP_20160516_13_10_40_Pro

The tenth day was our last full day in Cuba. We went off to the Pinar del Rio province to visit an orchid garden then went to another waterfall. After that we ate lunch, then we went back to Havana. After getting back, we had some time before leaving to go to dinner just down the street. After dinner, we had a little party with our guides and the family that owned the building we were staying in.

We did so much in our brief time in Cuba. We did so much in fact, that after a couple days it felt like we’d been there for weeks. The last day was a little hard as well. It felt like we’d been there so long the day we left would never arrive. It did. I never did get around the language barrier, and even had another encounter with that in Miami. After only a couple of days, I felt right at home even if there was a mental disconnect from the fact that I was in Cuba. The itinerary was packed and demanding, but it was a lot of fun. We made many new friends, and a once in a lifetime experience, and helped bring in the new era of US-Cuba relations.

Cuba Trip Flickr

Hey all! In the following link you can see all of the photos taken during the trip: https://www.flickr.com/photos/142813206@N03/

Hola! En el enlace siguiente se puede ver las fotos que tomamos durante el viaje: https://www.flickr.com/photos/142813206@N03/

~Hannah