Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Last week, the University classes had a “receso,” otherwise interpreted as Spring Break. Unfortunately, I still had most of my classes, but at least got Friday off. So, the six of us took advantage of this, packed up our bags, and headed south to Trinidad for the weekend.

It’s a beautiful city, plopped in between the Escambray mountains (where Fidel and the 26th of July movement lived for 10 years) and the sea. There was still a significant amount of tourists there, but less retired British couples and more young backpackers. We hung out in the city on Friday afternoon, ate some greasy chicken for lunch, and drank the famous drink of Trinidad: canchachara. It consists of water, sugar, honey, and “firewater,” which is an alcohol extracted from sugar cane, although I’m not really sure how it’s different from rum…something about the stages of fermentation. We then went to a market, where I bought a farmers hat that I haven’t taken off since. I love it. It almost got away from me on the ride home, when the back door of the van flew open on the interstate and it flew away. We pulled over and I sprinted after it, hurling myself into the oncoming traffic to retrieve it. Not really, there were no cars. But it’s back now, safe on my head for eternity.

Me, my farmer's hat, and a clay mug of canchachara.

The next day, we decided not to go back into downtown Trinidad, but instead, spend the morning exploring a few towns on the way back. The most memorable of which housed a 9-story bell tower that was circa 2 centuries old and that held 15+ flights of rickety, unstable staircases. So, up we went. As we began our ascent, a shoeless man ran up and told us that he was in charge of the bell tower and that there was a 1-CUC fee to climb up. This was obviously a lie, but he was so adamant about us paying him, we said why the hell not and did anyway. On the top, the view was breathtaking. The sun was still rising and the air was misty and we could see all of the sprinkled activity for miles. Some of the countryside was broken up into a patchwork of small agricultural fields, some strewn with smaller towns, and some untouched all the way until the foothills of the mountains. We stayed there for a while, not wanting to move too much and fall victim to a weak floorboard. Then, by the time we did get down, on account of the 200-something stairs that were really more like ladders, our calves were spazzing and we could locate all of our weakest leg muscles. Espresso shots ensued, then back in the van for the ride home.

This was our last trip outside of La Habana. Jefe recklessly drove, and I once again sat on my wooden bench from the 14th century…for the 10-hour round trip. I actually see more of the Cuban countryside that way, because it’s impossible to stay in a single position for over 10 minutes, so I’m constantly shifting and looking out the window for entertainment.

Rural Cuba is truly beautiful. The landscape is constantly changing, from orange trees in the west and mountains in the east, to sugarcane fields and grazing goats. Then, a river, and an old man floating on a Styrofoam block with his primitive fishing gear. There are usually people selling strings of garlic or blocks of cheese in the median, especially in the western farming province of Pinar Del Rio. Driving through the small agricultural towns, I usually get whiplash from trying to look out both windows at the same time. All of the tractors are from the soviet era, and some of the irrigation systems are the same ones used thousands of years ago: a simple, shallow trench in the earth. There are fields of plantain trees, black beans, and rice ponds. Plátanos, frijoles, y arroz: the Cuban necessities.

Even if I were to close my eyes on these drives, I would still be able to piece together the changing landscape via smell. Of course, the windows are rolled down the whole time, so if the car is in motion, we’re struck by a constant surge of air. Air that’s getting denser and warmer with the onset of summer, and also sweeter as the fruit trees ripen and the flowers bloom. The ocean, of course, smells of salt and seaweed, which we got a heavy dose of on the trip south through the swamp. Also on that trip, the pungent smell of dead crabs was hard to miss. The tobacco plantations smell like cigars, and passing through a citrus farm smells pretty accurately like oranges because the rinds are ground up and scattered back on the soil for fertilizer. The efficient but unsustainable agricultural method of burning fields after the harvest makes the air smell like a bonfire, unless it’s a sugarcane field, which has another distinct odor. Sometimes the old motors of other cars on the road hurl a cloud of black smoke into the van, and everyone holds their breath until it dissipates. And, with horse and carriage as a common mode of transportation, sometimes it smells like horse shit.

I was nostalgic on the drive back from Trinidad, knowing that was the last time I would be seeing those landmarks that had become so familiar. And to add to the nostalgia, we were listening to some of the Cuban music I bought from a man’s briefcase at a gas station (an exchange that looked strangely like a drug deal). We stopped once more at a vegetable stand where I found my favorite food in the whole world (ok, besides beans): mangos. I bought six, which proved to be a very insufficient amount as I ate five of them before the day was over. I actually decided I couldn’t wait the 92 kilometers back to Havana to eat them. So, very primitively, I peeled them with my teeth, which prompted Pavia and Shelby to follow suit. A very messy endeavor, but we made a party out of it.

So, there we were, seeing and smelling rural Cuba for the last time, with mango pulp strewn on our faces, and our heads grazing the ceiling with every bump. We passed through the mountains, the colorful villages, sunflowers patches, and stray cows. Finally made it back to La Habana, put the beans on the stove, and ended the weekend with some salsa music and an early bedtime.

Monday, April 18, 2011

La Marcha: Playa de Girón

On Saturday we had planned a boat trip, but the day before learned that it was canceled because no boats were allowed offshore on April 16 – the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs. Security was high in case of a contrarevolucionario (counter-revolutionary) attack, which I think was less of an actual threat, and more of a demonstration of how well the government protects its citizens (although my heart still skipped a beat when the jets flew over). But whatever works….I guess. So what else to do but wake up before the sun and head downtown to partake in the celebratory march. Oh, you mean, the celebration of my country’s defeat? Just a tad embarrassing. I thought about whipping out my janky British accent, but decided against it and instead just endured the painful singe of disapproving eyes as we walked down the looooong seemingly never-ending avenue toward the center of the excitement, La Plaza de la Revolución. It actually wasn’t that bad; people were just more confused than anything, wondering what the hell these little yankie blonde girls were doing at their anti-yankie parade. There was a huge section with thousands of students marching and cheering with their signs of Fidel or Che and hand-made banners that read “Viva la Revolución” and “Tenemos y Tendremos Socialismo” (Long Live the Revolution! We Have And We Will Have Socialism) and so on. There were huge speakers at every block, booming radio broadcasts and then, when the march began, relaying the speeches taking place in the Plaza. It was really fun, actually, and exciting to see all of their excitement.

We were supposed to meet up with a group of Charleston students that night, but after waking up at 5 and walking all day, I was out before 9:00 and I think the rest followed suit. Sunday, we worked all day to get a start on finals deadlines. Next week, I have to give a 25 minute presentation on the development of Cuban agriculture and how Cuba is now a world leader in sustainable agriculture solutions – in Spanish. I’m terrified. On top of that, there’s a 20 page research paper, and 15 page Cuban-U.S. relations paper, on which I’m still debating a thesis. I have three weeks and a really poor sense of time management to accomplish this, in addition to savoring the rest of my time here. Must go work on that. Chao!

P.S. Here’s the link to Shelby’s blog. She’s better at the chronological update thing.


It stormed today. I thought it was an earthquake, but really our apartment building just has easily aggravated ceiling tiles. I did realize this relatively quickly, although I’m still not sure whether or not it was a particularly large storm, or if the quake-like feel was just a result of the not-so-rugged building standards. Judging by the fact that Pavia’s bed is now drenched with rain and there are paint chips, dried leaves, and an unidentifiable substance scattered about our living room floor, I’d say maybe a combination of the two.

Here’s a picture of what happened when our patio chair tried to commit suicide over the balcony and Pavia went out to save it, prompting chaos: flying artwork, slamming doors, possessed window curtains, etc.

Sorry for the tease, but the picture wouldn’t upload.

Thus far, this is the third Havana windstorm we’ve managed. The first one came without rain and lightning, but was definitely more eventful, as we were downtown when it hit. I was laugh-crying the whole time because, for one, all of the dust particles of the city were in my eyeballs and secondly, it was hilarious. Hilarious in that oh shit this is dangerous kind of way. The trees were basically parallel to the ground. Flexible little things. Car parts spontaneously detached from the cars and were bouncing down the street. One car’s hood popped all the way up, completely obstructing the driver’s windshield. Although apparently for him, being able to see the road is just in the trivial details, because he drove on. At this point, my eyes were trying to expel the sand particles with a stream of tears, and some plastic bags had assaulted my shins and would not let go. You realize how much pollution there is in this city when it’s all flying at your face. The funniest and strangest part was that we were the only ones who seemed to acknowledge the chaos. Habaneros are tough.

I’m hoping more storms ensue before my departure, for the excitement they guarantee and a break from the merciless heat.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cangrejos y Cocodrilos

Friday was eventful. We drove 3 hours southeast to Playa de Girón (Bay of Pigs). By drove, I mean swerved – the whole way – because during this time of year for about two months, the crabs are out. There were thousands of them, darting across the road with their claws pointed upward. Being in a minivan while an aggressive Habanero driver dodges suicidal crabs at full speed is what I can imagine being in a video game would be like. It was the most entertaining car ride ever, especially when Jefe either over or undercompensated one swerve and slaughtered a crab, who in turn, slaughtered our car tire. Sharp lil suckers. So we then bobbled as we swerved, through the swamp – the road littered with dead crabs and the air smelled of… dead crabs. I did, however, get to abandon my wooden bench-seat temporarily because we had to take 2 cars. I got a taste of luxury with a real seat, and was in the van with our professors, a Cuban photographer, and our con-man taxi driver. Intriguing conversations ensued, especially when Nestor, the photographer, thought I was too invested in my Che book to be paying attention. Compiled a whole vocab list of creative new curse combinations and slang expressions.

We finally thumped our way to the Girón Museum to learn that the electricity was out, so we couldn’t watch the documentary they had set up for us. But that’s Cuba, so we got over it, and Raúl, our Cuban-US relations professor, acted as our tour guide. Seeing the invasion from a Cuban perspective was fascinating. Instead of a “we screwed up” vantage point, we’ve studied the invasion through the lens of triumph. Seeing the entire relationship between our two countries from a Cuban perspective is fascinating. As a general theme, we tend to forget that the U.S. government is going to manage its own interests, which, in the case of pre-revolutionary Cuba, were in direct contrast to the interests of the Cuban population. In other words, U.S. imperialism was oppressive to the Cuban people. So, you get a revolution. And sure, there are still tons of problems, the first of which being I can’t really discuss those problems. But now I’m not even talking about the Bay of Pigs anymore. Must stay on track.

While we were in the museum, Jefe and Marci were working on the tire issue. Now, educated and hungry, we loaded up the van once again and took off, back up the swampy dead-crab road, toward los cocodrilos. Yes, we learned there was a crocodile farm in the area, so obviously, we have lunch plans. The restaurant was a few miles down the road, so I sadly didn’t get to see the lil crockies. Well, at least not alive. Sitting down under the straw hut, we began to tear through about 8 giant tomato salads and fish soup. Not even needing a menu, everyone ordered cocodrilo. While waiting, we looked over the bluest water I’ve ever seen and I remembered I was secretly wearing a bathing suit under my clothes. Always prepared. The crocodile was…uggh. I kind of expected as much, but had to try it anyway. Didn’t matter because I concealed the aftertaste with a shot of espresso and soon forgot about it as I had moved on to other, more important matters. Namely, the ocean. Darting off down the beach and stripping clothes off on the way, I arrived at the rocky shoreline and bought a pair of goggles, flippers, and a snorkel from another hut. Spastically splashed my way down the rocks, and went out to explore the coral reefs and make friends with the fishes. Cuba has some of the most well-preserved coral reefs because of the lack of fertilizer used in agriculture. (After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost all its imports that supported industrial agriculture – chemical pesticides, fertilizers, tractors, irrigation equipment, etc. As a result, this lil ole island is a world leader in sustainable agriculture solutions. I have to put this in parenthesis because it doesn’t pertain to what I’m talking about and I feel a tangent coming on. Will write about that at a later date…very interesting).

Smiling awkwardly with my plate of cocodrilo:

To sum up the day: flat tire via crabs, on-site class at the Bay of Pigs, crocodile lunch, and snorkeling in the bluest, non-pesticided water. Que belleza!

P.S. We were lucky enough to be there on the 50th anniversary of the invasion. Well, technically one week early, but they were starting the celebration anyway. Tomorrow, April 15 is the anniversary of the day they landed on the beach, and April 16 is when they met Castro’s forces.


In less…cultural news, Shelby has a Cuban boyfriend, which I think is hilarious, and from which we all benefit as he introduced us to all of his friends. Actually, I guess that is a cultural feat, because now we have a fairly established Cuban friend group. His name is Rey, which in Spanish means king, so naturally, I call him King. He doesn’t speak English, so not only does she have a Cuban boyfriend, but her Spanish is progressing faster than all of ours and she gets to wash clothes at his house. I really miss a washing machine. Last weekend, Shelby and I suited up and went to a concert at the University, which had an atmosphere strangely similar to Greek Fest in ttown …with obvious (political) differences. Rey took us, so I was enjoying being the third wheel until his cousin Laura showed up, who turned out to be my soul-mate, despite the giant language barrier and minor details like that. The four of us frolicked around the blocked-off city streets, but not too much because it was incredibly crowded and because we were the only non-Cubans in sight, which summoned much attention…as always. So, being socially savvy, Shelby and I thought it would be in our best interest to pretend not to be Americans, which is just always counterproductive. After partaking in a few revolutionary chants, we decided it was too crowded and too sweaty, so we pushed our way toward the Malecon. Didn’t see our soap opera friends there, but bought some peanuts and honey and popcorn instead and called it a night.
Laura and I at Casa de Balear – where we go for $.50 mojitos.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Cuba,Measured in Food

In food news, we’ve been getting more creative in our no-oven, ghetto kitchen. And by that I mean I cook beans every single day and Pavia gets creative. She taught us how to make Mexican flour tortillas from scratch, so we had a feast one night with chicken tacos and fresh tomatoes and ..… beans..…and lots of greens that I earned from working on the organoponico. We also discovered pumpkin at one market on the day that the supermarket happened to get a shipment of honey, and we’ve found that those two things mix well. All of our tongues are blistered from the copious amount of pineapple we eat on a daily basis. Vale la pena.

Good news on the bean front: finally tracked down a strainer. Now I have to figure out what I’m going to do with an extra 20 minutes I’m saving every day. Seriously, there is no doubt that these beans are straight out of the ground – dirt, sticks, rocks, and all. What did I do before this glorious day? Cleaned each little beanie individually, even had a toothbrush reserved for my daily bean cleanin’. Not really, I just got a little extra B-vitamins from the soil…it’s good for you, kind of, and my hair’s been growing pretty fast. Ahh, the joy of simple things, like strainers.

A group of UA professors came down for a week of meetings (to set up more, potentially short-term programs for UA students in Cuba), and they took us to dinner twice. Eating out is a rarity, and you’d think we were savages (or just poor college students) based our behavior when presented with free food. The last night they were here, the dean rented out a restaurant for a private party and invited all of the Cuban professors with whom they had been working. There ended up being about 50 people, and the restaurant churned out huge (really huge) skillets of paella and vegetable salads. At the end of the meal, there was a considerable amount of paella left over in the 3-foot diameter skillets, which prompted all of us to start scheming a way to get it back home and into our refrigerators. Six full to-go boxes later, we had depleted the restaurant of their supply, but still half of the leftovers remained. The waiter, now amused by our desperation, went back to the kitchen to find another method of transport. He came back with a giant plastic bag, and for some reason, I was elected to scoop the paella from the pan to the bag. The wine was flowing to an extent that no one really noticed, and the ones who did came to join in on the paella-scooping merriment. Nestor, the photographer, has documentation of the event. Must get those photos.

We then returned to our room later that night, and, like skilled scavengers, proceeded to eat more paella. Success.

Below is something I wrote a while ago and forgot to post. Of course, it pertains to food.

Walking to and from the market takes about an hour. Once there, I load up my big green hiking backpack with beans and fruits and vegetables – a week’s worth for about $4. Then, it’s mandatory to stop at the panaderia across the street to buy a $.05 cookie, called simply and appropriately “un dulce” (a sweet). It tastes like cake batter. I have no idea what’s in it, but my guess is mostly butter. Some days, they have this other cake dessert-thing or sweet muffins instead of the cookies, which does not make me happy. Taste like soggy sweet-n-low. But it’s okay because I’ve made friends with another dessert vendor that I pass on the walk back home. Also for a nickel, he sells little pieces of baklava filled with guava jam, and sometimes, my favorite of all – flakey little pie crust pastries filled with coconut. I am officially obese. Although, perhaps it’s canceled out by the amount of walking we do on a daily basis, and by the fact that, besides those once-a-week indulgences, my diet consists of piñas y frijoles (pineapples and beans).

Oh, and tomatoes. I’ve been buying copious amounts of them at the market recently. I chop up about 10 at a time and put them in a big pot with some sautéed onion, garlic, peppers, and cumin. Let it simmer for a while and then I have a week’s worth of this pasta sauce/tomato soup/salsa/gazpacho/concoction. It’s quite versatile.

The supermarket is 3 blocks from where we live, and is a far cry from Publix when it comes to options, brands, and availability. Maybe in some convoluted way it’s more like a Whole Foods or an organic grocery, because everything is seasonal. Instead of being founded in growing seasons, however, their stock depends on the economic climate. In other words, what flavor of potato chips did China send us this month? How’s the desforestation in Argentina going? Meat market still holding up? Basically, I've never seen a more bizarre assortment of foodstuffs. During the first month, we mistakenly thought that oatmeal was a constant, but it disappeared a long time ago and has yet to return. But green olives and canned pears seem to be plentiful right now. If there’s more than one brand or flavor of something, it must be really special. Profe says it’s funny to see Cubans come to the states and be amazed at all the different options, brands, and flavors we have for one product. It’s true, we are so accustomed to having everything at our disposal all the time, consumed with options, and confronted with marginal decisions every day. Should I buy nonfat milk or 2%? Or soymilk – regular or light? The generic or the brand name? Here, there is one kind of milk, and it comes from cows. Actually that was a bad example because you can also buy imported powdered milk....sometimes. But my point still stands. It just makes me wonder, how does making all of these trivial decisions affect our ability to make important ones?

Anyway, I may have culture shock upon going to Target or Publix when I get back, and I will never complain about a lack of options. For now though, I rather like the factor of surprise upon going into the supermarket. It’s like Christmas everyday…never know whatcha gon get.


Cuba week was a success, although we did have some English lapses. The money situation was not difficult at all, and in fact, I’ve been spending pretty much the same amount since then. Beans at every meal…my life is complete.

I’m trying to motivate myself to actually write this blog post, as the thought of summing up everything that has happened in the past month gets more ominous with every passing blogless day. Also trying to differentiate between culturally significant stories to write about, and digressions away from these stories that tend to creep in all the time. Whenever I try to journal about something we’ve done, I end up going on tangent about food. Need to organize my thoughts. So, I guess I’ll go ahead and falsely measure the past month with a list of some exciting things we’ve done. Is anyone reading this? Mom? Anyone feel free to inquire further on any of these, or let me know what you want to hear about. So here are some cultural outings:

La Fería – a huge outdoor once-a-month market with food vendors, fruits and veggies, jewelry, pig heads, etc.

El Ballet Nacional de Cuba – National Cuban Ballet

Varadero – small beach town on the north coast

El Museo de Ron – Havana Club Rum Museum

Fábrica de Cigarros – Cigar Factory

Canon shot

Zoologico y Jardines Botanicas – the Havana zoo and botanical gardens.

Casa de José Marti – house where he grew up in La Habana Vieja

1831 – an old jail renovated into a discotec

Playa de Giron – Bay of Pigs

Batabanó – small town south of Havana where trudged through forest and then ate lobster in a stranger's house.

More details on those to come, and will try to be better about updates in the next month.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Cuba Week

A couple of weeks ago, I got tired of paying for bottled water, so decided to risk drinking the tap water for the sake of saving some plastic and a few CUCs. Smart decision? So far so good, and now all six of us are ingesting agua Habanero. We’re also browning up quite nicely and becoming less and less surprised at the site of goats roaming the city sidewalks. We’ve been disconnected from technology, forced to question our political beliefs and shed our cultural pretenses. We’ve had interviews with intellectuals, social workers, farmers, dancers, and religious leaders. In essence, we are assimilating into life here on the island. But, of course, we are still privileged Americans pretending that we know what it’s like to live in a third world country. We sit in a classroom and discuss Cuba’s economic situation, but we have no idea what it feels like to be on the other side of la frontera cultural.

So what is one to do? We have decided to live one week on the average Cuban salary – less than $30/month. So, beginning tomorrow, each of us will put $7 in our wallet and not reload until the next Friday. This dollar-a-day includes all of our food and bus money. No cappuccinos, taxis, internet, alcohol, souvenirs, or late-night pieces of coconut cake from the bakery downstairs. Our diet will consist of fruit for breakfast, street vendor food for lunch, and beans/rice, pasta, and veggies for dinner. Because that’s not difficult enough, we’ve decided to only speak to each other in Spanish for the week. We should really be doing more of this anyway, but being here has shed light on how much I take communication for granted, so being able to converse in English after a long day of classes is a relief.

Anyway, we’ll see how this next week progresses. Won’t be blogging or facebooking or emailing or..…eating, apparently. Not really, though. Have I not emphasized enough how cheap food is?

A lot more to write about, but of course, not enough time. We went to a cigar factory today, which was incredible. Will elaborate later. Also fought a windstorm with flying trash and hubcaps. Salsa dancing classes in Yamila’s tiny apartment with her hippie friends have been a success, besides the space issue. In more monumental news, we’ve established some solid friendships with Cuban students in the past few weeks which has improved our Spanish dramatically. I’m making progress on my urban food security project and have an interview with a land management representative tomorrow. Got my 4 pages of questions and tape recorder (and khaki trench coat?) ready.

I have two six-page Spanish papers due on Monday, so I’m hoping this Cuba Week/no-spending-money-thing will force me to be more productive. Be back in a week!

El Museo de Che

On Saturday, we drove 3 hours east to Santa Clara to pay homage to Ernesto Guevara, the Argentinian whose love for Latin America and dedication to social equality led him to Cuba, where he committed his life to the revolution. Pavia has been reading Che’s biography, a GIANT book that is basically a day-by-day account of the Cuban revolution. Anyone who attentively reads it cover-to-cover deserves a PHD on the life of Ernesto Guevara. So, in the absence of Google, she has become my personal, portable source of Che knowledge, as well as a fellow Che admirer who indulges my enthusiasm. In Cuba, one cannot escape the presence of Che. His face is everywhere. He was captured and executed during the revolution, so he is frozen as a 30-something year old and has come to represent the optimism of a revolutionary youth.

Here’s my pre-Che Museum excitement:

After 3 hours on the road, we piled out of the van and learned that the museum was closed for renovations. Ah, yes. In case we had forgotten, estamos en Cuba.

Outside the museum, there was a tall statue and some quotes carved into a monument, so we soaked that up, then drove further into Santa Clara to spend the day.

It’s a remarkably ugly city. We set off to find the train that Che derailed during the revolution. That’s why the museum is in Santa Clara – it was there where he successfully derailed a train traveling full-speed to Havana, filled with Batista’s reinforcement. The train cars are still scattered as they were after the crash, the insides converted into an art museum. The bulldozer is there, too. Brad pointed out that ironically, it’s a Catepillar – an American brand. Whatever you gotta do, Señor Che.

After walking around and working up an appetite, we encountered a quaint creole restaurant. Black bean soup, rice and (more) beans, fresh tomatoes and lettuce, and just-out-of-the-fryer plantain chips. Shelby and I ordered fish; pork for everyone else. The waitress came back out and told us that we would have to wait a bit longer for the fish, which we were fine with. When the others were practically finished with their meals, out come our steaming plates, and much to our surprise........

Shelby had Pavia cut off her fish’s head, while I preferred to bond with mine throughout the meal. Making eye contact made it even tastier! Really was delicious. Followed it up with chocolate peanut butter ice cream (for a dime!) and went on our way back to La Habana.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Una Mezcla de Fotos

I cooked everyone dinner last week because once again, I am a helpful, amiable person. This time, my pseudo-humanitarian act was a payback for Brad, to whom I passed a note in class, furiously demanding him to give me a question to ask this guy we were interviewing. I could not understand his thick Cuban accent, and instead of breathing like a normal person, I became so frustrated with myself that I just made the problem worse. Anyway, it gave me an excuse to make a nice dinner, and now the six of us are making it a weekly rotation.

Complete with flowers and hors d’ouvres, cuban style:

For the first course, I assembled a ghetto cheese plate with the only 2 kinds to be found at the supermarket: cheddar and “queso.” (Ahhh yes, the cheeeese type of cheese). Stumbled across some saltines on the cookie isle, cha-ching. Of course, olives. And a loaf of bread from the Panadería – about a 40 minute round-trip walk down 70th and sooo worth it.

I stole some pictures off of other people’s cameras. Here’s a mildly embarrassing display of Calambokidis and I being Cuban – rum and cigars, etc. Yeah well, maybe not Cuban, rather Americans in Cuba.

As a follow up to that: Waiting for the bus on my first day of school!!!

This was earlier in the semester, as seen in the pastey skin tones:

It really is beautiful here. The weather, obviously, and the natural landscape, but the overall aura of the city is unique. It’s extremely poor and decayed, but – in part due to the decay – so rich in culture. There are vibrant colors everywhere. I think for all the things Cubans don’t have access to, they make up for in color. All the houses are vivid blues and reds and greens – with equally bright shutters to match the orange flowers in the yard. But all the paint is peeling, which is just another constant reminder of their shortages. The average salary is less than $30 a month and the poverty is certainly visible, but the people here have so much pride for the revolution that they created for themselves.

Everyone is so happy to see that we’re trying to learn Spanish. All the taxi drivers light up when we start bombarding them with questions in our broken Spanish. Havana is all they know (most of them have never left the city limits), so they love telling us where to go and what to do. They correct our grammar and ask us how to say words in English.

Since internet is so expensive, we have to be really creative in our use of free time, which involves talking to a lot of locals. There are old men on street corners playing dominos, couples drinking coffee on their front porches, shirtless children playing impromptu sports games. It is a 1950’s time bubble like I had been told, but not only because of the old cars and limited resources. Life moves at a slower pace here. It’s a very in-the-moment culture, perhaps like the world was before the internet.

In the absence of technology, we’ve gotten really good at the creativity thing. Sometimes hazardously so.

Such as, airplane rides on the university quad. At the moment this picture was taken, I threw my lower back out and was crippled for a few days.

Bus stop yoga. (I swear it will catch on)

Learn how to eat rice without silverware: check. Who needs forks when you can tear off some of the cardboard box and elegantly scoop the rice into your mouth?

We went down to the Malecon (seawall) one night and hung out with a guy named Raul, whom 2 weeks later we found out is a celebrity. When we met, he informed us that he was famous, but we didn’t believe him. He and his friends took us to a discotec where the power went out, so we left and they showed us around downtown Havana. We then made our way back to the Malecon where I forced Raul to teach me how to salsa dance. He obliged, and his friend taught Shelby as the boys laughed at us. Two hours later, I was no better at salsa dancing and it was time to go home. Fast forward a few weeks, as we were browsing through the pictures from that night, Yadira, our maid, excitedly recognizes him and asks what we were doing hanging out with Raul. She informs us of his status and tells us to turn the TV on channel 15 at 9:00 that night. We do. A famous Cuban soap opera comes on. And there’s our friend. I have his number, so perhaps one day we’ll call him and go see what Cuban stardom is like.

Dillon and Raul:

Here's Dijon and I enjoying the Malecon during the day:

That’s the end of this hodgepodge of pictures and stories. So much more to write, not enough time. I can’t believe we’re in our sixth week already!


A few weekends ago, we took a day trip out to the pueblo of Soroa. Climbing down about a million swerving steps carved into the mountain, we made it to a waterfall, where we sat and admired it like well-behaved tourists for a while before we had our fill of good conduct and decided to scale the slippery rocks to go swimming. Then we climbed back up the million swerving steps with wet shoes, back to where the van was parked. Catching our breath and leaving Profe at the base camp, we set of for the highest peak, a 300 meter…hill. It wasn’t exactly a gradual rise in elevation though, so on the 30 minute hike up, I hit my week’s exercise quota. The little platform at the top, called a “mirador,” offered a beautiful panorama of western Cuba’s lush countryside, all the way to the northern and southern coasts of the island. We were the only ones there except for a man sprawled out on some rocks selling coconuts. Best job ever.

Drinking coconut water and doing yoga on a mountaintop, one of the highlights of the trip thus far:

Climbing down in half the time it took to get up, we had lunch in a little hut and set off for the orecería: orchid farm. I’ve been fascinated with orchids since reading “The Orchid Thief” a few years ago. Although, perhaps my fascination is not with the orchids themselves, but the community of crazy orchid breeders and the extremes they go to. Didn’t see any crazies at this place, but the flowers were pretty. I took lots of useless flower pictures and someone took a photo of me:

Monday, February 28, 2011

La Cultura Cubana

We finally have our carnets de identificación! (student IDs). This was our third time to go pick them up, as Cuba moves on a different time schedule. But that was alright, because we now have our watches set to “Cuban Time” which is a flexible version of chronological time, and more reflective of an attitude one must possess when dealing with things that don’t go according to planned. But alas, we are official students now, IDs and all. They allow us to go to museums, movies, ballets, and plays in Havana and pay in moneda nacional instead of CUCs, saving us each about $5-$10 at each place.

oops, it's sideways

On Mondays and Wednesdays, we have lectures about Cuban culture, but on Thursday mornings, we select a museum in the city and begin our decent down to the supermercado for a cheap taxi. The first Thursday, we trekked over to El Museo Del Arte Cubano: Cuban Art Museum.

We only had about 3 hours there before we had to eat lunch and be back at the University by 1. I underestimated the size of the place because in retrospect, I would have spent less time on the pre-revolution art, which was considerably less interesting than the government-controlled communist propaganda paintings. Reflective of everything – material and metaphorical – in Cuba, there was an abundance of color. The paintings told stories of the revolution, expressed sentiments of national pride, and paid homage to nation's heros – most notably: Fidel and Raul, Che Guevara, and José Marti.

The citizens in the paintings were happy and hardworking to reflect the advantages of communism. Yes, it was one-sided, but perhaps balanced out what I was taught in all of those not-so-politically-neutral grade school history classes. A bit of religious irony sprinkled here and there – my favorite being “Virgin of the Melon”: a cartoonish drawing of a lady, her newborn via immaculate-conception, and the holy cantaloupe.

The next week was El Museo del Arte Europea: European Art. mehh. so, so. Nothing stuck out too much to my seasoned appreciation for ahhrt. No, it was actually really nice, I just don’t have anything profound to say about it.

This past Thursday, we went down to Habana Vieja, a very densely populated section of the city where we spend much of our free time, to visit El Museo de los Orichas. Orichas are…well, first, a history lesson: there are two major religions in Cuban culture. Catholicism (Hi Dad) from the Spanish influence – 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, etc. And Santería, now practiced by 90% of Cubans, which arrived in the 19th century from Africa. Unlike Catholicism, however, Santería and other African-derived religions (like Palo Monte and Sociedades Secretas Abakua) are considered “religiones cubanos,” religions unique to Cuba. That is, Santería doesn’t really exist in Africa, but is a Cuban concoction rooted in African influences and evolved through interaction with other cultures and religions. Like many things in Cuba, it represents a fusion of cultures, races, and beliefs.

Even Catholicism has had a heavy influence on the religion, most notably in the role of Orichas, which are more or less equivalent to Catholic saints. So on our visit to the Orichas Museum on Thursday, we got to see and learn about the different roles of these figures. Comparing different religions, especially ones with such a contrast of followers such as Catholicism and Santería, is always enlightening as it allows you to step back and realize the universal themes in religious philosophy.

Each Oricha had an associated date, and although there were only about 20-something Orichas, September 12 was there representing. I’m not really sure what it means for my birthday to be lined up with an Oricha, but mine happened to be a woman named Ochún: the female goddess of love. “Quien cuida,” (She who takes care of), symbol of sexuality and fertility, embodied in sweet water and waterfalls. Check.

So that was that and then we had to hop on the P-5 to La Rampa for class. The P-5 is no less crowded than the P-1, but it does play Spanish hip hop. Loudly. Which makes it considerably more or less tolerable, depending on what kind of mood you’re in.

Speaking of music, a few weeks ago, we went to a jazz concert in an old church restored as a museum. The musicians were apparently widely known, and had tour dates that week in Canada and England. There we were, ignorant of whom it was we were getting to see, and all of a sudden, people start applauding profusely and everyone was out of their seats in a standing ovation before I even could identify the subject of this excitement. Turns out, one of the ladies from the Buena Vista Social Club had come to make a surprise performance. She’s quite dramatic. Once on stage, the music began and she decided to sit down and slump her head between her knees. She was like this for that awkward amount of time where I thought something might be wrong, but didn’t really want to make eye contact with anyone else for fear of being culturally uninformed. Good thing this was only an internal deliberation and I remained frozen because she started moan-singing and slowly raised her head. Sounds weird, but it was actually quite the show, as she eventually got up to sing and dance. Profe was with us, and he knew someone who knew her, so we got a group picture with her. Except that happened while I was in line for the bathroom.

Then had to go out and get personalized towers of beer to complete the cultural experience

On Saturday, Profe had planned to take us to a botanical garden outside of Havana, complete with giraffes, elephants, and lions. I was excited to say the least. But Jefe’s van broke down, which is code for he’s too hung-over or he got another last-minute job that pays more. So we’ll save that trip for another day, and got taxis to El Museo de Jose Marti instead. The Marti tower is a landmark in Havana for its height, because there really aren’t any other tall buildings. If you need a visual, imagine a skinnier version of the Regions building in downtown Montgomery. Oh yeah that’s tall! Oh wait no it’s not. The top did offer a pretty view of the city though, and I discovered a lot more organiponicos that I need to visit. The bottom floor is a small museum paying homage to Marti with paintings, photos, stories, and hundreds of his quotes tiled on the walls.

Marti’s face is everywhere in Cuba, alongside Che and Castro. He was born into poverty in Havana in 1852, and became an intellectual, writer, and primary figure in uniting Cuba to fight in their second war of independence against Spain. We’ve been reading a lot of about Cuban independence and U.S. military intervention in class, so we had a basis of appreciation for Marti and his accomplishments. Although he was an intellectual, uniting the Cuban people through symbolism in his writings, he prompted the most tangible outcome: independence in the war against Spain (which we later dubbed the Spanish-American War…won’t get into that charade today). He fought and died in the war.

That was a lot of information. I have carpal tunnel. Shelby, Pavia, and I are going to the ballet on Friday, and all of us to Santa Clara for the …..CHE MUSEUM (¡!!!¡!) on Saturday, so lots more cultural stuff to come.


Got a great seat on the bus this morn! I was running late and booking it to the bus stop, eating breakfast and scattering egg shells along the way. Halfway there, I saw the big red P-1 sitting at the bus stop and, knowing it would be another half hour at least before the next one, I took off in full gallop for about 100 yards. Barely made it, and received a few celebratory claps as the bus took off. There are no words to describe the Havana bus-riding experience…it’s something you just kind of have to do. Raul, one of our professors, says it’s R-rated for profanity, sexual conduct, and violence, which is the most accurate description I can relay. I very rarely get a seat and have become strangely accustomed to being sandwiched between two strangers. Anyway, this morning I had to stand up for the first couple of stops, then low and behold, the lady I was practically straddling stood up to get off. Granted the seat was broken, but what do I have to complain about. And it was a window seat! On the front row! The girl sitting next to me had a “francais” book, so I talked to her a bit about our language endeavors. Had some early morning encouragement as she said she knew English, but I held my own in Spanish the whole time (speaking to a bilingual person is like being in a contest to see who is better at speaking their nonnative language...always gotta be on your A-game). She taught me some French and then got off a few stops later. I never wanted to give up that seat. In conclusion, perhaps I should oversleep more often as motivation to get my daily exercise and avoid being violated on the P-1 before 9am.

On Mondays, all of my classes are at the university: culture of Havana with Rita from 9-11, followed by a 2 hour break before conversation class with Professor Suarez. Usually during the break, I go to this open-aired café for an espresso and homework. Then, for lunch, we follow suit with the other students and grab some little personal cheese pizzas at the newly opened privately owned restaurants. In the past year, the government has loosened control of permits for private sales of food, which has transformed some of the streets around the university. There are quick grab lunches everywhere, all selling more or less the same thing: LOTS of bread, a variety of simple sandwiches, and those delicious little pizzas with homemade bread and hand chopped onions and peppers. No silverware or plates – they just hand over the food. The best part is, a pizza costs 10 Moneda Nacional, equivalent to about 50cents. Grab lunch, maybe some boniato (a variety of sweet potato) chips from the street vendor, then off to the university quad or library steps to eat.

pizza con queso y pimiento:

On this particular day, our beloved pizza place was too full, so we ventured over to a sandwich stand. I’ve had to be incredibly flexible with my vegetarianism, and was thinking I was going to have to choose between the “pan y jamon” (ham sandwich) and the “pan y mayonesa” (mayonnaise sandwich??). Just my luck though, eggs must have been plentiful this week because they had constructed another whole menu of “pan y tortillas,” which, turns out, is an omelet sandwich – even had complimentary tomatoes! Oh Cuba, how I’ll miss your strange, cheap lunches.

el menu:

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Saturdays are dedicated to exploring the island and traveling outside the city to get glimpses of rural Cuba. Yesterday we drove two hours to Viñales, a pueblo in the province of Pinar del Río known for its caves and mogotes, sharp geological features that look like extra steep mini-mountains. All seven of us piled in Jefe’s six-passenger van, and for four hours guess who got to sit in the newly installed seventh seat – comprised of two cloth-covered planks strategically balanced between the two bucket seats. Yours truly. We set off, and just before leaving the city limits, Jefe (our eccentric driver whom we call “boss”) pointed out Raul Castro’s compound. I waved.


On the interstate, the badly paved roads continuously jolted us out of our seats and threw us back down for two hours. Thank god I had been sick the day before and was drugged on anti-nausea meds. Estamos en Cuba, so we found the humor in it and actually learned a lot about the country before even getting out of the car. For instance, as we stopped to let some cows cross the interstate, Jefe informed us that slaughtering a cow is illegal because even though you paid for that cow and it’s on your land and you take care of it every day, the government owns the cow. Therefore, you must get the government’s permission to kill the cow for meat, but the government probably isn’t going to grant you permission because all of the island’s beef comes from Argentina. I really don’t understand why an island – Cuba, especially – wouldn’t want to promote self-sufficiency, but then again, my comprehension of economics needs some tuning. Driving through the countryside though, I saw how much land is not being used and couldn’t help but think about the potential it offers to lessen Cuba’s giant trade imbalance.

Another roadside observation was the contrast between socialist propaganda billboards and the black market deals going down in the median, which we experienced firsthand as the van suddenly screeched to a halt beside a tobacco farm. We piled out and met one of Jefe’s many connections, a tobacco farmer, who showed us how it’s grown and took us into the drying shed. We saw the different stages of tobacco leaves, all hanging from tightly packed rafters and looking like sleeping bats. Farmer Brown said that after 3 months of dehydrating, the leaves are sent to expertly-trained women who divide the leaves based on quality, and that’s how cigar brands are determined. Not by private ownership, obviously, but by quality of leaf! iiiiiiiinteresting.

Inside the drying barn:

We once again loaded up the van and bounced our way to Viñales. Half an hour up a windy mountain road and we arrived at a beautiful lookout point where the weather was reminiscent of back home. The cold front brought a misty rain that mocked our wardrobe decisions. We sat down at a little bar to enjoy the view and hugged ourselves for warmth. Coffee for all, sprite for my returning nausea. We had climbed a bit in elevation and could see the lush valleys below us strewn with tobacco drying huts and clusters of colorful homes. The fog made it difficult to see very far, but in a way heightened the beauty and made the mogotes more majestic.

We made our way to a cave that was used as an escape route for Cuban slaves. The entrance of it was turned into a bar because estamos en cuba and I guess that’s how they celebrate underground railroads. I didn’t get a drink to properly commemorate it though on account of it was before noon and I was still feeling the aftermath of the food poisoning. We decided to walk through the cave and as we came out the other side, the strange series of events continued. A conch shell sounded and we were greeted with a dancing woman, a man spinning fire, and por su puesto, bongos. After the exciting music and dance, the man extinguished his fire in his pants and we scurried off to the horse & carriage waiting to take us back to Jefe.

Driving up the mountain even further to eat lunch, we encountered yet another cave. Scampering through this one, we discovered water at the end and had to get on a boat tour in order to get out. The man on the boat I’m fairly certain didn’t speak English, but had memorized his tour guide lines in English, which resulted in some funny word combinations such as “botter” instead of “bottle.” He kept repeating “wine botter wine botter” as he shone his flashlight on a stalagmite shaped debatably like a wine bottle. The subjective interpretation of rock shapes continued for the next 10 minutes until we finally saw light and bid farewell to our pseudo-English-speaking friend. Finally, we sat down for lunch in a little mountaintop hut and watched our table slowly fill with moros y cristianos, ensaladas de tomates, lechuga, papas fritas, pechuga de pollo, yucca, y platanos. Twas a feast! With full stomachs we began our descent down the mountain and back home to the city, stopping once along the way for Jefe to purchase some black-market roadside corn.

Nuestras Apartamento

We’re staying in Miramar, a generally quiet section of Havana filled with foreign embassies and only a short bus or taxi ride from downtown.

These apartments are meant for 2 people, but there are 3 girls, so the cot is wheeled in and guess who gets to sleep on it. I actually volunteered to take it as opposed the full size beds because I am a sweet, self-sacrificing person. Oh wait, no. I just liked the freedom of mobility that a cot has to offer in case one of the girls snores or dare I say even breathes loudly in the middle of the night and my earplugs aren’t thick enough to deter the sound. I really am going to be a joy to marry one day.

There’s my cot in the corner:

The Montehabana is a fusion between an apartment and a hotel….and cleverly called an aparthotel. Our maid, Yadira, is probably not much older than us and has taken us under her wing to help us learn Spanish. We’re also helping her with her English, quizzing her on how to say things like “pillow” and “fork” so that she can accommodate to other English-speaking guests. I gave her some perfume last week that I had brought with me (it’s very expensive here) and she lit up. She does cute things like make our towels look like swans and hearts.

Our kitchen:

We went out to eat a lot the first week, but now that classes have started, it’s much easier and cheaper to cook in our apartments – complete with 2 ghetto stove eyes, a mini fridge, no oven, a broken coffee maker, and everything in 3’s: spoons, knives, forks, plates, and cups. It’s wonderful. In line with the minimalist lifestyle Cubans live by necessity, everything has a place and purpose. And if food is left uncovered for more than 10 minutes, the fruit flies will make sure to remind you to keep things tidy. We cook rice and beans, also known as “moros y cristianos,” frequently. None of the menus here say “arroz y frijoles,” but instead, moros y cristianos. Moors being the beans and Christians being the rice….get it?

We’ve paid back our dues to our friends back at home who started school in the beginning of January. We got an entire month delay on classes, but alas, the mental exertion has begun. We realized this on Friday night, as the three of us scoured through our Spanish dictionaries, reading literally every single word for a nearly impossible assignment from our conversation professor. A through Z took us a couple of hours and almost an international incident (as Shelby threatened to launch herself off our balcony) to accomplish. This Friday night excitement also included about 100+ pages of political readings and corresponded with my 48-hour bout of food poisoning. I’m just thankful I had some quality entertainment as Shelby continuously electrocuted herself in many failed attempts to dry her shorts with a hair dryer. Estamos en Cuba.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Gringo here.

One might think that “embarazada” is a cognate and means “embarrassed.” I was so sure of it, I said to a taxi driver, “estoy embarazada,” informing him of my often meager Spanish skills. “I’m so embarrassed,” right? No. Not at all. Embarazada means pregnant. Lesson learned.

Here's me being a tourist in front of the capital building:

Being a tourist with a creepy statue:

The city from the giant steps of the university:

We went to Hemmingway’s house last week and walked around the property. We couldn’t go in the house for some reason, but we could look in the windows and see it was set up just as it was when he lived there...type writers set up and everything. He lived right outside of Havana in a town called San Francisco de Paula, where he was nothing short of a celebrity for the residents. We climbed up to the top of the writing tower built for him by one of his wives. It looks out over miles of the island – the city, the countryside, and finally, el mar – the sea. I think if I had a writing tower like that I could produce some genius as well. Although, he apparently didn’t like to write up there because it was too luxurious; he liked to be in the middle of all the Cuban village chaos. Another interesting fact: when the U.S. government was in its paranoid commie period, Hoover sent a CIA agent to investigate Hemmingway. Well, a body was found on the property fairly recently, suspected to be that man. In a strange way, that makes me like him even more. Whatever the case, we gained some beautiful novels out of his eccentric and troubled life.

On the steps leading up to the main house:

La Habana: primer impreción

I have made it to the land of sugar and coffee, and someone’s going to have to pry me out of here come May. I say that now, because it’s only February and the sun has stalled at a safe distance, so I’ll get back to you once that humid Caribbean summer rolls in. For now, though, while the snow falls on your capitalist nation, I’ll be bikini-clad by the pool, drink in hand, reading (translating) the poetry book I bought for a nickel.

That brings me to the first reason for my love of this island. Everything is so cheap here! Well, everything except internet and bar soap, but I’m always game for a little technology/hygiene detox. Sounds like a repeat of last summer, and I’m definitely not skimping on the veggies either. Not to price drop or anything, but I toted home my heavy-ass bag full o eggplant, tomatoes, beans, carrots, peppers, onions, beans, garlic, beans, pineapple, bananas, and a few beans for a grand total of $2.50. I even got a marriage proposal in the deal. At first I thought I was mishearing his heavy Cuban accent, but I quickly realized that he was in fact asking “¿estas casada?” followed by an invitation for coffee.

COFFEE. I swear, America will be a better place when the embargo is lifted if for no other reason than café cubano. It is a drug. That’s the cue into my next segment: Things Cubans Love. Cubans love sugar. There’s either sugar or rum in everything. Sometimes there’s both, and that’s a mojito. We’re on a city-wide quest for some mint plants to put on our balcony and nourish into muddled mint perfection. Then we will perhaps drink them by the pool behind our home whist tanning and reading Marti or Hemmingway.

Cubans also love not pronouncing their S’s, which, for a nonnative speaker, makes the whole Spanish immersion thing even harder than it already is. I’ll hear a sentence and think I have a few new vocab words to look up, when really I just have to figure out where the S’s are supposed to be. For example, a taxi driver was telling us he had heard that Florida’s beaches are prettier than Cuban beaches, but instead of “mas lindas” (prettier), he says “ma linda,” so we thought he was all of a sudden talking about his girlfriend, Malinda. And now I’ve started saying “grathia” instead of “gracias,” so perhaps I am making progress, poco a poco.

And finally, Cubans (and to an even greater extent, Americans) love their cars. I do see the occasional new Audi or Mercedes, but the majority of cars here are straight out of the 1950s, and as colorful as the Cubans themselves. Marci, our driver for long trips, has a (this is where I would insert some impressive year, type, and model if I knew anything whatsoever about cars) in mint condition, painted two-toned red and white. We took it to Hemmingway’s house right outside of the city. Most of the taxis here are that same 1950s style, which is just fun to see. Except it’s not very fun to see if you’re an assertive pedestrian like myself (and like most Americans who have been raised thinking cars must yield to us), because in Cuba, the cars have right-of-way.

Shelby, showing off Marci's car:

Here's Dillon and I, innocently walking along the seawall and becoming victims of high tide in Havana:

So, now that I’ve ranted about rum and tanning and how much money I’m not spending, you ask: has absolutely anything productive occurred in my brain since I arrived? In addition to the mojito muddling, you’ll be happy to hear that I have learned more Spanish in the past 2 weeks than I have in perhaps a whole year of classes. I go through phases: sometimes I’m completely frustrated with the language and think I will never actually be able to reach fluency. and sometimes I have those little magic moments of glory where I’m like, I just understood those two people’s entire conversation about me even though they thought I was a “gringo” (dumb tourist) who doesn’t speak Spanish.
Classes started on Monday, and we’re getting into the routine of life here. It’s a very slow-paced, simple routine but not at all void of surprises. Some days, for instance, I get a seat on the P-1 bus to the university, and some days the door won’t shut because I am literally hanging out of it, pressed against a stranger’s back….or front. Sometimes the bus doesn’t come at all, because schedules don’t exist. Neither do bus routes. Our motto of the trip is: “estamos en Cuba” **shrug shoulders and raise eyebrows. It means “we’re in Cuba,” and is a perfect testimonial to the amount of bizarre things that occur every day. Stay tuned.

Ok ok I digress…. Back to classes. Two of our classes – Havana Culture and Spanish Conversation – are at the university downtown. The culture class is just a lecture, which doesn’t help my speaking skills, but is doing wonders for my comprehension. We’ve been covering the psychological, social, and biological factors of Cuban identity. We discussed the usual merits of racism and how Cuba is a hodgepodge of African, Hispanic, Asian, and Caucasian influences that live together as one race: the Cuban race. Although there are still issues of discrimination, mostly in the “machismo” male dominated culture, racism is absent in Cuba. In fact, a person of mixed race is viewed as a symbol of cultural union. It’s not that Americans are racist, but different cultural histories and current cultural mindsets often put a disapproving connotation on mixed races, or at least invite a second glance. That’s one of the things that really struck me initially. Our bus ride home from the university some days corresponds with the time that children are getting out of school. I was recently observing the middle-school aged girls interact with each other and comparing them to myself at that age. In a group of about 10, each one has a varying skin tone or is from a visibly distinct cultural origin, but this just did not seem to register with them. Every time one of them would get on or off, they would all kiss each other on the cheek. I saw a few of them fix each other’s wayward hair without being asked, and express a genuine love for their friends. I couldn’t help but smile to myself and think about how different my middle school years had been.
The U.S./Cuban relations course will probably be the most challenging for me. Despite my mother’s profession, I’ve always avoided government classes and political discussions. Now I’m being thrown into one taught in Spanish. On the bright side, I suppose my involvement in the matter is kind of inevitable, you know, being here and all. For the first time in my life I’m really excited to dive into some political theory. At least my copy of the Federalist 10 is in English. Rosa, our professor for this course, is a kind of grandmotherly figure, if my grandmother was Cuban, taught herself English by age 11, and lived through the revolution that she now teaches about.

We also have a class called “Roundtable” taught by Profe (our professor with us from UA), in which we get to travel around Havana (museums, theaters, etc) as well as the island (Trinidad, Viñales, Santa Clara). We meet once a week to discuss our perspectives on the culture, government, language, etc. One of the main components of that class are our final projects, which we work on weekly. Each of us get to choose a topic to research based on our own interests and then turn in a 15 page paper plus a 15 minute presentation at the end of the semester. I chose to research food security in Havana and will visit urban farms/organiponicos, investigate how much food Cuba imports, how much the U.S. embargo is affecting their food supply, why the country has trouble being self-sufficient, and how the government treats farmers. Very excited for that.

Here's a picture of Paul, the man who offered his hand in marriage.

So much more to say, but I have to stop being on my computer now and go explore. Cada dia un nuevo adventuro!