The 2010 version of Alabama-in-Cuba continues at an exciting pace. The nine students have finished their major projects (topics ranged from political billboards to dietary issues to the Jewish community in Havana) and are now finalizing papers and talks.
The classroom work has been balanced by a steady stream of excursions to various parts of the island. To the East we have traveled as far as Viñales and to the West we have made the long trip to Trinidad. Within those parameters we have also visited Santa Clara, Playa Girón, Soroa, Varadero, Santa María, Cojímar, and Guanabacoa. With respect to Havana, we have witnessed the ¨cañonazo¨, the book fair, the birthplace of Martí, the Martí Tower, various Santería venues, Havana Vieja, the national library, movies, the Hemingway House, the rum factory, the Partagás Tobaco Factory, a photo exhibition, and, of course, the famous Coppelia Icecream Shop. We also were able to take an exciting three-hour boat trip up and down the northern coast of Cuba that provided us with a unique and privileged view of Havana and the famous Morro Fort.
Life at the Montehabana aparthotel has been a curious up and down ride. We have experienced short blackouts, trouble with plumbing, and lack of hot water, but the staff, from top to bottom, has been exceedingly polite and accommodating during the entire time. Many of us have made a lot of friends here at Montehabana with whom we can talk about baseball, politics, and life in general. Come May 10, I am sure that everyone will miss these Cuban ¨amigos.¨
Students, of course, need to relax, to play sports, and to get away a bit from the daily academic grind. During our stay here we have the opportunity to spend time at the three splendid beaches: Santa María, Punta Perdiz, and Varadero. All three trips were made with bright Cuban sunshine (the Varadero sun was somewhat shy) and enjoyed in the beautiful greenish blue waters of the Caribbean. At Punta Perdiz the students had the added experience of eating crocodile for the first time. But the nine participants have also had the chance to play a lot of basketball against Cuban opponents, to swim in the nearby Occidental pool, to play tennis, to walk along Fifth Avenue, to run through the adjacent streets, and to participate along with Cuban friends in aerobic sessions offered in a building just behind the Montehabana.
One of the primary goals of this trip has always been to improve the linguistic skills of the participants. As we near the end of our trip much of what we do is in Spanish. The director frequently receives telephone calls from students in the target language; classes are all in Spanish; and students frequently speak ¨Cuban¨ among themselves. Students also have attended lectures, movies, concerts and other activities where the target language is an absolute must! Finally, the two diagnostic tests administered by the director (one at the beginning of the semester and one just recently) indicate a marked increase in linguistic ability and confidence with all nine students!
We still have a week and a half to go and many fun activities still on the schedule (the May Day Parade and the final supper are just two) but I think we can all say at this point that the trip has been a very good one, full of hard work, travel, new experiences and many, many new friends here in Cuba.
In the United States there is a plethora of reasons for listening to music. Some people listen to lyrics, some listen to melodies, some listen to rhythms, and some have other predilections entirely. For most Cubans the motivation is very simple; to dance. Lyrics are important to most of the older generation, and some of the younger generation, but above all, Cubans love to dance. The youth have turned to reggaeton, a genre that pays little attention to meaningful prose and musicality but emphasizes rhythm and entertainment. Songs by groups such as Gente dZona, Eddy K, and Wisin y Yandel blast from cars and discotecas at all hours of the day and night, and most of the population knows every word to these songs. Reggaeton receives a fair amount criticism, but many of those critics still listen and dance to it in secret. This dynamic partially resembles that of the generational gap in the U.S. Popular music receives very little respect, perhaps deservedly so, but the catchy tunes are often infectious and find their way into ipods across the country. Traditional Cuban city music shows strong jazz and African influences, both in the instrumentation and the beat patterns. The three variations of the Rumba form the foundation for some music, specifically by artists such Chucho Valdez, while other musicians and groups borrow from Cha Cha Cha, for example Benny More, one of the most respected Cuban musicians. Many Cuban musicians performed not only with their respective groups, but also as solo pianists playing classical music, cementing their reputations as well versed and well rounded musicians. Los Van Van, the most popular Cuban group of all time, use trombones, violins, cellos, bass, keyboard, drum set, flute, and vocalists to create a jazz orchestra essentially, and then combine that with harmonic vocals and creative lyrics. The term “salsa” is often used to describe Latin American music, but in Cuba it is regarded as a commercial term, rather than a legitimate genre of its own. Cuban music, much like the population, is a veritable mixing bowl of influences, but maintains a distinct identity. The music embodies the open, extroverted, and expressive culture of the island and transcends generational gaps, differences in tastes, and even the language barrier.
I think life in Cuba is very easy to get accustomed to because the people here have, as we say at home, Southern Hospitality. Everyone has an open door; you can visit your friends and family whenever you want. The neighborhood is a tight community that operates like a bonded family. Every time I visit my adopted family here, they are always excited to see me. They make sure I have plenty to eat and drink and make sure that we are all taken care of in Cuba. Just walking down the street, you talk to everyone that walks by. You ask how they are or just give a friendly smile and wave. Everyone has such a generous heart. It never matters how little they have, they will share everything with the people they love. This is a unique characteristic that you will not find in other parts of the world. I do not feel far from home because I have the love a family here. Their presence has made life in Cuba such an amazing experience.
At the start of April, I had the interesting opportunity to observe Cuba’s healthcare system firsthand. After several days of progressively worsening flu-like symptoms, I went to the hospital with what I knew had to be a high fever. As it turned out, I was running a fever of 38.3 degrees Celsius, or approximately 101 Fahrenheit, and when the first doctor I saw learned of the possibility I had the flu I was given an injection for the fever and a face mask to reduce the risk of contagion and sent in an ambulance to another facility to see a specialist, without any charge for the first hospital visit. Upon arrival at the Institute of Tropical Medicine, however, we (Dr. Schnepf and I) had to wait for ten minutes until someone unlocked the door and let me in, and then wait for several more until we actually saw the specialist. After a brief examination and questions about the last time I had been outside of Cuba (January) and whether anyone else had similar symptoms (no), I was given two options: be admitted to a hospital overnight for observation and tests, or go home and return to the doctor if any complications arose. I chose the second option and was prescribed Tamiflu and Dipyrona. Overall, the impression I got of the Cuban medical system was favorable. They don’t have the latest or most disposable medical equipment: my temperature was taken with a mercury thermometer, my face mask was cloth and not paper, and the only item thrown away after my examination was a tongue depressor; but overall I felt that the doctors were competent and professional, and my wait outside of the second facility was more due to the lateness of the hour than any natural institutional consequence of socialized healthcare, and the lack of equipment attributable to the generally poor state of the Cuban economy as a whole. Despite the debility of that economy, the only aspect of my treatment that the program had to pay for was the medication for which cost a mere pittance. And most importantly of all, that medication got me back on my feet and healthy.
Guanabacoa is an outlying municipal of the city of Habana with deep historical roots. During one of our weekly excursions we had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the enriched Afro-Cuban culture that this town has to offer. Once a former location for slave traffic, today this town is home to one of the most famous Babalaos (Afro-Cuban “priest” of sorts) in Cuba. At the house of this Babalao, which is now a museum, we were taught about the ever-interesting Afro-Cuban religions like Santeria, Palo Monte, and Ifé. With confusing, but rather strong ties to the Catholic Church, these religions represent the strength of the Afro-Cuban culture that exists throughout Cuba. Also while in Guanabacoa we visited the Guanabacoa Municipal Museum within a restored colonial time house. This museum portrayed the many famous artists and musicians that grew up in this town along with a brief history of the municipal. While being a quaint, historically enriched town, Guanabacoa has also suffered the effects of old age and economic troubles. This visit overall gave a non-tourist view of Cuba that is very important to attain in order to fully become acquainted with the country.
When we arrived in Cuba three months ago, I was looking forward to taking advantage of everything the country had to offer. One thing I didn’t expect to be offered, though, was the opportunity to go on an African safari. But when we took a trip to the National Zoo, we did just that: complete with zebras, elephants, giraffes, ostriches, rhinos, hippos, and even lions. The lions, to my dismay, were kept in a separate section of the zoo than the rest of the animals, making a Discovery Channel type lion vs. zebra chase impossible, but the safari was exciting nonetheless. We rode in a bus comparable in size to a school bus for about 30 minutes in total, as opposed to the typical safari jeep. Most of the animals didn’t even acknowledge us, and I felt safe knowing that it would probably take a well organized and synchronized charge from multiple rhinos to take us down. The most exciting part, by far, was when we drove through where the lions were. To get there, the bus had to pull through two gates. The first opened and closed behind us before the second opened to make sure no sneaky lions escaped into the zebra section while a bus was pulling in. At one point, when we drove past a group of lions, I stuck my hand out the window to snap a picture and it was probably only five feet from a lion’s mouth. What a thrill! All in all, I’d say the whole experience was a success: we all enjoyed ourselves, got some great pictures, and escaped will all our fingers in tact.
The overall culture of Cuba was very surprising from my initial thoughts. It is the perfect country to study Spanish because Cubans are always eager to talk and will carry on a conversation for a long period of time. Not only are they outgoing, but very helpful as well. At times when we are lost or cannot find a certain area, someone will walk far out of their way in order for us to find our desired destination. The overall generosity of the Cubans has made this trip very enjoyable, as well as given us an appreciation for the simple kind acts of other people.
Es imposible que viva en Cuba y no se ponga independiente y domesticado. He mejorado mis habilidades de cocinar. Hay mercados amplios que están cerca por pie. Pero no se puede ir a un mercado y reciba todo. Cada mercado tiene algo diferente. Tenemos que andar por treinta minutos para verduras y otros productos. Cuando andamos a cada mercado, aprendemos mejor las calles, encontramos los restaurantes y obtenemos más ejercicio. Cuando estamos cansados, podemos ir a la piscina en Occidental. No puedo quejarme.
Hay dos monedas aquí por eso el precio de vivir es caro y barato al mismo tiempo. Creen balanza para nosotros. En términos de dólares norteamericanos, la mantequilla de maní y los cereales cuestan $6 pero el helado y el cine cuestan 15 centavos. Se tiene que ser inteligente con el dinero, se encuentra ofertas, y los precios son negociables todo el tiempo.
En transportación, es una aventura. El sistema para autobuses es monstruoso pero es tan barato. Por eso, es difícil a quejarse. No hay horario especifico. Por eso, podemos esperar cinco minutos u una hora. Se tiene que ser paciente si usara guagua. También, en la parada, no se tiene miedo de empujar a gente porque hay muchas personas esperando. Por lo menos, hay taxis que no cuestan mucho si no podemos montar a guagua. No es fácil para estar pérdida en la ciudad. Hay gente amable en las calles que dan direcciones. No hay hostilidad hacia los americanos, al contrario de mis percepciones anteriores.