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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.