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Week One (Primera Semana): Maintaining Sonrisas

Time February 8th, 2017 in 2017 Spring, Cuba | No Comments by

My Cuban host father picked me up in a black Led Zeplin t-shirt and what appeared to be a pair of new, dark-brown Timberland’s. His wife, my new host mom, emerged from behind him, a giant, welcoming smile — “sonrisa” (I love this word because it sounds like they refer to smiles as sunrises) — in tow. I ran to them and awkwardly planted the traditional Cuban-one-kiss-greeting on their cheeks as we embraced. This is mi familia for the next four months, along with their twenty-five year old daughter, Nelli, and two adorable dogs: Sombra (Shadow) and some other name I have yet to make out (it starts with a “C” I think, but only those with an ear for the Cuban accent can confirm, which is not me — at least, not yet).

I live in the most amazing old casa. The ceilings are so high I get dizzy looking at them, the long halls are stacked with painting after painting (in which I find a new detail each time I pass), and the sound of birds chirping on the red-budded tree outside the stain glass window in our room greets my roommate and I each morning. I am immediately filled with questions about how a family living off of the equivalent of twenty dollars a month can afford such a beautiful home, but maybe it is government owned or maybe they are able to afford it because they are paid so much to host us (and in the past, tourists). And what are the homes of other Cubans like? I want to ask about my host dad’s job with the radio station — whether he can broadcast whatever he wants or only what the government tells him — and I want to ask my host mom about being a woman in Cuba and what she has done with the prestigious, free education she has benefitted from. I want to know the word for every foreign object and type of food, the instructions on how to unlock the front door (I’ve been fumbling with that), and the biographies of every human who seems to come and go daily from this big ol’ house. Most of these are questions that I expect to either find out the answer to myself in the coming days, or questions that I feel can only be asked after a close, trusting relationship has been formed. My host padre has already said that he is here to answer any and all of our questions — just not to comment on politics. We’ll see. Read More »

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Pre-Departure (Antes de Cuba)

Time January 24th, 2017 in 2017 Spring, Cuba | No Comments by

I wake to tiny flickering lights tens of thousands of feet below me; a warm glow reflecting off the oval window pane and into my eager eyes. I’ve always loved flying, ever since I was a little kid. Christmas flights to Nana’s house in Arizona were arguably something I looked forward to more than the holiday itself (shh, don’t tell Nana that). I loved the people watching in the airport, the order and poise of the flight attendants — rulers of their own little, tight-squeezed floating worlds — the dainty plane snacks, and the chance to have a Shirley Temple, which was always quite the treat in my household. But mostly, what I loved and continue to love is the perspective one gets from hurtling hundreds of miles an hour, soaring high above the world. The moment when everything I know to be true vanishes into indistinguishable dots and I realize how small everything actually is, and in turn, how small I actually am — I live for that moment.

The lights now dancing in my eyes make up the city of Miami, where I’ll be staying the night before leaving for a semester abroad in [drumroll………………..] Havana, Cuba. The most common question I get when I tell people that is “Why? Why Cuba?” There are lots of easy answers I sometimes choose to respond with: as an International Politics and Economics major with a minor in Global Health, I really have nowhere better to explore my interests than a country with a very complicated and unique political and economic history and one of the best public healthcare systems in the world; I want a host family and a challenge with language, not a semester of partying in Spain where I would no-doubt speak English in my apartment with my friends; I need to study abroad somewhere where the semesters align with my Middlebury semesters, as I have that important end-all-be-all-almighty-determiner-of-future-junior-summer internship, meaning that while I adore Chile, that’s out of the question; etc. But in reality, I have chosen Cuba for the same reason I enjoy flying: I chose the experience that I believed would provide me with the most drastic change in perspective. I want to remember how tiny I am in this world, but how capable I am at the same time, how different viewpoints change the way history, policy, and social norms are perceived and taught, and how real human connections, not the wifi connection on my iPhone, are what matter most in this world. Alas, Cuba. Read More »

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Orientation Week: We’re Bonding

Time October 4th, 2016 in 2016 Fall, Cuba | No Comments by

As I enter my second week of registration period at the University of Havana, I decided to take a moment and reflect on our group adventures thus far.
From Toronto, my group and I endured a 3 hour flight to Havana as well as an additional 3 hour wait for our bags. When we finally made it through customs, our director Michelle was waiting outside to welcome and deliver us to our families. Because of our late arrival from the airport, we were only able to exchange brief introductions with our families before going to sleep. Read More »

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First Week in Cuba and El Inicio del Curso

Time September 12th, 2016 in 2016 Fall, Cuba | 4 Comments by

So the blog post I promised to write at the airport didn’t happen. It was a long day of travel and I just wasn’t feeling like writing, nor did I have much new information to share. I left home around 3am to catch my 6am flight from Chicago to Toronto and spent most of the day at the Toronto airport catching up on last minute work before going off the grid. The IFSA-Butler students flew out of Toronto because commercial flights from the U.S. to Cuba weren’t available a little over a week ago when we traveled. We heard the next day that direct flights had been established from a few U.S. cities to Havana, which was exciting to hear.

Since arriving in Cuba I’ve done and saw a lot. On our second day, our resident director Michelle took us on a bus tour of the city. We boarded a double decker bus and spent about three hours seeing the city. It was a really nice way to acquaint us with our surroundings, since we left the airport in the early hours of the morning and weren’t able to see much during the drive since there are few street lights here and the illumination from businesses and advertisement is noticeably absent compared to in U.S. cities. During the bus ride, we passed all of the recognizable sites—the Plaza of the Revolution, Old Havana, and el Capitolio, to name a few. That day we also had lunch at the Havana Libre hotel near our casas, which used to be a Hilton before the Revolution and was temporarily a headquarters for Castro’s rebels in 1959. Later in the afternoon, a group of us visited the Malecón but only stayed for a few minutes before it started to downpour. We arrived home soaking wet, but it was definitely a memorable first trip to the Malecón and end to the day.

The next day we took maquinas (American cars now used as shared taxis) to Old Havana. We walked down Calle Obispo, saw La Floridita and Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Ernest Hemingway used to stay while he was in the city. We also visited all four of the plazas of Old Havana and spent time at an open air market in Plaza de las Armas. Despite the fact that Old Havana attracts many tourists, this part of the city is still very much a residential area and people were going about their daily lives as tourists roamed the streets. It was an interesting dynamic being in a place that is a regular neighborhood while simultaneously being a World Heritage Site and an iconic tourist destination. Soon, we will be going back for a guided tour with the professor of our core course on Cuban History, Culture and Art and I’m excited to return and hear more about the different neighborhoods in the area and learn more about the historical significance of the sites.

This week, classes also started at the University of Havana. The IFSA-Butler students are taking classes in the faculty of philosophy and history and the faculty of arts and letters. For the first two weeks, all international students are in the “shopping period” where we can attend any classes we want and then decide what to sign up for. So far I’ve attended a lot of courses: Theory and History of Marxist-Leninist Philosophy, Aesthetics, Sociopolitical Theory, Political Sociology, Urban Sociology and Sociology of Migration. I still have yet to try Political Economy and a class on Social Structure and Social Inequality, but I’m confident I will find a schedule I like. So far, it’s been a little bit difficult adjusting to the Cuban university system just because there are a lot of luxuries college students have in the U.S. that aren’t available here. For example, there is no online registration system or any platform to distribute course information and materials online. Everything, from the course offerings to class readings, are distributed from person to person via flash drive. There are also no syllabi! All of this adds up to have created a bit of confusion on my part this week, but it’s making me appreciate the fact that there are a lot of things U.S. college students have that we could go without. Extracurricular activities and social events are just starting up at the university. Next week, there will be a ballet performance in the courtyard and the first fiestas to celebrate the beginning of the school year. Despite the constant sweating in class, I’ve really been enjoying school so far and I’m excited to delve in to the academics and the social scene. Next week, the IFSA-Butler students will attend class through Thursday and then embark on our fist excursion to Viñales, after which I will write my next post. Stay tuned!

 

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Testing 1, 2, 3…

Time August 31st, 2016 in 2016 Fall, Cuba | No Comments by

Hello all!

My name is Kayla Evans, and I am a Junior at Spelman College double majoring in International Studies and Spanish. This semester I will be studying abroad in Cuba, and photoblogging about my experience. Although I hope to post more pictures in the future, this first blog will serve as in introduction to the girl behind the camera while I figure out how to upload pictures.

So what am I up to? After a 6 hour drive from Kalamazoo, MI yesterday, my mom and I are finally in Toronto, Canada preparing for my flight to Cuba. Today, we have been running around trying to complete the seemingly never ending to-do list of pre-trip essentials. I finally took a moment to breathe and write about my journey thus far. Read More »

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Hello, world

Time August 22nd, 2016 in 2016 Fall, Cuba | 5 Comments by

Welcome to my blog! Since I’m required to write my first post before I depart for Cuba in eight days, I figured I’d use it as a chance to introduce myself and share a bit about what I’m expecting (even though I originally planned to title this post “no expectations” since that captures how I’m currently feeling).

As you’ve probably already read, I’m a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison majoring in Political Science. I’m from a small town on the shores of Lake Michigan who never thought she’d have the opportunity to spend 3.5 months in Cuba. I knew I wanted to make studying abroad in a Spanish speaking country a priority during my college experience,but I was initially hoping to go to Mexico (where I have family) or Peru. That is, until last October when I was browsing my school’s study abroad website and saw that the IFSA-Butler program in Cuba was added as a new option (my reaction was to gasp loudly, which my former roommate Jasmin can attest to). Read More »

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Final thoughts, reflections, and restaurant reccomendations

Time January 5th, 2016 in 2015 Fall, College Study Abroad, Cuba, LGBTQ Correspondents | No Comments by

So I arrived back in the United States yesterday and it has been in so many ways surprisingly natural. I haven’t completely sorted out all of my feelings, I mostly feel the tentative sigh of finishing finals and the relief at being in a certain way back in my element, but sadness prickles when I think of not being able to go back to Havana, or that perhaps it will be in so many ways unrecognizable when I do. It’s a lot to process but I’ll leave you with a final word about some of my favorite paladares. (I had so many photos saved for an eventual post about where I ate but unfortunately my phone was stolen right before I left and along with it all of the pictures.)

In honor of my semester and all of the wonderful times I spent eating, drinking, and talking I leave to readers and future IFSA student this list of places to fill your belly and kill your appetite.

 

Cafe Punto G

Price: Between 15 and 60 moneda nacional (Splurging only sets you back 2 bucks max)

Location: On Linea between G and H down a wide driveway behind a language school. The spot if well marked and a chalkboard sign boasting snippets of the menu diverts walkers form the sidewalk into the cozy garden haven.

What to order: Any of their thick and delicious milkshakes, the flavors of which change daily and range from a sublimley smooth almond flavor to the creamy cousin of eggnog known as mantecado. Aside from heavenly shakes, G Spot is addictive for their fresh ground burger with all the fixings, (tomato, lettuce, ketchup, and grilled onion), on a panini pressed bun, a lo cubano. Other favorites include the tiny savory pies that sit on the counter, full of a uniquely seasoned and richly flavorful combination of eggplant and parmesan.The guava juice is pulpy and phenomenal, a perfect substitute for the shake should you find yourself avoiding dairy, or in my case, short on Lactaid.

* It is important to note that there is also a restaurant called Punto G, they are not at all affiliated so should you be lost and looking for this G Spot, remember to specify that is is the cafe you want, and not the restaurant.

Cafe Toscana

Price: Plates between 25 and 95 moneda nacional (1 to 4 dollars/CUC)

Location: On J between 21st and 23rd. This is a front patio converted into a small and casual cafe frequented by tourists, hipsters, and the cuban novela actress from time to time (okay only once did I run into a famous person here but she was so nice and normal I wouldn’t have even realized if my cuban friend had not pointed her out.)

What to order: Go for the carbonara (35 MN) and a fresh yogurt with a scoop of raw sugar to sip on while you wait. The owner is Italian and this is the best bowl of pasta in the city, fancy paladares included.

Casa Sayu – adjudicate between obispo an date nest street

Price: between 8 and 50 moneda nacional (40 cents to 2 dollars/CUC)

Location: Havana Vieja- Calle Aguacate between Obispo and I can’t remember what, if you’re coming up Obispo from Parque Central its down to the right.

What to order: Casa Sayu is the only Japanese restaurant I have ever come across in Havana and it is delicious. From bento boxes to sushi to perfect savory crepes this place is dirt cheap and totally satisfies the craving for something different from the usual cuban fare. Everything I have ordered there has been delicious, in the time I was there Sayu expanded form window service to an adorable and clean dining room. The owner also runs a casa particular, and while I can’t vouch for the accomodations themselves because I’ve never been, the location is prime and you would be upstairs from endless savory crepes.

Almendrares– between 23rd and the university

Price: individual cakes and pastries go between 8 and 25 moneda nacional and full size cakes range from 5 CUC and up.

Location: J between 24th and 25

What to order: The individual cakes are delicious and a great snack after morning classes. My favorite is the neon yellow Cardenalillo, the bottom layer is soaked in simple syrup, the top is fluffy and s swirl of chunky sugary merengue sits on top while a thin layer of the same binds the two thick tiers of cake together. When I was running early for class, (a truly rare occasion), I would treat myself to the guava pastelitos, palm sized puff pastries that ooze butter and teh eventual dense lump of guava paste when you hit the center. I like to eat them layer by layer top down with an ice cold can of Naranja soda.

The creamy cornet and satisfying Moca cakes are also favorites and for a party their BonBon cake is a moist melange of chocolate and merengue fluff topped with pink frosting roses that serves serves six.

Doña Laura

Price: 25 moneda nacional for a lunch plates, add ons from 5 to 10 moneda nacional

Location: I between 21 and 23, The cozy spot is home to quite a few immaculately clean birdcages so look for a finch or two perched in a cage hanging from the doorway or branch in front of the semi outdoors cafe.

What to order: Doña Laura has a rotating menu of lunch plates all of which include rice, beans, a small salad of lettuce and green beans, and a slice of boniato. My favorite is the ropa vieja with a thick slice of avocado on the side. The drinks also vary day by day but if you’re lucky they’ll have Guanabana yogurt, served cool in thick green glasses, it tastes how skittles would if they grew from the ground and were nourished by sun and water and then blended into tangy fresh cow yogurt. No sugar needed.

On days when I was less hungry I went for the tamal en cazuela (think a thick corn soup, bazically a tamal unwrapped and cooked down. Other side dishes include a plate of steaming yucca topped with garlic mojito and bacon bits or chicharrones depending on the day’s menu.

Doña Laura is also a greta place to stop for a vegetarian meal as alongside meat dishes they often have tortillas, (fluffy cheese-less omelettes), with all the same sides. The tamal en cazuela does not contain meat and with a hearty chunk of avocado its a perfect lunch in itself.

Mama Iné

Price: 1- 7 CUC

Location: Calle L between 15 and 17

What to order: This little cafe is popular with tourists and foreigners and for the food they offer the prices are quite high. However, the ambience is unbeatable and it is one of the few places in Havana where it feels normal to sit and hang for hours or study with a laptop. Stick to the delicious crepes with nutella, (2 CUC), the frapuccinos, and salty and hearty tapas such as the chicken croquetas, olives, and cheese. The burgers here are frozen and highly mediocre and will set you back 3 CUC, for the same price you can get a huge fresh beef burger at Cafe Punto G and a milkshake, so stick to snacks and coffee drinks and enjoy the sounds of Beck and Florence and the Machine while you rework your essay for the millionth time.

Casa Balear

Price: 10 mn (50 cents!)

Location: The corner of G and 23rd

What to order: MOJITOS, MOJITOS, MOJITOS! Though this bar offers snacks, the real reason to come is the 5o cent mojitos served ice cold and full of gritty sugar. Seating is a breezy upstairs porch in this butter yellow colonial gem, Casa Balear is the place to be if you want to shoot the breeze foe hours after lunch or on a Friday night when the malecon is too chilly and you’re looking for  a relaxing alternative to a nightclub. When you can’t handle a drop more of rum, switch to their sangria (also 50 cents a cup) and slurp up citrus pulp and the occasional ant or two along with the mound of sugar that sits at the bottom of your glass.

 

 

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notes from the middle

Time January 5th, 2016 in 2015 Fall, College Study Abroad, Cuba, LGBTQ Correspondents | No Comments by

Things in Havana have been slow, I’ve been going to school, panicking about misunderstanding instructions and deadlines, actually misunderstanding instructions and deadlines, and doing a lot of thinking. 

It has cooled off enough that I can fall asleep easily with the window cracked and the air conditioner turned off, this also means that I can sit in my room and do more of my thinking. Not having constant access to wifi or the Internet in general (no data) makes me actually sit with questions rather than immediately googling any and everything. I walk around, I talk to people, I ask them if they know the answers instead of quietly trying to find them myself and surprisingly, this method works. I almost always learn something new and it comes in the context of all the people answering me. Initially I was frustrated but once the knee jerk reaction to look everything up online died down I realized its kind of nice to not have the aggressive correctness and exactness of solitary facts and to know things in their place and time and with nuance. 

I’ve also been thinking a lot about time here and how so many people I spoke to before I left the states, both for this trip and my short visit to Havana last spring, talked about Cuba as a time machine and Havana as a magical city frozen in its colonial architecture and 1950’s cars. And it bothered me, the idea that old things held a country firmly in place, in disconnect. And the more time I spend here the more evident it is to my how untrue a conception it is that Cuba, Havana especially, is frozen in time. 

Everything feels so present and normal and alive, colonial buildings house paladares serving cans of Malta and Ciego Montero cola and trips in old cars are standout when they don’t have new sound systems playing the latest hits from farruko or Gente de Zona. 

It’s 2015 in every way with social manifestations of politics only kinder than those one would find in an American city. 

But at the same time things do move differently, there are few TV channels and no expectation of Internet and so I find myself wondering if this is what summertime felt like when my mom was a kid, my languid downtime reminding me of the 70’s in the way I know it from episodes of Freaks and Geeks, there’s almost always enough time.

As wonderful as everything is I have been homesick, I miss my creature comforts- I miss processed food and affordable soy milk (8 bucks a carton is not happening, though soy yogurt is cheap and ubiquitous). I miss my dog and feeling at least mostly sure of where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing. 

me milking a buffalo!

 

  a baby buffalo says hello at dawn

Audacity, tenacity, intelligence- core values of Camilo Cienfuegos are remembered in Yaguajay at the site of Batista’s barracks during the revolutionary battle of 1958. A museum to Cienfuegos stands at the site today.

 

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Being Latina on study abroad

Time January 5th, 2016 in 2015 Fall, College Study Abroad, Cuba, LGBTQ Correspondents | No Comments by

I think that traveling as a Latina from the United States brings up certain questions of identity for me. In most countries I’ve visited, the people that I have met have not readily accepted that I was American upon first meeting me, and the look of surprise of expression of confusion as to why I don’t have blue eyes or blonde hair was something that I’ve come to expect with being abroad. However in Cuba my visibility and invisibility as non-Cuban and further more as an American are intertwined with my own feelings of Americanness or lack thereof. Physically I have been told by countless Cubans that I could pass for Cuban, which makes perfect sense given the similar colonial histories of Puerto Rico and the United States, but I am rarely mistaken for a Cuban person. More than any other place I have been the people I have encountered who have asked about my nationality have completely accepted that I am American and don’t look different from how an American “should” look. However people do often follow with the question “pero tienes descendencia latina?” (Do you have Latino ancestry?) to which I reply of course and explain that I am Puerto Rican but raised in the United States. Most people are pleasantly excited and quote the poet Teresa de Tio to me and if they don’t I jump in with the line about Puerto Rico and Cuba being two wings of the same bird and overall it’s often pleasant. Other exchange students have asked me if i ever get mistaken for Cuban and I don’t know truly what people think of me when I walk down the street or in passing but every now and then a Cuban person will ask me a question about something in Havana and then in my reply will realize that I’m merely a tourist. What has been even more surprising than being readily accepted as American is that people will outright ask me if I’m Puerto Rican. I’m always astounded and excited and perhaps its always a lucky guess for the other person but it’s certainly not what j expected nor an experience I’ve had anywhere else while traveling.In regards to my self conceptualizer ion while here- Being on “study abroad” in Cuba is deeply personal for me in that it feels important to me to be in the land so much like that of my ancestors that has fought and survived imperialism tirelessly and astoundingly successfully. When I walk around here and see billboards proclaiming the now idioms of Jose Martí I feel an ache for what could have been, of Puerto Rico, of the United States and Mexico and the countless lands colonized and ravaged by Spain and the United States. And I feel very private and distant from the other American students I encounter here when it comes to those feelings. Sometimes it’s like being this open wound hopelessly misplaced and unbandaged, I don’t feel Cuban, I feel hopelessly American here in a way that terrifies me, this isn’t a semester of beach and sun and a lowered drinking age for me, or of travel to a forbidden historical gem. It’s a lot of fear and disappointment and soul searching, being an American Latina in Latina America can be lonely, and more so in the structured role of an American university’s study abroad program. What does it mean when the heart cannot be decolonized?

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A Photo Resumen

Time December 21st, 2015 in 2015 Fall, College Study Abroad, Cuba, LGBTQ Correspondents | No Comments by

 

Flowers from the Backyard of Hemingway’s house

Leah and I smiling with the flowers in spite of the heat

Me with a puppy we found by the beach and taught how to swim

 

The Unites States Embassy on a cloudy day

A selfie from the Plaza de Armas book fair

Old Havana from one of the topless busses that runs through the city.

The IFSA students on the university steps

Mural on the wall of the Arts and Letters building

Classroom poster referencing the Cuban 5

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A Retroactive October post..

Time December 21st, 2015 in 2015 Fall, College Study Abroad, Cuba, LGBTQ Correspondents | No Comments by

Thank you all for bearing with me and the ups and downs of my wi-fi connection in Havana. A few of my blog posts never quite made it but I think they serve to illustrate my experience even arriving a little late. Below is a post I made in October but was not able to upload!

Hey everyone! October has been so wonderful and warm, it hardly feels like October at all. The fact that Halloween is coming up feels so entirely unreal to me- like I know that most of the states is covered in spooky decor but that couldn’t feel more far away from my reality. Sometimes it feels like time is standing still and when I get home I will still have all of fall and winter ahead of me.

Today a few friends and I went to Micayito beach to relax and scope it out. We had heard from word of mouth that it is a gay friendly beach and a lot of fun. What we found was a narrow shore against a tall rooty sandbank. It wasn’t too busy and after only walking for a short while we found a huge cluster of beach chairs, umbrellas, and chaises on a crowded and plant-less chunk of the sand bank. Between all of the people a huge rainbow flag was beating in the wind, which was a surprise since I rarely see rainbow flags here and while its association with the gay community exists in theory, in practice it is almost never used as a marker or identifier of people or spaces. Unsurprisingly the beach was mostly populated by gay men, very few children, and very few women.
We found a soft spot on the sand near and emptier stretch of the sandbank and sunned. Swimming wasn’t too great because the wind and waves were a little brutal and impossible to relax in. A few people talked to us, on was a lesbian only a year younger than us who quickly wanted to know our sexual orientations and who stuck by us most of the afternoon.
Overall it was really interesting to see the beach but I also suspect that this isn’t  the busiest time of the year to go, (a friend did say that the first  official day of summer is amazing and packed with people of all sexual orientations from all over Havana to enjoy the weather, music, and drag shows.)
I am curious to see what Halloween night will look like in Havana, our resident director has mentioned that there were costume parties when she was a student and that the Cubans in her classes were so excited to see how dressed up all of the Americans got.
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The last trip with IFSA!

Time December 4th, 2015 in 2015 Fall, Cuba, LGBTQ Correspondents | No Comments by

 

So our last and final IFSA Butler group trip began in Santiago! We traveled to the eastern half of the island from Santiago to Baracoa with a quick stop in Guantanamo overnight.

Where did we go in Santiago?

-Jose Marti’s mausoleum

– the beautiful town square

– the Moncada barracks, where Fidel made his first attempt at the revolution

– church of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, the patron Virgin of Cuba -Gran Piedra- the largest whole volcanic rock in the world

– San Pedro de la Roca castle and fortress

 

Guantanamo was really just a short stop on our way but the food was great and we ended up finding a reggaeton concert by sheer luck. We stayed one night leaving the next morning to head to Baracoa, on our way out of town we stopped by the roadside shoreline to hunt for shells and take photos.

Our arrival in Baracoa was in the afternoon and we found ourselves in a small beachside town full of tourists and sleepier at night than anywhere else I’ve been in Cuba. It is lush and feels like a vacation city, the colorful houses are surrounded by tall lush mountains, and El Yunque distantly looks out over the sea from an hour outside of town.

The food in Baracoa is delicious and unique from the rest of the country’s standard fare. The local specialty is a coconut milk sauce made with cilantro and tomatoes, similar to the sauce that ropa vieja is made in but with the strength of cilantro and the smoothness of coconut milk that reminded me of a milder version of one of my favorite Thai soups, the name of which is escaping me now as I write this.

Our second day in Baracoa we climbed El Yunque, the second highest peak in all of Cuba and it was just the adventure I needed. At the foot of the mountain we had to cross cuba’s third largest river (it’s hard to brag about these accomplishments when they’re not top tier in terms of height or width but they were fun and I think maybe the size ranking helps one picture what it was like).

Soaking wet we began our climb, around three hours up and two hours down through vertical mudslides and nary a rock to cling too. It was messy insanity and so so hot but absolutely fun. I can’t say that i would claim it again, mostly because I felt like I had inappropriate footwear but I’m not sure what appropriate footwear would be, I think maybe just really rugged waterproof boots with a good grip. I have this fantasy where I brought my bean boots to Cuba because time and time again I get sloshed in rain and mud and long for some shoes more cozy and durable than flip flops and sneakers.

Leaving Baracoa was a much longer saga than it could have been but not entirely frustrating or unexpected. Our plane was broken and they had to send the passengers on a bus to Santiago to take a different plane to Havana, however every bus in Baracoa was being used by tour groups so they had to send a driver from Santiago five hours away to get us. All in all it was a thirteen hour delay for a one hour flight but the airline got everyone lunch at the gorgeous seaside hotel beside the airport and we splashed around in the pool and sunbathed in our underwear (our suitcases were locked up in the airport! Sometimes you have to make do!). The hotel had a small lookout over the water with a replica of the cross that Columbus placed in the earth when he reached Baracoa and found himself in Cuba. It was a little eerie and surreal to consider- the lookout point was so lush he must have thought he had found paradise, but I closed my eyes and thought about how lucky I was to be by the ocean all things considered, saving my feelings about Columbus and replica crosses for another day.

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Downtime

Time October 26th, 2015 in 2015 Fall, Cuba, LGBTQ Correspondents | No Comments by

 

A note to future IFSA butler we Havana students-

What you should know-

Sometimes your laptop won’t connect to the Internet, it simply won’t. And your phone will log you out and your spotify won’t connect and then will suspend your offline playlists and you will feel exactly like the woman in the center on your ETECSA wifi card, the most peaceful when not connected at all. Because soon it’s easier to not connect at all then to develop the patience and maturity required to ration your internet in a rational and sustainable way without wanting to pull your hair out.

But you will draft emails offline in your downtime and will journal and think about writing letters but remember that they won’t arrive to the U.S. Even if you did find the stamps and try to send them, and you will learn to have downtime! Without the Internet and tumblr and endless scrolling! Because that’s what it is really, downtime, not free time, you’ll have homework you could be doing, dense reading you should be chipping around the edges of, but it’s not enough time to do too much of anything either! Just a rest for a moment before the next thing and you’re off!

 

 

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El Papa

Time October 7th, 2015 in 2015 Fall, Cuba, LGBTQ Correspondents | No Comments by

El Papa

So I saw the pope in Cuba! After I decided to study abroad in the fall of this year I realized I would be missing the Pope’s visit to Philadelphia and I was super bummed out but also slightly relieved that I wouldn’t have to spend a day in the crowd that I was sure would suck all of the air out of the city. However I learned that he would be coming to Cuba while I was here and it seemed like kismet and I again readied myself to go. I’m not a fan of huge crowds but it did seem like a little adventure to trek out in the dark of early morning to see this enormous cultural and political icon speak and give mass. It was a little bit how I imagine it must be to line up for stores after thanksgiving to catch the early morning Black Friday sales, (could I have made an analogy any more American than that? I don’t think so), but later and less crowded. We left the house around five am to begin our little trek out to the Plaza de la Revolución. The sky was still dark but the heat hadn’t broken yet so it was sweltering hot regardless. A few of the main roads were closed in anticipation and I expected to encounter our path full of other people headed the same way but our walk was essentially empty, and quieter than any nigh walk in Havana, though I’m rarely up before 8, so perhaps every morning is that wet and soft and silent. Read More »

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Greetings from Havana!

Time September 24th, 2015 in College Study Abroad, Cuba, LGBTQ Correspondents | No Comments by

So far this month has been an amazing whirlwind. Classes have begun at the University of Havana, we took a weekend IFSA trip to Viñales and I am starting to hit my stride in a new city. Havana is beautiful, warm and welcoming, and compared to every other major city I have lived in, overwhelmingly safe. We are living in a hip area a few blocks away from the university in various casas particulares which are bed and breakfasts where dinner is included and in our case laundry as well. My host parents, Yolanda and Jose are incredibly kind and invested in helping me adjust as well as getting to know me. Yolanda’s cooking is a favorite among all of the IFSA students and I feel so lucky to get to eat it every day. So far my exploration of the city has not reached the lgbtq scene but I’m wading in but by bit. Havana is a socially progressive city in regards to sexuality but as far as visibility goes, gay men are everywhere and lesbians appear non existent. People are vocally very accepting however. Frequently people speak out in support of gay people in casual conversation which I find interesting. I know that CENESEX has done a great deal of work to include all sexualities in their national campaigns for families as well as in service of lgbtq-specific awareness and conversation. I’m keeping my eye out, I have yet to explore all of the malecon, an enormous seawall that is dotted with families, couples, and people of all ages from morning until madrugada, and I have heard that certain cross streets are known as congregations spots for the queer community of Havana.

I’m taking a 400 level sociology of gender class at the university that is absolutely amazing so far. The professor gave us this wild intro during the first class that was a rush through the history of gender studies and its relevance in Havana and I am itching to go to class tomorrow just to hear her speak some more.

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Los Juegos Caribe

Time April 7th, 2015 in 2015 Spring, College Study Abroad, Cuba | No Comments by

Over the past couple of weeks has been the annual Juegos Caribe at the university. All the facultades at UH compete against one another in a mix of sports, sort of like the Olympic Games, but with fewer events. In each event, the top 3 individuals or teams would even receive bronze, silver, and gold looking medals. Even better, each participant gets a University of Havana shirt that is unique to your facultad. As study abroad students, we are registered in the facultad de Filosofía, Historia y Sociología, and our Cuban friends were really thankful for our help.

Personally, I competed in mostly running events, getting 2 silver medals in the 5k and the 4x400m relay. In addition, we had a bunch of people from our program and residence compete as well in a bunch of different sports like, soccer, swimming, basketball, and Judo. It was also really cool to see all the people coming from each facultad to come and support everyone in all the events. No matter what sport it was, each one pulled in a crowd to support your team. As I normally run for my university’s club cross country team, competing was something I really missed, and having the all the support of our friends from school made it even better.

As the games came to an end, points were tallied amongst all the events, ranking each facultad. Economía placed first once again, but some of my Cuban friends joke that their classes aren’t very difficult, so they have way more time to train for the games, but with everyone’s hard work, Filosofía, Historia y Sociología placed third. So if you plan on coming during the spring semester, definitely don’t forget your soccer cleats, track spikes, or goggles, because the facultad really appreciates the help of all the foreign students each year!

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Santiago de Cuba

Time March 20th, 2015 in 2015 Spring, College Study Abroad, Cuba | No Comments by

 

This past weekend was our IFSA sponsored trip to see some of the other side of the island. After an early flight at 5:30 Friday morning, we landed in Santiago de Cuba. Since this was our one day to spend in the city, we tried to make the most of our time. First, we went shopping through some of the market streets, and then saw a few museums. Then we made our way to the church in the main square of the city, and although it was closed for restoration, we were still allowed in for a couple of minutes to see the amazing architecture.

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Vida en La Habana

Time March 11th, 2015 in 2015 Spring, College Study Abroad, Cuba | No Comments by

It’s crazy to think that an entire month has already passed by, there is still so much I want to do. In the short time that we have been here, we’ve tried a lot of the local food places around our residence as well as trying to see as all the museums and cultural events around the city.

Our house provides us with a really nice breakfast and dinner every day, but getting lunch is up to us. El jardín del Edén on calle C between 17 and 19 has the best milkshakes. Our IFSA director took us the day we arrived, and now I’m addicted. I have to go at here at least twice a week to get ropa vieja (pulled pork) with a batido de plátano. Doña Laura, on calle H between 23 and 21 has also been a really popular place to go. Even though it always looks packed, their food is amazing and the food comes out extremely fast for how many people are always there. If you want tacos, El Burrito Habanero on 23 is also really great. It’s also nice that all of these places are priced in Cuban pesos (24 CUP/U.S. dollar), so you get a ton of food for 1 or 2 U.S. dollars.

The other currency used here, the CUC (1 CUC/U.S. dollar), is usually used at more touristy restaurants, museums, shows, and for club entrances. Since a significant amount of the country’s money is made through tourism, many places here have a tourist or resident price. (Tourist paying significantly more) In being a student here, we are able to receive a temporary residency card, allowing us to avoid paying tourist prices for anything around the city. This makes it very easy and inexpensive for us to see everything Havana has to offer. So far I’ve been able to see Rent at the local theater, Swan Lake at the National Ballet, and I still haven’t been to half of the museums yet.

So even though IFSA helps us through planned programs throughout the city and around the island, it is extremely easy to find places to see or eat throughout the city on your own. There are so many things out there beyond the typical guidebooks, you just have to look out for them.

 

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Getting Settled In

Time February 10th, 2015 in 2015 Spring, College Study Abroad, Cuba | No Comments by

With getting all unpacked and having a general idea of where everything is that we need in the city, it was time to begin the process of registering for classes. The Sunday before classes began, an advisor from the faculty of philosophy and history as well as arts and letters met with each of us individually to discuss the potential classes we would like to take at the university. In order to test out a couple of different options, we are given a 2 week “shopping” period to see what we would like to take in addition to our core course. As classes started, they required some adjustments; some professors being easier to understand than others, but as the week goes on you catch on very quickly. Also the other Cuban students in the class are more than happy to help you out if you need it.

However, with getting settled in, the original infatuation and euphoria of being in a new place eventually dissipates (Which is a good thing). In becoming more acclimated to your surroundings, you begin to experience all aspects of a different society and culture. For instance, Cuba’s infrastructure is obviously very different. Most of the sidewalks are crumbling or broken, many of the buildings are in disrepair, and the air pollution in the city can be pretty bothersome. Also limited internet access is very frustrating. Sometimes hotels charge you different amounts for internet cards, and even if you’re able to buy one, there is no guarantee the Wi-Fi is even functioning. Contacting home is also very expensive, and often times when trying to by an international phone card, they’ve run out. So you can imagine that it could be a little frustrating to get used to.

Although, with these differences, it really changes your view on the world. As Americans, for the most part, we are always connected to the internet, checking social media/emails, or texting. Even if you study abroad anywhere else, communication back home is still relatively easy, and that’s part of the reason I chose to come to Cuba. It forces you out of the mindset of being constantly connected and reliant on technology. Cubans seem to live more in the moment then we do at home. We’re always panicking about the future, where we’ll be or what we’ll be doing. However, the occasional phone call from my mom or email from a friend (thanks Jess) is always uplifting, they are definitely more appreciated.

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The First Days in Cuba!

Time February 2nd, 2015 in 2015 Spring, College Study Abroad, Cuba | No Comments by

After waking up at 3 a.m. and sitting in the Miami airport for an extra hour, we all finally arrived in Havana. The airport was super small and it took forever for us to get our luggage, but as soon as we passed through immigration to begin our time abroad. Soon we met our resident director, Michelle, to take us to our residence in Vedado.

Getting settled in took no time at all, and even though we were exhausted from the flight, we couldn’t wait to see the city. Words cannot do justice to how incredible the architecture is here. Everything is so colorful, and even the building in disrepair make this one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, especially our apartment. It is truly a city stuck in time. The classic Chevrolets serve as “maquinas,” which are taxis for Cubans that are different from the tourist cab system.

As we returned to our apartment for the day we met some other students of other programs in our residence for dinner, and the food in amazing. Afterward we decided to walk around our neighborhood to check out the surrounding restaurants and clubs. Finally we made our way down to the Malecon before returning home, and the waves from the ocean crashed up over the seawall extremely high in the air. Although the day was long and exhausting, this day will be a memory that I’ll retain for the rest of my life.

 

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Countdown to Cuba

Time January 12th, 2015 in 2015 Spring, College Study Abroad, Cuba | No Comments by

It’s only a few days now until I begin this next semester in Cuba, and I can hardly contain my excitement. First, I would like to explain a little about myself and how my blog will be in the coming weeks. Personally, I love anything to do with the outdoors. During my summers I work at a camp for at risk youth, so most of my time is spent hiking, caving, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting. However, I also love living in the city and attending Pitt. I think that it’s really great to experience two completely different living environments throughout the year. I am a member of our club cross country team to keep up my outdoor activity through the school year.

As someone who majors in political science and focuses in Latin American studies, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to study abroad in Havana. I’m most excited to experience their culture first hand while improving on my Spanish skills. As this semester progresses, I want to provide a description of what it’s like to study there, especially being an IFSA-Butler student.

Too often while I was filling out my application, I was asked why I ever considered going to Cuba, and through this blog, I want to make it clear that I wouldn’t want to study anywhere else. Especially as U.S-Cuban relations are beginning to improve, I could not have asked for a better opportunity to travel there. Hopefully through my upcoming posts and photos, I can convince anyone that the University of Havana is one of the greatest places in the world to study abroad.

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