Pre-Departure (Antes de Cuba)
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.
If you were to ask the people in my Appalachian hometown why I went away for college or why I’m choosing to study abroad in Cuba, they would probably elude to the fact that I believe I am better than their redneck pride and conservative, traditional ways. But they would be wrong. I went away for college — around 500 miles away, in fact, which is practically unheard of where I come from, and for which I caught much grief as a result — not because I believe I am better than anyone, but because after almost eighteen years in the same place, I again craved that change in perspective that only a new place with new people and new opinions can provide. Travel has always been the way I stimulate my mind in a way school never could, and the way I avoid the things I dread. Not everyone understands this mindset, and I’m not sure if it’s healthy to plop from place to place at the first sign of boredom or trouble, but it works for me. And right now, at this point in my life, I feel the need to regroup and remember all the things I have begun to take for granted, as well as to get some space from a father being consumed by ALS and the resulting tension that now looms over my family, my house, and our conversations. I’m aware that sounds selfish, and trust me, I’ve tried to communicate my guilt to my dad, suggesting that maybe I should take a semester off or even just not go abroad, but no matter what I proposed, he always came back to the same response: “You have to live your life.” And so now, I’m trying to do that in the very best way I know how — for myself, but also for him. I’d be lying if I said I caught the travel bug all on my own. He and my mother both contributed to my susceptibility in terms of contagion for travel, and for that, I will be forever grateful.
If a full feelings report is what you so desire, the three words I would give you are nervous, curious, and ready. I am slightly anxious about my Spanish comprehension (especially given the impossible Cuban accent), I am curious about the distant lands and people that await me (as I have only heard rumors of such things), and I am ready to take a break from my routine, my expectations, and my days that, after an extremely difficult fall semester, have became mundane and tiring. I think that just about sums it up.
Well, one more feeling. Immense, immense gratitude. If you know me than you know that this semester abroad in Cuba is something I have fought tooth and nail for for the past ten months. Over this time, I have spent countless hours sifting through emails to Middlebury College administrators, speaking through clenched teeth and tear-streamed cheeks in meetings with these same administrators about my refusal to let my socioeconomic status inhibit my dreams, and pouring over seven different Cuba study abroad applications and the scholarship applications that accompanied them. Eventually, at the suggestion of Middlebury College administrators, I was forced to resort to creating a GoFundMe, though I had many reservations about this decision (I did not want to equate studying abroad with chemotherapy treatments, as GoFundMes in my area are often used for purposes like the latter, I resented the fact that this would require me to plaster my social media feeds with my personal financial information, and mainly, I just didn’t think people would [be able to] contribute enough to make it worth it). And, sure enough, about two weeks in and halfway to my fundraising goal, my hesitations proved valid after my GoFundMe was hacked and a whole other chain of unfortunate events proceeded to unfold. To make a long story short, the funds were eventually recovered, and I was able to make this study abroad experience work after raising half of what I needed. And for that, I have my wonderful employers, parents, friends, family members, and friends of those friends and family to thank. So to all of you reading this blog, whether you contributed monetarily or otherwise, in the form of moral support, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for helping me to make this happen. I would not be able to tell you about my experiences to come if it weren’t for you all.
Thank you, thank you, gracias.
Nos vemos pronto, en Cuba!