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Blog Entry One: May 2
Oh hello blog! Today was the day I landed in Cuba for the very first time and let me say, it is lovely! I was the first to arrive in DTW at 4 am, because Cuba flights require three extra hours of prep time and attention, naturally. I was bored and contemplated doing laps around the airport for exercise and stimulation, but of course I reached a McDonald’s and decided that would be a far enough of a walk for this gal! After devouring my bacon, egg, and cheese bagel, I met the first person in my cohort, Lydia! Soon after, I met Destane (my Cuba roommate) and many others. Almost the entire cohort took the flight from DTW to Ft. Lauderdale, in fact, all of us except for one. It was really nice to meet most of my cohort prior to departure, but it was clear we were all quite sleepy. Our flight to Ft. Lauderdale was very nice and smooth, our Ol’ Cap’ did a stellar landing. It was strange descending into Ft. Lauderdale, though, for we passed what looked like a bunch of tiny LEGO mansions, all accompanied with their own pools, tennis courts, and fancy cars. It seemed as though Ft. Lauderdale was the final resting place for crusty, old, leathery folks. It was rather disgusting to see such unbridled wealth in such a concentrated space. Initially, I looked out of the airplane window hoping to find alligators, but instead saw the blinding consequences of capitalism.
We had a brief layover in the steamy airport in Florida, which consisted of waiting in long lines and watching our departure gate switch back and forth several times. We had to fill out several immigration and customs forms, that we were expected to hand to the customs folk in Cuba, and most questions were strange and rather difficult to answer. Eventually, we found our final, official gate and boarded on the plane. The flight to Cuba was brief, though just long enough for me to catch up on some Friends episodes and rejuvenate with some delicious Seagram’s Ginger Ale. At last, after staring in the depths of the ocean hoping to spot a shark, whale, or perhaps the fabled megalodon, I saw the faint borders of a lovely island. This island, of course, was Cuba! The country was drier than I expected. Instead of seeing tropical greens and blues, I saw a lot of dark reds and browns. It was lovely to see the countryside of Cuba, especially in contrast to the horrors of Ft. Lauderdale developments. We filed into the airport, which was unfortunately even hotter than Ft. Lauderdale’s, we waited in various lines for various hours, and spoke to a nice Cuban man about his love for Michael Jackson. Finally we made it to our bus, where we met our lovely translator Maite and our lovely bus driver Jose Luis, and we made the long trek to Vedado.
Our bus ride was wonderful and air conditioned. The majority of our route was gorgeous, filled with lush trees and tropical flowers, as well as overwhelming love for Fidel Castro, as demonstrated by a lot of murals and street art. I was struck by a lot of the places we passed, for some facades appeared to be abandoned, but people were cruising in and out of them. Maite told us that Cubans believe in “addition instead of demolition” and so many of these more decrepit houses were still being used – resourceful, no? We finally arrived to our guest house in Vedado, called La Casona de Calzada, which was absolutely beautiful. We went for a walking tour of Vedado, despite being exhausted from our long day of travel, where we saw several hip restaurants and clubs in downtown Vedado. After our tour we had an amazing welcome dinner in an old Opera house, where we were met with fantastic service, bruschetta, spaghetti, and most delicious chocolate ice cream. It was immaculate. At dinner, we also spoke with Maite about Cuba and Cubans’ opinions of American tourists. She said the second happiest day of her life was when she found out the US and Cuba had eased relations. I found this interesting, for I think most people tend to be irritated with tourists, especially intrusive, American tourists. I was excited to see how this ideal would be upheld and/or challenged by other Cuban residents we would meet.
Blog Entry Two: May 3
Oh hello blog! Today was absolutely incredible! It was our first day of dance classes and everyone we met was super nice. We had our dance classes held in a beautiful, historical building, with long halls, high ceilings, huge windows that let in lots of air and natural light, and lovely hardwood floors. Our studio also happened to be where a professional folkloric Cuban dance group rehearses. The studio itself was called Conjunto Folklórico Nacional. On our way to the studio, I saw a stray cat (my favorite, I have a particularly keen eye for all of these adorable felines) with the bottom half of a lizard sticking out of its mouth– which means there are lizards here! There will be a quest to find some lizzies upon my arrival in the guesthouse. Anyway, everyone, I repeat, everyone inside the studio was warm and kind-spirited. People were dancing and laughing and singing, ready to greet us as soon as us pale Americans nervously walked in. We had two dance professors, one young, talented man, and another rather old, slick woman, an entire line of drummers, all of which contributed their own flare to the music, and a live singer. We learned (or rather, attempted) two popular Cuban dances to start, Rumba and Son, and watched a 60+ woman shake her ass like there was no tomorrow. Dance classes were going to be my new favorite time of the day.
After dance, some of us ate lunch in a very hip vegetarian restaurant. It was my first time ordering in Spanish, and it was all-in-all very enjoyable. After our lunch, we all changed from our sweaty dance attire and boarded our bus to go to the Jose Martí memorial, also called La Plaza de la Revolución. It was an enormous plaza surrounding a huge statue of Cuba’s national hero Jose Martí, next to an even larger obelisk-like tower behind the glorious statue. The first floor of the tower was essentially a museum for Jose Martí, celebrating and explaining his life, his trials and tribulations. On the top floor of the obelisk, however, was an observation deck, where we went to see the entirety of Havana. Surrounded by ocean, we could see the distinct neighborhoods of Havana, as Old Havana was darker and more compact, Vedado was more spread out and and full of light, Central Havana was more lively and full of governmental buildings, and East Havana was industrial and rather ugly.
Today really opened my eyes because we learned how much a lot of Cubans seem to like the Revolution and Fidel Castro, which was really interesting for me because Americans are rather antagonistic about both. We had a lecture about US-Cuban relations, and learned some fascinating facts about Cuba, that I think many Americans either do not know or they choose to ignore. For one, there is free, universal education which means Cuba has a 99% literacy rate. As well, there is universal healthcare for all citizens, including free access to abortions for women, and amazingly cheap birth control and contraceptives. They seemed to preach equality for women (despite the catcalling in the streets) and so men and women receive equal pay for the same jobs. They also have little to no homelessness. Guns are illegal, pornography is illegal, freedom of speech is illegal, and marijuana is illegal. It was really incredible for me to see how Cuba’s government really made an effort to place more importance on specific social amenities (like health care, education, and women’s rights) rather than other ones some Americans idolize (uh, guns).
Blog Entry Three: May 5
Oh hello blog! Today was a hectic and fun-packed day! We finally left our cozy neighborhood of Vedado for the first time and took the bus to Old Havana, where we were immediately thrust into busy crowds of American tourists taking photo after photo with Cuban women elaborately adorned in stereotypes and cigars, in order to make some money. It was interesting to see the prominence of American stereotypes of Cubans (think 1950s cars, women with big skirts and headscarves, cigars everywhere) perpetuated by Cubans, in order to accommodate the antiquated expectations of Americans and satisfy their tourist-based economy. While it was not necessarily authentically Cuban, a cab driver of a 1955 Chevy Bel Air is likely to make more money taking an American couple on a cruise along the Malecón, than a Cuban Hip-Hop artist singing about the racial inequality and discrimination in Cuba or a group of Afro-Cuban drummers and dancers. It seemed as though real indicators of Cuban culture were less appreciated, rendered practically invisible to the flamboyance of Cuban stereotypes.
As we made our way through Old Havana, we toured the winding, cobblestone roads, that led us from fancy restaurants, to old plazas, to dusty, antique book stores. Eventually, we arrived at our first destination, La Casa de África, a museum that explored the history of Africans and African influences in Cuban culture. At the museum, we were given an extensive tour explaining the long history of slavery in Cuba as well as the prominence of various African cultures in Cuban religions. For example, the Yoruba nation from Africa brought over Santería, a religion that is now widely practiced in Cuba and in various parts of South and Latin America. After our tour of the museum, we were given a special dance show performed by an all-female drumming and dancing group. The dancers each represented different orishas (similar to saints) affiliated with Santería, and so each dancer, their respective dance, and costumes were incredibly unique and personal to each orisha. The show was incredible, full of energy and life! At one point they even allowed us to join them, as they attempted to show us some of their moves. Once the show ended, the director of the museum wanted to show us their final floor, that which contained a special exhibit focusing on the life of Nelson Mandela and the history of apartheid in South Africa. It was incredible to see the variances in museum exhibits and I was especially amazed by the visual and graphic elements of the exhibit. It contained an entire wall of different posters, an entire room representing the jail cell of Nelson Mandela, and a visual art display of hanging nooses and different colored chairs. Needless to say, I was impressed.
After our captivating time at the museum, we had the next few hours to ourselves in Old Havana, to explore, eat lunch, and, of course, get sweaty and lost. Though, while I was lost I discovered perhaps the best ice cream place I’ve ever encountered in my life. The vanilla was the sweetest and creamiest I’ve had, coupled with a scoop of guanabana, which is an overwhelmingly sweet fruit, endemic to Cuba. We eventually reconvened and finished with our walking tour of all the plazas, which were lovely, old, and a bit damp from rain. After a while, some of us ended up back in a restaurant for dinner, where I ate my first and only Cuban sandwich on the trip (yet another stereotype driven by the prominence of American tourists–though, I will say, a tasty one at that) and watched a music group sing and play the songs from Buena Vista Social Club. The restaurant was lovely, as it sat right on the perimeter of one of the plazas, and the evening breeze swept through the open air restaurant. The music was enchanting, the food delicious, and the company well-fed. After our exciting dinner, we ended the night with more ice cream and a dynamic jazz performance, highlighting an incredibly talented female drummer, Yissi Garcia.