“Cuba is supposed to be my Eat, Pray, Love.” – Victoria Roberson
When Dr. Sippial came into my Honors World History class Fall semester, I was genuinely excited to have ten minutes where I wasn’t frantically transcribing every word out of Dr. Beckwith’s mouth. Then, unexpected to me, she pitched her trip to CUBA, to which I mentally replied, “Sweet dude, sounds awesome!” I think she heard, because we mentally high-fived as I strategized how to give my parents no way to veto this trip. “You see mother dearest”, I would say, “As a pre-nursing student, I have already been drilled with the countless reasons studying abroad will not fit into my curriculum, despite its being so high on my bucket list. But this magical red-haired woman is organizing an amazing week and a half long Summer trip, and to Cuba nonetheless?! Sign me up, it’s a must-do!” Needless to say, my parents were easily convinced. But first semester-history class-day dreaming-me had no idea how life altering this experience would be. In high school I went on a trip to Italy with fellow students during Spring Break of my freshman year, and made some of my best friends while having fun experiencing a new culture. I hoped to get the same from this trip, but what I didn’t account for was that Cuba is a whole different ball park as far world travel goes, and a small group of hilarious, intelligent, and fearless Honors students to travel with was more than I ever could have hoped for. So here’s the breakdown of Cuba 2016 through my eyes (and I do have 20/20 vision). Be prepared for a long ride because this blog is most importantly for me to reminisce on years from now as an old woman, thus, I’m going to include as much as possible. Buckle in, kids!
(Photo Credits: Tiffany Sippial)
So here we are! Miami International! I like this picture that Dr. Sippial got of all of us because it looks like I’m (the one with legs propped up on suitcase because I lack Southern-raised manners) saying something fascinating and worth listening to, when I know for a fact we were discussing what empanadas should be stuffed with. We were all still a little bit in that awkward stage of blossoming friendship, as seen by the strategic gaps of uninhabited chairs between people. Anyway, we take off slightly behind schedule, reach cruising altitude, and momentarily later enter our final descent into Havana. (If only it was always that easy) We arrive at the Jose Marti Airport, and migrate to the bathroom where I unexpectedly encountered my first culture shock: in Cuba, toilet seats in public restrooms are very rare. Additionally, there are bathroom attendants whom it is important to tip as they are often your only source of toilet paper. Duly noted Jose Marti Baño, duly noted. Recovering from our confidence shaking first encounter with the locals, we breezed through Cuban customs and strolled outside to meet our guides, Ernesto, David and Domingo. I remember this moment and laugh because at this point we still thought they would be just our guides, and wouldn’t have dreamed that they would become unforgettable friends within 1.5 weeks time.
The first sight of the city as we drove from the airport was eye opening. Many buildings were in disrepair, needing paint and new windows, laundry hung from lines all over, ferrel cats darted across the street. Now, this isn’t to downplay the beauty that was present as well: wonderful statues and monuments in grandiose traffic circles, beautifully refurbished cars that have been kept running by sheer Cuban ingenuity, artfully trimmed hedges against colorfully painted old style architecture. I think this set a tone for the trip as a whole though; I don’t know what I expected as I flew to Cuba, but the conglomeration that I encountered was completely unexpected. I couldn’t wait to see more!
We arrived at Sylvia’s house where we would be spending the night. It was a beautiful fifth story apartment with a massive deck where we could sit and watch the sunrise in the morning.
Moreover, another important thing about Sylvia is that she makes the best scrambled eggs you will ever have. See below.
They’re life changing. Sylvia didn’t speak much English, and I not much Spanish, but we bonded over my love of her eggs, and if that’s not cultural immersion at its core, then I don’t know what is.
Hereafter we went to a restaurant for lunch that had a skyline view of Havana, and we got the privilege of hearing from a former Cuban diplomat. He gave us somewhat of an introduction to the country, talking about Cuban sustainability which, he argued, had come solely from necessity. He explained that Cubans, in the absence of relations with the United States, had survived through foreign investment from other world powers, most recently China.
We continued onto a walking tour lead by Domingo. Now, Domingo is an awesome dude. He’s extremely well versed on Cuban history, architecture, policies, the works. His English is fantastic, and he can take a joke, as exemplified by my “American Slang” Lessons.
Yah Brah!! Thanks for hanging in there Domingo!
And, while I’m introducing guides let me throw David in here. David, like Domingo, is an awesome dude. He was our younger guide, but he too was so knowledgable about any and everything Cuban, and it was great to get a take on some of this stuff from someone almost our own age. Plus he’s hilarious and sarcastic and introduced us to those chocolate mousse cookies that are so good and he helps you out of the van so you won’t hit your head! David is a keeper.
Also, there’s Ernesto who was our main coordinator. He would pop in every once in a while (since he was managing other trips at the same time) and we would all shout ERNESTOOOO because he’s so much fun to have around who wouldn’t give him a greeting as fitting as that?! Ernesto knew all the great places to take us in Cuba and had the connections to get us where we wanted to go every time! He’s awesome, and I know we’ll go down in history as his favorite group! (I asked :)) I never got a picture with Ernesto but he’s in a group pic I’ll post at the end, keep an eye out. Okay! Back to scheduled programming!
So, Domingo trekked us through Havana Vieja, which if you utilize Google Translate you will find is “Old Havana”, containing four main plazas: Plaza Vieja, Plaza de las Armas, Plaza Catedral, and Plaza San Francisco. He explained how plazas served as a gathering place for the city, every town had one, and Havana being as large as it was developed to have many. There would be musical performances, bazaars, and so on. We actually encountered a group of locals playing the bass and singing, in 2016, so these plazas are still doing their thing! Additionally, Domingo pointed out how evident the foreign influence on Cuba is. Architectural influences from Spain, Arabia, France and Baroque all presented themselves as we strolled through the narrow cobblestone streets. The streets themselves were often made of volcanic rock. Now Cuba is a limestone island. How could this be, you ask? Well Domingo explained: ships would weigh themselves down with bricks of volcanic rock, and Havana being a large port city, collected enough rocks over the years to utilize them as pavers. Havana grew to be such an important port because it was ideally located, naturally protected to be safe for trading. Here’s some of my favorite shots from this stroll:
You can see what I mean about different styles of architecture all over the place! The square above is where we finished the tour, followed by a nice dinner and a return to Sylvia’s to get ready for our first “musical evening”. As we had discussed in class during student presentations, music, dancing and nightlife are all huge parts of Cuban culture. I was so excited that we would get to experience this part of the culture, because outside of a larger group and the protection of our guides and drivers who so graciously doubled as body-guards, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable venturing out into the streets of unfamiliar cities at night. Ernesto, our amazing tour director, is one popular guy. He’s friends with some of the members of a band called Los Boys who were performing this night, and we got to see them up close and personal in an intimately sized night club. It was a very cool experience and an awesome jump start to the trip, despite getting home late and rising early the next day!
Look how cute!! We hit the hay late this night, but I don’t think there is any group of travelers more skilled at rocking and rolling on no sleep, and that’s why I love ’em!
Day two began with breakfast at Sylvia’s (see picture above of life changing scrambled eggs) followed by our first of many long van rides. These rides would end up being so much more than getting from point A to point B. Besides fostering hilarious conversations among 11 Honors Students quickly becoming BFF’s and being an important recharging station (and by that I mean napping, a lot), they also gave us uninterrupted time to ask our guides how they really felt about different aspects of Cuban life. With such a wide subject that we knew so little about, David and Domingo were rattling off honest and insightful answers to our difficult questions until the second they hugged us goodbye to get on our plane home! There were two vans so the group within the van varied for the first few days until people settled more into one or the other. So on this ride I was with Domingo as shotgun in Magdiel’s van, and we were getting a breakdown of Cuban economy. I so appreciate Domingo’s honesty with us because it really helps paint an accurate picture of Cuba: There are so few jobs that provide an ideal salary to live on here, that almost all citizens resort so some sort of black market sale/purchase of goods or an alternate job (a “side hustle” we came to call it in the group). However, it’s hard to completely discount the benefits of socialism as college is paid for by the state should you choose to go as well as schooling through 12 grade, top of the line healthcare is completely covered, and social security provides a stable retirement for those that have worked through the state and “earned” their benefits (this does not include privatized workers such as house maids). This conversation got our minds going and woke us up from our departure slumber, just in time for us to arrive in Zapata.
We arrived at the Cienega de Zapata Biosphere Reserve where we took a boat trip though the mangroves:
The boat took us to Guamá, an aboriginal Cuban settlement. The buildings here were recreated by a government funded program, started in order to raise employment after the revolution. The aboriginals were researched as in depth as possible in order to make this recreation as accurate as it could be. The village consisted of thatch roofed buildings made otherwise of mud positioned around a small peninsula between two rivers. There were statues depicting how aboriginal life would have occurred on a day to day basis, and vegetation throughout including plants the aboriginals would have utilized.
(Photo Credits: Sarah Fowler)
We darted over to lunch which featured a water view where you could see fisherman at work carving that morning’s catch or hand fishing in the shallow water. Likewise, our meal was a fish presumably caught five minutes before we arrived; it was magical.
I think this photo is very indicative of the Cuban diet: what it lacks in vegetables and variety, it makes up for with freshness and simplicity. I actually had more digestive discomfort returning to the states where my GI tract was bombarded with processed meats, artificial colors and preservatives after over a week of all natural everything. Yuck. I’d rather have the fish with the head still on any day.
Next we made a stop at the Bay of Pigs Museum known as Girón. There was an ironic amount of American made artillery being used by Cubans, against Americans which I found interesting. Plus, I’m a gun girl so thirty minutes looking at guns is thirty minutes well spent in my book. Here’s a picture of a billboard outside the museum:
Advertisements and billboards in Cuba are all public service announcements and propaganda. I suppose that’s the blessing of a lack of free market: no awful car dealership jingles stuck in your head all day.
So from here we headed over to our first nature hike: Sendero Enigma de las Rocas.
This hike actually meanders along a fault line which created some jagged drop offs where wetlands have formed, fostering flourishing mosquito populations as well as other, more desirable ones. We met one of the resident biologist who had a really cute cart horse named Pepe, whom I pet because that’s what I do when a horse is in a 300 foot radius. We head off into the woods, and our guide was extremely knowledgeable on all the vegetation and animal life as we went. There were cactuses that sounded like waterfalls when you pet them the right way, lizards with curly yellow tails, a black snake (which he said is “somewhat poisonous” so take that as you will), and many birds which he would call both with his voice and a program on his phone. We saw one Cuban national bird, the tocororo, which bears the colors of the flag
We finally arrived at a beautiful natural pool in the limestone that you could swim in! The water was amazingly clear you could see rock formations deep beneath the water’s surface, it was beautiful!
(Photo credits: Sarah Fowler)
We made it back to our amazing casa in Cienfuegos (a French style port city), which had enough rooms to house us all together and rooftop terrace where we opted to spend the night gabbing away since we were so tired from living it up the night before! This place had the most beautiful sunsets.
Here we started out hopping in the vans en route to the Mausoleum in Santa Clara memorializing Che Geuvara. It houses the remains of Che and 29 fellow revolutionists who died attempting to spur an uprising in Bolivia modeled after the one in Cuba. There is an immense sense of respect and reverence here; it was utterly silent as we passed through the dimly lit mausoleum. We were ushered into the adjacent Che museum which told of his life before and during his involvement in Cuba. Most interesting here in my opinion was a slide on women in the army. Cuba, doing many things throughout its history based on necessity, utilized women in powerful positions from the get-go, at a time in the United States when women were relegated to cooking casseroles and sewing buttons back on. Go Cuba.
We toured the outside afterwards which is a beautiful memorial to Che and the Revolution as a whole:
We then travelled to the Stadio Cienfuegos, the home field of the baseball team, the Elephants. (Elephantes if you’re paying attention). We were able to meet with the players and discuss how the league worked in Cuba and what their day to day life as a professional athlete is like. These guys work really, really hard in the hopes of making it pro and coming to the US. Its amazing how talented Cuban players are! And baseball is KING in Cuba, everyone comes out to watch the local games and kids play with sticks and rocks in the street until their old enough to start for real. Here’s some shots from this tour:
Then Domingo gave us a walking tour of Downtown Santa Clara where he pointed out an interesting phenomena: The stores that take Pesos and the stores that take CUC are very different environments. That is to say, despite the equality sought to be established by the political system in Cuba, there is still a wide economic range. A store for people paying in Pesos will have the lowest cost goods, often items to fix things around the home with or second hand clothes. A store accepting CUC will have AC on as you enter and bottles of liquor and imported snacks available for purchase. The Cuban Peso has devalued so much that a new currency was created to be more on par with the world market. One Cuban CUC is equal to 25 Cuban Pesos. An average salary in Cuba is between 12 and 25 CUC a month. While at first this seems heinous, it’s important to remember that housing, food, water and utilities are more accessible and assured than in the free market. However there are even problems with these systems as housing reform occurred directly after the revolution and only recently have people been able to buy and sell houses legally. It seems the population is extremely well educated (which is provided by the government for free), enough so to know how difficult it is to improve their way of life no matter how hard they work. There is not real way to “climb the ladder”. But I’ll come back to this rant later.
We ate lunch and had some free time to shop around in Cienfuegos. Markets here are a lot of fun to go to; since it isn’t a huge tourist destination yet, products are still handmade and the people are genuine in their work. I love a place where I don’t feel harassed and simultaneously ripped off as I shop. We had dinner, and went to downtown Cienfuegos to a discotec called Terry where there was a live rock band performing, and many of us were even asked to salsa dance by locals, which was a lot of fun!
This day the whole group was anxious to get in touch with folks at home so we figured out how to work the wifi system in Cuba (which is extremely difficult by the way). We bought our wifi access codes, good for one hour, and headed to a hotel near our casa which offered wifi in the lobby. After getting our fix of being plugged in, we ventured up to the rooftop of this hotel which offered an amazing view of the peninsula:
We got to swim in the ocean for a little bit hereafter before we jumped in the van to go to Trinidad, a Spanish style town.
Trinidad is regarded as one of the best preserved examples of colonial Carribean style architecture in the entire carribean region and is quickly becoming a popular tourist destination. Historically, there was a lot of wealth in Trinidad and so the main squares and plazas were beautiful; they’ve also been built up and refurbished to their original splendor in recent years.
As we were leaving the walking tour, we ran into a woman selling beads to tourists, and she explained through Domingo’s translation that she had worked her whole life in the homes of wealthy families. David later explained to us that this is one of the failures of the social security system: if one works privately their whole life, they essentially forfeit their rights to that security, which is why this woman was selling souvenirs so late in her life.
Hereafter, we stopped at one of the coolest spots during the whole trip. Azariel Santander Alcántara Studios is a 500 year old family run pottery tradition run out of Trinidad. They are Cuban legends and make beautiful works by hand all day, every day. We even got to make a pot under the guidance of one of the two main brothers! It was an absolutely amazing experience.
We had dinner in Trinidad at an amazing paella restaurant that was, oddly, pirate themed. Then some of us went downtown with Ernesto to see the live music and salsa dancing at the main square in Trinidad. This was great to see because, let me tell you, Cubans can dance. I could watch them all day, or night as example would have it.
After breakfast which featured this amazing fresh, home-made guava paste/jelly type spread that was *to die for*, we travelled to the El Torre Manaca Iznaga to get a birds eye view of the Valley of the Sugar Mills, a stretch of land exhibiting Cuba’s lost economic grandeur in the sugar trade. The 45 meter tall tower was constructed by the owner of the plantation at the time, Alejo Maria Iznaga y Borrell, and it was the tallest tower in Cuba at the time of its construction (presumably to compete with his brother’s well, which was the deepest at the time, but also to showcase his power over his slaves and his superiority in the sugar world). The Tower contained a bell which would signal the start and end of the work day for the African slaves working the sugar plantations. We also learned here that sugar at this time was traded in the form of melaza or molasses. It wasn’t until later that sugar was refined by centrifuge into brown sugar (dark, then light), and then further refined to white sugar by added chemicals. An interesting tidbit because I had always assumed we were talking about table sugar. Anyway, here are some pics from this adventure:
We met a Marimbula player at the foot of the tower who showed us his instrument, often used in what Cubans would consider their “folk” or “country” music. You strike the metal pieces at the base with your fingers to create a tuned rhythm of sorts. He let us try it out too, although our attempts were unsuccessful because those metal pieces are way harder to flick than they look!
(Photo Credits: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marimbula.JPG)
Then we shot over to Playa Ancon where we had a snorkeling adventure. The beach we were at had a cove which had been created by rocks pushed in a semi circle by a powerful storm. The cove was protected from the waves, and right outside the cove and just offshore was a spectacular coral reef where we snorkeled for over an hour passing dozens of different types of fish and coral as we went (snappers, parrot fish, urchins, the works!). It was some of the best snorkeling I’d ever seen since the beach here is almost untouched from a tourism standpoint.
(Photo Credits: Sarah Fowler)
After we cleaned up from the beach, we returned to Azariel Santander Alcántara Studios where Chichi, the other brother, made a us a traditional Cuban drink called the Canchanchara, in its traditional hand made pottery cup. These drinks were made for the Mambises, who were early Cuban warriors, in order to to motivate them against the Spanish in the war for independence; they were made strong to “light a fire” in the soldiers.
(Photo Credits: http://www.foodrecipeshq.com/famous-food-drinks-in-cuba/)
The group gathered outside to play impromptu soccer with some local kids which everybody really enjoyed. Plus I think these pictures are really beautiful!
For dinner this night we were surprised to have the live music entertainment of a father-son duo called Los Bravos. The father had worked in agriculture all his life, but had needed some surgeries and could no longer do that work, so he and some other family members started a band. His son taught himself everything by ear! They played classics like Guantanamerra, and some pieces they wrote themselves! They were very talented, and great to hear all evening. The owner of the restaurant enjoyed our group so much that he teamed up with Los Bravos to give us all a basic salsa dancing lesson right there by the table! He was an extremely intelligent man with some of the clearest spoken Spanish we encountered; his main job is being a history professor at the University, but he works this restaurant on the side for extra money. We all had such a wonderful time at dinner this night!
After dinner we all headed to a discotec called Disco Ayala at Las Cuevas, and rightfully so because it is in a limestone cave, just outside of the city! This was the first time we encountered other college students in Cuba studying abroad as well, but there were also plenty of Cubans there too. This was one of the best nights on the trip; when’s the next time we’ll get to go dancing in a cave?! So cool.
As day six began, we suited up for our big, outdoorsy day. We took taxi’s to a national park where we met our guide Luis. Luis not only taught himself English, but he’s hugely eco-conscious and focused on sustainability of the landscape and the valuable prospects of controlled eco-tourism. He showed us a coffee production site where they roast locally grown beans. Outside the shop were the primitive tools used by farmers past including a huge wooden pendulum to separate out the beans via smashing. The coffee here is so well roasted that despite its concentration, it is still smooth, not bitter, and can be drunk black. However, this time I opted for a small café con leche pictured below. Needless to say, we got a major pre-hike caffeine fix.
We headed off to our hike through the jungle of the Escambray Mountains which would eventually take us to a waterfall we could take a swim in. The hike was meandering for the first several kilometers, over a stream and through bushy coffee plantations. The first part of the hike featured steps made from old german radiators which Luis said tie back into Cuban sustainability: using what is available to do the task at hand. Why waste new materials making steps in the mud? Makes perfect sense to me. We stopped at an intersection of two farmer’s territories for growing on the land and Luis explained how little the farmers can keep, and none of it they can sell. About 70-80 percent of the coffee grown is taken by the state, and the remaining can be used for personal use or given to friends and family. Often coffee is cut with other vegetables like corn or peas to make it last longer. And yes, coffee too sometimes becomes a black market commodity.
We reached a beautiful vista point where Luis announced that if anyone wanted to stay behind, this would be the place to do it. But does this hardy group of world travelers look like one to turn down a challenge? I don’t think so.
(Photo credits: Sarah Fowler)
But THEN, it got real. We essentially bouldered our way down hundreds of feet of a steep, slippery, rocky slope until we finally heard the rush of falling water. Thankfully, the fall was indeed worth the trip! (Although the trek back up was noticeably less fun)
This was an unforgettable part of the trip. We hiked back out from the falls, and ate lunch at a restaurant in the mountains before heading back to our favorite casa in Cienfuegos for the night.
We embarked on a two hour drive to the town of Jovellanes, and Domingo gave us another of his awesome van talks. We asked what his wife did for a living, and he explained that she was a lawyer. This brought up the question “Domingo, how does the legal system work?” He said there is so much crime in Cuba over little things people want or need to acquire, that punishments are hardly ever life in prison or execution because, truthfully, it would decrease the population too much. Laws are very specific to Cuba as well. In a later ride with David, he said in Cuba its far worse to kill a cow than it is a human, because a cow can serve many people for many years with all the products that come from dairy. To kill a cow would be to rob the state of all these products, a far worse crime than one murder if you think about it. (Funny side note: because of this there are sometimes instances of cows “wandering” in front of trains and being struck. Oops!)
Once we arrived in Jovellanes, we attended a church service and helped feed the children of the parish. One of the ways the church ups attendance is by giving the children and teens in bible study a free meal. The kids were absolutely adorable, and the older ones let us sit in on their lesson and chat with them. This church is trying to change the mentality that disabled children are worthless, and they support over 30 families with disabled children of varying degrees of functionality. We visited several families this day after we had lunch. One boy, Henry, who suffered from muscular dystrophy, was able to chat with us and tell us how much he loves documentaries and wants to be a pastor when he grows up. The others that we met, however, were bedridden or severely mentally handicapped, which was harder to take. Previous to our visits with the children we had travelled with the pastor to the farm she lives on which helps produce some of the food for the single mothers in the program. The farm is a non-profit organic farm, trying to teach people that growing food in a more natural manner produces a better end result. We got a tour of the grounds. The land for the farm was only allowed to be developed because the owners agreed to plant ten trees for every one they cut down. The farm harvests the methane from the manure of their pigs to produce fuel AND fertilizer, and they grow many different crops on site including pineapple, mango and coffee. When he showed us the pineapples, our guide explained that he grows a significantly smaller amount of crop than his across the street neighbor, however his pineapples taste sweet while his neighbor’s don’t. He argues that organic farming is the only way to make Cuban fruit competitive in the American market as things open up.
Hereafter we travelled to Varadero beach to see a side of Cuba that is already luxed-up and extremely popular among tourists. And its easy to see why. The beaches were perfectly white and the water was a light sparkling blue, a stark contrast to our morning activities. We encountered a Russian tourist wearing an American flag speedo with suspenders who had strong opinions on the upcoming election. It was an eye opening experience for many reasons: the contrast to the more authentic Cuban life we had been seeing and the type of tourists we were meeting. (not that they were bad, just badly dressed perhaps)
(Photo Credits: Sarah Fowler)
This evening we had extra time after dinner and a group of myself and three others decided our Spanish skills were strong enough that we could venture out and get ice cream at a shop called Fresa y Chocolate after the famous movie we had watched in class! Probably needless to say this adventure was shaky all around, but we DID survive and we DID get ice cream! A success I’d say.
(Photo Credits: Sarah Fowler)
When we got back, the whole group went out for a musical evening, but the first place we stopped was a tourist trap type spot. The dancers and singers were performing in a traditional Cuban style, but there was no passion like we had seen before. These performers looked bored, and almost upset. It really got me thinking about the toll that heavy tourism takes on the authenticity of a culture. Think of Hawaiians performing luau after luau for tourists, they can’t all do it for the love of song and dance. It will be interesting to see how Cuban performance adapts as a new influx of tourism enters: Americans with our visors, selfie sticks, fanny packs, and see-it-all-in-one-day been-there-done-that attitude are a whole new breed of intruders. We are famous for wrecking cute spots all over the world, and I would hate to see that happen to some of the gems we got to experience unencumbered by years of “Alrighty kids this one’s for the Christmas card! Charlie get your finger out of your nose, gosh-darn-it!”
We drove back to Havana this morning, where we would spend the duration of the trip. On the way back we stopped at the bridge of Bacunayagua which is the highest bridge in Cuba. It makes up a portion of the highway which connects the two tourist destinations in Cuba, Havana and Varadero. There were ample tourist-y shops, a live band, and piña coladas in a pineapple!
When we got to Havana we stopped at the Museum of the Revolution where Domingo gave those who followed him an impromptu tour, with an overview of Cuban history. (As much as one can give in an hour) The museum was originally built as a municipal palace and also served as a presidential palace.
In our history pow wow, Domingo touched on all the big events (Storming of the Garrison in 1953, The Grandmother‘s voyage taking place roughly two years later, The Bay of Pigs in April 1961, The Cuban Missile Crisis beginning October 22 in 1962, and the transition to Socialism in 1972). But the main point he made was that in 1989 when the soviet party dissolved and Cuba became completely independent, an immense decline occurred in all areas, and this is what caused tourism to become such a vital economic field for Cuba, producing a significant amount of income for the country. Cuba is projected to remain an agrarian based society for the foreseeable future despite the technical skills of its people being vastly improved. The economy has yet to catch up to the education of the population, but the country is moving towards a service based economy, slowly but surely.
(Photo Credits: Sarah Fowler)
Hereafter we hopped in an old classic American car turned Cuban taxi and took a drive around the Malecón. These cars are another amazing example of Cuban sustainability in action. Without American parts available, Cubans have hodge-podged these cars together with pieces from all over the world for decades, and they can still be seen in use all over Cuba!
We finished our ride at the Cuban National Hotel, a five star hotel built in 1930 which has been the celebrity destination in Cuba since the early 1900’s and even during the embargo.
In the van ride to our next desination, we talked to David about the land and soil reforms which were implemented after the revolution to try and achieve the party’s ideals of everyone have food and housing. Many buildings in disrepair had been built by the government as a sort of mass housing apartment complex, and have not been renovated since their construction. Additionally, David said the American mafia actually had a very heavy hand in Cuba, and was considering moving their headquarters here before they decided on Vegas!
We had lunch before heading off to Fusterlandia which is an art district of Havana where homeowners decorate their houses with mosaic. It’s an amazing feat the amount of square footage that is intensely decorated, even in the one large house that we toured there were dozens of others just like it on the street!
We had dinner before heading to see the traditional Cuban performance of Buena Vista Social Club. They are a huge band, maybe 12 members, in a restaurant in Havana that have been playing favorite latin classics for decades. Many of the artists get solos on their instruments and there are dancers that encourage (and sometimes force) audience participation, it’s so much fun!
This day, after breakfast, we got a salsa dancing lesson! we each got a professional partner and learned the three basic step patterns and a couple different turns, dips, and spins.
(Photo Credits: Sarah Fowler)
Then we went to the Art Museum in Havana. The museum is huge so we only made it through the “colonial style” floor, but it was all very cool to see. We got an amazing lunch at a restaurant called Sierrabien and then we all got free time in Havana! Kelsey, Tristian, Dr. Sippial and myself opted to spend some time at the pool at the Havana Libre Hotel down the street from our casa.
We had dinner at another fabulous restaurant in Havana. Opera is a small family owned restaurant. The owner and her husband restored a beautiful old house all by themselves in order to convert it into this restaurant. It’s one of the only Italian style restaurants in Cuba, and they keep their total customers per night at a set number. This is done to embody the slow food movement, meaning one should sit, savor and enjoy food in good company with good wine. Dining should be an event! Additionally they try to source locally grown ingredients, but they obviously import many (it is an Italian place) as freshly as possible. The owner said with the Italian style cuisine they are trying to diversify the Cuban diet a bit; Cubans tend to eat by the season and it tends to always have the same staples: a salad made of cabbage, tomatoes and cucumbers, plantain chips, rice and beans and some large portion of protein. Opera is getting a head start on a new trend and we had such a great meal there!
(Photo Credits: Kate Duke)
(Photo Credits: Tiffany Sippial)
We all went out dancing afterwards for our last night on the town in Cuba, and had such a great time together. Nobody else was dancing but our little squad made our own party, and that’s the point of study abroad! I didn’t know these people from Adam even after a semester of learning about Cuba alongside them, but after a little over a week having so many new experiences with them I treasure each and every person in this group. You have to study abroad! It breeds friendship and unforgettable memories!
Day 10 (last full day)
We wake up, morose about the impending end of our adventure, but are cheered up because SYLVIA MADE SCRAMBLED EGGS AGAIN. I may have had 3 helpings. It’s fine.
We hopped in the van for a drive to Orquedaria Soropark, an orchid park established in 1948 by a wealthy man of Spanish origin i order to honor his daughter who passed away in childbirth. The park is run by the Cuban Environmental Agency of which the University is an entity and helps to take care of the park. They have over 6,000 different breeds of orchids and many other trees, ferns, and various plants as well. The park is located in one of the most humid parts of the island with the largest annual collection of rainfall.
After this we took another hike to a waterfall which was smaller but had more places you could sit and enjoy. There was also a lot more wildlife here! Fishes, birds, lizzards, etc.
After lunch, we headed to La Terrases which is an eco-tourism destination, constructed and run in a green manner so to cause as little disturbance to the surrounding scenery as possible. The government asked the community if they were opposed having such a large establishment in the area, and the community actually asked to be included in the project as employees. The whole thing has turned into a large scale operation involving the entire surrounding population. Also, they have a zip-line course that goes all through the jungle and over rivers and the main village. It’s absolutely phenomenal! Here’s the adventurous ones before and after the journey:
(Photo Credits: Sarah Fowler)
We had dinner at a cafe and then our final “hoorah” was a private performance by Los Boys performed on the deck of Sylvia’s house!
The selfie stick was getting a lot of action these last couple days!
With tear-filled eyes, we got in the van to our tour stop: Vivero Alamar Urban Agriculture Farm. This place is very forward thinking and exciting. They are trying to show children that it is okay to want to be a farmer (rather than a doctor, lawyer, etc) by offering great living wages and benefits to their workers. They put an emphasis on natural growing. They also recognize the lack of vegetables in the Cuban diet and are trying to change that social stigma by producing more fresh, delicious vegetables closer to the city-center. We were lucky enough to have lunch here, feasting on all their great vegetables and honestly, this place, the last place we ate, had the best beans. Go figure.
Then, we got on the bus one last time, en route to our final Cuban destination. Goodbye’s were sad and rushed since none of us were actually trying to enter the airport before the last possible second. And then, before we knew it we were in Miami eating a cheeseburger.
That’s a wrap
SO. We’re back from this amazing study abroad trip I just took you through step by step. If you’ve made it this far I truly commend you because I know it’s a doozy, but I wanted everything in here for posterity!! What are the take-aways? The final messages? The moral of the story?
Well, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Cuba it’s that the people here are smart and this country is changing rapidly. Cuba five years from now is not going to be the same Cuba I just returned from. Earlier in this post I would go on about different aspects of socialist ways that were rubbing me the wrong way. I could make broad sweeping accusations about what I think is holding them back or give my two cents on what they should do to advance the country more quickly, but I believe that would be imprudent and unnecessary because they are adapting much more quickly than I can write an advice column. Also, I’m a 19 year old girl from a middle class white family who visited this country for 11 days. I have no right! The Cuban people have been surviving and yes, actually, thriving for centuries, and as much as I can think that a certain system or law they have is absolutely ridiculous, I also know there are already people on the case molding and shaping the future Cuba as you read this post.
Instead, I’m going to share with you what Cuba gave ME, and I’m not talking souvenirs.
- A broad and deep respect for the Cuban people, their resilience, intelligence, humor and culture
- A deep set gratitude for the hospitality we were shown here and the friendship extended to us after such a short time from not only our guides and drivers but our hosts, waiters and more.
- A revived passion for the Spanish language, especially motivated by my more severe slip-ups which I’m still embarrassed about when I’m trying to fall asleep, now two weeks later
- A gratitude for the privileges and freedoms we so often take for granted in our country
- 17 new BFFs
- An obsession with reggaeton music
- A golden brown tan
Next trip back to Cuba is in the works. I really love this place. And I feel so beyond blessed that I got to experience it when I did, with the people I did. These friendships will last way after the rum bottles are dry and the Cigar boxes on your counter are full of junk mail from LL Bean instead of potent tobacco. The rest of this post will be nostalgia filled photos that I had no room for earlier, feel free to scroll if you have yet to get your fill.
xoxo Triple B a.k.a. Allison Kemandra Kilroy
(Again, various Photo Credits to the amazing Sarah Fowler)