Our stay in Cuba was like a boat load of celebrities came. We were welcomed SO enthusiastically! There were cameras waiting for us when we stepped off the ship. The first day the whole ship went to a mandatory visit to the University of Havana (which I really enjoyed and think we should have done something like that in each country.) Yep, that’s right; all 500+ of us were loaded onto 17 buses and taken to the University. But before we could go, reporters from all over the world were eager to take pictures, do interviews, and record as many students as possible. If you spoke good Spanish, you were stolen and probably on their nightly news. NBC and CNN were both there, and I heard we’re featured in the recent NBC news. Pretty dang cool.
Once we got everyone on the bus, we were taken to the University where we were met by more media. It was a thrilling feeling–really enjoyable since the whole group of us has never done anything together in port. We are one HUGE group! And all the Cubans seemed to welcome us with open arms. My first thought was, “why do we have this stinkin’ embargo with such a lovely country!? It’s not fair.” Let’s just say I understand it a little better now. Anyway, we climbed the monumental 88 steps to the song “Imagine” and it was really magical. We all chose one of three lectures to go to and I chose a scientific research one. There were interpreters for everyone speaking, which was cool at first, but very distracting by the end of the day. Cubans have the best health care system in the world, so it was really cool to hear about the research they have been working on to further them even more. One specifically stood out: a needle to draw blood that is made with only a laser, not hurting at all when used on humans. How cool would that be?!
After they performed cool dances and songs, we joined with them in dancing and it was SUPER fun! We all were shuttled back to the ship for a briefing, and then we were finally able to explore on our own! I went to an Amphitheater show where they lip-sang popular Broadway music and danced. It was kind of cheesy but entertaining at the same time. Cuban students went with us everywhere and had nothing but words for us. They asked us questions and we asked them questions. What I thought was kind of funky is how they all answered basically the same way…
The second morning I visited a education center which houses primary schools, secondary schools, graduate, and special education schooling all in the same fenced-in area. We asked them about their schooling and all they had to say were good things: how their children all went on to good jobs, they had options for those who had special needs, etc. But when I asked the question, “what is the biggest challenge in the school system currently?” They would not answer it, pretending they didn’t understand my question. Others tried to reword it to sound a little different, but the same outcome every time. It was really peculiar; they understood every other question we had….
A quick turnaround, and I was on the bus to a Cuban baseball game! Another huge group of SAS students went, but it was sooooo cool! It brought me back to my softball days and the times I went to baseball games with my family. It was what baseball games were probably like in the 60s and 70s–concrete seats which also served as steps, a manual scoreboard (which was REALLY cool,) and no lights. I had a nice, cold hot dog with a yellow bun and our group started the wave with their crowd and sang “take me out to the ballgame” with all the Cuban fans staring at us with confusion. The crowd was very enthusiastic, and our team ended up winning after a come back in the top of the 8th inning! I sat next to an older man who formed a rival relationship with me. It was really fun to try and communicate with him. After the game, the team wanted to meet us, so we were all directed towards the field where we were allowed to run the bases, photos were taken, and meeting of the players happened. It was SOOO cool! They looked at us like celebrities, and were surprised when we thought of them as the important ones.
We got back to the ship and all I wanted was a mojito (they are native to Cuba) and some yummy Cuban food. My friend and I went with no expectations and were directed by some men to a definite tourist restaurant with shrimp, lobster, and seafood galore. We were so hungry, though, we went anyway. I had DELICIOUS fisherman’s lobster, which was basically lobster cooked in salsa. I HIGHLY recommend it!
When we were done, the men who directed us to the restaurant told us they were also salsa teachers and they wanted to take us out to teach us. We agreed and had a wonderful night learning how to dance like a Cuban!
The next day we had a list of things we’d like to do, but realized it was the last day and we had to leave at 4 p.m. so we went with the flow. As we walked to the market, a man named Malcolm B (like Malcolm X–he told us) who talked to us the day before pulled up in a blue and white ’54 Dodge convertible and said, “remember me?” We did, because he was gorgeous! He wanted us to take a ride in one of his “old cars” and see the city on the road. We decided, “why not?” and hopped in right then. The driver dropped Malcolm B off to recruit more gullible visitors and took us on a half hour drive around the city. We saw the “New Havana” which had HUGE houses that used to be for the rich in Cuba, which were now government buildings. I tried asking where the owners went, and our driver, once again, didn’t ‘understand’ my question and left it unanswered. At this point, I was frustrated with Cubans and why they weren’t understanding my questions!
We were dropped off at the Market, ate lunch and met a man named Rafiel who first tried to sell us Cuban Cigars while we were waiting for our Cuban sandwiches and later came back and asked for a lunch for his mother. We knew he was lying to us when he said his mother’s name was Rafiela… how creative. :] But we bought it for him anyway, and since I couldn’t eat all of my sandwich, he scarfed down the rest of mine as well. It was kind of sad. What was even more sad is we spent more money on one lunch than they get in a week’s salary. I felt so rich in Cuba, and I really began feeling I could relate to celebrities in the USA; money definitely does not bring happiness. Honestly, it made me more sad because I had so much more than them…
We made our way to the Chocolate Factory, which was really yummy smelling, but I was so full, I couldn’t enjoy it to its fullest… sad day.
After the chocolate stop, we walked out and planned to find a cigar factory, but had NO idea to get to the area we were told it was. We looked completely lost, so a very nice man named Ramelo, who was on his lunch break, asked us if we needed help. He then proceeded to take us to the capital building personally. He is a lawyer, but said he is nowhere near rich! Crazy thing is, he has family IN MICHIGAN!! What are the odds? We shared some of our chocolate, he kissed us on the cheek goodbye and we parted our ways. We were so exhausted that we really didn’t want to find this factory, and when we asked the hotel about it, they said it closed at 1 and we had just missed it. We took it as a sign and went back to the ship. We were EXHAUSTED!
We were waved off by the Cuban students and probably half of Havana, which was an amazing feeling. They loved us. I went to post-port reflections and a student shared a story that really explained all the eeriness I had felt–the missing puzzle piece! He and some friends went to a house where they were demonstrating for National Human Rights day, and got there to find men handcuffed and being beaten in public for trying to speak their mind. Also, they were not allowed to get out of the car they were in, since the government had already been contacted and told their driver to take them back–we were supposed to only stay strictly in Havana and this house was in a nearby town. He also learned that all the students who were so hospitable to us went through intensive training on how to speak to us and answer questions correctly. That explained a lot! They weren’t allowed to speak. Another one of my friends had a talk with a local who was VERY tentative to speak to her, but said he wanted freedom.
Overall, I LOVED Cuba! I’d go back in a heartbeat. What I didn’t like was the front they made their country put on for USA visitors, especially students who could be ambassadors for them in our country. I wish they would have been more real with us, but they can’t be… it’s the most frustrating thing! Nevertheless, I left with a love for the friendly people and beautiful country; it was the perfect last port for a perfect voyage.
As we head into the Bahamas for a free day in Freeport after finals are complete, I can’t help but realize how open and tolerant I have become about other cultures and ways of living. Instead of wanting to change them, I’d much rather learn about them, and really learn from them. I will do a wrap up blog when I return home, but just know I am already realizing how my view on the world has changed from one semester.
Until next time,