Sunday, June 23, 2013

Days 13-14 | Cuba Journal

May 25-26, 2013

More beautiful Cuban countryside
The last two days of our trip were filled with much free time. We did visit the Museum of the Revolution in addition to the Jose Marti memorial. I really enjoyed the memorial. For a man who is supposedly so famous, I knew about little about him. He was yet another example of a man who put himself on the line to change society in a way he saw fit. His endurance for independence still rings true in Cuban society today. Time and time again modern Cuba and Cuban historical figures reinforce the notion that Cubans have come to be incredibly self-sufficient. Humberto mentioned this during his talk on US-Cuban relations and the idea never left the trip. 

Yet another breathtaking view
Sunday was a slow day and I spent a lot of time reflecting. Embarrassingly, this trip has been extremely emotional for me. I have connected with various Cubans during this experience. I’ve heard and seen some pretty terrible things since travelling here that I never would’ve expected to have seen on a school sponsored trip. I was not afraid to dive in head first with the locals; sometimes it didn’t go so well (getting scammed), but other times I was fortunate enough to forge some really incredible friendships. Getting just a glimpse into some of the tremendous hardship that Cuban youth undergo on a daily basis was sobering. We all hear about prostitution, hunger, and poverty, but rarely do we match a face to these issues. This trip provided me the opportunity to make these things tangible. Because of this, Sunday was a rough day for me. I felt privileged to be an American but also felt angered by the same fact. Our policy towards Cuba certainly plays a role in the poverty that Cubans undergo. It is surely not a 1-dimensional issue. The US-Cuban embargo is not the root of all evil. Furthermore, it would be naïve to think that Cuba is an exception. Hardship and poverty exist in abundance in this world. The difference with Cuba is that it is literally in our back yard. We are just a step away from the island nation, yet so many Americans know nothing about the country. I am very happy to have received this opportunity and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. I feel very inspired to try to instill a change concerning these issues. I really don't know where to start, but I think writing my senator wouldn’t hurt. One voice isn’t too powerful, but by sharing my experience in Cuba I hope that others around me will slowly feel compelled to demand change. Thank you for this incredible experience.

Intense sky
I would like to extend a warm thanks to all of you who have followed the Cuba journals. If you have ANY questions, comments, advice, corrections, or concerns, please do NOT hesitate to leave a comment. I hope that everyone was able to take something from these journals. Never fear - The Column is a long way off from being done with Cuba related materials. There are still posts to come concerning my trip, photos included. If you would like any information on Cuban history or contemporary Cuban policies, please let me know and I will do my best to offer information! Once again, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read what I have to say.

We bid farewell to Carlos and Luis (from left to right) - two amazing people
who have forever changed Joseph and I's lives - thank you for
the friendship that you both offered

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Days 11-12 | Cuba Journal

May 23-24, 2013

On the road in Cuba
May 23 was relatively uneventful; most of the day was spent in transit so I don’t have much to talk about. One interesting realization I made while on the road was how out of the loop I’ve become while on this trip. At a rest stop a man was talking to a few of us about some terrible tornadoes that had occurred recently in the US. I had no way to really verify this, but upon hearing the news it reinforced the fact that, once in Cuba, you are pretty disconnected from the rest of the world. The ease of Internet is nonexistent and even cell phones seem to be a luxury. I don’t have anything too profound to say about this day, but it was interesting to be reminded of how far removed I became in such a short period of time. It makes me wonder what it must be like for the semester students. 

More of being on the road...

May 24 presented a challenge for me – dance. I struggled throughout the salsa lesson but in the end it really was a great time and I managed to learn just a small bit of dance. I felt accomplished nonetheless. Humberto made the joke that us Americans simply don’t have dancing abilities in our genes; though it was certainly meant as a joke, there is definitely a clear divide with certain aspects of Cubans and Americans (dancing ability, for example). Once again, this day was pretty uneventful so I don’t have a great deal to say.

You guessed it...MORE road!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Day 10 | Cuba Journal

May 22, 2013

Street in Trinidad
Today we went to Trinidad and I also went to a reggae concert (Micha, at the club Costa Sur) in Cienfuegos later that evening. My experience in Trinidad wasn’t anything too astounding. It was blazingly hot and a giant tourist trap. Vendors all have great prices, cigars, taxis, and chicas – to be honest, it’s somewhat exhausting. Though I know tourist traps are definitely not exclusive to Cuba, experiencing a city that thrives solely on the tourist industry raises concerns. As much as I’d love to see the Cuban-US border open, there is a legitimate fear that so much of the beauty and culture of Cuba that makes it so alluring will slowly fade away as cities and towns continue to fall to the overwhelming market of tourism. I highly doubt that Havana will ever become a tourist trap in the way that Trinidad has, but if a surge of US tourists flow into Cuba and demand the frivolous amenities that they are accustomed to, there is a great possibility that some of what makes Cuba so unique will start to disappear due to the desires of foreigners. I do not think that this fear outweighs the many benefits of opening the border; additionally, I feel that Cuban culture is strong and that Cubans are well versed in independence. Because of this, US tourism will certainly not decimate Cuban culture. Nonetheless, our excursion to Trinidad certainly had me asking questions about the hypothetical future of Cuba.
Having a blast at the Micha concert

Cristian and I posing like true Cubans - no smile necessary 

Perhaps my favorite photo from Cuba 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Day 9 | Cuba Journal

May 21, 2013

Che mausoleum; beautiful sky!
Today we traveled to Santa Clara and visited the Che Guevara mausoleum. The story of Che and his struggle against those who he deemed as pillaging the people of Latin America was incredibly inspiring. He began his revolutionary journey at such a young age and left quite the legacy behind. I learned that a drunken soldier killed Che after he was caught in South America. To be honest, this infuriated me. I have not had the opportunity to learn as much about Latin America as I would like, but from what I’ve gathered the US has definitely not ceased interfering whether or not the interference is justified. The United States is supposed to be a country that stands up for the minority and for the freedom of all. By decimating social movements in foreign countries, the US fails to adequately abide by its own “mission statement.” Che’s story was devastating to me – a man inspired to change Latin America in order to liberate those who were oppressed was assassinated by the same country that claims to stand for freedom and liberty above all else. 

Street in Santa Clara 
My trip to Cuba has been pretty emotional. I always knew about poverty and hunger, prostitution and drug use, but to see Cubans face to face who deal with these hardships on a day-to-day basis is incredibly discouraging. What’s more is that so many Americans are completely oblivious to the situation in Cuba (as was I before I came here). Citizens of the US pride ourselves in standing up for the oppressed, yet we permit our government to continue to oppress the livelihood of Cuban people. By being unable to accept an economic system different from our own, the US is playing a large role in the sadness I have witnessed during this trip. This realization has had a profound impact on me and I look forward to writing my senator upon arrival in the US to express my concern. Though it will likely do nothing to change the problem, it is a start. Today’s journal has been somewhat of a rant for me, but it’s nice to get my thoughts out on paper surrounding my sentiments.

Artwork at the Che memorial 

More artwork

Humberto and Doc Friedman struggling with the camera

Monday, June 17, 2013

Day 8 | Cuba Journal

May 20, 2013 

Small town we passed through
on the way to Nicho Park
Entrance to Nicho Park
Today we went to Nicho Park and hiked around. The views were beautiful and swimming in the pools was fantastic. For future trips to Cuba I fully encourage the organizers to take students to this park. It is breathtaking and simply a lot of fun! I mentioned to Dr. Friedman and Dr. Ganaway that a large part of my cultural exchange has taken place while talking to bathroom attendants. While this seems silly, I have actually learned some interesting fun facts about Cuban culture and society by talking to restroom attendants. Today, I spoke with the attendant at the park and learned a bit more about Cuban cuisine. He told me that the seed-like things that fall from palm trees can be used to season pork. It is just really fantastic to be able to connect with the locals like I’ve been able to. I’m very fortunate to be able to understand enough Spanish to learn simple things about cuisine, for example. During the drive back from Nicho to Cienfuegos, I was able to listen to a conversation between Dr. Friedman and Humberto concerning the gay rights movement. I was astounded to hear that Cubans can now receive gender reassignment surgery free of charge. The thoughts expressed by Humberto lined up well with the reading I did on the status of gays in Cuba – that things are improving and Cubans are moving in a more progressive direction. The fact that the Cuban government will pay for sex reassignment surgery is a major step in the direction towards pro-gay attitudes in the country. Other than that, we spent the evening at Liurdes’ house eating a delicious dinner. I am so happy to have been able to eat some home-cooked meals. There’s nothing too cerebral to say about the food. It’s just delicious! 

Beautiful Nicho Park
Small pond in Nicho Park
Joseph and I after a nice swim in freezing water!
I had mentioned in a previous journal that I was interested in learning more about Cuban agriculture, so I decided to start reading about it. The first interesting thing I found in the provided reading deals with the Cuban agricultural model. Due to high subsidies and a large dependence on chemical inputs, Cuban agriculture became very vulnerable. When imports of chemicals and the like ceased to exist, Cuban agriculture began to fail. Towards the late 1990’s Cuban agriculture began to improve and there was actually positive growth. Caloric intake per person increased by the late 90’s and all of these changes were made without the aid of the IMF or World Bank. Once again, the absence of the US-Cuban relationship has placed Cuba in a terrible position. Furthermore, in 1994 agricultural markets were opened to Cubans; people could now buy and sell agricultural products without the government serving as the middleman. As a result, the black market surrounding agriculture began to dry up. Additionally, opened markets have increased Cubans’ access to food; however, the downside is that prices are high placing stressors on low income Cubans. I know I said I was interested in why there seems to be a food shortage, and after reading the agriculture literature I’m still somewhat confused. It gave a vast amount of information and at first glance it is certainly overwhelming. Regardless, it seems certain that since the 1990’s crisis food sources have improved and more Cubans have access to necessary foodstuffs.

Jared riding a bull before heading out!

Shot of the three amigos at the grand vista!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Day 7 | Cuba Journal

May 19, 2013

Ominous skies over Liurdes' house
Today we began our excursion to Cienfuegos. The morning was off to a slow start after the driver was pulled over by a police officer. I overheard a conversation between Dr. Friedman and Humberto while in the car waiting for the van and my fellow students. Humberto talked about a government initiative to increase the amount of women involved in law enforcement in hopes to decrease violence and increase respect among law enforcement and civilians. Humberto seemed to buy into this idea pretty strongly by relying on his intuition of gender roles; however, Dr. Friedman noted that due to a possible lack of physical strength, women might be more likely to resort to violence against an offender. Once again, a mishap in Cuba led to an interesting conversation that gave me a greater insight on Cuban society.

Joseph goofing off at Liurdes' house
We also spent time at Playa Girón (for us Americans, Playa Girón is the Bay of Pigs). The most interesting part about the visit was the museum; the national narrative differs so greatly from that of the US. The museum commemorates the courage and might of Fidel Castro while the US denounces him as a lunatic communist leader. While diverging narratives occur everywhere, it is fascinating to see just how sharp of a contrast there is between the Cuban and US historical narrative. It is easy to forget that the “other side” has just a valid viewpoint in an issue. After spending time in Cuba, I’ve been able to put a face to the nation that the US so strongly disdains. The result? Anger on behalf of my country’s actions. 

Joseph at our home terrace
 in Cienfuegos
We arrived in Cienfuegos this evening and had a fantastic meal at Liurdes’ house. I’m looking forward to getting acquainted with this new town. It has a very different feel from La Habana so I’m a bit apprehensive but I’m definitely willing to give it a chance. After spending our evenings at El Malecón, Joseph, Jared, and I have gained a level of comfort with the people we were around (for better or for worse). It is sad to think that we’ll be leaving soon and that we will likely not see the friends we’ve made here again. 

View from our home terrace
in Cienfuegos
Finally, I spent some time reading about Cuban public opinion. It is very interesting to see that the percentage of Cubans who identify as being revolutionaries strongly outnumbers those who identity as socialist or communist. When I was speaking with Camilo at the Botanical Gardens I asked him if he would classify Cuba as a communist or socialist country. His response was a simple “neither.” He said that Cubans “are just trying to survive.” This sort of mentality doesn’t seem so different from a revolutionary mentality. Regardless of what revolutionary means for the individual, a struggle to survive often prompts a desire for change, or revolution. I honestly have no idea what kind of “revolution” Camilo desires, or whether or not he would even classify himself as a revolutionary in the first place. At the closing of the public opinion reading it notes that the most popular Cuban leisure activity is watching TV – it is easy (again) to create an allure surrounding Cubans, a sense of mystery. In reality, Cubans are just like us; taking life one day at a time. Politics and revolutionary thought are only part of a huge web of day-to-day life. One other semi-comical note – the reading talked about aggravations caused by the power being off for eight hours; Black out Blues by Frank Delgado isn’t just a catchy tune, but a reality.

Beautiful sunset in Cienfuegos across the street from Liurdes' house 
View from Liurdes' patio; gorgeous sunset

Enjoying a home cooked breakfast at Liurdes' house

Friday, June 14, 2013

Day 6 | Cuba Journal

May 18, 2013

Today the excursions we went on didn’t offer a tremendous amount to talk about. We started the day off with a trip to La Playa del Este. Aside from spending time with Camilo and asking him basic questions about Cuban culture, the excursion was simply for pleasure. I did have a run in with the bathroom attendant. I needed tissue and she didn’t want to give me a sufficient amount because I only gave her ten cents. I became frustrated and wasn’t particularly friendly to the attendant. After exiting the restroom she actually stopped me to apologize for the misunderstanding and explained that the owners of the restaurant have to provide all tissue and water and that it is simply very difficult for them. She assured me that she would’ve permitted me to enter the restroom without a tip and that she didn’t want me to think she was a bad person. For what it’s worth, I’ve really been fortunate to be able to communicate with the locals. For better or for worse, speaking the language allows me to get a more in depth look at how these people get by (whether or not what they say is true or just a guilt trip for money is a completely different issue). We then went to the Fort where we watched the cannon firing. Humberto explained that in the 1800’s a wall enclosed the city and there was a 9PM curfew. Each evening there would be a blast to signify to the locals that it was time to return home. It was interesting to see that a practice that limited Cubans freedom is still “celebrated.” With the revolution being about “el fin de injusticia, libertad ahora,” it is interesting that a practice limiting freedom has been engrained into contemporary Cuban tradition. 
I’ve also done some reading on Cuban cuisine. To say the least, I haven’t been overly impressed with Cuban food. Our reading points out that there are many different influences on Cuban cuisine. For example, there are Spanish and African influences. In my personal experience, each restaurant essentially serves the same dishes. At the Fort we ate at a Criollo restaurant. The description of this cuisine in the reading matches up more or less with what I was served. I find it interesting that Criollo food is normally devoid of fruit; however, plantains are often served with Criollo dishes. Though the description of this cuisine matched the reality of the Criollo restaurant, my experience suggests that the majority of Cuban cuisine encompasses the same basic elements, such as rice and beans.                   

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Day 5 | Cuba Journal

May 17, 2013

Beautiful Harbor In La Habana Vieja
Today we went to the Cuban Museum of Art in La Habana Vieja. I think the most surprising thing for me to see there was the cubist influence. Once again, this surprise was simply bred from ignorance; I never thought about Cuba being influenced by the same art movements that reached the US. It was also very interesting to see the artwork supporting the revolution. All of the pieces definitely start to create a cult of personality surrounding the leaders of the revolution as well. Another interesting work was a map of the world made up of small cuts of wood. Each piece was in the shape of Cuba. The piece was titled “El Mundo Soñado,” or the dream world (more or less). I interpreted the piece as making a statement to suggest that the artist saw an idealized world where the philosophy of Cuba is globalized. One final note on art that I’d like to make connects to the reading provided by the program. The reading noted that the artist Wifredo Lam utilized a style in which human and animal qualities were mixed to create bizarre creatures. This style of polymorphism was very common among the pieces in the museum. I have to wonder how this style connects to Cuban life. 
Joseph Enjoying some Coffee and Ice Cream on Obispo

Nice toast to a nice second story bar on Obispo
The only other experience I wanted to touch on for this day deals with a dining mishap. I made the mistake of following someone to his home paladar. Needless to say, we were completely ripped off. At first I honestly thought that since the paladars are privately owned, the increased price was sensible. However, after talking to Doctor Friedman and a Cuban friend, I was enlightened of the scam. With the increase of freedom surrounding private enterprise in Cuba, it will be interesting to see if these types of scams will become easier than they already are. 

Joseph and I enjoying some drinks!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Day 4 | Cuba Journal

May 16, 2013

View from 14th Floor in Vedado
Today we had two classes; the first was on Cuban-US relations and the second was on Cuban music. The talk on US-Cuban relations was interesting but after taking Humberto’s class in the fall much of the information that we covered wasn’t new to me. However, it was very interesting to hear about the great changes that have been implemented since 2008. With Raul’s rise to power, it seems that Cuban government has become somewhat streamlined, thus allowing more things to be done. For example, Humberto noted that the notion of paved roads with a modern feel is shocking for him. It is exciting for both Cubans and myself to see these changes. Humberto’s commentary fell in line with the perspective that Camilo shared with me. Camilo said that 10 years ago he would’ve never imagined a Cuba with any dynamic aspects; however, today, he sees a change in Cuba, and he likes it. It will be very interesting to see where things go domestically. So far I’ve only touched on the domestic aspects of Humberto’s talk; however, the main idea was relations between Cuba and the US. Essentially we got a brief history lesson that explains the framework of the relations. Before I came to Cuba I felt that much of US policy towards Cuba was stupid; after being here for a few days, I find it to be even more stupid but also feel less confident that anything will change. We learned that many of the US laws regarding Cuba are attached to other bills, thus making it very challenging to change anything. I’m going to have to read into the relations and get back to this in another journal.
Group shot at the Med. Uni.

As for the music, I found it interesting that there is such an influence from Africa. I guess it might seem obvious to some people, but I didn't think that Cuba experienced a surge of Africans. I was clearly completely incorrect. I felt very privileged to have met Frank Delgado and been given the opportunity to hear his music. We also went to the Jazz Club; once again, I know virtually nothing about music. Because of my ignorance, I was surprised to see that a genre of music that I classify as being so American as a part of Cuban culture. Despite poor governmental relations, the flow of culture has been permitted and has been fostered. Through music, the two countries can share a common tie. For me, this was really fascinating to think about.

Finally, we visited the Medical University. Though I have absolutely no personal interest in medicine,
Yet another great view!
the visit really changed my perspective on schooling. In the US, there is such an emphasis on price tag and prestige. In Cuba, students are recruited from across the world to study for free the same profession that lands American students in hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Furthermore, the American student that we talked to felt strongly confident in her education and believed that she will be well equipped for the medical world upon graduation. US perspectives would often discount a school in Cuba; it is in the third world, it doesn’t have up to date buildings, and it lacks what we consider basic technology (for example, the internet). By closing one’s mind to a different way of education, we become stuck in the cycle of negative relations. Though education systems are just one of many facets of a society, by neglecting to acknowledge the value of a system other than your own, you are doing nothing to improve relations. The visit to the medical university definitely reinforced the idea that different does not mean worse.
 More view!

<-- Very popular song!

Day 3 | Cuba Journal

Eden and Olivia G. Goofing Off at the Gardens

May 15, 2013

Today’s class was cancelled but I had quite an adventurous day. It began by going to the Botanical Gardens where we saw plants from all over the world. I haven’t gotten to the agriculture reading yet, so when I do I’ll be sure to follow up, but the garden visit raised several questions. I hear so much about Cubans simply trying to survive. Humberto speaks of not having any food in the 90’s. He was starving. Though things have certainly improved, there is still a lack of foodstuffs in Cuba. The restaurants almost always are missing at least one, if not more, item on the menu due to some sort of shortage. I find this bewildering after the garden visit; it is clear that the Cuban climate can support a wide range of plant life as demonstrated by the garden. Despite this fact, there still seems to be a shortage of agriculture. (Again, I’ll follow up on this after doing the agriculture reading) The visit prompted the question of how can there be such a shortage of food if the Cuban climate and land is so suitable for a wide array of plants. The only thing that immediately comes to mind is a potential lack of workforce or infrastructure. Honestly, I am really not sure. I wanted to ask our tour guide this question but just didn’t have time to formulate it into Spanish. I’m definitely going to seek out an answer to this and follow up in my journal.
Our Malecón Friend, Daniel
The next topic I’d like to talk about was somewhat upsetting for the group. We spent an afternoon with Camilo and eventually wound up hanging out at the Malecón. Joseph was playing the ukulele and we were all chatting when a group of four guys walked up and started singing with us. Over the course of an hour or so, I got to practice my Spanish, talk about US-Cuban relations, and get a glimpse into African religion. The guys seemed genuinely friendly and interested in being friendly, nothing more. After taking a walk and returning, I was shocked to see two police officers questioning the group of guys. Joseph and I volunteered to speak to the police since we have relatively strong Spanish. To my amazement the police were worried that the guys could become violent towards us. It was a shock. The men were handcuffed and driven to the police station. The experience was very eye opening, and to be frank, I felt angry initially. At first it seemed incredibly unfair; how could people be arrested for just talking to someone? Later, however, I felt disappointed in myself for being naïve. To say the least, the experience taught me a lot about the culture surrounding Cuban-tourist relations. As with everything, I suppose looks can be deceiving; however, I refuse to believe that all locals in the area are simply “out to get you.” 
Joseph Quisol!

Jared's Infamous Malecón Shot
Finally, I’d like to talk about one of the readings. The first evening, Jared, Joseph and I spent some time by the dried up fountain at the end of 23rd street. Completely accidentally we stumbled upon a group of young men who were all gay. I later learned from Camilo that the area we were sitting at is notorious for drawing a gay crowd. After this experience, I decided to read about the status of gays provided in the reading packet. I was pleasantly surprised to see a somewhat positive outlook on the situation of gays. Tonight I went back to the Malecón to play music with Joseph when we ran into one of the young men that we had met the night before in passing. We sat around and played music with various people and just learned about Cuban culture. I took the opportunity to ask our new friend about his thoughts on gays in Cuba. He had opened up to us by saying that he was bisexual, so I figured he would be an interesting person to ask. He was relatively reserved, but ultimately came to the conclusion that things are improving. It was really nice to see the reality of Cuban culture and an academic analysis line up. 
The Beautiful Malecón