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Right Back Where We Started From

Time January 5th, 2015 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

If you haven’t already heard, President Obama and President Raul Castro of Cuba engaged in a historic exchange of prisoners on Dec 17th that has opened the door to restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to cap off my semester in Havana.

Re-adjusting to life at home has been strange to say the least. I’m super excited about the freedoms I’ve missed (driving and wifi in particular) but I feel like I’m taking everything in at a slower pace. Ultimately I’m just so appreciative of my time in an incredibly unique country!

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Little/Big Things

Time December 17th, 2014 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Three Things I’m Going to Miss
1)The family that runs our house
2)The weather
3)The malecón

Three Things I’m Never Going to Miss
1)Being harassed by jineteros (“Taxi free with boyfriend!”, “Tengo un mulato para ti!”)
2)Paying an arm and a leg to access the internet
3)Eating rice

Three Things I Can’t Wait For
1)Christmastime celebrations
2)Switching my phone off of airplane mode
3)Crazy crew finally reuniting at school

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Yuma Status

Time December 11th, 2014 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

As my semester in Havana is almost over, I’ve noticed myself changing the way in which I think about my time here. Initially, I tried to dive into the day-to-day reality of Cuban life in order to try to understand the peculiarities of life in Cuba. Now, I’ve been thinking more and more about my experience here in terms of the connections between the United States and Cuba. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I’ve never quite blended in to the Cuban population. I was often assumed to be other nationalities like German or Spanish. This is mostly because Cubans don’t encounter Americans as frequently as they do the visitors from European countries (even though 550,000 Americans visit Cuba every year – fun fact straight from the Chief of Staff at the U.S. Interest Section).  Anyways, it’s not like I’m just now realizing I’m an American in Cuba. It’s more like I’m thinking more about how unique and fascinating the perspective is for us American students and how important it is that I carry it with me upon my return to the states.

A couple of recent events sparked some of this soul searching. Starting in October, the New York Times has been publishing a pretty high profile series of editorials about U.S. – Cuba relations. Every time a new article was written, it would circulate pretty quickly amongst the American students and we’d all eagerly discuss it. A couple of my friends on other programs even had a final assignment to analyze and present one of the editorials to their class. We were excited to hear that one of the members of the editorial board, who apparently has been the real force behind this series of articles, was coming to Havana. We unfortunately never crossed paths, but I enjoyed seeing a photo of one of my Cuban classmates and friend (named Fidel- go figure) attached with the most recent article published in the N.Y. Times. This was a pretty crazy realization- that while most of the paper’s readers would be viewing the photo as a glimpse into a strange and unavailable place, I was looking at the photo and recognizing a Cuban friend who I would sit next to in class that same day.

Another realization, completely to blame on my ignorance of the basic facts of American foreign policy, is that there are about 10 U.S. Marines here in Cuba at all times. Who knew?! They invited a few of the Americans students to their house in Miramar for a cookout. It was a wild. I felt like I had been transported because they were blasting country music, all the cars were Chevys, and they were grilling burgers and hot dogs. Their compound is so impressive and they made us all drool at their access to wifi and American T.V. Not a bad setup at all. It was weird for me though when I realized they weren’t completely embracing me as an American, because to them I was an American in Cuba of my own will.

Luckily, I felt more welcomed when we were invited to the home of the Chief of Staff at the U.S. Interest Section for a reception. The house is incredibly beautiful, also farther out in Miramar, and was built in 1941 and rumored to be for F.D.R. Mr. DeLaurentis, the Chief of Staff, gave us a short speech about his work here and then answered our questions. I really enjoyed hearing what he had to say; almost as much as I enjoyed being in the presence of a decorated Christmas tree.

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27th of Nov

Time December 1st, 2014 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

This year was the first time that I’d ever spent a significant holiday away from my family. While almost my entire family gathered for Thanksgiving, I was here in Havana  having a normal day filled with homework and classes. The 27th of November (which happened to be the date on which Thanksgiving fell this year) here in Cuba is a national students’ day in commemoration of a massacre of 8 Cubans students in 1871. There’s a huge students’ march along a portion of the Malecón to commemorate the occasion. Honestly, I didn’t partake because I was feeling pretty nostalgic for America at the time and wasn’t in the mood to listen to less than positive speeches about Cuba’s imperialist northern neighbor. I definitely regret this decision because it sounded like a pretty incredible  experience, apparently about 10,000 students participated. I did get my act together in time for our makeshift Thanksgiving dinner with a few of the other students from our house and the director of their program. We went to a casa particular in our neighborhood which besides having the most delicious lobster I’ve ever had also boasted some incredible stories. The married couple who owns the house is in their mid-70s and so they were basically a bit younger than me at the time of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. The wife was explaining how beautiful the Revolution was at the time and how drastically everything has changed since that time. Her husband was the real scene-stealer though because he fought in thick of the Revolution in the Sierra Maestra mountains. When we eagerly asked if he knew Che, he responded with “¿Como no?” as if our question was totally pointless because of course he knew Che! Meeting this couple reminded me how awesome it is to be in Cuba at this time because the country really is at such a unique place in its history and nobody can predict what’s going to happen in the future.

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Ready to Run

Time November 12th, 2014 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

One of my favorite things about this study abroad program is how integrated we are as students at the University of Havana. I really wanted an experience abroad where I could pretend to be a regular student because I think it’s an incredible opportunity to understand a completely foreign environment. Obviously, it is nearly impossible to actually blend in (mostly because of how white I am), but my teachers at the university expect nothing less from me than their Cuban students. There are, of course, pros and cons to this situation. Currently I’m feeling the con-side to be a bit heavier as I have a ton of final papers to write in conclusion of my courses here. Luckily I find most of the subject matter interesting, but the workload is confining me from traveling too far from Havana for a few weeks. I’d say it’s pretty equal to the final paper workload that I’d have in a normal semester at Colgate, except that everything is in Spanish and I’m completing everything with barely any access to the internet.

In order to break free, I’ll be attempting to run the half marathon race as part of the Marabana this upcoming Sunday. I developed a pretty severe allergy to organized running after high school cross country but hopefully I’ll be able to get it done. I haven’t been through the entire course yet but apparently it goes through the big sightseeing areas in Habana Vieja that I don’t often visit here so I think it will keep me pretty entertained! I’m looking forward to the section of the course that is along the Malecón because that is my favorite place to run here.

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All in the Family

Time November 7th, 2014 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Family bonding all around here in Havana, with my parents visiting from the states as well as with the incredible couple that runs the house that we live in with another program of Americans. The easiest way to describe them is as our host family but that’s not quite the case. They own this property, cook us (delicious) breakfasts and dinners, but live in another house a few blocks away with their two sons. They basically come over in the morning for breakfast, cook and do some business during the day until dinner, then return home to their life. Like most parents, they’ve got a set of house rules, and like most groups of Americans abroad, we’ve had our more rebellious students take bending those rules across the line to breaking them. This is particularly troubling here in Havana because we are representing America in a country with limited direct interaction with Americans. I’ve really gotten to know the couple so much better as they navigated this drama.  They explained to me how grateful they are to have us here because we provide them with honest work and food for their children. Their kindness was really touching but what really hit home for me was how concerned they were about the ripple effects for their livelihoods. They worry that any fiasco, at the fault of the students, might jeopardize their well-being. All seems to be resolved for now, but I won’t soon forget this really personal look at their reality here in Cuba.

A little farther off from reality in Cuba was my parents’ visit! It was very strange seeing the tourist experience here because from day 1 we have been thrown in to the mix as just regular students at La Universidad de la Habana. My parents are both American and they prefer to color within the lines so they visited on a people-to-people exchange, the easiest way to legally visit Cuba. The good news is I think they really enjoyed most of the organized activities that were part of the program! I wanted them to play a little more hooky but you win some, you lose some. We went out to dinner at two fantastic restaurants. One was La Guarida, the setting for the movie Fresa y Chocolate. The other was an amazing rooftop restaurant across from the Granma memorial and the Revolutionary Museum with the best mojitos ever. Aside from at these restaurants, where the staff can hold their own in English, while I was acting as a tour guide for my parents I had the serious responsibility of being the only Spanish-speaker of the group. It was intense recognizing that they really depended on me to safely get us to our destination, but I was proud to realize that my Spanish really has come along way since I’ve been in Havana.

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The Cave

Time November 7th, 2014 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Last weekend, we traveled as a program to the cities of Cienfuegos and Trinidad. Cienfuegos is about 4 hours southeast of Havana so we stopped there first, got a quick tour of the tiny town center and then visited a beautiful mansion on the Bay of Cienfuegos. After lunch in town, we got back on the road and stopped at the Botanical Gardens of Cienfuegos which was so beautiful! There were a lot of different and unique tropical plants from all over the world. Then we finished off the drive to Trinidad, about an hour from Cienfuegos. Trinidad is a really adorable colonial city with incredible views of the Caribbean in one direction and some serious mountains in the other. That night we went out to the notorious “Cave Bar” which was so fun! It’s exactly what it sounds like, a bar in a cave, and apparently is the spot to be in Trinidad. Not only was the entire bar really beautiful but also it was just so different from the scene in Havana, so I definitely enjoyed the change of pace. The next day in Trinidad we toured a couple historical hot spots then hit the beach! The beach was just completely picture-perfect Caribbean paradise. Unfortunately we only had a little bit of time to spend there because we had to get back to Havana that night. Before we left, we made sure to try the traditional Trinidadian drink called la canchánchara. The name is a mouthful but the drink is not I assure you. It’s rum, honey and lemon served together over ice in a ceramic cup (not sure why but it’s part of the experience I guess) and so delicious.

Coming back to Havana unfortunately means I have to focus on school because it’s midterms time! Aside from written exams, classes at the University of Havana also hold these evaluations called seminarios which are basically graded oral presentations/class debates/sound pretty intimidating. After a homework-heavy beginning to the week, I’ll be looking forward to my parents’ visit that weekend!

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First Days of School

Time November 7th, 2014 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

 

 

I’ve been in La Habana for a little over a week now and so far everything has been really amazing. The city is so beautiful and colorful even though many parts are crumbling. During our program’s orientation, the IFSA-Butler staff took us on some great adventures including touring Habana Vieja, the historic part of the city, and spending a day at the beach. We also visited the forts that line the bay, which were impressive, and Che Guevara’s house.

One of my favorite spaces so far is el Malecón, an avenue near our house that acts as the border between the sea and the city. I’ve been trying to go running along el Malecón as often as I can given the intense summer heat. The view is incredible and I definitely appreciate the ocean breeze.

The tours, together with the exploring I’ve done on my own while running, have helped me grasp the city and what my life will be like here. Monday was our first day of classes and the reality of studying abroad definitely sunk in. The Universidad de la Habana has a “shopping” period for these first two weeks, so even though our classes still aren’t set in stone it was a wake up call trying to take class notes in Spanish without a blackboard or powerpoint to guide me. Luckily all of my teachers have been really understanding and are willing to consult with me one-on-one to help fill in any gaps. I hope to be all set with my finalized class schedule before this weekend, when our program is traveling outside of Havana to visit Viñales.

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Makin’ Moves

Time September 29th, 2014 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Our program took a trip outside of Havana to visit a place called Viñales. Saturday, our first day there, we went to an overlook-type place on a mountain with incredible views of the valley and the really unique looking hills called mogotes. Afterwards we went to the cueva del indio which was cool because there’s a river in the cave and they give tours by boat. I sat in the bow of the boat and were able to lay back and get a really incredible view of the roof of the cave. Next we visited a finca del tabaco. We had to walk through the country about 10 minutes from the road to get to the finca, which looked like a straw house. Inside it’s really really dark because that’s where they dry the tabaco. Our two guides explained their process for making cigars and it was really cool because they were very clear about what distinguishes their  cigars from the ones that you buy in a shop. The cigars at the finca don’t contain any nicotine because they remove the vein from the tabaco leaves where all of the nicotine is concentrated. Safe to say I was sold. I smoked my first cigar Che-style, using Cuban honey around the mouthpiece. Sunday we were lucky enough to convince our program director to let us take a horseback tour of the valley. This was awesome, easily my favorite part of the whole weekend. The tour included a stop at a finca del cafe where we got a crash course in the growth/production of Cuban coffee.

The following Monday, we had our first official week of classes. I had some pretty cool moments, my favorite by far was debating the Platt Amendment with my Cuban History III class. Our task was to come to class prepared with an explanation of how we would have voted if we were members of the Cuban delegation in 1901. We were instructed to ignore all of our knowledge of what occurred post-1901. It was just so surreal sitting there listening to everyone’s diverse opinions. After that class, I spent a few hours desperately trying to get my textbooks from the almacen de la facultad. Facultads are basically the academic departments and the almacen is in theory where students go with your class list to get the required books. But this is Cuba after all, and there is only one worker at this almacen and he’s about 250 years old. For some of my courses in other facultads the process was even more complicated. Sounds simple right? Getting textbooks for class? But without hand-me-downs from friends, a university bookstore, Amazon, or libraries where you can actually check books out, this has been a headache. The only thing worse than trying to get all the books I need is seeing the giant pile on my desk and knowing I need to read all of them.

On the other hand, I am really excited about the homework for one of my classes. Salsa class! One of the houses for American students here offers salsa lessons 3 times a week and it has been a blast! I’ve learned a lot already (don’t know if my partner would agree so quickly) and the music is really fun. One of our favorite salsa songs that the teacher plays is called “Pasaporte” (Passport) so we always go hard for that.

Overall things here feel just like another back to school routine. A mild little cold is going around our house, even though the weather outside is still really hot and tropical. The best part so far might be feeling more and more at home here everyday!

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August (and everything after)

Time August 21st, 2014 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

This summer I’ve felt like I’m at a complete dead end, which seems so ironic for someone who is less than 3 days away from beginning their greatest adventure so far. I’m a pretty OCD person and planning ahead makes things a lot easier for me. Cuba is a huge mystery and since I can’t predict what the semester is going to bring, I can’t really indulge my instincts to plan for the more distant future (Christmas! Reuniting with friends! Returning to Colgate!). Thus, the dead end feeling. I’ve just gotta get on Island Time, try a mojito or three, and everything will be awesome.

Most of the goodbyes have been said, some purposefully and mutually avoided because they’d probably have done more harm than good. My bag is nearly packed, which was extra tricky due to the baggage and weight limits in place for travel from America to Cuba. The fact that it’s prime hurricane season is a minor curveball, but otherwise I’d say Havana is the ideal place to pack for because of the tropical climate.

My Spanish is definitely rusty but will hopefully whip into shape pretty quickly. I really am so excited to begin the semester and get the most out of my time in Havana. I’ve been told the internet there is sporadic at best, so I’ll be posting as often as possible!

 

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