Category: Student Blogs

First Impressions of Cuba – Caroline Olszewski

Right after arriving in Cuba, as we drove through the streets to our hotel, my brain was on sensory overload. Even though Cuba is just 90 miles away from Key West, it is a completely different from the United States. Instead of being bombarded with commercial advertising like at home, here billboards and signs are used to promote the government. They promote unity and nationalism, and it’s refreshing not to see constant pictures of products to buy. The people here are incredibly kind and conversational as well. Just by watching Cubans interact with each other, you would think complete strangers were good friends. There is a large sense of community and looking out for one another that just isn’t as prevalent back home.

It’s not just with other Cubans that they express this kindness either, it is with everyone they meet. I’ve met a couple who runs a churro stand a short distance from our hotel, and after talking with them only a couple times, I feel like they are my parents away from home. They are full of great information, and give caring advice about staying safe in Cuba that I feel like my own parents would give me back home. Everyone here is so genuine, too. On many occasions after only briefly speaking with a Cuban, they are already trying to make plans to meet up later so they can show me around Havana and get to know me better. This isn’t a non-committal, ambiguous attempt at making plans, either. Cubans are sincere in wanting to build relationships with new people, and are true to their word.

Another thing I’ve come to realize in my short time here how resourceful and frugal Cubans are. One of the many impressive parts of Cuban culture are their máquinas. These old American cars that Cuba is well known for are used as a type of carpooling transportation. It is incredible to me that they have kept so many of these cars in such good condition. If something breaks, they fix it. Cuba embodies the idea of making the best of what you have and not wasting anything. They come up with their own solutions to any problems they may encounter, and are very humble people. In continuation with this idea, Cubans are very hard working people. There are numerous fresh produce stands all along the streets of Cuba where people are selling fruits, vegetables, and sometimes eggs and meat. They put in the long hours and hard labor to produce these on their own. All the hard work and problem solving they do does not in any way deter their moods, either. Cubans are happy people as a whole, and a quick conversation with someone on the street can bring a smile to my face. Many have such an animated way of speaking and have no problem expressing their excitement about something. As I start to build relationships with Cubans here and see my new friends on a regular basis, they appear so excited to see me and openly express their happiness. This greeting in itself makes me want to see them as often as possible. I look forward to developing these relationships even further while I am here, and making many new ones. I know there is so much I can learn from the people here and I can’t wait to see what they have to teach me.

First Impressions of Cuba – Libby Larson

Since landing in Havana 9 days ago, I haven’t stopped learning. Every taxi ride, every bus ride, every walk down one of the beautiful streets and every conversation with a Cuban has been informative and has taught me something about not only Cuba but about America, too.  You would never know from talking to a Cuban just how oppressed and poverty-stricken the island is as a whole. Not only are they welcoming to Americans but they are often curious and inquisitive… I have yet to come in contact with a native who has any animosity towards us as US citizens, something you would think would be more common. Cubans will talk to anyone about anything and are more than willing to answer any questions we have for them… its refreshing to be around such genuine and humble people.

So far this semester I have also enjoyed learning more and more about the basic functions of life for Cubans not only through hearing their stories but through getting to know the transportation systems and experimenting with cooking and shopping for food in general. To reiterate, its all been such an amazing learning experience and I cannot wait to soak in everything around me. Cuban history, Cuban/American relations, and the daily lives of Cubans in the 21st century are just a few of the topics that have caught my attention and that I look forward to diving deeper into as the semester goes on.

First Impressions of Cuba – Caitlin McMahan

As I stepped off of the plane in Havana, I could not help but revel in the beauty and warmth of my surroundings. I had never seen a palm tree, much less hundreds lining the perimeter of a landing strip. For me, cold is defined as temperatures under 60 degrees. When I got dressed in Miami that morning, I wore shorts in hopes that my attire would be appropriate. Thankfully, I was correct.

As I passed through the airport, a sensation that I can only describe as surprise hit me like a ton of bricks. I needed to use the restroom as soon as I got off of the plane, so I quickly learned that this process was nothing like what I was used to in the United States. As is true of most public restrooms in Cuba, there was no toilet paper, toilet seat or soap. Because I had never left the country before coming to Cuba, I had never been through Customs. I was amazed that my Customs agent was a girl who could not have been much older than me who only looked at my passport and visa before allowing me to pass, whereas I had expected to be enclosed in a small room with a huge man grilling me with questions that I could not understand. When we went through the security portion of Customs, I became very confused when the man in front of me in line was stopped for a check. I began to empty my bag, assuming that the check was normal procedure. The lady working the security check tried to stop me, but I could not understand what she was trying to tell me. I finally understood, but still I left feeling embarrassed that my first verbal encounter in Cuba was unsuccessful.

As we rode from the airport to Montehabana, I could not bring my eyes away from the window. I was truly amazed by everything that I saw. I only wanted to take it all in as quickly as possible. It was unlike anything that I had ever seen. Not only was Cuba a new country, it was the beginning of a new world for me outside of the United States.

After a week in Cuba, I can say that I am beginning to adjust. There has been a good amount of trial and error, but I am finally able to make at least a few conclusions. I am learning how to cook, but there is still plenty of room for improvement in this area.  I now understand when to use the two types of money and know that paying $3.50 for ice cream is something I will never do again. I know that markets are a source for inexpensive and delicious produce, but I also know to think carefully about the price they are charging me. It is very obvious by my appearance and lack of accent that I am not a Cuban native, so people may try to overcharge me or target me for begging. I have learned that Cubans are incredibly friendly, but in most cases they will not initiate conversation. Unlike in the United States, where people are always racing to meet a deadline and often not willing to stop and help, Cubans are almost always willing to take a few minutes out of their day to offer a helping hand.

Every experience so far has brought something completely new and unexpected to the table. I hope that this will continue throughout the entire semester. Yes, some things will begin to become routine, but I hope that every day I am presented with a new experience, encounter, or bit of knowledge. I am here to learn and to take in all that I can. Three months seems like a long time right now, but I know that at the end I will look back and feel like it flew by. I want to have as many first impressions as possible, because I know that these are the impressions that I will remember for many years to come.

First Impressions of Cuba – Elizabeth Heeter

I have had many positive first impressions of Cuba. Firstly, the natural endowments of this island in terms of geography and climate are immediately evident. It is a very fertile land with beautiful natural scenery. It also contains the most unique and aesthetically pleasing architecture I have ever seen. I have already learned a bit about the combination of cultures, namely French, Spanish, and African, that has contributed to the unique expression of architecture here, as well as racial diversity of the population. The Cuban people are very collectivistic in their nature, and they have a lot of pride in their country. They seem to care for each other and look out for the well-being of their family and fellow citizen, but most will also happily go out of their way to help a foreigner. They are hard-working and optimistic, and they are also a very verbal people. I have noticed that a simple “hola” is usually enough to break the ice with a Cuban. In the United States, eye contact and a smile is considered friendly, but to win the respect of a Cuban you have to open your mouth. The willingness of Cubans to speak candidly about themselves and their lives, even to strangers and foreigners, is striking. They are eager to provide advice, directions, and warnings to make our lives easier.

It would be hard to talk about coming to Cuba for the first time without mentioning the dual currency. It perplexes me that the “tourist” currency is so much more valuable than the currency of the common people, but it is very convenient when it comes to buying fresh produce from the markets, which is easily one of my favorite things about living here. I love being able to walk for fifteen minutes and coming to a trove of beautiful fresh produce. The importance of walking, as well as the proliferate use of public transportation and collective transportation, is something I noticed as soon as I got here. Everywhere you look, there are people on foot, riding bikes and motorcycles, and using cars and buses together. It all goes back to their emphasis on collectivism and sense of duty to their fellow man. They know each other’s struggles and are therefore willing to help each other in any way possible. Women going to work can get in the car with a complete stranger and know that they will arrive close to, if not at their destination, unscathed. The first time I tried to ride a guagua, or bus, it was close to morning rush hour, so the bus was absolutely packed with people. As people scurried to get on, I had practically given up because there appeared to be no room left. There was a man on board who was willing to practically pull me onto the bus by my backpack before the doors closed. This event confirmed my notion that everyone in Cuba is concerned with the well-being of everyone else, and that is what has impressed me the most about Cuban life.

First Impressions of Cuba – Lauren Nolan

From the moment we stepped off the plane in Havana up until now our first week has been an adventure and learning experience.  As we were first driving through Havana there were no billboards advertising consumer products there were only a few billboards praising José Martí or Che Guerva among others.  Of course, one of the first things we saw and all marveled at were the old classic and colorful American cars.  It is obviously very different from living in the United States but in many ways those differences are not unwelcome.  For instance, not having our cell phones or a constant connection to the internet can be a little difficult to adjust to but it made me realize how much time I spent on my phone or Computer.  Not having constant access to internet or our cell phones allows us to get out and see the city as well as practice our Spanish.

This is my second semester in college and it is markedly different from my first semester at the University of Alabama.  We’re learning in a different language and navigating through an entire city as opposed to one college campus.  We spent our first few days figuring out good places to buy food, how to juggle the two currencies, and the different modes of transportation.  There are no dining halls where we can eat our meals so I’ve been trying to figure how to make some good Cuban food.  It’s all very exciting; we’re constantly learning about so many things all at once.  Every day brings new words that we quickly scribble down to look and up and remember for the future.

One of the best things we’ve done thus far is simply walk around the neighborhood meeting and talking to people.  We stop at some of the small stores run out of people’s homes to buy some food and talk to the people who live there.  A few people have begun to recognize us and they stop to ask us about our friends and how our classes are going.  Fresh produce isn’t sold at a grocery store so you have to find a market to buy fruits and vegetables.  It’s actually pretty fun to walk to the local produce market and pick out exactly what you want from each vendor.  It’s a fantastic place to practice Spanish and learn the words for all the fruits and vegetables, some of which are familiar and easily found in the United States and others which are completely foreign to us.  The local bakery is also a good place to visit; you never know exactly what you will find but so far everything I’ve tried has tasted very good.

Our first few classes have gone very well and the topics are very applicable to the entire study abroad experience here in Cuba.  I felt like our very first Cuban culture class addressed many of the things we’d seen and wondered about in our first few days.  Our class over the history of United States and Cuban relations is very interesting because we’ve all learned about U.S. history but few of us know much about the long and detailed history between our two countries.  The University of Havana campus is very beautiful and I’m very much looking forward to begin our class with Cuban students there.  So far our semester in Havana is off to a promising start!

First Impressions of Cuba – Michael Lasonczyk

It didn’t take long after stepping off the plane at the José Martí International Airport to know that life in Cuba would be very different from life stateside, but that different doesn’t mean bad.

One thing that I have come to realize and appreciate over the past week is the general happiness and benevolence of the Cuban people. Everywhere we go people have been incredibly accommodating to the fact that we are still getting our bearings in the city, and that from time to time our Spanish is subpar. For example, on our first máquina ride I insisted that we were close to the university and tried to get out of the car, but our driver assured us that he knew exactly where we wanted to go and that we had not yet arrived.

The friendly atmosphere that permeates the city of Havana is electric. No matter where you go, if you want to have a conversation with someone, just say “hello”, and the Cuban will do the rest. I can’t even begin to say how many times I have been walking down the road, and said a simple “buenos dias” to someone that sparked a pleasant exchange. Nor can I stress the amount of information that I’ve gained from these exchanges. The Taxi drivers here are some of the biggest assets when it comes to information with whom I’ve come into contact since being here. They always have information about certain historical spots in town, places to eat, or markets to go to which has been a tremendous help.

Another aspect of Cuba that I have come to admire is Cuban ingenuity. In the States, if it’s broken, you buy a new one, but that’s not the case here. Walking through the streets of Miramar on any given day, you can see people tinkering with their cars with whatever they can find to get the job done. Cubans don’t seem to have the problem of functional fixedness that many Americans have; they truly are a culture of MacGyver’s. As an example of this, I’ve come to notice that the handrails in our hotel are made out of the exact same material that is used in America as home gutter guards. On the railings with exposed ends, you can even see the slots that would allow them to slide over a gutter. It is awesome to see a culture of individuals dedicated to making due with whatever they can find.

While at first, it was a bit shocking to realize how different Cuba and America truly are, I’ve come to embrace the differences, and hope to grow even more as an individual based on what I can learn from each culture.

First Impressions of Cuba – Eric Dixon

So far Cuba has proven to be an enthralling place.  The culture and the people have a magnetic attraction that draws you in and invites you to learn more, see more and do more.  Everyone we meet has treated us like family.  A simple “Hola” or “Que tal” will spark a 20 minute conversation.  The Cubans enjoy talking about the U.S. and their love for their country.  On first glance of Havana the first thing that stood out was the old world charm of the city and the surrounding area.  The old art deco style buildings and the vintage cars create a surreal kind of environment.  It’s like stepping into an old movie with sudden and random flashes of modernism that jolt you back to reality.  Life seems to move at a slower pace here, which is a good thing.  Despite the obvious state of lacking that many of the Cuban people live in, they don’t seem to worry much.  They take everything in stride and have a level of patients that I wish was prevalent in the states.  I’ve seen people in the middle of traffic working on an old broken down car smiling and laughing or kids playing in an abandoned lot with a homemade ball having the time of their lives.

Other than navigating the city one of the most necessary skills that we have had to develop is the art of bargaining.  No matter where you go the price is always negotiable.  The first few times were a complete failure.  My first successful bargaining attempt was at a local market that sold small trinkets, paintings and a host of other things.  I was able to talk the guy down from $25 to $15 for a few carved wood pieces plus throw in a free cigar box.  I have also learned that even the most innocent of mistakes can be costly.  We recently went to a local restaurant for dinner.  The hostess seated us in a cramped corner, my seat was just below a low hanging shelf.  A few minutes into the evening one of our group members needed to use the restroom.  As I got up to let her out my shoulder clipped the shelf and a basket of sugar feel to the floor.  There were a few sugar packets and a small bottle of syrup in the basket.  The bottle of syrup broke as it hit the floor.  Being American, I knew immediately that they would charge me for the bottle.  My only question was how much.  I figured a few dollars would be more than sufficient to cover the loss.  When our checks arrived there was a line item for “Azucar de la cocina” in the amount of $15.  $15 for a handful of sugar packets and a bottle of syrup no bigger than an travel size shampoo.  For a clumsy person Cuba can be an expensive place.  If I had to sum up my first impressions of Cuba in one sentence it would be “Love at first site”

First Impressions of Cuba – Edward Woodall

There are two things that really stand out in Cuba. The first is that, while there are newish Ladas, Toyotas, and Volkswagens on the road, the overwhelming majority of the cars are American cars from the Forties and Fifties. Old diesel cars, they putter down the road, filling the air with fumes and the roaring noises of their engines. Second is the generally run down state of the island. New buildings, old buildings, they’re all the same. They were clearly beautiful, elegant structures at one point but, due to the salt spray from the Caribbean, the hurricanes, and the passage of time the facades are faded and worn away, the foundations compromised. This can be attributed to the lack of materials needed to do the necessary repair work. While many buildings in La Habana proper are being restored, most are, at best, lightly used. By all accounts, the majority of government resources are being used to maintain and restore cities in the outlying provinces. If so, that would help explain why much of the city, though beautiful, is in a rather dilapidated state.

One of the first things we did was to familiarize ourselves with the Miramar neighborhood, which is the most heavily residential neighborhood of La Habana. There are several hotels, blocks and blocks of houses, a supermarket, and many embassies.

Going to the supermarket is always an experience.  You never know what you’re going to find there. In the states, you usually plan dinner days in advance, draw up a shopping list, and run out to the store and get your ingredients for several days. Not in Cuba. Here, you just go to the market and pick up whatever looks edible. While the variety is pretty good if you know where to look, one thing still throws me for a loop; seafood is almost impossible to find. Cuba, as it happens, has one of the smallest fishing fleets on earth. Apparently, it’s easier to keep your people on an island if there aren’t boats sailing out every day. A note on currency; in Cuba there are two systems. Most Cubans will admit that this cannot stand, that it needs to change, but that they just have to live with it for now. There is the CUC, or convertible peso, and the moneda nacional, also called the peso. One CUC is equivalent to one dollar and also to twenty four pesos of moneda nacional. While that may seem confusing, it’s something that I picked up after a couple of days. In places with prices in both currencies, my position as a student at the Universidad de La Habana will allow me to pay in moneda nacional. As for restaurants, the situation is rather interesting.  There are, of course, a variety of traditional restaurants, owned and highly regulated by the government. More interesting, however, are the paladares. While the word paladar means palate in Spanish, in Cuba a paladar is a small, privately owned restaurant. When, two years ago, Raul Castro legalized small, privately owned businesses from an approved list of business endeavours, the majority of the owners of these private businesses, these cuentas propistas, launched small restaurants. Popular with Cubans from all walks of life, these paladares serve everything from churros to sandwiches to pizzas to drinks. It is a rather interesting situation that, for the owners, is very precarious. The government could, at any moment, end it’s experiment in limited privatization and these people would be in deep trouble, having invested their own money in businesses only to have it all taken away from them. It’s a huge risk, but most owners of paladares agree that it will pay off in the long run.

First Impressions of Cuba – Amy Walther

When I first got off the plane it really started to sink in that Cuba was going to be my home for the next three months.  I know we’ve all been preparing for this trip for so long but it never really sunk in until we actually landed.  Initially, the airport was exactly what I thought it was going to be. I pictured a small terminal with a couple of pictures hanging up. That is exactly what I saw to.  However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that going through customs my impressions stood corrected as what I thought it would be like.  I imagined people interrogating us asking us why we have come.  But instead a lady greeted me with a smile, and I was on my way.

As we all divided up and got into two taxis I took notice of the road conditions. Having spent my summers in Nicaragua I am used to seeing dirt roads, or brick roads.  I didn’t imagine that their roads would be fairly evenly paved.  Not only were the road conditions good, but also people were abiding by the traffic signals.  Again, this was an impression that I didn’t think was going to be made.  I imagined it a lot different in my mind.

As we drove down the streets I noticed that the way the apartments were stacked so close to one another varying in size it reminded me a feel of San Francisco in a way.  It was a very unique first impression that I got. I also was very surprised to feel how cool and breezy it is here. I had read a couple articles that said the ocean breeze gives a constant coolness but never would I have guessed I would be wearing a long sleeve shirt on my first night in Cuba!

When we arrived at our hotel again I was surprised at my first impressions.  Yes, our rooms were not completely ready.  Yes, we did not have all of our utensils or a lock box.  However, we did have great water pressure, hot water at that, and a bed to sleep on with two balconies.  Just that in it to me is a blessing! I know for a fact I take my hot showers for granted to when I stop to realize that I still have that here it’s a wonderful thing!  Our room is beautiful too.  Everything is open for the fresh air to get in which I love.  The people smile and giggle just because we were all still adjusting but it is a great feeling to know how much I’ll be learning in these next couple of months.

My first impressions of the markets here were incredible.  There is truly nothing like going and getting the most fresh tomatoes and cucumbers and slicing them to eat for dinner. Or waking up and eating a fresh pineapple. That is going to be one thing that I will miss I already know when we have to go back to the states.  Now the actual super market was a little different impression but nevertheless still an impression.  I was surprised how much they did have at the super market! Yes, it is completely different from what we are all used to but it was still awesome.  As profe says to us, “Don’t make a list of everything you need, instead by things that they have because they probably won’t next time you’re there.”  I have learned this by now approaching our second week.  I wanted some frozen spinach that I saw the prior week.  Well they didn’t have it.  I just laughed at myself and said, “Yup! I’m in Cuba.”

Cuba is an amazing place I already can tell that from my first impressions.  Even though things may not always going according to plan here it’s all about just taking everything one step at a time and learning the vast differences this culture has to offer.

5 Goals for Cuba 2013 – Michael Lasonczyk

My name is Michael Lasonczyk, and while I am here studying in the city of Havana, I hope to accomplish many things.

  • First among these goals is to improve my Spanish.
  • When speaking Spanish currently, I sometimes get nervous, flustered and apprehensive about making mistakes.Hopefully by the end of the trip, I’ll be able to put my nerves aside and just talk.
  • Secondly, another goal I have while I’m here is to gain a better sense of the Cuban perspective of the current regime, communism and US-Cuban relations. Just as there are varying opinions in America, I expect to find the same here, but I’m interested to know what the average Cuban thinks.
  • Along those lines, my third goal is to become more independent in my thinking. Being raised as an American citizen is predisposes oneself to certain views of other countries around the word, and I hope that this trip will help break down some of the stereotypical American views of Cuba and come to form my own opinions.
  • Fourth, I aim to converse and get to know someone new everyday that we’re here. I know I can’t meet everyone on the island, but I think that so much can be gained talking to people out on the streets that could never be learned in a classroom.
  • Which brings me to my last goal: make good grades. Although Havana is an amazing city that I would love to explore all day everyday, we’re students foremost, and I have to remember that.