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.

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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

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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 💃🏼💃🏻💃🏽💃🏾

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

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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!

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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 //

 

Cuba: My Eat, Pray, Love

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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.

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.

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The first picture I took in Cuba

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The view from where we ate lunch

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Three of the classic American cars seen throughout Cuba.

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The hotel Hemmingway would stay at when he visited Cuba

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The hotel Hemmingway would stay at when he visited Cuba

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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

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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.

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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

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The view from the top of the former house we visted

The view from the top of the former house we visted

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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

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before the descent

before the descent

right before the waterfall

right before the waterfall

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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.

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John Wayne was on the hotel "Wall of Fame"

John Wayne was on the hotel “Wall of Fame”

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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.

Me Encanta Cuba

Visiting Cuba this May was an off-the-cuff decision I made right after beginning my final year at Auburn as an undergraduate. I had just returned to the South after a summer in New York City, where my life and horizons had been completely altered through the city, culture, ideas, and people that I encountered; the likes of which I had rarely experienced growing up in Alabama. I felt totally ready to see the rest of the world, to become aware of these new perspectives, values, ideals that existed outside of my apparently small life experience. Although I had travelled to Europe and throughout the United States before, actually living in Manhattan made me realize that visiting a beautiful place, even partaking in beautiful experiences in a new place, does not necessarily cultivate an understanding of said place that extends beyond a few impressive photographs. Our trip to Cuba further instilled this theme for me, and I feel eternally grateful and lucky to have had the chance to be a part of it.

 

While flying the short 90 miles into Havana from Miami, I realized that I was probably completely unprepared for whatever would be greeting us in this new country. Yes, I studied history in school and there must have been a chapter on Cuba at some point in my education, and yes, I attended the Honors class with Dr. Sippial in the months before leaving. But my knowledge of Spanish didn’t extend past the number 15 and I still wasn’t totally sure who Che Guavara was…

 

This ignorance is no one’s fault but my own, so I decided to embrace it and instead allow what I saw and experienced to be pure – free of any preconceptions or opinions I could have formed had I been a model Honors student and actually done research on the country in which I would be spending my final time as an Auburn student. To my relief, Dr. Sippial’s friend and fellow professor Martina, who accompanied us on the trip, found validity in this approach one night at dinner and thought it could be a beneficial way to experience a country in Latin America for the first time.

 

When we did land in Cuba, and throughout the following days exploring the island, I knew I was right about my lack of awareness, but nothing in the States could have prepared me for what was to come anyway.

 

The people, culture, art, and natural beauty of Cuba were all absolutely incredible. Our guides not only provided us historical knowledge but also were also able to share personal experiences and anecdotes about the things we saw, and we were able to form genuine friendships with them through extensive conversation. On several occasions a question I had about something we did or saw sparked a deeper discussion about issues that the Cuban people deal with regularly that were foreign to many of us. The opportunity to speak with Cubans in this way – free from any governmental influences – was unique and enlightening.

 

My favorite part about travelling is learning about the differing perspectives of people from other countries, and the way this trip was set up was perfect for the exchange of this type of knowledge. I do feel that I gained more of an understanding of the country than I would have on another type of trip, but because of the history and environment of Cuba, this understanding really only made me more aware of how much more there is to learn. Cuba is a nation of such a tumultuous and distinct past and present that an 11 day trip could only ever skim the surface. However, I think that all of us that participated in the journey realized this, and want to return, to not simply travel and enjoy ourselves but discover and comprehend more about the people of Cuba and potentially make a difference in their lives.

 

Thank you to everyone that made the trip possible and to the friends I made! You’re all beautiful and I’m extremely grateful for you and for the memories we now share.

Muchos gracias a todo

xoxo

Madeline

Cuba 2016

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Day One:

We arrived in Cuba at Jose Marti International Airport and we were introduced to our amazing tour guides, Domingo, Ernesto and David. After we got settled in, we went to lunch and had an “Intro to Cuba” discussion with a University of Havana Professor. That afternoon we walked through old Havana. Old Havana was beautiful and we learned about Cuban history. Our guide, Domingo explained the significance of certain places and the stories behind historic sites and buildings.

That night we saw Los Boys, a local band and we were introduced to a few Cuban songs.

Fun Fact: you have to buy wifi cards to connect to one of a few hotspots in Cuba.

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Day Two:

While in Cuba, one of my favorite things were the long drives we took.The drives allowed us to see snippets of Cuba as we drove by.  I saw agricultural activities and breath-taking sceneries.

On day two, we drove for a long time and we stopped to take a short nature hike. I realized that Cuba has huge lizards and really pretty forest.

At the Bay of Pigs Museum, I followed our tour guide ,David so he could explain the pictures and exhibits (they were all in Spanish … also, I do not speak Spanish but, over the course of this trip my understanding and pronunciation of basic words and sentences definitely improved!).

That night we were in Cienfuegos, Cuba and I ate paella (a common dish in Cuba) for the first time and I really liked it.

Day Three:

The Che Guevara Memorial and the Museum were very pretty (we were not allowed to take pictures of the inside) and it was very informative. The Memorial was a recognition of Che and many others individuals who were involved in the revolution. The museum had pictures and artifacts from Che’s early life through his adult life.

We also walked around Cienfuegos and explored the city and shops.

Fun Fact: you have to tip to go to the bathroom and occasionally you have to pay (a few cents) for toilet paper or bring your own (we usually used the small kleenex packets).

Warning: finding a toilet with a toilet seat was rare!

 

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Day Four:

WE GOT WIFI!

It was great we were all really excited and basically completely quite while we got reconnected. The wifi cards cost between two and five convertible pesos and they last an hour; they have a username and password so you can log into the wifi. For the most part, as long as you still have time left on your card you can use your wifi card at any hotspot.

After our wifi adventure, we drove to the city of Trinidad and we had a tour of the city (it is still very colonel looking, definitely my favorite city; after Havana).    

We visited the work shop of a famous pottery maker (His name escapes me, but he was very nice, patient and great at pottery making!) and he helped me make a vase (my pottery skills are definitely questionable, but It was a really great experience!).

Fun Fact: most wifi hotspots are in hotels (at least the ones I used were).

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Day Five:

We also visited the 40 meter high Iznaga Tower. We walked up the stairs ( there were A LOT of stairs) and saw the beautiful Cuban landscape (pictured above).

We also went to the first private restaurant in Trinidad and we had a Son lesson (Son is another name for salsa)

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Day Six: (My favorite day)

We hiked a mountain and we went to a beautiful water fall! The hike was very strenuous, but it was definitely worth it and hopefully helped me work off all the bread and great deserts I ate in Cuba. (We mostly ate really healthy meals: fish, lobster, chicken, rice and beans… really fresh food).

We also went to a great coffee shop before the hike. Cuban coffee is very strong but it is great and gives you lots of energy!

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Day Seven:

We went to a church and played with some of the kids attending the church, we also visited the homes of a few families that have special needs children. We talked to the families and the children about their everyday lives and we also learned about the support system the church has set up for the families.

We visited an eco friendly farm and learned about how they grow crops with limited space and limited pesticides (baby pineapples are pictured above).

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Day Eight:

We went to a revolution museum and Domingo gave a very interesting and in-depth history lesson on the Cuban Revolution.

We also visited Fusterlandia which is a really cool courtyard almost completely decorated with mosaic tiles. It was beautiful and one of my favorite places to see!

That night we went to Buena Vista Social Club and I danced with one of the dancers there! I was dipped and tossed into the air (it was very unexpected, but also a great experience!).

   

Day Nine: 

We had a son lesson at “The House of Son”. It was a lot of fun dancing with professional son dancers and learning the steps and movements to Son! (this was also one of my favorite experiences!).

We went to an art museum and I took a picture because I didn’t read the “no cameras sign”… My bad! The art and the sculptures in the museum where extremely pretty and I enjoyed seeing multiple parts of Cuba. (We saw the everyday cities and towns, we explored the outdoors, we went to various museums and great restaurants!).

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We toured Havana in a cool restored old car!

At the end of the day, we had free-time and me and couple others went to China town and walked around Havana.

Fun Fact: there were not as many old cars in Cuba as I expected, there were arguably a good number of new cars… especially at the airport.

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Day Ten:

We went to Orquideario Soroa , an orchard, and saw many pretty flowers and learned about native Cuban plants and trees along with plants that were not native to Cuba.

We also went on another (significantly less strenuous) hike and saw another beautiful waterfall.

We had a private concert the last night! The private concert was given by Los Boys; the band we listened to on our first night!

Fun Fact: it’s illegal to kill cows (I’m assuming without permission from the government) in Cuba.

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Day Eleven:

We went to an eco-friendly place were we learned about organic foods in Cuba.

Then we headed to the airport and back to the United States! It was really sad to leave Cuba even though I was excited about being able to throw toilet paper into the toilet again.

Pictured above our tour guides: Domingo, Ernesto and David!

Fun Fact/Warning: you have to throw toilet paper into the trash in Cuba!

Must haves:

  • bug spray
  • sunscreen
  • bathing suite
  • tennis shoes
  • hat
  • sunglasses
  • kleenex (remember toilet paper is not always provided)
  • make sure you break your bills early ( it is hard to tip when everyone has twenties)
  • you must try the Chocolate Mousse cookies (I think they are made in Brazil… but I had them in Cuba so they are forever Cuban for me!)
  • learn some Spanish… at least know how to say thank you
  • have all the cash you want to use (when we went there were no ATMs)

Forever Missing Cuba,

Alisa Mobley